Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

1. Teaching at the university level is not a practice of communicating or transferring information but awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things. The desire to think is awakened in students if the teacher is able to reveal the importance of the discipline as a way of exposing to question established “solutions” to fundamental problems of human experience, thought, activity, relationship, and organization. Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.
2. True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom. Both are rooted in the most remarkable power of the brain: not to simulate, not to sense, not to tabulate, not to infer, but to co-constitute the objective world of which it is an active part. In thinking we do not just passively register the world, we transform it by making it the object of thought, i.e, an object that can be questioned and changed.  To think is thus to cancel the alien objectivity of the world and to become a subject, an active force helping to shape the order of things.

3. All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations. To love to think is identical to feel and be moved by the need to question: the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem-domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, and the overall problems of life as a mortal, finite being. To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things in all these domains.

4. Thus, the person who loves to think is critically minded. The critically minded person is not an undisciplined skeptic, but one who can detect contradictions between principle and practice, and between principles and the values to which they purportedly lead as means. Critical thinking is not the ability to solve problems within the established parameters of social, economic, political, aesthetic, and intellectual-scientific life. Change is impossible if all that people can do is apply the given rules mindlessly. If the problem lies with the established rules (and fundamental problems in any field always concern the established rules), then confining critical thinking to “problem solving” always serves the status quo (i.e., repeats the cause of the problem as the solution).

5. Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which the interaction between teacher and students lives through the collective effort to open to question a purportedly settled issue, to see how these solutions came to be, what alternatives they excluded, and what alternatives might be better (as well as what constitutes a “better” solution).  Of course, learning to love to think is always developed in relation to a specific subject-matter and definite methodologies. However, these elements of learning are always means to the real end: awakening and cultivating the love of thinking. Learning outcomes confuse the ends (thinking) with the means (content and skills) and set out to measure how well the students are mastering the content and the methods.

6. Learning outcomes are justified as proof of a new concern within the university with the quality of teaching and student learning. In reality, they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.  Ironically, the passive, consumeristic attitude that learning outcomes encourage in students works against students becoming motivated to learn even the skills and the information that the learning outcomes prioritize.

7. While they are often sold to faculty as means to improve teaching and better serve the interests of students, what they in fact achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer. (See further, Furedi, Frank. (2012). “The Unhappiness Principle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 29th, 2012; Stefan Collini, Who Are the Spongers Now? London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No.2, January 21, 2016). Skills and information acquisition (that which the learning outcomes try to specify and enforce) are not, however, ends, but only means of opening up the discipline (and the world) to question. Nothing will kill student engagement faster than drilling them on information or skills. The really valuable learning happens when the dialectic of question and answer, problem, provisional solution, and then deeper problem excites students sufficiently that they start to want to follow the emergent thread of ideas wherever it leads, because they start to feel themselves actively contributing to that direction.

8. As metrics, they are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure). In their belief that only that which measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects (the “externalist fallacy,” John McMurtry, “What Is Good, What is Bad, The Value of All Values Across Time, Places, and Theories,” Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1, EOLSS Publishers, 2011, p. 269).

9. That which can be measured is “customer satisfaction.” Even if they are never explicitly justified in these terms, it is clear that when thought within the context of society-wide changes to public institutions and attacks on public sector workers (which include professors in Canada), learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education. They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers. Learning outcomes submerge the love of thinking in bureaucratic objectification of the learner as a customer, a passive recipient of closed and pre-packaged material.


10. Hence, there is no clear pedagogical value to learning outcomes. If there is no pedagogical value how are we to understand the current fad? As part of the attack on the professional autonomy of professors because it constitutes a barrier to the imposition of market discipline on universities. (See, for example, Jonker, Linda, and Hicks, Martin. (2014). Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario;  Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (2012). “Post-secondary Education,” Deem, Rosemary, Hilyard, Sam, Reed, Mike. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Mangerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bruneau, William. (2000). “Shall We Perform or Shall We Be Free? The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers To Canada’s Colleges and Universities. James L. Turk, ed., Toronto: Lorimer; Massy, William F, and Zemsky, Robert. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.” If professors are allowed to define their own terms of work (legitimated by appeal to academic freedom and professional autonomy) they escape the discipline of market forces to which other workers are subjected. This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour). Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.

62 thoughts on “Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

  1. Nice work. Current fixation on metrics and outcomes also pushes us into the hands of private firms selling teaching “solutions” like Turning Tech, Turnitin, Top Hat and other companies not beginning with T. They drain more institutional resources that could be put into fluffy apparent non-essentials like teaching assistants and smaller classrooms. We are told tapping on a clicker = interaction when the students are provided with a limited number of options. Thus their innovative ideas are not captured. Oh I could go on. But I just wanted to give you a “hear hear” and thank you for the entry.

    • Thanks Dan. I appreciate the support,and agree completely with the comment regarding waste of scarce resources on technical “solutions” created by people who have never taught in their lives.

  2. This could also be called “10 Reasons I No Longer Teach High School.” Too much emphasis on “data” (which public school teachers and administrators are not qualified to collect or interpret), too many corporate influences promising a solution to all your problems (which they and their lobbyists have created), too many kids who will only study if it’s going to be on the test, but who don’t how or aren’t willing to think.

    Kind of sorry I went into teaching. Thought I could make a difference, but I was obviously wrong.

    • When you stand in front of your class you are free to engage the minds of your students. Whatever bullshit you are put through, the classroom remains a space where you can inspire the students. I have a number of friends who are high school teachers and are weighed down as you are by the administrative dross. But the classroom is a contradictory space–a struggle between people like you who are clearly committed to the sort of teaching I affirm in the post, and bureacrats who want to kill the critical and imaginative spirit. Don’t let them win!

      • I agree with this and have had the same experience. Standing in the classroom, we are able to subvert institutional expectations, to free ourselves and our students. How much you are able to do this depends on your personal position within your institution. As teachers, we are advocates for students not enablers of tyrants. This works for a while, but as soon as you begin to attract attention, you will be harassed and denounced. Is institutional change even possible?

        • I think that it is, but it requires collective work. I’m not sure where you are writing from, but in Canada our faculty unions have not been completely gutted, and can still function effectively as a democratic voice for academic freedom and the intellectual vitality of the institutions. However, “can” does not entail “do in fact.” Too often we focus narrowly on job security and $ and not enough on the nature of the jobs we do or how they are being subtly transformed and compromised– from enabling genuine critical intelligence from distinct disciplinary perspectives to teaching generic skills that employers demand. That is not to say there was some past golden age– the values I support were only ever tendencies– universities have always been contradictory spaces. But increasingly the contradictions are being resolved in favour of social reproduction rather than social criticism.

  3. I entirely support these ideas, and I think they are even more relevant as/if western economies move to a situation where working at a “job” for 40+hour weeks becomes less and less necessary as automation does to professional jobs what it has done to agricultural and industrial jobs. (Lawyers are the canary in the coal mine for many of the professions.) We need an education system which will prepare us how to have interesting and meaningful lives when economic survival and prosperity become universal.

    However, as these ideas are stated by Noonan, in a kind of exaltation of Cardinal Newman’s thoughts on the matter, they don’t really pertain to any period in the past or the present of universities which for both students and their parents have primarily been about access to high status jobs.

  4. Challenging piece, Jeff, which resonates across into the world of informal education and youth work here in the UK, where an outcomes-led agenda is increasingly dominant, undermining a young person-centred, process-led, dialogic tradition – see Threatening Youth Work : The Illusion of Outcomes on our web site under Background Reading. As we are in the middle of a major debate about the Future of Youth Work I’ll link to your piece as a contribution to fostering more critical thinking within the exchanges. Thanks again for the stimulus assisting us in swimming against the tide.

    Tony Taylor

    • Hi Tony. Thanks. Much of the literature I site in the post was from colleagues in the Uk– you were the first to subjected to these tactics in a systematic way, hence are clearest on their political causes, and also on the pedagogical damage they cause, at any and all levels of teaching. I’ll be sure to follow up and look at your website.

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  6. Amen and Amen!

    I had no idea they were pedaling this nonsense to higher Ed! And we thought Secondary educators had it bad!

    • Sadly, they are, and sadlier, we in post-secondary education let it happen, when we had (and still do) ample political and institutional means, of resisting, while still demonstrating to ourselves and students the highest commitment to teaching. The real tragedy here is that administrations/governments cloak themselves in the mantle of teaching a learning experts and treat those who actually do the work– you and I, teachers– as impediments.

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  8. Prescribing learning outcomes, and how they will be achieved, robs students of the opportunity to encounter challenges, to think through possible approaches to them, and to devise their own solutions. It robs students of the opportunity, therefore, for learning how to be creative and self-reliant, and to face down the challenges and difficulties that they will inevitably encounter in later life.

    But universities do not seem to be interested in enabling creativity and self-reliance. Instead what they seem most interested in doing is advertising and selling packages of content and pre-defined employability skills, for the purpose of keeping the institution financially solvent. It’s no different from a department store selling matching ranges of bed-linen or cookware. There’s a place for bed-linen and cookware – the department store – but the university is supposed to do something different from that.

    Or did I miss something over the past 20 years or so?

  9. I consider myself to have a healthy degree of skepticism about learning outcomes and agree with many of the points raised here, particularly with theses #1-5. However, I have concerns about two claims in particular that the author makes. First, the notion that learning outcomes “are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking” ignores the fact that many educational researchers are not motivated or directly influenced by any “conservative drift.” Certainly some researchers and their affiliated institutions are, but many researchers use the term “learning outcomes” to refer simply to the skills, information, habits, etc. that are good for students to possess and that they aim to cultivate in their courses or disciplines. This relates to the second claim with which I have concerns. The author claims that love of thinking “is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure.” Such a claim reflects two problematic assumptions about learning outcomes, namely, that they cannot be habits or dispositions of thought and that they must be quantitatively measurable. Certain habits or dispositions of thought (and specifically pleasure with thinking about difficult issues) are learning outcomes that I, as well as many of my colleagues, list on our syllabi and try to cultivate in the classes we teach. Of course, assessing an outcome such as love of thinking is no easy task, but I see no reason why it must be measured quantitatively or why it can’t be measured so. One can assess such an outcome qualitatively by analyzing student narratives or interview responses, typically after the class is over or after a specific topic has been covered. One can also assess such an outcome quantitatively by developing surveys about how much pleasure students experienced in thinking about difficult issues and analyzing their responses. Of course, one would ideally need to longitudinally administer multiple surveys in different contexts, but such results could at least provide a metric for comparison (Charles Wright’s “Measuring the Sublime” is a good example of a philosopher trying to carry out such a project). To argue that inner dispositions cannot be measured would seem to lead to the implausible conclusion that much of contemporary cognitive psychology (and the educational research based off of it) is impossible, or at least deeply mistaken. Moreover, it would seem to imply that one could not recognize a trait such as love of thinking even if a student did possess it, which, at the very least, I certainly hope is not the case.

    • Hi Aaron,
      Thanks for your very thoughtful response. I cannot do justice to your concerns, but felt I should at least respond. On the first concern, I agree that, as you say many professors use “learning outcomes” to refer simply to the skills, information, habits, etc. that are good for students to possess and that they aim to cultivate in their courses or disciplines.” I have no problem with this use; in fact, I think it would be impossible to teach in the way I defend without making it clear to students what and why we are focusing on what we are focusing on. My objection is to the administratively imposed “LO’s,” generally overseen by some admin approval committee, and which I feel, for that reason, dangerously compromise academic freedom and get in the way of the free exploration of the subject matter of a given course. But I do not mean to imply that every class should be a free for all– that is also a recipe for students not learning anything. On the second concern, I am pretty sure we have divergent views on the scope of efficacious measurement. I do not doubt that measurement is a vitally important tool in the natural and social sciences and cogent policy formation in many areas of social life depends on quality measurement. I should have added that I think inner dispositions are publicly manifested and thus knowable, but I think of public manifestation not as matter of measurement, but interpretation. One reveals their love of learning by the way one lives one’s life after the class (or whole course of study) is over, and it is proven by one’s principles and commitments and life-activity, and I do not regard these as really measurable by surveys. (I think you could administer a survey, but the answers are not the truth of the commitment, the actual life-activity is). I would in fact be critical of some claims that cognitive psychologists make if those claims involve reducing subjective feeling and experience to nothing but brain states. There is an irreducible role, I think, for feeling and interpretation. That said, I will try to read the book you mention– not sure I will be convinced, but I am open to the argument.

      • Hi Jeff,
        Thank you for your response. When I initially read your post, I mostly had in mind course-specific, faculty-derived learning outcomes rather than institutional, administratively-imposed outcomes. I certainly share your concern/disdain for the latter. Thankfully I have had little experience with such a situation. When I did experience it, however, I found the LO’s to be so general and watered-down that they could hardly pose a threat to academic freedom – or be of any practical use. Of course, their threat level likely depends on how they’re implemented and how strongly they’re enforced by the administration. I think our views on the scope of efficacious measurement may not be as divergent as my response implied. I use “measure” very broadly (and perhaps misleadingly) to refer to any effort to assess student learning, whether quantitative or qualitative/interpretative. Thankfully, my institution acknowledges the latter as a legitimate way of demonstrating student learning for both annual reviews and tenure and promotion decisions. As for the work I referenced, it’s thankfully only an article, so you wouldn’t have to devote too much time if you’re interested in delving into the enthralling literature on LO assessment in philosophy. Thank you again for your post and response.

  10. Hear, hear! All my colleagues, especially those of us in the humanities (I’m a philosophy prof, too) have railed against learning outcomes since my college started instituting them. The American Philosophical Association issued a statement against them some years back, and when I shared it with my administrators, they were unsurprisingly unmoved. They see faculty objections as merely indications of laziness at taking on a new project.

  11. excellent piece. making the rounds on FB. the only trouble it, those who need to read it won’t get past item 2. they either don’t understand it or don’t care.

    the ultimate irony was when our corporatist “liberal arts” dean gave each faculty member a copy of Edmundson’s “Why Teach” and ordered us to read it and be prepared to talk about it at the next faculty meeting. i kid you not.

  12. Hi Jeff. I enjoyed reading this opinion piece that came to me a few ways today. I struggle with it a little though because it seems to assume a limited definition of what is a learning outcome and seems to use that to draw conclusions. So I wanted to share my thoughts and welcome yours in response.

    Certainly, many evaluative techniques in higher education are terrible, e.g. surveys that measure nothing more than satisfaction. And certainly, poorly designed learning outcomes can severely limit what outcomes of learning can actually be achieved. Or can be misused or abused, especially when compounded with accreditation and poorly defined efforts to measure. However, I wanted to suggest that these challenges are no more the direct result of the true notion of a “desired learning outcome” than specific bad political practices that see light during a campaign are the result of the true notion of an underlying system of government like democracy.

    Doesn’t the challenge comes in part in the implementation and in part from positioning efforts to cast one thing as worse than another in broad sometimes-fear-driven stereotypical strokes?

    I fear that to suggest that learning outcomes cause all of the challenges attributed to them here — or to position them as having “no clear pedagogical value”, or as running counter to “awakening in students a desire to think” — is to avoid acknowledging and engaging with the real meaning of “desired learning outcome” and to dodge taking on the task of solving the very real problems and meeting the amazing opportunities that exist today.

    A well designed learning environment can exist whether one articulates its learning outcomes or doesn’t. And while a learning outcome can be declarative and procedural in nature (as is the case for most of the examples you share), it can also be of different higher level types, such as “functioning” (thereby requiring performances of understanding, cognitive freedoms, and all sorts of other things you hold up as examples of success).

    Heck, if one defines a learning outcome as being a statement of what we want the outcome of the learning to be, then even your “awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things” is a learning outcome. And this certainly fits within some established frameworks of learning outcomes.

    I think there’s some ideal out there that allows us to get past poor implementations and defensive discussions – on all sides. So we can start talking authentically about the many tools available to us as educators today (true notions of learning outcomes among them).

    With thanks for getting me thinking!


    • Hi Alex,
      Thanks indeed for the thoughtful response. let me say, first off, that you are correct, that I do utilise a very narrow definition of learning outcome, and this narrow definition can leave readers with the impression that I have an insouciant attitude towards course content, actual analytic, critical, etc., skills, and so on. My intervention is focussed on administratively prescribed, top-down imposed, front and centre on the syllabi lists of generic and specific outcomes which (at least at my university) are nothing more than tautologous statements of the obvious. In a broader sense, I think effective teaching requires that we explain to students clearly what we are studying and why we are studying it, but after that taking care to inspire in them (which is not always successful) the desire to explore and interrogate and not just take my or the text’s word for it. So in that sense, yes, there should be outcomes and we should attend to. However, those outcomes are functions of the organization of particular disciplines and our own expertise, not on administrative authority (and, in public systems like Canada, not so veiled gov’t diktat. As for the capacities and skills the students will develop, again, I agree that we should be explaining what these are and why they are important, in connection with the assignments and the broader purposes of the course, but once again I do not see (and I have tried, I am not as dogmatic as I used to be!!) how stating them under a heading on the syllabus “Learning outcomes” helps. I really think this sends the wrong message to students already culturally disposed to sit back and let the work come at them. As a final note, my critique of LO’s is not in any way intended to disparage genuine work amongst colleagues to improve teaching and learning– our vocation as teachers is to awaken and expand the range and depth of student’s knowledge and their intellectual abilities, and we can always find better approaches by talking with each other and exploring pedagogical theories and experimenting. But that needs to be driven by prof’s (and other educators themselves as their express commitment to their profession (and their art, for that is what I think teaching is) and not as a response to admin power. I get the sense that if we had the time to explore the issues in the detail required, we would fine more zones of agreement than disagreement. Again, thanks for your response.

    • Thanks for the reply, Alex. Jeff’s experience with learning outcomes have been totally different from mine. The outcomes I use are mere starting points to learning. I want my courses to teach my students to investigate, think, explain and then question their investigations, thoughts and explanations. My learning outcomes should leave the student knowing that they don’t have the answers. Of course, they don’t lend themselves to easy statistical analysis.

  13. Wow, a lot of feedback. Okay, I will add my two cents.

    I’ll start with a question: so when you go into a class for the first time in the semester, you have no goals of what you want the students to be able to do at the end of the semester? I mean something more than “think.”

    I certainly understand the complaint that learning outcomes are a neo-con imposition on the classroom and on teaching, that it sets students up for expecting to be told exactly what they have to do to earn the golden goose (or at least the Christmas bonus). Yes, today’s focus on measuring learning outcomes, especially through testing in the elementary and secondary schools, is a model for producing cogs in a machine, workers in a factory line, bureaucrats in cubicles. I typically show a picture of students sitting in rows taking tests next to a picture of Auschwitz survivors as I discuss Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason.

    Yet, I think we need to distinguish goals–learning outcomes–that derive from a technological or bureaucratic rationality from those that we discover through substantive reason. For example one way–and not one that I’ve done myself–to avoid learning-outcomes-as-capitalist-brainwashing is to let the students determine what it is they will learn–discover–that semester. I typically provide broad strokes and then encourage students to break the bounds of their anxiety over grades and seek something outside those strokes.

    For example here (http://reasonthecommonsrace.providence.wikispaces.net/WELCOME) is the work my students achieved last semester. i think it is impressive. Here’s one of their learning outcomes: “Students will identify and give examples of terminology that helps them understand and practice leadership, democracy, service, and politics.” The link shows the work they did to achieve this outcome, but I think it also shows more that this outcome was a means to get them to think–they are better thinkers because they can use the terminology from the class.

    In short, I think each class has to have a telos and its accompanying goods that the class is trying to achieve. The learning outcomes can be a part of that.

    The whole critique of education I agree with. I’m just not sure I’m willing to or think it wise to write a syllabus without learning outcomes.

    • Hi Jeff,
      Thanks for your 2 cents. I don’t disagree with learning outcomes in your sense of the term. As I have said in response to other similar arguments in the comments, we need to establish parameters and make clear to students what we are studying and why. Same goes with assignments, expectations, evaluative criteria. My concern, however, is if everything is upfront and formulaic (at Windsor departments write the outcomes but they must then be approved by a central committee which splits hairs and generally makes a mockery of professional, disciplinary expertise and turns them, I’m not kidding, into the empty tautologies I make fun of in the post). So my objection is not to making expectations and parameters clear to students (although not so clear that students think that everything has been pre-determined, I agree we can’t just say “think” that would be disabling, because it has no object–but we should say: explore the content and see where it takes you; I am here to make sure you don’t go off the cliff, but there is no blazed trail either. Hope that clarifies somewhat. Now, back to see whether my neighbours can give Sanders the Michigan primary. No illusions, but the fact that millions of Americans aren’t scared of the label ‘socialist is something to be hopeful about.

  14. Jeff,I don’t see a substantive argument against outcome driven education…I do see reasonable objections to poorly conceived and practiced outcome driven policies and practices in education.
    Sure, Some people do have deep misunderstandings regarding the value of outcome assessment and the utility of quantitative data that outcome assessment produces. But, that isn’t really a criticism of Outcomes, it is a criticism of people who misunderstand them.
    Well-thought-out, outcome driven education practices can create enormous amounts of value for teachers and students. Not surprisingly, shitty, misguided learning outcome driven practices don’t create much value for students or teachers. But isn’t that is true of ALL approaches to teaching and learning? Most people aren’t doing any of them spectacularly well because..well..teaching is hard.

    • Hi Chad: I agree, teaching is hard, and also that there can be better and worse ways of constructing outcomes, but my main criticisms are political: I cannot help but see the administrative-governmental demand for them as part of a larger critique of public services/institutions workers, in which we are constructed as in need of constant external oversight and discipline otherwise we will ‘waste tax payers money.” I am not at all opposed to reflecting on ways that we can improve teaching, and of course, any class that accomplishes what I think all university professors (or the good ones, anyway) want to accomplish- people who are engaged with the world and understand that it comes to be the way it is, it is not a fixed and given reality, in any dimension we have to have structure, we have to teach analytical skills (e.g., one can’t criticise an argument in philosophy if you don’t know how to identify one), still I want my classroom, essentially, to be a space for free exploration of the problems as they unfold and not a space where studnets feel that they must learn only what is on the LO’s I have been forced to list in the syllabus. they will have a lifetime to follwo the rules at some alienating job– if they spend four years learning that things are not inevitable, maybe they will be less inclined to do what they are told in later life. Much thanks for pushing the argument,

  15. While I largely agree with Theses 6-10 (and your clarifications in your responses are helpful), how would one demonstrate Theses 1-5 to an appropriately skeptical audience? For instance, what evidence could we (I’m a fellow humanities faculty) provide to support the claim that a university education, or any particular class, actually does “result in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives” (Thesis 3)? Such claims sound good (we in the humanities are good at making things sound good, at least to ourselves), but are they true? Do our classes actually do those things? How can we know if we don’t assess them? Should the students and citizens who are paying us for this education simply take our word for it? Aaron poses some of these questions above, but it’s important to remember that we need to be able to answer these questions in ways that will be meaningful to the broader audience of students and taxpayers who reasonably ask for some evidence that they will get anything at all in exchange for the time and money they give us. Otherwise we risk simply reinforcing the impression of ourselves as priests of some obsolete religion futilely nailing our obscure theses to the church door.

    • Hi John,
      You raise some excellent points. I absolutely do not think that the public should just take our word for it. I think that those of us lucky to think and write and teach for living (still a great way to make a living, even if there have been some changes for the worse in my 17 years as a prof) have a responsibility to demonstrate the value of teaching as I defend: governed by the end of making people alive to the questionability of things. The first and most important point I think we need to make to skeptics is: look at any field of human thought or practice- the arts, philosophy, science, even sport- the people whose names we remember are not the ones who learned only how to follow rules, but those who also learned to break the established ones and invent news ones. As Picasso reputedly said of computers: they are useless, all they give is answers and not questions. Second, learning to love to think in my sense hardly disqualifies one from the job market. i served 8 years as dept. head and in that time met dozens of parents very concerned that their sons and daughters were going to end up permanently unemployed if they studied philosophy. My university is in a small industrial city that has been hit very hard by changes to North American auto industry and has had the highest unemployment rate in Canada for 5 years, so their concerns are no joke, and I never treated them as such. but I was always able to reassure them that the skills they would develop would enable them to find work– but I never made this point my ultimate pitch, but alswsy ended with the need to question to find new solutions to new problems. most of them enrolled as phil students, and most of them are unemployed.

      • Jeff, I agree with everything you say here, but in some ways this is the easy part of the argument. Persuasive testimonials to and examples of the value of creative thinking both personally and professionally are not hard to find. The harder question, though, is whether what we do in our classrooms actually produces creative thinkers.

        • Hi John & Jeff
          Jeff, I have really enjoyed both the original piece and the dialogue around it. Thanks 🙂
          In terms of John’s query around how we identify the development of creative / critical thinkers: My process is to encourage my students to (1) curate materials used in exploring issues as well as to (2) create artefacts which reflect their thinking; in process and when they feel they have determined their own opinion (at that point in time). They can use a variety of media and approaches – journals, tweets, blogs, podcasts, video – narratives, debates, formal presentation etc. I encourage them to curate materials they are exploring, the points of view they encounter and how they respond to these to form a “personal” position. The students develop a virtual portfolio ( via one or many platforms) which allows them to showcase their knowledge and skills but also their thinking in the variety of tasks they are required to- or choose to- undertake. The intention being to stimulate them into considering not only what they think, but how they think and why? I accept that none of the approaches guarantee that every individual will become a critical thinker and students engage in the process to varying degrees. Students and employers appear to refer to these materials during interview processes but reading John’s question has me wondering if these approaches and materials would still fall under the “Persuasive testimonials and examples” John speaks of? The implication being they are insufficient to determine if we have actually created these types of thinkers?John, would this be the case? Suggestions?

          • Rose, The assessments you describe seem to be valid ways of answering the harder question of whether students actually learn these valuable skills in our classes. Jeff’s objections seem especially leveled at outcomes mandated at the institutional and even governmental levels, and these naturally tend to be quantitative rather than qualitative. If these institutions could be persuaded to accept the validity of more qualitative evidence (“artifacts”) such as you describe, I think that could potentially be a way to satisfy both camps. A fundamental problem with measuring things like critical or creative thinking, though, is that those abilities are probably developed over the course of many classes and semester, not just in single classes. At my institution I am currently involved in trying to figure out how to assess similarly qualitative and dispositional outcomes in General Education. It’s not easy, but I think it is valuable to try, and ultimately in the interest of what we are trying to accomplish the sort of educational goals that Jeff is arguing for here.

  16. There a lot of powerful claims here. But much of the criticism leveled at outcomes should actually be directed at objectives, the next step past outcomes. Beyond that, the problem is not with identifying outcomes in and of itself, but with empowering educators to think bigger and better when they are writing outcomes. The emergent aspects of thinking and love (and a love of thinking) that you desire are not antithetical to outcomes, but they are difficult to achieve when educators don’t take the time to learn how to write good ones.

    • Hi Chris,
      Perhaps, but one also must examine the political and economic forces pushing for LO’s, the criticism of which is my main purpose here.

  17. “All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking.”

    How is that not a learning outcome? And how is it not the desired successor to versus “very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations.”

    Being opposed to a shallow understanding of learning is as important as being opposed to a shallow understanding of teaching.

    • Hi Lyn: As I have said in relation to other similar objections in the comments, I am not using the term LO in its generic sense (of course all teaching has outcomes in that sense) but to criticise the usurpation of professorial and departmental expertise by centrally mandated LO’s whose main purpose is not pedagogical but political.

  18. I’d agree, John.
    Generally the results are most evident at the end and determining assessment mechanisms are tricky. I fiddle a lot with what is assessed, how it will be assessed (mostly qualitative measures) and ensure the rubric is available upfront for discussion/ explanation/ clarification. However, I make clear that much as their efforts are in a continual state of “beta-testing” so too is my assessment process and I am open to suggestion, modification and revisiting things if they seem unfair in some way. As I was reading your comment I was considering the assumptions I/we operate under and realised 2 are key (1) that we (students and I) trust that we work in a safe, respectful, professional environment when we comment and publish work, and (2) that we model professional/ academic ways of presenting critique. We comment on ideas/ artefacts not the person presenting it. If these aren’t in place then I don’t think these approaches would work – and developing this respectful context and these skills takes time and effort by everyone in the space. In the same way that meaningful LOs are under threat by standardised ones, time is sucked out of the classroom by commodification/ standardisation. Learning then becomes less about what truly matters i.e. developing people, rather than just gaining knowledge/ skills. I like this comment by Kalantzis, Cope & Harvey (2003:23) “learning will increasingly be about creating a kind of person, with kinds of dispositions and orientations to the world, and not just persons who are in command of a body of knowledge.” But time is needed to create citizens who add to society not just use it…and discard it when they’re done with it… ?!
    I think we’re on the same page 🙂
    Tx, Enjoyed the “chat”
    Kalantzis, M., Cope, B., & Harvey, A. (2003). Assessing multiliteracies and the new basics. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 10(1), 15-26.

    • If I didn’t have to I wouldn’t. I have been involved in many popular education projects in the city where there were no assignments and no grades and the experience, for a teacher, to just interact and discuss without all the regimentation and ranking is unsurpassable. But your question is obviously tendentious. Grading is not identical to the learning outcomes I criticise, as is obvious from the political-economic context I note and to which the references refer.

      • I have no agenda here and I am not a fan of the ABCDF/points based grading system myself. (Check my blog.) I’m just genuinely curious as to how you assess students without learning outcomes.

        • Hi Robert,
          Sorry– it’s hard to read tone in email sometimes. I explain to the students the reasons for the assignment, the basic expectations, the meaning of the mark ranges, etc– the old fashioned way we used to evaluate student work, and still do– before institutionally mandated LO’s. I think we need to explain to students what the assignments are and how they will be evaluated, but I regard this as a professorial responsibility that should be fully under my control. In the LO model I object to, I am, expected to submit the Lo’s to an admin committee that then makes suggestions and mandates changes under the assumption that the value of the course is cashed out in the LO’s. But I think the value lies is what the assignments are instrumental to– not mastering this or that skill (although that is important), but thinking n along with the ideas and feeling oneself become someone who can argue, question, contribute. Unless they feel that sense of freedom vis-a-vis a body of work, the particular skills will not be of any real intellectual value. I will check out you bog,

  19. Hi Jeff,
    I fully understand your point of view. If I had to put your whole text in one sentence, I would say: “My goal as a teacher is to make my students think and make them love thinking, and this does not fit with the consumerist perspective suggested by LOs”. First, I would say that “developping critical thinking” actually IS a LO. If I may, I would suggest you look at the Krathwolh’s taxonomy of affective LOs. You will see that we can also address “the desire of thinking” through the perspective of LOs. The disturbing point with LOs, is that they often come with other questions such as “How do you do to make your students achieve your LOs ?” and “How do you assess the LO achievement ?”. Some teachers may think “I’m the captain of this boat after God and noone has to tell me how to handle my lectures”. If “developping critical thinking” and “making students love thinking” are your objectives, your LOs if I may, well go for it. But, from an institutional point of view, I would like you to tell me how you are going to assess that your students developped “critical thinking” and their desire of thinking. The institution does not have to tell you how to do your job but grouping teacher and learners in a classroom is not for free. As a teacher, your job is to change sth in your students’ heads, no matter what, no matter how and the institution has the right to ask you how you verify that sth really changes in your students’ brains.
    Best regards,

    • Assessment of critical thinking has to be situated in the context of each discipline. There is no formula for doing this, and I believe that’s one reason why LOs are pernicious for the author. What constitutes critical thought in philosophy is not the same as what constitutes critical thought in physics. Where one discipline tends to diverge in its viewpoints (philosophy), the other tends to converge in its viewpoints (physics). You can’t use one standard to judge both because that would be a gross misrepresentation of how critical practice develops in an classroom setting. Each learning experience is unique and the process is more important than the outcome.

  20. Rejecting learning outcomes (or learning objectives) means rejecting both the assessment of learning and establishing meaningful direction for students. The problem with the criticisms of this piece is that it builds a very ornate straw man, adorned with a few assumptions that do not hold up – some either/or thinking about what teaching is – it’s both passing on knowledge AND awakening (developing is really the better word) capacity for learning and the dubious idea that outcomes, in and of themselves, somehow destroy faculty autonomy. Faculty are not gurus who develop curriculum on their own whims and personal wisdom alone, and institutions of learning, particularly higher learning, are not using outcomes to control faculty creativity or individuality. There is a balance that must be struck, because there are specific purposes behind programs of learning. It’s fair to argue that an institution might be using outcomes in a way that is over-controlling, but it’s another thing altogether to suggest that the concept of outcomes itself is designed for such a purpose.

    Learning outcomes are a way of establishing specific metrics and milestones for learning, but while they should be measurable (or how else does one truly know what the student has learned) this does not mean the specific outcomes for students will be uniform, where such outcomes are appropriate.

    There are common bodies of knowledge that students within various groups need to know. for example, a math major unfamiliar with the essentials of arithmetic is going to fail in their endeavors. Learning outcomes help to establish specifics within those bodies of knowledge.

    But there are also moments in learning, where the objectives are to generate creative thinking in students, where the outcomes are not uniform, nor should they be. A classroom developing instructional activities, for example, may come up with a variety of ideas and plans, all of which meet the measurable standards of the objectives. Anyone who has taken a creative writing or art class knows that there are some measurable objectives there as well, however limited they might be, and a world of possibilities within them.

    Learning outcomes are simply a more formalized way to provide some meaningful level of measurement for learning. Without them, learning is the province of the teacher as artist or magician, eliciting a variety of responses which may or may not enable to the student to succeed when they move on from that unit or class or school. That may be fine for the informal learner whose actions will only affect themselves. Not so much for people attempting to progress through progressive different levels of education, or for those entering fields where the failure to master a specific body of knowledge affects the lives of others.

    The dirty little secret about outcomes is that almost everyone truly uses them in some form or another. Even the most open forms of learning have some objectives. Any change in a student is a potentially measurable one (depending on how the measurable part is elicited in the learning process). The difference is that formal outcomes provide the student with guidance and direction to help them understand what is expected of them. The student doesn’t progress forward into the dark. They have some idea of where they are supposed to be going, even if the journey takes some unexpected twists along the way.

    And this idea of learning with purpose makes better learners. It provides them with the realization that there are certain things that can be accomplished along the way, certain way points in the the path of learning they can move towards, even when developing something new and novel.

    • Really? Learning outcomes (in the sense in which I am using the term here) have been for about ten years. There was no meaningful learning prior to that date?

      • There is also the problem of how Learning Outcomes are used to “measure” student success. How exactly does one determine whether or not a student has read and analyzed a text except by some other, seemingly related factor such as the ability to compose an argument about a piece in writing? There’s no way to actually operationalize many of these standards for instruction, leaving professors responsible for managing outcomes that restrict assessment practices and influence curricular choices toward particular results. Spontaneity and creativity in the classroom, based on the needs of the learners, are sacrificed in favor of a muddled transmission-of-practice pedagogy that is almost entirely free of substance.

  21. Pingback: Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes | Jeff Noonan: Interventions and Evocations

  22. “This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour). Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.”

    Your argument made so much sense to me until I came across the part about extracting rents in the form of higher wages. What does this have to do with a professor’s effort to teach outside of the culture of learning outcomes?

    • Hi John,
      As I hoped the later theses made clear, I see Learning Outcomes (not self-determined goals for a class but centrally administratively imposed ones) as part of a broader political-economic attack on public sector workers (which in Canada professors are). This strategy is called the new managerialism in the UK or sometime New Public Management in the US and which is designed, amongst other things, to weaken the power of organized labour in the public sector by reducing workplace autonomy. Hence the comment about rents– from the standpoint of neo-liberal theorists and managers, the professors have used their professional autonomy as a bargaining chip. Undermining that professional autonomy is thus at the same time to weaken our bargaining power and reduce costs. Goes hand in hand with other tactics like eliminating tenure, replacing tenure-track hires with contract staff, etc. etc. For more on the New mangerialism I can’t recommend highly enough the book by Deem et.al that I cite in one of the later theses.

  23. I think that Learning Outcomes are just the student-centered version of content knowledge. Not exactly helpful when it comes to imparting definite knowledge produced by one’s discipline, but useful for placating those dedicated to professional development and instructional design.

    It’s hard to say whether or not Learning Outcomes are a conservative reaction to other educational reform movements, but I suspect that they are actually a compromise between inquiry-based learning and direct instruction. And like many compromises, no one is pleased with the solution but it’s better than whatever alternatives are being proposed by progressives or conservatives.

    Anyhow… just my two cents. Thanks for the interesting post!

  24. This is a great “straw man” argument, but a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of learning outcomes. Indeed, many of the goals he mentions are great learning outcomes. Unfortunately, those with similar prejudices will pass this off as a sound argument when it is surprisingly shallow. 🙁

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  26. I taught in a community college for 30 years. I had complete autonomy. Since I taught speech, I was able to evaluate outcomes on the spot.

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  28. The ideas in this piece deserve to be explored, examined, and digested and cannot be easily dismissed. The emancipatory power inherent in education, teaching, and learning is both generative and informative, which is lost as a practice, mastery, and service. The Aspen Institute recently began calling out business schools for the lack of humanities/arts as critical for a 21st-century curriculum. I’ve seen how markets (not research or human development) drive curriculum, standards, and measures based on yesterday’s market demands.

    Teaching to the test is not as bad in higher ed. But higher ed has normalized the pressure to pass students, and teach to a textbook (rather than original writings). I’ve taught undergrads, grads, in top-tier and private colleges and universities — full-time and adjunct. Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” or Shaw’s, Man and Superman offer much to business students beyond the skill for leveraging Twitter.

    Since 1999, I’ve observed how learning outcomes have been reduced to measuring skills at best or some arbitrary benchmarks at worst. Then these “results” are linked to teaching ability. A true outcome “comes out” of an intention which cannot be measured in advance, only experienced or observed. An outcome arises out of a set of conditions which these measurement masters do not recognize or address. Results are from predetermined goals that rarely have anything to do with teaching, learning or the necessary thinking.

    Our current system wants to prove that students KNOW not that they LEARN. Knowledge can be measured. But the need to know can prevent learning. Sorry to get on my soap box, but measuring metrics in the attempt to prove learning is the same crazy thinking that’s giving us STEM, a reductive knowledge base that diminishes the human condition to creating productive performers. We lose the capacity to be informed citizens, imagination to be creative beings, and potential to be fully human.

    Furthermore, this piece opens up other issues not addressed by education which must prepare learners for a Globalized Worldview: our American Western model of learning preferences outcomes that measure practical, reductive, and problem-solving modes. Whereas other western (European) models are more philosophically grounded, where learners marry the practical with a philosophical gaining deeper awareness of life to make sense of drastic changes. Or Eastern models that honor the notion of practice, and delve into inquiry and integral modes of learning and thinking.

    I appreciate the questions posed in this piece, and the thinking it provokes.

    • Brilliantly said, in particular: “A true outcome “comes out” of an intention which cannot be measured in advance, only experienced or observed.” Thanks for your intervention.

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