In a tweet last week I asked whether we should be focused on ‘learning outcomes’ or ‘outcomes for learners’. This was after I had read an interesting paper by William Buhrman (2011) who argued that ‘learning outcomes’ should be reframed as ‘outcomes for learners’. This latter phrasing, he suggested, goes beyond ‘what we want students to know about’ (p.57) and indicates instead ‘a focus on the development of students as persons’ (p.57) and ‘what the learner will become as a result of their learning’ (p.59). As such, ‘outcomes for learners’ (or OfL) escapes what some see as the more performative, or academic capitalist, notions of ‘learning outcomes’ where the focus is on an end product of learning that is observable and measurable.
Since reading the Buhrman paper and tweeting my comment, I’ve come across a couple of documents showing, from government perspectives, a focus on OfL in schools and FE. I’m immediately struck by the question of why OfL hasn’t been making waves yet in HE (or if it has and I’ve missed it please tell me). Of all places, HE seems most connected to the goal of developing the individual (and society) to its fullest. Isn’t one of the main arguments against the neoliberalism of HE that it ignores these broader individual and societal purposes of HE and focuses instead on entrenching HE solely within an economic agenda? (See latest piece from Henry Giroux regarding this).
Could it be that OfL has not yet been applied to HE because HE comes under the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), which itself says is the ‘department for economic growth’ that ‘invests in skills and education to promote trade, boost innovation and help people to start and grow a business’. I’m not saying that any of those intentions are bad or out of place. But they convey only one economically-focused purpose of HE? I have to admit, I’ve never felt comfortable with HE being in a government department that doesn’t even have education in its title – only ‘skills’. Are we then starting to see why what might be viewed as performatively focused ‘learning outcomes’ are still dominant in HE rather than OfL? Is it because the purpose of HE is currently viewed (by government at least) as ‘produc[ing] highly skilled graduates’ to promote economic growth.
My question now would be: can ever get to a more broadened (less performative) view of learning outcomes whilst HE is, in policy terms, connected largely to skills-based economic growth?