Understanding and learning outcomes

May 09, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Gardner Campbell examines "the seemingly endless fascination with 'learning outcomes'" and the ingenious idea that "teachers should think about what they believe should happen in the student as a result of the class." But this, he says, leads toward a behaviourist paradigm and away from "the cognitivist turn" that has characterized education in recent years. It leads toward 'specific knowledge'. "Two of the words we must never, ever use are 'understand' and 'appreciate.'" - we are told that these are vague words, when (as Chronicle blogger Robert Talbert says) we should specific words to describe outcomes. Mushy objectives can't be measured. But it's not so much that they're mushy (and here I'm reading into him a bit) but they're complex. The paradoxes that seem to abound in learning are actually reflective of the underlying nature of learning. Reading slowly is ineffective, for example, is the goal of reading is to 'have read' - as it seems to be using tools like Spritz to speed-read. Back to Bogost: "Spritz hasn’t stepped in to sabotage comprehension, but to formalize and excuse its eradication."

In my own work, I'm often an eliminativist. I don't like it when people use words as though they were some sort of conceptual black box, as though (say) the story is over when they say that something "fosters understanding." But this eliminativist part of me should be thought of as an attempt to dehumanize learning, it should be seen as an instance of this: "these complexities matter. When confident, simple, plain, orderly advice is given about a complex matter, I hear the sound of the hatchet replaced by the sound of wood snapping as the branch I’m sitting on gives way."


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