Objectives that harm outcomes

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
The trouble is that the witches set unrealistic objectives for Macbeth."

You know that education has failed when a student from a class of 17-year-olds in an FE college English literature class makes this observation.

Learning objectives and learning outcomes are so ubiquitous that even young students have picked up the idea. The formula that suggests teachers should start every lesson with a clear statement of the learning outcomes is probably one origin of this example of indoctrination.

Assessment processes that stress the need for students to provide evidence of the achievement of "learning objectives" in the form of "learning outcomes" is another. Every lecturer, no matter what his or her subject, will have received boring formulaic essays written to the so-called "learning outcomes".

Similarly, the influence of meeting another set of "learning outcomes", the Lifelong Learning UK standards, encourages future and present lecturers to produce trite and tiresome work that meets these "standards", and usually in the most minimalist fashion.

The circle is almost complete. Students coming from a school system dominated by teachers trained in "objectives" will be taught by lecturers trained in the same way. Familiar and unchallenged as "learning objectives" and "learning outcomes" are, they have seriously damaged education.

There are two basic problems with "learning objectives", the first of which is that they are often managerial intrusions into the business of teaching.

Some may seem welcome, such as the idea that "equal opportunities" should be addressed in every lesson.

Trainee lecturers know how forced this well-intentioned "objective" often is. One staff developer persuaded by a worried management in one college even suggested that "student retention" should be an objective in every lecturer's lesson. What this absurd suggestion could mean, other than be very nice and don't fail them, is anybody's guess.

These extrinsic objectives clutter up lessons and distract from teaching the knowledge and skills that students really need. The other, more intrinsic objectives relating to the content of courses may seem less irrelevant, but are actually more damaging. Knowledge cannot be parcelled up into bits labelled "objectives" and even skills are devalued of all judgement when "outcomes" are simply described, observed and ticked off.

All courses need is a description of their content.

To see how silly the notion is, consider whether "learning objectives" could be set for any of Shakespeare's plays. His power is such that we can never guard against the plays undermining all citizenship objectives by leaving students exposed to the seductions of Iago's diabolic intellect, devoid as it is of all morality.

Acquiring knowledge and skills are processes that are not enhanced but distorted by being set out in terms of "learning objectives". The reply will be that "learning outcomes" are a way of limiting subjective elements in the process of coming to know things. Of course, this is not true.

Someone still has to judge whether an objective has been achieved. Now, it's often three or four people, with assessors checking assessors. We have lots more subjective judgement but not about anything important.

The stress and overwork of lecturers facing a system overwhelmingly dominated by managerialism and bureaucracy is well-documented. But why did they succumb to the reduction of knowledge and skills to sets of "learning objectives" that make their work more bureaucratic and undermines their professionalism?

The sad answer is that, for the most part, they left such things to managers and awarding bodies, or perhaps they half believed that the setting of "objectives" was a better way of learning.

The breaking up of lessons and courses into page after page of "learning objectives" needs to be challenged. It might even enliven course, examination and validation meetings if lecturers spent time exposing them for the anti-educational nonsense they are. Marking might get more interesting if we abandoned marking grids and read students' work to see if they had anything interesting to say.

Isn't it time we freed our minds?

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University

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