Saturday, 29 September 2012

The madness of learning outcomes

I thought it would be a simple job to keep dropping bits of information into this blog, but it's taking over my headspace. I couldn't sleep last night, replaying over and over teaching sessions from different times. What was also coming up through my sub-conscious though was something else, I started to realise that my personal life and what was going on in terms of my relationship with art school pedagogy were totally entwined. The time when the old foundation structures started falling apart, coincided exactly with my own personal life doing the same. I was trying to work out the precise moment it all started to unravel and I think I have pinpointed it. It was the day we learnt of the existence of 'learning outcomes'. (This must have been early to mid 1980s) The staff were asked to participate in a workshop, some organisation was trying to develop these things called learning outcomes for art and design courses. We looked them through and thought they were a joke. How could you reduce the experience we were trying to offer to such a petty level?   We didn't know ourselves what the outcomes would be and that was the point. It was a road of discovery and if one student realised that he or she now wanted to become an engineer and another a poet that was great, the point was that the process was all bundled together in some sort of untangleable ball and these people wanted us to unravel it. Education existed to draw out potential not to train. The problem is that when the ball is unravelled all you have left is bits of string. We pooh-poohed the whole thing, feeling safe because Leeds had been one of the first colleges to develop these courses and that we knew what it was all about and we would continue to lead on this and these sorts of things were only for failing colleges and poor teachers. A few years later we would all be shocked to find there were now national standards and that they were laid down using the very learning outcomes we had dismissed as useless a few years before. 
I now deal with learning outcomes for every session I have to teach. I simply ignore them and leave it to someone else to read them out and explain them to students. The glazed expressions spread as each outcome is trotted out and all sense of wonder and excitement gets sucked out of the room as lists of evidence are read out. Life and therefore art can't be reduced to these things, everyone knows it but no one does anything about it. Basically its training students to be able to do the necessary paperwork for an average office job or ticking off a set of basic skills that are targeted at an apprentice. Having been an apprentice back in the 1960s I can confidently state that they are not even up to the job of understanding what apprenticeship is all about.  I have a sense that ever since the early 1990s when the old course was accredited all I've been doing is fighting a rearguard action, trying to work with individuals, hoping to give them a sense of how wonderful things could be if only they could just be allowed to get on with making, doing, looking and experiencing. It's not all bad and some great things were done during the 1990s and continuing. As this blog unfolds I will try and explain why and how the differences matter. The key difference is this, learning outcomes suggest that a student can now understand or do something, such as mix a colour or adjust shapes in order to demonstrate their awareness of formalist principles. But the real issue was how can your sense of being alive, both as an embodied and as a thinking individual be enhanced by the experience of mixing a colour or adjusting a shape? 


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