Learning How to Survive Outcomes and Measurements Culture

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” – Albert Einstein


The above quote was an ominous introduction to a paper which came to shape educational practice across the world.  In 1995, Robert B Barr and John Tagg at Palomar College in San Marcos, California demanded “a new paradigm for undergraduate education”.  Their famous paper From Teaching to Learning – A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education” was published in Change magazine.

Barbie versus Reality


From noble beginnings, we can retrospectively try to document the road their work paved in which they expressed: “To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that…the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds” – “We now see that our mission is… producing learning with every student by whatever means works best”. These are two quotes they forged in trying to remodel the way learning became administrated.


The changes they proposed were to shift universities from “providing instruction” to “producing learning” which would empower each class to “learn more than the previous graduating class.  The paper was instrumental in changing the language of pedagogy moving everyone to talk about “learning outcomes”.


It was adopted by Lord Dearing in his inquiry into higher education in 1997 when he said “Our vision puts students at the centre of the process of learning and teaching.  They need clear statements about the intended outcomes of programmes”.


Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, Frank Furedi, has taken a stand on the issue of how ‘learning outcomes’ have become a bureaucratic imposition and a threat to good teaching.  Learning outcomes “promote a calculating and instrumental attitude where responsibility becomes equated with box-ticking and diminish what would otherwise be an open-ended experience for student and teacher alike”.


So inflamed is Professor Furedi of the bureaucracies which have been imposed on his teaching position that he openly admits he “makes them up and ignores them”.  Even taking measure of Furedi’s lashing out, it seems to be true to say that there is widespread feeling that obsessive compulsive managerialism has replaced the vision of Barr, Tagg and Dearing.


Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Bucks New University, Trevor Hussey, has been mapping how learning outcomes in the UK quickly became “a questionable fad, favoured more by managers than by teachers”.  Today it means that money has taken the pole position of factors in education where £9,000 tuition fees turning students to consumers, and where teachers are asked first how much money they will bring into a department – before what content they propose to constitute their coursework.


Academics are being corralled into competition rather than co-production, exclusive research agendas, situations where ideas may not be shared beyond the financial licensing held in all powerful corporate publishers.  It has come to a point where people who have committed their whole life to the collective advancement of thought have arrived in a place where the ultimatum of ‘publish or perish’ has indentured their life’s synthesis to a non-responsible shareholder primacy.


So how much can we draw from this tear in the fabric of education ? How certain can we be of knowledge and an absolute curriculum with concrete outcomes ?  Where in the collective advance do we encourage new configurations of thinking often enabled only by the youngest untrained mind; the unbroken horse ?


Emperors new clothes

Have we crept unconsciously into an age of replicating determinisms where the control mantra of – “well it worked yesterday, it will work tomorrow” has partnered ‘’we must only do what we are certain of and abandon the research and development” ?  These mantras have filtered out into every vocational field becoming the Emperors New Clothes.


Behind the scenes, in casual circumstances, when we as friends and colleagues in vocational positions what their thoughts are about the administrative and governing structures which delimit their agency, it unanimously comes back – the systems put in place to facilitate our job remits are now acting as barriers to fulfilling them.


How far have we come from Barr and Tagg’s 1995 paper where they asserted “For many of us, the learning paradigm has always lived in our hearts.  As teachers, we want above all else, for our students to learn and succeed.  The disproportionate strength of the market and the intoxicating habit of consumerism has come to obscure certain fields of knowledge such as economics.  Corrosive reductionist practices are producing several cultural phenomena  which are affecting stable healthy communities of practice.


Indeed, the belief in direct money generating behaviours is one of over confidence, determinism and futurology.  The financial ‘gurus’ and pan-global corporations behave as if they have worked out the root formula for ‘economic growth’ whilst conveniently forgetting that they borrow from the futures of others and the present lives of civic individuals.  Accountability has become a lens which is not allowed to take the birds-eye position on superstructures, yet on the microeconomic level the scrutiny is becoming unwieldy – where even energy bills and tax returns are becoming deadweight costs.


This is a result of the whimsy of ‘middle management permafrost’ (nothing can get up from the bottom, and nothing can reach down from the top) and upper management command and control policy making that is causing so much entropy that the core of all institutions are being affected.  The kinship relationships which serve as the kernel of institutions have become lost – a fruit without a seed.  The question of who pays the piper is spreading far and wide as new layers of bureaucracy are being implemented on top of the old to try and counter the problems created by the last level of statistical administration aimed at ‘improving efficiency’.


In education, this is being reflected by the dropping of the controversial requirement for grant applications to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to identify the national importance of their proposal over a 10 to 50 year time frame.  The research council’s ‘shaping capability’ agenda was designed to grow and maintain ‘shrink subject areas’ based on their perceived ‘strategic importance’.


Applicants were expected to explain the ‘national importance’ of their proposal over the next ten to fifty years, judging it on how geared it is to integrating the councils agenda, addressing social issues and contributed to the UK economy.  Opponents were vividly critical of these requirements for academics to predict the distant future.


Dr Golby, who was appointed EPSRC chair, conceded that such a requirement would be “ridiculous” and put forward that the criteria were only meant to encourage applicants to “think from the outset about where their research fits into a national and international context, and where it might ultimately lead in terms of a financial, economic or societal benefit”.  He said that the EPSRC’s senior management were open to being challenged and suggested that their communications were needing work done.


Professor Andre Geim
Professor Andre Geim

Professor Andre Geim at University of Manchester made comment that driving academics to carry out applied research is like forcing politicians to design aircraft.  At the Royal Society’s Astellas Innovation Debate in December 2012, he said:


“Imagine a bunch of chimps sitting in a banana tree pondering about their needs for the next ten or twenty years.  They would improve banana peeling technology.  As a society we are doing the same by investing in directed programmes instead of investing in good people”


Inventor of graphene, a material set to revolutionise many technologies, he suggested that applied research should be left to industry with academics funded to do what they do best by carrying out basic research.  He also indicated a short-termism permeating industrial culture and a disjunct with the academic world:


“I cant find people in big companies to whom I can speak. They don’t understand my language”


So, from education to industry to invention and innovation; where do we qualify our use of blunt metrics to govern human lives and futures ?  Outcomes and measurements sound good on paper, however, life proves more tricky to pin down.  We are now having to confront the result of our collective reduction of life to rote process…


The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

Albert Einstein