The Radical Impossibility of Course Outcomes

“…however effectively one ‘prepares’ for a class, the realities of learning alter the original orientation in a number of creative and unpredictable ways. If the structure is too tight, or the scenario is too predictable, then we move towards a tightly organized outcomes-based approach to learning. We end up confusing the relationship between clear goals (set by the teacher), and an anticipation that the student will meet the expectations of the course, because they have replicated the core meaning of the content. This is, to some degree, summarized by the assumption that teachers need to envision what students should know at the end of a course. Yet, knowledge cannot be packaged in such a simplistic way. We gain an understanding of an idea, for example, through dialogue. The dialogue can lead in an untold number of different directions. The fundamental unpredictability of dialogue is that both interacting parties may have no sense of where they are headed and may, indeed, learn in ways that they had not anticipated. This should be a source of excitement, but it is often a source of anxiety. I believe the anxiety is partially situated in how we define teachers and students.” Ron Burnett, in “The Radical Impossibility of Teaching”

I have not really processed this article as fully as I should yet, but Ron Burnett’s “The Radical Impossibility of Teaching” was a fascinating read for me, because — among many interesting ideas that question the assumptions we have about institutionalized learning — the argument cited above encapsulates my occasional resistance to “outcomes based” assessment. I believe that having assessable goals and objectives gives a class a focus, a common ground, and a sense of direction. But by the same token, there’s a degree to which these outcomes need to emerge organically from the class itself more collaboratively than they typically do. Burnett argues against the notion that objectives be prescribed by the teacher’s hasty, generalized prediction about what students “need” that is handed down from above before the fact — especially if “above” means not only the teacher, but some larger institutional group which the teacher is simply delivering like some enforcer or mediator between the institution and the student. Burnett invites us to think about some radical reconfigurations which cultivate creativity in the classroom. Like, what if the students were allowed to collaborate with the teacher, modifying and revising the learning objectives in the class? (The answer asks for more responsibility from the student than you might think).

In a system controlled universally through “outcome-based” assessment, where curricular administration risks becoming reduced to an act of enforcing policies rather than enhancing the development of teaching, such revision is virtually impossible. And yet at the same time, students do in their very particularity and individuality revise and adapt the learning objectives in their own ways. Assignments like “reflective essays” and “self-assessments” encourage students to gauge their own investment in course outcomes and to pursue them as they feel they need. And as long as teachers are working closely with students in interpersonal ways — such as in individual office conferences — the learning that happens can be guided and modulated to some degree in concert with the teacher.

While a teacher can use the course itself to “play” off the objectives, the syllabus remains the invariable law and point of accountability. The outcomes themselves are never really open to student revision in any way that can be filed, made permanent, or recognized publicly in the name of “accountability” or “assessment.” Thus, I would suggest that the “radical impossibility” at work here is not one of teaching or of learning, per se, but of the very idea of a universal “outcome.” Although grading and assessment have numerous modalities, a self-conscious teacher must recognize the virtual impossibility of measuring outcomes in any concrete way, beyond some abstract/numerical method (evaluations by ranking rather than providing qualitative comments) that reduces the significance of the experience and threatens to rob the quality of the course objective — if not the course itself — of meaningful substance.

Ah well…I’m still mulling these ideas over. Burnett’s essay was originally delivered to the Federation Internationale des Sciences Sociales, in Milan Italy in 1999, and subsequently published in Critical Approaches to Culture, Communications + Hypermedia, his excellent weblog.