Last week I read a really interesting piece by Henry Giroux called ‘Defending higher education in the age of neoliberal savagery’. In this piece Giroux makes some key critical comments:
– As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish—from higher education to community health care centers– there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good.
– The ideological script is now familiar: there is no such thing as the common good; market values become the template for shaping all aspects of society…market fundamentalism trumps democratic values…private interests negate public values; consumerism becomes the only obligation of citizenship
– In opposition to the instrumental reduction of education to an adjunct of corporate and neoliberal interest—which has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship–critical pedagogy illuminates the relationships among knowledge, authority, and power
– One of the most serious challenges facing teachers, artists, journalists, writers, youth, and other cultural workers is the challenge of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility.
– The time has come to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility, and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, a renewed sense of social agency
Whilst reading this piece (and agreeing with many of Giroux’s arguments) I was thinking ‘where do learning outcomes fit into this?’ Are they, as some people see them, part of the neoliberal regime – an example of academic capitalism as I commented on in a previous post? I do, of course, understand the basis of this argument and, in so doing, I have some sympathy with the view.
However, I do not believe this is the only view that can be taken or the only way in which learning outcomes can be used. I have already stated my belief in another previous post that learning outcomes can also be used to support the broader purposes of HE. It was this that I was thinking about whilst reading Giroux’s piece. How can learning outcomes be used in such a way as to support Giroux’s ideals rather than a neoliberal regime?
And then I read a paper by Svanstrom et al (2008). Though it was written before Giroux’s piece, it seemed to answer the questions that had started going round in my head. Like Giroux, Svanstrom et al see higher education as a place to shape people to be transformers of the world around them:
– Our duty towards education of future professionals is to make it possible for them to participate
in the necessary transformation. In higher education, we educate people that will shape the future society.
They then say:
– It is urgent to define new appropriate goals of higher education in terms of learning outcomes (LOs) for students
Within their paper they identify two levels of learning outcomes – systemic learning outcomes, which are focused on ‘broad education and learning’, and discipline learning outcomes, which are focused on ‘discipline education and learning’.
The idea behind the ‘broad education and learning’ outcomes is that they will be the framework within which the discipline-based ones are created. Five of the ‘broad education and learning’ outcomes that they give are:
(1) An understanding of the ethical responsibility, towards present and future
(2) An understanding of the social responsibility as a future professional, and as a
(3) Knowledge of global trends that impact the life quality of present and future
(4) An understanding of the impact that human activities have on other humans,
regarding human suffering.
(5) An understanding of systems thinking and the acquisition of change agent
skills to impact change
Learning outcomes enthusiasts will probably note the reliance on ‘an understanding’ rather than the use of active Bloom-type verbs, which most guidance on writing learning outcomes will advise using. Yet I like the fact that these broad outcomes are framed in this way as they go beyond viewing learning outcomes purely as performative-based elements. If we applied the performative logic, we would have to measure and be able to observe, for example, the specific skills students had acquired to enable them to become change agents. In some reductive way this could be done. But change agents change things often because they think outside the box, they do the unexpected and not done before, they apply arguments in ways not thought of before. So I like that these outcomes are ‘vague’ and not easily measurable. It also allows for learners to develop these skills and understandings in ways personal and individual to them.
I also think that if we had ‘broad education and learning’ outcomes like those listed above underpinning the development of the more specific disciplinary outcomes, we could start to achieve what Giroux calls for.
Learning outcomes do not just have to be a tool of neoliberalism (or academic capitalism). They can be a tool to work against it too.