Learning Outcomes and Michelangelo

A recent large-scale project we worked on was dogged with requests from middle management for "learning outcomes." And while of course a project needs to know what it's trying to achieve, the requirement seemed more of a bureaucratic exercise (box ticking) than a genuine attempt to engage with the learning process.

I mean, take a typical learning outcome that my team was provided with, as an example of what they needed to supply:

"Recognize the environmental and regulatory pressures in which [client name] operates"

OK so there's an action word there ("distinguish") and you could say it's measurable. But what has that gained us over and above the same topic set down in a table of contents? I heard this termed "pseudo-precision" at a conference once. A box-ticking exercise that really achieves not much at all.

To my mind the way around this is to present learning outcomes as mini use-cases. My own formula is "When faced with [x situation or problem] the learner will be able to [do y]." So, taking the above example, we'd have:

"When faced with frustrating constraints on process and technology that result from environmental and regulatory requirements, learners will be able to explain to themselves and their team the rationale for these constraints, and help them to understand why, while frustrating, operating within these constraints are in the best long-term business interests of [client name] at the Enterprise level."

Not perfect perhaps, but gives a better illustration of what the learning outcome is for. My revised version also, I'd suggest, gives more of an indication of the level of knowledge / understanding that will be required. "Recognize..." (in the original version) is an example of "pseudo-precision." There's actually no precision there at all. After all, a four-year old can recognize the difference between a paintings by Mondrian and Michelangelo.

"Recognize..." can be an important verb (an oncologist, for example, needs to recognize cancerous from non-cancerous cells). "Bloom’s Level 1", in context, is in no way inferior to the "higher-order" levels. That's why we need use-cases to help provide context and colour. As learning designers (we often think of ourselves as storytellers) this should be self-evident. And yet the dreary drudge of "action word learning outcomes" seems to persist. Time to kill it off for good!

Bruno Kavanagh