Adventures in Jutland

To Have Done with the Judgement of (Learning) Outcomes

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Simple archives are sometimes the most powerful. Nowhere is this found more clearly than in education. On the one hand, education now finds itself confronted by a bewildering array of things to be known, and of different ways of knowing them, including many new technical means of learning. On the other hand educational planning and experience often seem subject to highly simplistic modes of structuring the entry to, and paths through, learning. All the exits are also covered! It’s a full collision, with opportunity and the anarchival coming from one side, and from the other side control, discipline, and the archival fear of the new.

Take learning outcomes (or LOs as even some five-year-olds now call them). Benjamin Bloom and his friends first came up with the idea of a Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which led to LOs, in 1948. They wrote it up and published it in 1956. This was radical and useful in the context of education at the time. That is to say in the 1940s and 1950s! However, it sometimes seems that not much has changed in mainstream thinking about education since. While in the rest of the world, everything has changed.

What was at the time a break with often regressive educational methods has become today a way of “managerialising” everything that goes on inside the classroom. This is reinforced by the constant evaluation of performance in relation to stated and standard objectives, by tests, rankings, scores, analytics and various other measures. This kind of thing has become a problem not only in education, but in psychology, media and communications, and in management more generally, everywhere these are now found. Education, work and even living seem to be more and more about fulfilling frequently tested objectives and outcomes, than exploring the new. Judgement comes before, during an after each activity, each thought, and each movement. Such judgement is becoming increasingly fine tuned. Via this, human behaviour, thinking and feeling are led to fit in to what is in the end only a contemporary, more intense, version of an old-fashioned industrial production line. Can we not do better than this?

Readers of this book may already have realised that Bloom’s Taxonomy was a new way of archiving education. It archived learning not just in terms of the knowledge to be known, but in terms of how it should be learned. In short, it controlled process. A simple archive of LOs could determine the entire course of events involved in learning. To be fair, Bloom was trying to open up education at the time, and did. His new archive was pitched against the older archives of, for example, rote learning. Even better was his subsequent development of ‘mastery learning’, which took much better account of individual modes and times of learning and of the specific relations between learners and teachers. Nevertheless, all this was based on what was in the 1950s the then new cognitivism. Cognitivism thought of minds in terms of the most radical technology of the time—computers. You can only think LOs if you think minds, collective minds, and communication, as all involving inputs, smooth symbolic processings of those inputs, and clear outputs. Just as in a computer. Yet, again, the basis for this was 1950s computing! This was of course nothing like contemporary everyday computing, and certainly nothing like, for example, quantum computing. In the 1950s, computing involved big, basic, machines, grinding out simple outputs from relatively simple outputs. Is that really how we want to view ourselves? Even if the human mind did function like a computer (which it doesn’t), why would the human mind be like a 1950s computer? Your cell phone is probably a lot more complex. What are the alternatives? Can we not think the mind without analogies to computing? Do we even need a given model for what a mind is, for what it can be?

It’s time we moved on. What would happen if we let go of some of our most prominent models of education, and of outmoded models of mind, of humans, of relations, of being-with, of collectivity, of the world? What would happen if we let ourselves think, together, anarchivally, about models but through to their other side? Which is to say, what if we only ever took them up very provisionally, or in strange combinations of perhaps initially incompatible models, and in the light of experience as it emerges? Could we simply do without models, at least some of the time? We would lose some forms of management, many forms of control, certainly most measures and rankings, but what would be gained? What conversations would happen? What learning could take place, and not only in schools or universities, but among friends, on the street, wherever? What new, much more open, use of networks and computing might we find as well, for learning, for living, for study? Indeed, it is ‘study’ that is at issue here.

I think we were committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal – being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory – there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities was already there. These activities aren’t ennobled by the fact that we now say, ‘oh, if you did these things in a certain way, you could be said to be have been studying.’ To do these things is to be involved in a kind of common intellectual practice. What’s important is to recognize that that has been the case—because that recognition allows you to access a whole, varied, alternative history of thought. (Fred Moten in Moten, Harney and Shukaitis, 2012)

A simple proposition: subtract what you “know” about learning, about education, about minds, about behaviours, about how things need to happen. Even if just for a moment.

Andrew Murphie

[this is a text from the Go-To How To Book of Anarchiving, produced at a book sprint in December 2016 at Senselab, Montréal. The link at the beginning of this paragraph is to the hard copy. You can download a free pdf here. This is a humble beginning of what I hope will be a more elaborate critique of, and series of suggestions for what would be gained by dropping, the like of learning outcomes]

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