To Do

Möbius_stripI’m wary of writing to do lists. I can just about manage to write one for a given day, particularly on days like today, when I’ve not got a lot by way of teaching, but a bunch of other stuff that I need to get done, but beyond that they have a tendency not to be motivating reminders of tasks, but depressing records of your own personal failure, an uncrossed list mocking you with a smug reminder of what you haven’t done. Perhaps it’s the way I use them, I don’t know, but I sometimes struggle with the whole notion that life can be compressed into neat little tasks to be robotically ticked off, as if granting profound meaning to a stack of chores.

But at least a to do list works in theory. After all, you are dealing with concrete, measurable tasks leading to specific results, like “mark 15 functional ICT papers” or “email B about X” or indeed “plan lesson for tomorrow’s evening class”. This last, of course, is where I’m going with this. After all, we generally set our students a kind of “to do” list when we plan and share learning outcomes with them, and it’s part of the teachers job to know what is realistically achievable in that time, and to check that the “to do” list becomes a “have done” list.

Ah no, I hear you think, the learning outcomes are not a “to do” list at all. They are a “to learn” list. Really, you think that, do you? I disagree.

It’s all in the phrasing. We refer to learning outcomes, not aims. An outcome, in all its performance management glory, is usually talked about in terms of observable behaviours, and post observation teachers are usually grilled with interrogatives like “ah ha, but how do you know they learned?” Because really, imaginary observer, how do you know they didn’t? A focus on observable evidence means that all I can say that my students have done in a lesson is produce the evidence to meet the learning outcome, not necessarily learned the things inherent in that. I’m going to pitch this outside ESOL, too, because in ESOL pretty much any teacher in the world could tell you that “use present simple third person singular to write five sentences” is a cheap proxy for “learn present simple third person singular” but that it is very unlikely for that student to have learned such a thing in any convincing way. So if I think of a training session I ran only recently during which I aimed for teachers to “identify and evaluate methods of stretch and challenge”, what I actually wanted was for them to learn one of them and then to apply it. Achievement of the former is only gong to be an educated guess, and the latter something I would struggle ever to find out, short of fitting CCTV to classrooms.

So when we share learning outcomes with students, and ask them to measure their own performance against these outcomes, what are we asking students to do? Some students, perhaps, are knowledgeable enough learners to recognise the learning subtext of an outcome, while others when presented with with an outcome will be able to recognise this aspect of the learning outcome, while the rest is more or less meaningless. For others, perhaps, they read this achievement at face value and wonder what they are actually going to learn? When we share those learning outcomes and ask student to self assess against them, are we effectively peddling a lie to our students about what learning is?

Things get worse when we consider that we use the same methodology for composing individual goals on an ILP – what are we saying that a student has learned if they have achieved a personal target of “use present simple third person singular in five sentences”? A student covering that language point is unlikely to be able to understand it: so we resort to making it more meaningful “write five sentences about things my friend does every day” or something similar. At this point, any awareness of transferable language knowledge has been well and truly lost and we are left with a task, not an outcome. Even in the bizarre world where a student could develop the language ability to be able to meta-analyse grammar in this way, but at the same time not actually know that language point then what model of language learning are we following? I don’t think anyone believes that learning anything happens in neat, observable, evidenceable steps, aside from auditors and similar.

All we can say for sure about learning is that it’s an internal, individual process. It’s probably not even cyclical, really – it’s not that neat. I suspect we’re dealing with a kind of complex spiralling variation of a möbius band, where things are learned, then forgotten, then learned again. If we are using achievement of a learning outcome or individual target as a means of tracking learning, then we do have to wonder what it is we are tracking exactly: to my mind we are tracking performance, not learning – achievement of said target or outcome is simply an example of performance, and one which fails in terms of reliability and validity when considered as assessment.  and if it’s an example of performance, then a list of learning outcomes or ILP targets is indeed a simple to do list, and only loosely linked to learning.

There are other implications too. Achievement of observable behaviours in the form of learning outcomes, whether individual or classroom based, is a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts: we use this achievement as evidence of success for all sorts of classroom practice: “in study X, teachers applied technique Y and this was a success because students achieved the lesson’s stated outcomes” but if the measurement scale is questionable then what does this mean for evidence? I’m personally not sure we can dismiss evidence based practice on this justification, because something was achieved in those lessons, I just have questions as to exactly what that something was.

Even if we accept that the aim is genuine, but that the outcome is false, learning is not restricted to the teacher set, teacher driven, teacher shared learning goals. Students take all sorts from a formal lesson, and not all of it is predictable and measurable. Which makes me think. I have a lesson this week which is free from exams and the rest, so I might try something. I’m going to teach a lesson and not share the outcomes (I’m told this is bad practice, but never mind). But there will be things I have in mind for the learning in the lesson, call them outcomes if you like. Then, at the end of the lesson, I’ll ask the students to tell me what they are going to take away from the lesson, what they learned, what skills they practised, and see how much a) they can articulate these things, and b) how much their perceived achievements marry up with my aims/outcomes/whatever.

Better put that on my to do list.

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