The logic of student learning outcomes is so unimpeachable that I’ve hesitated to challenge it, even in my own mind. How could we possibly find fault with a system designed to help us set and evaluate goals for our teaching? There is something pleasingly tidy about the idea that we could do such a thing. But like most “good ideas” in education, the implementation of outcomes in a classroom of actual human beings is where things go awry.
In the community college English courses I teach, my students are all over the map in terms of their abilities and background knowledge. One student is comfortably using the word “divergent,” while another student, an English language learner, is puzzling over the dictionary definition of “damage.” Clearly, it’s impossible for both of these students to attain the same learning goals within a semester, and I would argue that if they did learn the same thing, it would be clear evidence that I was a terrible teacher.
Let’s be honest: The student who comes into my class not knowing the word “damage” probably can’t attain all or maybe even most of the learning outcomes for the course. The philosophy of “student learning outcomes” implies that this student should fail. Yet this student needs me more than the student who knows “divergent,” and to fail this student for not being educated goes against everything I believe in as a teacher. I want to help this student make progress; I want to encourage this student to grow rather than focusing on his deficits. Yet I can hear the language of “student learning outcomes” like a raspy breath on the back of my neck, making me feel like a bad teacher for not holding my students to the “standards.”
Why are we so concerned about all of our students learning the same thing? Perhaps it’s because of this very case I described. We think that if a student leaves a class “unprepared,” then the next teacher will have to “deal with” this student, facing the choice of failing the student or failing the system of outcomes. Outcome-based education depends on students arriving in our classes “prepared,” but the reality of real classrooms, real humans, is that practically no one is prepared. We all have gaps in our education; there is so much that all of us don’t know, including me, the teacher. Shouldn’t the goal of education to be to help all students, no matter their abilities, learn more, think more, and grow? That’s a learning outcome I could fully embrace.
There’s a worse problem with student learning outcomes, which I learned about from a student of mine. He described how his high school teacher used to put “dots” on the board at the beginning of class and then went through the dots one by one. I asked what he thought about that, and he said it was boring. He always knew where the lesson was going; there was no chance of discovery or surprise.
I always have thought that the essence of learning was surprise. That feeling we get when we encounter a totally new idea — -that’s surprise, a kind of delighted amazement makes us crave more. So I wonder if our desire to make education more tidy is actually deadening it for our students. In our quest to measure everything, we are leaving the frosting and sprinkles off the cupcakes. And if learning becomes a dry cupcake with no frosting, then our students’ minds are closed to it, and there’s no point to the whole endeavor. The system of learning outcomes becomes a farce of education, a system just designed to fulfill the power structure’s demands, just a way to make people feel like they are “doing something” about education.
I’ve taught for over twenty years, and over this period, I’ve tried just about every way to teach that I could think of. I’ve noticed that when I approach a class with firm outcomes in mind, my teaching seems artificial and my students are less engaged. I’m trying to lead the students towards my outcomes rather than responding to them in the moment. I’m not really listening; rather, I’m pushing things forward according to my own concern that we might not meet the outcome.
When I engage in responsive teaching, in contrast, the students are more engaged, but I admit, it’s scarier. Responsive teaching might involve me asking a question, or having a few questions in mind, and then being really present as the dialogue between the members of the class unfolds. It might involve an activity of some kind that encourages students to grapple with a reading in a new way. In such a setting, we’re all at the edges of our seats, knowing anything can happen. I have to be open and vulnerable and ready to shift gears at any moment. I leave such classes exhausted, feeling like I could sleep for three days. But it’s worth it to feel that I didn’t give a fake class and the students didn’t give a fake performance.
I don’t teach to outcomes anymore, although I do the song and dance when needed to fulfill the administrative requirements. My personal outcomes for my teaching are this: I want to students to engage with what they read and show that in their annotations and reflections. I want to help empower them to read more carefully and not give up in the face of struggle. I want to discuss the readings with them in a way that helps them relate and respond. I want to help them find the idea they are enthusiastic about and express their views in writing. I will help them express themselves better in writing, the best way I can. But I cannot promise that my students will leave my class good writers. I cannot write for them. I cannot and will not force them to prioritize minute writing skills over thinking.
And perhaps that’s my real problem with student learning outcomes. How many of them prioritize thinking? And if we do prioritize thinking, can we really fulfill the 23 other outcomes we are supposed to be teaching? In a class I had last week, my students worked in groups to reread and discuss a passage from Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It took a long time, almost the entire class period. According to the language of “outcomes,” we did nothing. But we did everything. Students were reading a difficult reading. They were struggling with it, but they were curious. They came up with new insights and connections. And they spoke their ideas out loud, while their peers listened. What else could I ask for?