In my work on the ‘Learning Outcomes Project’, I’ve been reviewing a lot of the learning outcomes literature. Over the coming weeks I will try to review some of the papers I’ve found that have either been very interesting or have made me stop and think further about certain issues.
For this post I want to briefly discuss Batten’s 2012 paper Metaphors we teach by: the language of ‘learning outcomes’.
It is perhaps no surprise that Batten identifies learning outcomes (LOs) as an ontological metaphor that resonates with academic capitalism because ‘the phrase “learning outcomes” is…describing the results of education as a substance or entity that “allows us to refer to it, quantify it, identify a particular aspect of it, see as a cause, act with respect to it, and perhaps even believe that we understand it” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 26)’ (p.17). This is a view of LOs that has been well discussed in the literature.
However, the paper was of such interest to me because, as Batten indicates, there is always much more going on within the use of a metaphor:
metaphors, both conventional and new, are forms of comparison and therefore [whilst they] highlight one particular aspect of a concept, they hide other dimensions of it, especially those that are inconsistent with the metaphor (p.17).
Her aim is to ‘demonstrate how the use of this particular metaphor to think about education is consistent with some of the dominant values in our culture and to explore in what ways it conceals and eclipses other dimensions of the complex phenomena of teaching and learning’ (p.17).
Batten first expands on LOs as an academic capitalist metaphor:
it is not the content of the outcomes that is the issue, at least in most cases. Rather, it is the tremendous, almost overwhelming stress upon thinking about education through the metaphor of learning outcomes and the constant assessment, including measurement, of those outcomes that is unsettling. But such a metaphor resonates with our culture and the pervasive role of the economic in almost every aspect of modern life (p.19).
She then considers what an emphasis on LOs may hide or obscure:
a stress upon outcomes – achieving them, measuring them, comparing the results to those of other institutions and programs – presumes that education is production and that faculty, students, and administrators must learn to engage in it as efficiently as possible. It assumes and conditions others to assume that knowledge and learning are commodities, some of which can even be quantified and integrated into a graph (p.20).
… A focus on outcomes assessment runs the risk that that we may miss other very important dimensions of teaching and learning, such as the fact that profound learning is not measurable. We may be able to assess a student’s comprehension of a body of knowledge, but if the student does not remain in the field or continue to study it in some way, the knowledge content will usually dissolve in subsequent years. But when we think about some of the most significant learning that we have experienced, we know that it was affected not only by a course, a person, a book, or even an entire degree program, but by a series of interconnected things that took place over time, by a combination of ideas and experiences from both the past and present (p.21).
Batten then further considers the impact of LOs on her own discipline of Religious Studies, which I won’t summarise here but would encourage it to be read in full.
My intention in presenting this paper is not to engage in a discussion about the rights or wrongs/strengths or weaknesses of her arguments. My aim within the ‘LOs project’ is not to present one view about LOs (e.g. that they are either good or bad for student learning). Instead, it has always been to present and engage in all arguments and debates about LOs and try to find a position within them from which I can authentically move the project forward. My other blog posts best illustrate the position I take towards LOs and the potential I believe they have to shake off their academic capitalist connections and become a more meaningful tool for learning.
Putting aside then the arguments made about LOs, what I really liked about this paper was that it made me start to think about some of the taken-for-granted phrases (or metaphors) that we use in HE, and the messages that they are actually conveying.
Critical discourse theorists can of course go into this in much more detail than I can, but below are some of the phrases or metaphors commonly used that I would like to take issue with:
- ‘Deliver‘ – during my years of conducting research with academics in HE, I have heard this word a lot – e.g. ‘I’ve got to deliver this content now’ or ‘I’m responsible for delivering that module’. The word grates with me each time because it conveys such a one-way view of education and learning. Packages are ‘delivered’ and recipients of the package are just that – they are receivers of the package and don’t generally engage in debates and discussions with their package deliverers. The word conveys such a one-way service view of education to me (see here for supporting views).
- ‘Student experience’ – this seems the buzz word at the moment and I hear it so much in any meeting I go to. But I want to take issue with it whenever I hear it – do we only have one kind of student? Is there only one kind of experience? This is the message conveyed by this buzz term. Sabri (2011) gives a more in-depth critique of this term.
- ‘Human resources’ – this is another academic capitalist metaphor that seems to me to actually deny the ‘human’ within ‘human resources’. Resources are things to be moved, used, and discarded at will and as appropriate. Saying to myself ‘I am a human resource’ does not especially make me feel very good (again, others agree).
- ‘Staff’ – I don’t take issue with the word ‘staff’ in and of itself, but I do feel uncomfortable now with the general way in which academics are now typically grouped or referenced under the heading of simply ‘staff’. It occurs frequently now in government documents and reports, and in institutions own messages too. For me, it reduces the professional status of the academic role. Again, Sabri (2010) has written on this. She argued that viewing academics as generic ‘members of staff’ limits their power and ‘knowledgeability’ (p.202), and instead sustains policymakers’ ‘own credibility and professional expertise’ (p.201). Hence, academics and their arguments become easier to dismiss when they are just ‘staff’ with no obvious professional expertise being conveyed.
Obviously there are certain phrases that are coming to gain precedence in how we talk about HE (students as consumers, etc), which are being extensively critiqued for the messages that they convey and the ideas/positions about education that they conceal. The four mentioned above seem, to me, to fly under the radar more but constantly jar me whenever I hear them.
So, I think Batten’s paper is valuable not just for her discussion about LOs, but also for the acknowledgement/reinforcement that we should always critically question the language we use to describe ourselves, our work, our sector, etc – especially when words and phrases become so taken-for-granted.