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Creativity Crisis

Chapter 2

THE ROOT OF ALL LEARNING

Through examining the educational vocabulary, I am proposing a method for revaluating some core assumptions in learning and teaching which are deadlocked by empirical research. I have no polemic against quantitative methods but they tend to function on premises that prove themselves. An example might be the theme of active learning, where we can show that lecturers who have deployed the new wisdom of blended learning—a combination of preclass videos and activities, in-class group work and discussion and postclass reflexion—achieve greater engagement and student success. The advantages of flipped techniques are widely believed and supported by some evidence; but when critical scholars have eyeballed the literature, it turns out to be less convincing. As Lakmal Abeysekera and Phillip Dawson say:

Despite popular enthusiasm and a somewhat reasonable rationale, flipped classroom approaches could not yet be considered an evidence- based approach; there is little research on the flipped classroom approach and none of it relies on particularly rigorous designs … The flipped classroom approach is under-evaluated, under-theorized and under-researched in general.1

The virtues of blended approaches sound credible and may well be correctly believed; but it could simply be that flipped methods attract the more energetic and enthusiastic lecturers. It could also be that the same old lecturers, who are either self-selected or are dragooned into change, are suddenly caused to think and reflect about education and the student experience rather than direct their affections exclusively to their research. Having settled on a change with increased consciousness that teaching matters, they are determined to make it work; and so they either devote more zeal or greater reflectiveness to the job, experiencing a refreshment through thoughtful reappraisal. If they directed the same reflective enthusiasm to any other paradigm, it would also work well. Much research in learning and teaching is dogged by difficulties of distinguishing cause and effect; and this book is not about to solve such intractable conundrums. Instead, it offers a view of the field that brings together philological and phenomenological perspectives, arguing from the observational and the literary evidence for the philosophical underpinnings of the new vocabulary of learning and teaching.

In synthesizing a critique of globalized educational paradigms—which I see as uncreative—I want to proceed not merely in a subjective way. The observational conjecture may be as insightful or as seductive as it is; but it would be too easy to dismiss it as eccentric and capricious, dependent upon a personal point of view and hence tainted with arbitrariness. Anyone’s subjectivity is valuable (and we will later revisit how necessary for education it is for any theme to be apprehended in a feeling subject) but as an element in research method, this observational subjectivity requires other data by which it might be triangulated. In particular, the history of experience revealed by language provides a perspective from which educational terms can be seen in sharper relief.2

In order to triangulate my own subjectivity, this book brings together both the phenomenology of education and the language by which we characterize it. Many of the themes are surprisingly difficult to define; so the book proposes a method for identifying educational phenomena which is radical in the sense of seeking roots. In the same way that we may hope to identify a feeling or intuition by observation, so we may hope to find the roots of experience by examining the history of language, distinguishing the roots that strike out in telling parallel with the expansive observational branches above. Accordingly, this book seeks a match between the observational and the philological: it explores learning as a lived circumstance, but it also seeks to relate this phenomenological description to the philological evidence, most of which has never been examined before.

Roots have a double meaning. On the one hand, the root is the etymology, the almost coincidental derivation of a word from old stock, mostly in languages that are no longer spoken. On the other hand, there is a sense of the root as causation, a telling sign that gives the ancestry of an idea, as if the idea, having sprouted from a root, is forever bound to its linguistic inheritance, as if it can never transcend to its contemporary acceptation. To add to the ambiguities, there are also cases where an idea or phenomenon did not exist historically. It grows slowly from related concepts to a point where it is common coin. The narrative of these transitions is not intended to be conclusive in itself but simply to bring contemporary ideas into an independent account of meaning, with a sense, perhaps, that ideas have a trajectory, even if our powers of prediction are negligible.

One way or the other, it is difficult to be indifferent to the historical meaning of roots when they are educational. To propose roots for learning and teaching invites a predisposition to be expressed, a grid of preferred images, in which all our aspirations have a former incarnation. This book neither promotes nor ignores such motivations. It has a phenomenological subtext that intermittently contemplates the root of all learning in a psychological sense: the creative magic of a learner’s interest, other people’s encouragement (like family and teachers) and then some inscrutable part of any learner which is ambition, hunger, geekish personality, a poetic identification with pockets of content, curiosity, the power of command or the mastery of manipulation. The traditional Freudian explanation for curiosity is the child’s keenness to know about the sexual practice of the parents which explains his or her origins. Subsequently, the desire to know is sublimated or abstracted from this lush impenetrability, as the learner converts the unprofitable search into a sustainable zeal to know things in general.

If we say that interest is the prior condition of learning, it follows that a large part of the practice of teaching and learning is the stimulation of interest. The techniques are both well known and obscure. In already offering a critique of constructive alignment, this text has contemplated a negative effect on creativity and imaginative autonomy, arguing that the doctrine of alignment promotes relatively narrow learning experiences, which are very good for uncreative modules, subjects or units. In the chapters that follow, we shall consider some of the elements most likely to stimulate interest and create imaginative rapports between subject matter and the learner’s sense of identity, items which are never a part of strategic directions at any university in the Anglophone world. They are items such as niceness, student subjectivity, colour, surprise, the opportunity to tell someone about your learning, imaginative ownership. This book is conceived to interrogate the basis of expectations that make for the greatest cognitive engagement; and through the investigation, it also interrogates the tools of engagement and deconstructs the concept of engagement itself.

*

We have established that education today is organized around outcomes. In the previous chapter, however, we have only partly recognized how potent they are and how problematic. Designing any program according to its intended learning outcomes is a responsible way to structure a relationship between student and teacher, because a list of outcomes sets out expectations for the teacher and simultaneously furnishes a plan for the student. Students are not deceived because, from the outset, the learning outcomes have been set and there should be no surprises, no tricks, none of those ambiguities where the student studies one topic and finds that another is assessed or the student is encouraged by learning activities to acquire one kind of cognitive skill only to find that another would have been more expedient for the assessment. We prescribe learning activities, texts and assessments in accord with the learning outcomes in a nice agreement which is usually described—as already noted in the previous chapter—by the term that John Biggs has coined, namely constructive alignment.3

There is much to commend in this arrangement of good alignment, where confusion is attenuated and expectations can be cultivated with a degree of conformity with delivery. It now constitutes one of the principal orthodoxies of education throughout the Anglophone world. No one will recommend that an educational program not function according to these premises. It would seem wrongheaded: no one wants to invite a muddle, to neglect the consistency and coherence of the program, to fail to advise baffled students of the expectations or to design learning activities that have nothing to do with the assessment. It is an orthodoxy in the good sense that it is right-thinking. It says: let us provide maximum chance for student confidence in actively owning their own learning, and minimum chance of confounding the learning experience with contradictions and activities in skew relations with one another and with the assessment.

So ingrained are learning outcomes as the point of departure for any learning program that we think of them as prior to anything else. They are the matter that has to be thought about first in the design of the syllabus and then the design of the learning (learning design or educational design). The learning outcomes are scrutinized for accreditation purposes by professional bodies; they are integral to quality control and, above all, they are central to a concept of empowering students with the charge of their own learning because, through the learning outcomes, students know what they should be aiming for and understand what they will be assessed against. They can thus plan and manage their own learning, actively construct their learning, with this leading to a new student-centred paradigm as opposed to a teacher-centred tradition.

While no one will argue against clarity, consistency and transparency, there are grounds to question all the requirements that we impose upon ourselves all the time, as with all orthodoxies. Among the questions that one might pose—beyond the issue of creativity which is our key concern— is how genuine student-centredness can flourish when the preconditions of student-centredness are so compromised, when all the learning activities are so tightly drawn into conformity with prescribed learning outcomes, closely chased by assessment, that student initiative would struggle for a toehold? Although the point of constructive alignment is to provide space for the student to construct his or her learning, one wonders what, in practice, is left for the student to determine, if everything has been stipulated in advance in the expression of learning activities that must align so seamlessly with learning outcomes and the spectre of assessment to seal the pressure? In a later text, Biggs himself used an ingenuous vocabulary to express the new powerlessness of the student:

The ‘alignment’ aspect refers to what the teacher does, which is to set up a learning environment that supports the learning activities appropriate to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The key is that the components in the teaching system, especially the teaching methods used and the assessment tasks, are aligned with the learning activities assumed in the intended outcomes. The learner is in a sense ‘trapped’, and finds it difficult to escape without learning what he or she is intended to learn.4

In this text—and despite the inverted commas—there is no apparent sense of irony or a scruple that there might be something intuitively and ethically wrong with trapping students or casting them into some kind of pedagogical gaol. Where, when she or he is trapped, is the student’s latitude in conditioning the learning experience? Given that constructivism seems automatically to confer student-centredness in the construction of learning, there are grounds to fear that in some institutions, student-centredness is at risk of being an empty rhetorical phantom of claims for the cruciality of student choice in general. That definition is weak and disappointing in itself but, for students ‘who find it difficult to escape’ the rigours of prescription, it borders on bad faith.

One might further wonder what the experiential calibre of the encounter will be, when there are so few surprises. As far as the educator can guarantee, the learning is prescribed and controlled, with all activities held down in proximal relations with assessment. For some students, there is no issue, because the interest will be internally generated as an intrinsic fascination with the subject, as when the physics student is already obsessed with physics. But the grand architecture of constructive alignment is not conceived for the already-inspired student but the vast cohort of mass-education of which the already-inspired are a small percentage. The argument is described through the colourful contrast of academic-Susan and non- academic-Robert. Once upon a time, lecturers could depend on having a classful of Susans, while the Roberts would never have gone to university. Now, under the terms of the Bologna process, we have an obligation to bring Robert up to Susan’s standard of performance.5 The method, which most academies have accepted from Biggs, is that a structure of activities and assessment aligned with learning outcomes will honour the necessary student-centred active learning, which will be optimal for Robert and Susan alike.

The appeal is tremendous. Beautiful alignment makes good pedagogical sense as well as economic sense if it results in more Roberts rising to the competency of Susan. Constructive alignment itself does not achieve the magic but it creates the preconditions for active learning where, on the strength of knowing the learning outcomes, students can plot their learning journey— assisted at all stages by learning activities in alignment—and know that the efforts will optimally prepare them for the assessment or even fulfil the assessment. Yet the principle of student-centredness is not so easy to identify, given that there is so little self-determination. It is fine to say that ‘learning is what the student does’, and that everything should serve that process; but alignment (even if you add the convenient term ‘constructive’, which makes it sound very cognitive and Vygotskyan) does not itself achieve any self-determination, even if we say that it allows the student to be at the centre.

Further, the learning outcomes with which everything aligns may encourage mechanistic scoping and diminish certain curious aspects of learning, the string of fresh moments that arise in unexpected encounters. Locking up the whole experience on the basis that the student already perceives the inherent magic of the topic seems more and more out of step with our times, when incentives to follow promiscuous interests abound in profligate sensual layers on the internet and in the media.

We live in a culture where surprises and colour are jealously engineered by all forms of art, from the most cerebral to the most naïve in the entertainment industry. On television, series are created to grip our interest with suspense, not just in natural suspense-genres like crime but documentary genres as well. Rightly or wrongly, our culture finds the predictable boring. The idea that our learning can so extensively be prefigured—insulated from diversions, digressions and distractions—suggests a silent uncreative bubble, insulated from the noise of the world by an artificial academic membrane that shuts out the prolific stimulation that surrounds us. We are welcome inside this fragile sphere of denial but on condition that our intellectual autonomy is put on hold. Alas, if my free sense of inquiry is not indulged to some extent, I am unlikely to be happy, regardless of how perfect the bubble. The predictability is somehow stifling, offending the primacy of my interest and investigative self-determination

When the syllabus, delivery, activities and assessment are all aligned with the learning outcomes, our core question has been: what happens to imagination? In that circumstance where learning is so carefully delimited and remote from fancy, imagination becomes a difficult faculty for the student to exercise, much less cultivate, given that so much of the learning is prescribed and the assessment looms in its strict accord with the learning outcomes. There is perhaps an underlying assumption that students are not in a position to use their imagination when they do not yet have the basics of a discipline and need first to apply themselves to acquiring knowledge and skills. If so, I think we could argue that there is no point at which a human can ever be imaginative, given that we all have so much knowledge and skill still to acquire, as was acknowledged in earlier centuries through the phrase, ‘I am still learning’ (ancora imparo).6 To consign students to the unimaginative because they do not yet demonstrate mastery is to condemn them to an apprenticeship for automatons.

Learning outcomes and constructive alignment have the unintended consequence of privileging assessment in the student’s mind, where it spooks the syllabus, haunting all activities, forestalling curiosity and delimiting the more open-ended journey that learning remains. Students know the template: they are judged according to how well they have met the learning outcomes and, as a result, our educational programs predicate the learning experience on assessment. Through constructive alignment we have made the whole educational experience an accessory to assessment. Alas, assessment is a blunt instrument. It can never subtend the huge potential that students can extract from a course of study, with imaginative detours and burgeoning powers of extrapolation. Under constructive alignment, education is led by the dull, not by the sharp: we have chosen the least promising, the least agile, the least visionary and the least inventive dimension of education to dominate the learning experience. The effect on creativity is withering because learning outcomes encourage mechanistic scoping and strategy rather than curiosity.

We could, however, defend constructive alignment on the basis that while the learning outcomes are prescriptive, they only end up determining the most general aspirational level and leave a great deal of scope and colour for both the teachers and the students to fill in. As a percentage of the encounter, the constructively aligned element might only represent a small proportion, allowing for much creative richness in the way that the outcomes are interpreted. But if we argue that so much in the syllabus is discretionary and accommodates plenty of interpretation and tolerance, it sounds as if the learning outcomes are only relevant to a small part of the syllabus and therefore have only marginal value. Essentially, this defence amounts to a confession that learning outcomes are partially irrelevant.

Theoretically, one could install imagination in the learning outcomes, and thus allow the all-encompassing architecture of alignment to subtend impulse and fantasy.7 Why not just treat imagination like any other learning outcome: on successful completion of this subject or unit, students should be able to demonstrate imagination? Alas, it sounds somehow stressfully contradictory and, I fear, unimaginative. What, for example, is an unimaginative student to do? It makes no sense to set imagination as a learning outcome because we have no proof that imagination can be learned, even if we agree that it can be encouraged and hence cultivated. Imagination, rightly or wrongly, does not hugely enjoy plans; it is never entirely predictable and may be inclined to mischief. It is that blithe antagonist of accountability which nevertheless accounts for much of the invention in science, art, poetry and music. Imagination facilitates lateral thought, every jump to a special synapsis. But installed as a learning outcome? How? We should of course encourage imagination throughout our educational system at all levels, but the learning taxonomies that we encounter, further sclerosed as learning outcomes, do not easily accommodate it.

It would be educationally foolish to neglect the extraordinary learning processes that occur outside the grid of learning outcomes. When in our lives do we learn most prolifically? The most spectacular learning that we have ever done is as babies, when we learned language. It is hard for us as adults to learn foreign languages, but to learn language from nothing is much more demanding. Acquisition of the other languages that we might fathom in our maturity is all based upon the prior and almost magical learning that we did as babies, from which we are then able to graft foreign syntactical structures, grammar and words. The mastery, in a sense, has already been gained from infantile learning. When we were babies, there were no learning outcomes and no assessment. There were learning activities, as we listened, watched and tried things for ourselves, all on a spontaneous basis. There was certainly no talk of alignment. For babies, the root of all learning is the same as in research for adults: it is largely based on observation, mostly of a chaotic world within which, however, the intellect is free to isolate clever details that form a synapsis. When someone in the traffic says: ‘you prick!’ that does not mean the ‘prick’ that happens when you touch a thorn. To appreciate such nuances and build them successively toward an understanding of language is an immensely sophisticated work of cognition, the like of which we never experience at anything like the same rate in our childhood, teen or adult years.

Though Jean Piaget has identified cognitive stages in language development among children, the language acquisition that he theorized is largely framework-free; and learners learn language irrespective of the self- consciousness of the parents or guardians. One wonders why the educational example of babies or toddlers suffers from the same kind of amnesia that suppresses our own memory as infants. It is as if education implicitly dismisses the infantile paradigm as somehow quaint and romantic. Institutionalized learning is of course highly regulated, fraught with accreditation regimes and continuously chastened by quality control mechanisms; and there is no scope for anarchistic defaults to an infantile paradigm, which involves an inscrutable organic cocktail of osmosis, reward, occasional instruction, encouragement or correction and (above all) powerful imagination on the part of the learner. It is indeed a romantic miracle which systematic learning in any institution would be hard pressed to emulate.

In fairness, our learning institutions are charged to be fully accountable and are therefore possessed of the contrary energy, which is to improve the definition of successive stages and processes that yield learning, however mechanistically they emerge; and once defined as certain steps in a sequence, the process can be managed for optimum operation. Alas the scruples are potentially infinite. As with all regulated systems, the more security that one identifies as desirable, the more one identifies contingent risk; and so more safeguards have to be built around the regulatory framework to ensure the delivery of what seems necessary. The bureaucratization of learning is well-intentioned and undoubtedly often prevents scandals that would otherwise flourish, in the same way that crimes would proliferate without laws and punishment. Education is not minded to devolve itself to the innocence of infant-learning, even though there are teacherless counterparts in work experience and work-integrated learning, and the concept of learning-on-the-job or ‘informal learning’ is well recognized in higher education.

This book is therefore not an anarchistic polemic against contemporary approaches to learning which, it must be acknowledged, are supported by good scholarship. Further, the root of all learning, hyperbole aside, is unknown, because the very act of learning is itself difficult to define or analyse much less scrutinize in its historical beginnings. For all that, we already have an idea, the idea that we optimally learn because we come at new material after having fancied that there is a place for it in our imaginative view of ourselves, that we imaginatively create a place for new things to be learned ahead of learning them or inscrutably alongside learning them or in some way reinforcing the learning after having absorbed it. In our imagination, we narrate a whole relationship between ourselves and the text. Learning is a creative act. The field of learning is thus sufficiently generous to indicate a radical approach, radical in the true sense of the roots (radices) for the several conceptions of learning that we assume by language. Let us begin with the root of learning itself.

*

Even when we know that cultures were enormously keen on learning, we are often no closer to understanding the phenomenon of learning, either for them or for us. For example, the fondness for learning among the ancient Greeks is legendary and can be checked through the iconography of vase-painting which often shows young people learning from somewhat older people. The interest in learning was richly expressed through an impressive vocabulary, with adjectives like fond of learning (φιλειδήμων or φιλίστωρ), verbs like to love learning (φιλολογέω) and nouns like desire for learning (χρηστομάθεια) and love of learning (φιλομάθεια).8 However, these celebratory institutions of study obscure the great latitude of learning that was understood in practice. The main verbal root of learning (μανθάνω) could mean to learn either by study or by practice,9 or by experience.10 One would, for instance learn the Homeric epic by heart.11 But it could also simply mean ‘to acquire a habit of ’, or ‘to be accustomed to’, or ‘perceive, remark, notice’.12 It could mean ‘understand’.13 The expression ‘what’s to learn’ (τί μαθών) or ‘under what persuasion’ meant rather ‘why on earth?’14

Even greater latitude arises in another verb for learning (δάω) which could definitely mean learn but also cause learning, in other words to teach (διδάσκω), which is normally described in the origins of our word didactic or teacherly. In an old Homeric infinitive form, it could mean search out (δεδάασθαι).15 It is also tempting to see an Indo-European link between Greek teaching (διδάσκω) and Latin learning (disco) which could mean learn in the sense of study but also more generally to acquire knowledge, to know, to receive information or recognize. These patterns are worth accounting for, since in some languages there is no distinction between learning and teaching, as in Danish (lære); and in others, they proceed from the same root, as in German (lernen and lehren). There are always further words in all languages for instruct, in the same way that there are terms for discover, study and ascertain. Further, the word that we believe translates as learning often turns out more to designate an unacademic practice. An example is the Italian verb to learn (imparare) with its origins in Latin for acquire or procure (parāre).

In the writing of the sixteenth-century poet Ludovico Ariosto, for example, learning might involve unacademic motifs like gaining consciousness of other people’s costs or expenses.16 Learning might involve understanding the names of the English knights17 or the art of surgery gleaned in India.18 Normally learning is not academic, as when Orlando learns to hurl the torch19 or how one has to give aid.20 The large corpus of stories of the Milanese writer Matteo Bandello is a good reflexion of urbane spoken Italian in the sixteenth century. The suave priest hardly ever uses learning (imparare) of anything academic. He advises ladies to learn not to trick other people if they do not want to be tricked back, with perhaps double vengeance.21 Or after a dance, a man from Ferrara follows a lady to learn where she lives, a motif that arises in the very next story.22 Occasionally the uses of learning (imparare) are academic, like the young man whose mother sends him to Barcelona to learn letters and the good civil customs of a gentleman.23 Young women, it seems, gain great profit from learning to speak modestly, whereas young men receive similar benefits from restraining their unbridled desires.24 With few such constraints, a man sighs in a high demonstrative style that he had learned from the Spanish.25 Meanwhile, people come to Bologna to learn sense.26 Learning is cultured, even when not scholarly. Whenever Bandello himself frequents the house of signora Argentina d’Oria e Fregosa, he never leaves without having learned something.27 Much learning is about manual or sporting skills, such as learning to fence28 but it can be the more culturally challenging learning of practical arts in Rome.29 A man with a Milanese brogue resists learning a more courtly Italian accent.30 In most cases, however, when Bandello wants to talk about academic learning, he uses the word study (studio, studiare), only rarely combined with learning (imparare).31

If learning across languages and time is a slightly weak concept, there is a question of when—or with what artificiality—the concept in English became robust, institutionalized and examinable. Oddly, the history of learning in our language is especially stressful. Dictionaries draw a sharp distinction between learning and teaching, exhorting us not to use the verb ‘learn’ as teach, as in the slang ‘that’ll learn you’. But lexicographers are quick to acknowledge that earlier writers did not observe this ban but freely used ‘learn’ in either sense. An example is Shakespeare: ‘a thousand more mischances than this one / have learn’d me how to brook this patiently.’32 In Shakespeare, the pattern can go both ways in the same breath, as with Caliban’s haunting lines: ‘you taught me language, and my profit on’t / is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you, / for learning me your language!’33 Or, more positively: ‘sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness’.34 Or Juliet: ‘Come, civil night, / thou sober-suited matron, all in black, / and learn me how to lose a winning match’.35

More than in Bandello, from which Shakespeare drew Romeo and Juliet, learning equates with study; but there are still legion instances of learning being unacademic, as in to ‘learn to jest in good time’.36 Sometimes to learn means little more than to hear a report or gain news: ‘let’s go learn the truth of it’,37 or ‘I learn you take things ill which are not so,’38 meaning ‘I have figured out something about you’. In dealing with information, the word ‘learn’ often just means ‘observe’ or ‘ascertain’, as in ‘I will presently go learn their day of marriage.’39 It is often hands-on: ‘Hast thou not learn’d me how / to make perfumes?’ and is seldom moral.40

Certain conclusions can be drawn from these converging patterns. First, though learning can mean teaching, teaching in any given language cannot easily translate as learning. Admittedly, you can use the word reflexively and say: I taught myself Spanish; but this claim is a special case of autodidacticism, where you acquire knowledge and skill as a result of studying without a teacher. Meanwhile the flexible activity is learning: it is capable of reflexiveness, because as well as taking on content you might sometimes help someone else take on content. Second, though we think of teaching as mostly institutional and academic, learning is often informal, ranging from the observational to the acquisition of practice, as in love: its compass has no bounds and its centre no authority.

The roots of the respective English words confirm the more rhapsodic character of learning relative to teaching. Teaching derives from Teutonic roots that mean ‘to show’ (like modern German zeigen or like our own ‘token’) which must be very old, connecting with Greek to show or shine forth (δείκνυμι). Learning, on the other hand, is an enchantment, connecting with lore or myth. You make yourself a repository of lore, that is learning which is simultaneously poetic content, as you fathom the stock that you then take on yourself. It is intrinsically steeped in imaginative narrative structures.

Of both earlier conceptions, the contrast with contemporary thinking is most striking with learning. It makes a poor fit with its new steward, learning outcomes, and prompts an inquiry into the whole concept of an outcome being predicated with the noun ‘learning’. Outcome itself is a new word, a term without roots. Its mediocre etymology is exactly as it looks: to come out or that which comes out. In the same way that the Latin for ‘go out’ (exitus) could also mean ‘result’, early uses of ‘outcome’ meant something quite different: people who migrate to our country are outcomes—that is, foreigners—because they have come out, come out of their place where they implicitly belong and now inhabit the territory where we belong. This somewhat xenophobic conception of outcomes might be compared with arrivals, that is, people who come to your banks or shores (rives, ripas ). The modern sense of the word outcome began in the industrial period but was first used not to describe an expectation but rather a resolution in which there was some doubt. For example, two men might commit their differences to a duel. What is the outcome? One spoke of the outcome of a story, meaning the ending. Outcome in that sense is a situation that has ensued from doubt, the turn that chance takes after uncertainty. It is, in that sense, almost the opposite of what we mean by a learning outcome; because, as things could have gone either way, there seems to be equal validity among contraries.

For the word to have become de rigueur in all fields of bureaucracy, it was necessary that it shed the motif of chance and represent only specified results. Every office wants to see outcomes, especially if they yield profit or lead to public good or public confidence, privilege or prestige. In academia, outcomes are hardly confined to learning and teaching but are equally a part of grants in research, belonging to a sometimes inscrutable string of nouns like aims, objectives and outcomes, all to be stipulated alongside methodology. Today, there is an epidemic of outcomes. In learning and teaching alone, if you isolate the terms in a search as “learning outcomes”, Google comes up with 8,340,000 examples. We will never look at them all. Even when finely predicated with shades of hope, as “intended learning outcomes”, the Google search yields a quarter of a million hits. There are sites that guide us in the use of the correct verbs to use, so that the ILOs, as they are known in educational offices throughout the Anglophone world, will conform to Bloom’s taxonomy, again a logical, well-intentioned and reasonable classification of educational goals.41

Like the Pyramid of Giza, the edifice of learning outcomes is both admirable and impossible to shift without extreme belligerence. The structure could be suspected of being admirable on account of internal consistency more than any intrinsic necessity; and, like the majestic tombs of Egypt, it can be viewed from a certain iconoclastic angle as both anxious and vain, paranoiac and overwrought, authoritarian, lugubrious and fearful both in the sense of inspiring fear in slaves and as a Pharaonic symbol of dark horrors on the other side of a life-threshold. The reason one might value a verb- calculator to determine intended learning outcomes (ILOs) is that the exercise of declaring in advance what learning is to take place is structurally fraught. If in very few words I have to tell you what learning you are to do, I risk either asking too much or too little, either proposing learning that could be done in a flash—if needed at all—or learning that is likely to remain beyond reach at the end of the program. The chances of describing a suitable challenge that is neither too ambitious nor too undemanding are slim. So, perilously navigating a narrow pass between platitudes on the one hand and intimidation on the other, I readily clutch at any safeguards on offer. A table that matches verbs with qualities, carefully ordered by a taxonomy of cognitive domains, provides welcome reassurance and allays my anxiety.

Until recently, educators described their programs by their objectives; but early this century, the term of ‘subject objectives’ was abandoned in favour of learning outcomes. An objective was felt to be too much in the teacher’s domain, describing what the teacher intended to cover as his or her delivery target rather than what the student might take away to some benefit. Learning outcomes—sometimes predicated as student learning outcomes, or more modestly, as noted, ‘intended learning outcomes’—are the competencies that the student can be expected to acquire by doing the program. The appeal is obvious, in that (a) the culture seems more student-centred and (b) the attainment of criterion-referenced standards is implicitly clinched. But one happy element of the old term ‘objective’ could be seen as its intentionality: we try to do something but may not entirely reach it or own it comprehensively; and even after a sterling effort, it remains an objective, such as gaining an understanding of what a dog thinks (which you will never know). So perhaps acknowledging that lovely open-endedness, the term ‘learning outcome’—which has no intentionality of itself—is retrofitted with hope and tolerance by the addition of ‘intended’, hence intended learning outcomes (ILOs). It is perhaps one sign of liberality within the mechanical, as if it is acknowledged that you might have the intention to come out of a program with certain competencies but instead you either emerge with a lot less or with plenty of different ones and possibly better ones. The intended learning outcome might be to gain a perspective of Shakespeare’s morality; in fact, after the semester’s reading and talking, you remain confounded by the bard’s ethics and instead emerge from your studies with a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s metaphoric language. It was not quite the intended outcome but a very good outcome anyway, with great poetic integrity. More likely, however, the predication of ‘intended’ simply softens the otherwise rigid stipulation of an absolute outcome, allowing for degrees of shortfall. You still might not understand the compass of Shakespeare’s morality, as intended, but you at least have some grasp of it and fulfil the intention to some degree.

Mind you, Shakespeare himself had no knowledge of outcomes (as he never used the word), much less learning outcomes. Centuries of scholars who mastered ancient and modern languages, humanist discourses, poetic forms of the most exacting rhythmic structure—all maintained while engaged in a clerical, teaching or diplomatic career—managed to achieve more or less what they wanted from their learning but without a blueprint for what they would learn at each stage. The same must be said of their socially inferior learners in the sensory arts: musicians, sculptors, painters, architects. Their learning was also extensive and lifelong, admittedly sometimes confined to an inspired elite, but the learning itself was evidently ambitious, organic and immersive. The goals in learning were not anatomized as learning outcomes but were superintended by a desire to contribute to culture, around which there was a certain awareness of progress, risk of slipping backward, cycles of advances and degeneracy in which one’s learning and practice might distinguish one’s efforts for posterity.

In our own epoch, when admittedly there is no longer a humanist tradition that unifies the culture of teacher and student, it is still not clear that ‘learning outcomes’ are more student-centred than subject or unit objectives. In speaking of the objectives of a course of study (which now sounds retardataire), there was blissfully no sense of a straight-jacket imposed on students that would be checked upon assessment. Alas, educators backed away from the aspirational term ‘objectives’ because they do not seem to be about what the student does. But paradoxically, teaching objectives gave students more freedom. The teacher said: this is the journey that I want to take you on; but you then go on your own journey and tell me where it takes you. Throughout pre-constructivist education, there were implicitly two journeys: the teacher’s and the student’s. Why do we now insist on collapsing them as one? There is so much more integrity in distinguishing the two, providing relative independence for both. To define the educational program in terms of what the student does or even gains—the outcome—is unnecessarily prescriptive and limits the scope for student autonomy and especially imaginative growth, with a somewhat unpleasant industrial sense of yield, result or product.

Outcome is not an easy word to translate into other languages and the attempt to do so reveals how fragile the idea is. The most usual translation is result, as in German (Ergebnis) or French (résultat). These are yet more cumbersome locutions, which are today overwritten with those very tangible signs of student success: the result or grade. But the assumption with a result or grade is that you have earned it; the result is the result of your effort or knowledge or skill. Your accomplishments are recognized in the result; and the result, through an unprejudiced process, is only a reflexion of your attainment.

But in its origins, the concept was both less moral and less mechanical, more dramatic and full of suspense. In the renaissance, the spectre of fortune presides, as with the uncertain outcome of a battle, whose satisfaction to either side—as noted—lies in the balance. For that reason, the term in the plural (results, Ergebnisse) is still standard vocabulary for scientific experiments, which are conducted on an unprejudiced basis. In science, the results may reveal evidence of a certain chemical reaction, say, or not. You might have an inkling beforehand but the experiment is conducted for proof ’s sake, which is carefully recorded. The experiment is conducted on the basis that you do not know beforehand. Etymologically, too, the German (Ergebnis) is what is given out, what is dispensed as if by fortune, what obtains, implicitly what logic or fate determines. While we identify the word with results in science, in its origins, the concept suggests more the opposite, as still survives in the nineteenth century in Nietzsche when he declares that the influence of science has resulted in a wholesale disavowal of all philosophy (mit dem Ergebniss einer Gesammt-Verstimmung gegen alle Philosophie).42

The Romance term (as in French résultat, with its root in leaping or jumping, saltare) is dramatically the toy of fortune: what springs back or leaps out or jumps back at you. This gestural image of response has a capricious bounce: it springs into a condition that is not necessarily what you might have predicted: agreement or backlash, harmony or discord, profit or loss. Result is not a common word in preindustrial cultures and does not appear much in poetic literature. For example, Shakespeare never uses it, even though there was much metaphoric potential, as you can see from the beautiful lexicography of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which observes that early uses of the word retain the metaphor of bouncing or snapping back, as with the reverberation of a string. When authors call upon the term, it is more often as a verb than a noun; and in the active mood, it describes things that lie in the balance and can jump either way, as when the poet Ariosto asks at the end of a stanza in his epic: what merit results or ‘comes your way’ if everyone insults you like a traitor?43 and in the same position at the end of a stanza, he says: it could have remained a secret among us but now open infamy has resulted for me.44

Often ‘result’ can be translated as cause, as in causing you harm or enmity, according to Alberti,45 or the sober Francesco Guicciardini speaking of the harmful consequences of poor government.46 But positive things can also result. In Castiglione’s Courtier, one of the interlocutors avers that gravity and authority result when archaic language is deployed in writing.47 Everything that a courtier does should result in, and be composed of, virtue.48 Elsewhere, he explains that just as body and soul result in a mighty composite, so male and female result in the robustness of life,49 like the knowledge, grace, beauty, humanity and wit of his patronness, which result in a virtuous chain that constructs and adorns.50 One can find an economic reflexion in the renaissance, where Guicciardini says that it is better to spend on warfare than to spare battle expenses; because poorly supported campaigns in the long run result in (or incur) greater costs beyond comparison.51

Results lie in the balance. Bandello describes the social type of the buffoon, a kind of joker or clown who makes his livelihood by amusing the nobility with somewhat malicious humour: though these practical jokes might give offence to some, they nevertheless result in pleasure for many (la beffa risulta in piacere).52 In his sensual epic of the seventeenth century, Giambattista Marino describes how the beauty of consonance results from the harmonious elements of music,53 which is a little like the conception of the string resulting in sound in early English. And Milton’s line ‘With Trumpets regal sound the great result’,54 uses the word result in the same way that earlier authors used the word ‘report’, like the report of a gun or a gong, literally what is ‘carried back’ to the ears. Like ‘result’, ‘report’ is now almost entirely a bureaucratic conception, even though its origins are demonstratively physical.

The relation that academic results bear to the bouncy physical origins is partly coincidental and partly telling. Academic results or marks might be said to lie in the balance; because you can never predict the results till the grades have been finalized and passed through a board of examiners; and even that degree of rigour does not prevent some cases from being capricious. Above all, the results are collectively the thing that springs back at the student from the institution: the student has made a submission and the marks jump back at him or her as the official reaction. This jumping back at the student by the institution assumes total significance for the student. Good marks are the summum bonum, the most tangible sign that a student has done well. They are sought on competitive terms, because students like to do better than one another; and few enjoy the prospect of low marks even if they perceive that there might be some justice in receiving them and are reconciled to the relatively low academic regard as a fair reflexion of their efforts. High grades are invested with much vanity, because high distinctions are assumed to be created by native talent as well as determination. Students may reject units, subjects or modules on the basis of their results in any attempt; so there is a reciprocal jumping back, this time from the student to the institution. A department which marks meanly will be punished by poor student uptake, unless special prestige and high professional stakes support the severe grading practices. Sometimes, alas, departments are happy with their harsh marking if it discourages the less talented— judging by the marks—from patronizing their field and leaves them with an elite.

Student success is therefore highly overwritten with results. Because most other student priorities pale by comparison, the results spring back at the student experience of learning with a challenging accusation. Students who study for the test are suspected of doing better than those who seek enlightenment, who have a liberal view of education and who accept the invitation to speculate, to grow intellectually and broaden their minds. If you have a mechanistic and strategic view of your study—guided by hunger for good results at the end—you will achieve higher grades. In his famous case of Susan and Robert cited earlier,55 John Biggs defines his two archetypes by their relation to results: Susan has an academic and inquiring mind whereas non-academic Robert is opportunistically in it for the marks. After an alienated beginning, he catches up with Susan by dint of strategy.

The implicit line along which learning outcomes line-up with delivery, learning activities and assessment does not necessarily mean that assessment is privileged. Theoretically, one can maintain alignment with lite assessment, that is, either deliberately undiscriminating assessment (like pass grade only) or assessment which errs greatly to the generous. But in practice discriminatory assessment rules: it determines most aspects of the student learning experience and forms the point of greatest stress in otherwise cordial relations between students and teachers.

Our learning outcomes are met to differing degrees by the cohort, which explains the spread of results. So the learning outcomes present a little bit like a contract, against which the student’s performance matches expectations or not. Even the plural term ‘the results’ sounds philologically strange. In earlier centuries, ‘result’ was mostly a verb and tellingly did not have this fixed presence as a substantive. Among the rare occasions when the noun is used, the term indeed equates with outcome. For instance, in the eighteenth century, Lindoro says in a play by Carlo Goldoni: ‘the meeting is over; either by love or by force, Zelinda will tell me the result’56 or what came out of it. But in other cases, the verb has a great sense of narrative about it, as in different opinions that result in our various minds.57 But now the results, generally pluralized to indicate a number of individuals’ achievement or study fields, are both reified and prosaic, a fetishized cypher of congealed performance. They have lost the connexion with their previous structure of narrative.

If we were to write a new protocol for learning outcomes, we would feel it necessary to muster all previous prescriptions for making them more explicit, more measurable and more certain. It would then seem incumbent upon us to add something to the precision, so that they might be yet more explicit, yet more measurable and yet more certain. But in all probability this elaborate transactional machinery would only add to the anxiety of students and staff. The assessment will still separate students by high or low marks; and the more guidance that is offered, the more opportunities students have to worry if they have memorized the guidance rather than profited by the syllabus. The cues with which we helpfully ply the students resemble telling students the answers before the exam. It sounds fondly benign but it favours the mechanistic exam exponents who strategically memorize the language of the desired answers rather than think independently and learn for themselves.

It is not that the current academic apparatus of alignment is an illogical shibboleth: it undoubtedly has its place. We need to deconstruct alignment rather than abolish it. We must see the whole educational vocabulary with fresh eyes and, as the ancient Greeks already began to say, to tell new (καινολογέω). Through the history of language, for example, we were able to note that the term ‘result’ historically reveals the opposite emphasis: an acceptance of chance, the unpredictable event that emerges from the balance of possibilities, brought into unforeseeable dialectical relationships with one another and fortune. Those ancient resonances are more congruent with the deeper meanings of student success and genuine and inventive student-centredness. If we put these insights together with our idea of the root of all learning, a pattern emerges. We can take our cue from learning itself, the origins of which are a story that lends itself to poetic enchantment (lore), inviting an imaginative reception by symbols and metaphor and thus proffering numerous moments of identification with the audience. For each listener, the story unfolds with a parallel trajectory of self-images, fantasies, places in the rhythmical narrative where we seem to belong. We learn in the sense of find out about; but the attention is not linear but rather full of imaginary analogies where we see the material symbolizing aspects of ourselves. The best kind of teaching narrates creatively what is marvellously to be learned; it does not commence with a measure and anxiously calibrate itself at each stage according to a contract. Instead, the story that ends in a further event, what one used to see as the outcome or result, is more like a ritualized point of arrival than a stressful contractual proof that stipulated promises have been fulfilled. Learning as a set of tales, each with an ending that begins a new story, one that you want to hear and love to live with because it seems to have you in it: that ontological dimension, that you come to love the subject, is the supreme learning outcome which trumps all others. At this stage, however, this post-constructivist ideal would be seen as a utopian song in defiance of a pragmatic industry.


1 ‘Motivation and cognitive load in the flipped classroom: definition, rationale and a call for research’, Higher Education Research & Development, vol. 34, 2015, Issue 1, p. 1.

2 This method is a work in progress and has been explained in similar terms in my article ‘The courtyard inside and out: a brief history of an architectural ambiguity’, Enquiry, The ARCC Journal, vol. 11, issue 1, 2014, pp. 8–17 (www.arcc-journal.org/index.php/arccjournal/article/view/206).

3 John Biggs, ‘Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment’, Higher Education, vol. 32, 1996, pp. 347–364; J Biggs, Aligning Teaching and Assessment to Curriculum Objectives, Imaginative Curriculum Project, LTSN Generic Centre, 2003, and John Biggs, and Catherine Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University, McGraw-Hill and Open University Press, Maidenhead, 2011.

4 John Biggs, ‘Aligning teaching for constructing learning’, The higher education academy, 2003 (www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/id477_aligning_teaching_for_constructing_learning.pdf). Biggs is also not without his critics on other grounds, e.g. Loretta M Jervis and Les Jervis, ‘What is the Constructivism in Constructive Alignment?’, BEE-j, vol. 6, November 2005 (www.bioscience.heacademy/journal/vol6/beej-6-5.pdf).

5 Biggs and Tang, Teaching for quality learning at university, , pp. 5 ff. (chapters 1 and 2).

6 In fact the motto of Monash University, often attributed to the artist Michelangelo, though it neither appears in Giorgio Vasari’s nor Ascanio Condivi’s Vita di Michelagnolo Buonarroti. In all events, the sentiment is ancient, as in Seneca: ‘You should keep learning … even to the end of your life (tamdiu discendum est … quamdiu vivas)’, Letter to Lucilius 76.3.

7 L. Young. ‘Imagine creating rubrics that develop creativity’, English Journal, vol. 99, issue 2, 2009, pp. 74–79.

8 Examples taken from LSJ, i.e. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1940.

9 Aristotle, Nicomachean ethics 1103a32—which famously defines active learning avant la lettre: ‘For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them (ποιοῦντες μανθάνομεν)’—cf. Metaphysics1049b31, 980b24.

10 Aeschylus, Agamemnon 251.

11 Xenophon, Symposium 3.5.

12 Herodotus 7.208; Xenophon, History of Greece 2.1.1.

13 Plato, Euthydemus 277e, “ὡς μάθω σαφέστερον” Aeschylus, Libation bearers 767.

14 Aristophanes, Acharnians 826, cf. Clouds 402, 1506, Lysistrata 599, Plutus 908.

15 Odyssey 16.316. Again, words s.v. in LSJ.

16 ‘Bene è felice quel, donne mie care, / ch’essere accorto all’altrui spese impare’, Orlando furioso 10.6.7–8; cf. ‘ch’a spese lor quasi imparar che costi / voler altri salvar con suo periglio’, Orlando furioso 27.67.3–4.

17 ‘e dei signor britanni i nomi impara’, Orlando furioso 10.90.4.

18 ‘E rivocando alla memoria l’arte / ch’in India imparò già di chirugia’, Orlando furioso 19.21.1–2.

19 ‘Potea imparar ch’era a gittare il brando, / e poi voler senz’arme essere audace’, Orlando furioso 24.11.3–4.

20 ‘Per imparar come soccorrer déi’, Orlando furioso 34.56.1.

21 ‘imparate a non beffar altrui’, Novelle 1.3.

22 Novelle 1.8, 1.9.

23 Novelle 1.27; cf. ‘Avevagli Ambrogio fatto imparar lettere e sonare e cantare e tanto bene accostumare quanto l’etá loro comportava’, Novelle 2.36.

24 Novelle 1.43; cf. ‘imparino a por il freno a l’appetitose voglie e piú temperatamente amino, imparando a l’altrui spese di quanto danno il non regolato affetto sia cagione’, Novelle 2.5 (letter to signor Paolo Antonio Soderino); or ‘per ammonir i giovini che imparino moderatamente a governarsi e non correr a furia, la scrissi’, Novelle 2.7 (letter to messer Girolamo Fracastoro).

25 Novelle 1.54.

26 Novelle 2.1 (letter to la signora Ippolita Torella e Castigliona); cf. the motif of learning sense: ‘Credetelo, che averebbero imparato senno a le spese loro e cosí di leggero non veniva lor fatto di far dispregnar Calandrino e fargli l’altre beffe’, Novelle 2.10.

27 Novelle 2.26.

28 Novelle 2.27.

29 Novelle 2.50 (letter to Gian Michele Bandello).

30 ‘imparerebbe quell’idioma’, 2.31.

31 as in a letter to signor Enea Pio da Carpi, Novelle 2.56.

32 Two gentlemen of Verona 5.3.

33 Tempest 1.2; cf. ‘Unless you could teach me to forget a banished father, you must not learn me how to remember any extraordinary pleasure.’

34 Much ado 4.1; cf. Or ‘my life and education both do learn me / how to respect you’, Othello 1.3.

35 Romeo and Juliet 3.2; or again reflexively ‘where I have learn’d me to repent the sin / of disobedient opposition’, Romeo and Juliet 4.2.

36 Comedy of errors 2.2.

37 Measure for measure 1.2; cf. ‘I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Arragon comes this night to Messina. Much ado about nothing 1.1; ‘So that by this intelligence we learn / the Welshmen are dispers’d’, Richard II 3.3.

38 Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.

39 Much ado 2.2.

40 Respectively Cymbeline 1.5; ‘One of your great knowing / should learn, being taught, forbearance’, Cymbeline 2.3.

41 B.S. Bloom, M.D. Engelhart, E.J. Furst, W. H. Hill & D.R. Krathwohl, Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain, David McKay Company, New York, 1956.

42 Jenseits von Gut und Böse 204.

43 ‘oh che merito al fin te ne risulta, / se, come a traditore, ognun t’insulta!’, Orlando furioso 21.30.7–8.

44 ‘Saria stato tra noi la cosa occulta; / ma di qui aperta infamia mi risulta’, Orlando furioso 21.44.7–8.

45 ‘te ne risulta o danno o nimistà’, Alberti, Della famiglia 2, ‘a te non risulti danno troppo grande’, Della famiglia 3.

46 ‘Se el danno che risulta delle cose male governate si scorgessi a cosa per cosa, chi non sa, o si ingegnerebbe di imparare o volontariamente lascerebbe governarsi a chi sapessi più’, Guicciardini, Ricordi 137.

47 ‘e da esse risulta una lingua più grave e piena di maestà che dalle moderne’, Castiglione, Il libro del Cortegiano 1.29.

48 ‘di sorte che ogni suo atto risulti e sia composto di tutte le virtù, come dicono i Stoici esser officio di chi è savio, benché però in ogni operazion sempre una virtù è la principale’, Castiglione, Il libro del Cortegiano 2.7.

49 ‘anzi, se sempre producesse maschio, faria una imperfezione; perché come del corpo e dell’anima risulta un composito più nobile che le sue parti, che è l’omo, così della compagnia di maschio e di femina risulta un composito conservativo della specie umana, senza il quale le parti si destruiriano’, Il libro del Cortegiano 3.14.

50 ‘la signora Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchessa nova; ché se mai furono in un corpo solo congiunti sapere, grazia, bellezza, ingegno, manere accorte, umanità ed ogni altro gentil costume, in questa tanto sono uniti, che ne risulta una catena, che ogni suo movimento di tutte queste condizioni insieme compone ed adorna’, Castiglione, Cortegiano 4.2.

51 ‘chi manca per risparmiare danari allunga le imprese tanto più, che ne risulta sanza comparazione maggiore spesa’, Francesco Guicciardini, Ricordi 149.

52 ‘Molte fiate ho io, Silvio mio vertuosissimo, tra me pensato la varietá de la natura, che tutto il dí si vede tra questa sorte d’uomini che noi volgarmente appellamo buffoni e giocolatori, veggendo i modi loro l’uno da l’altro diversissimi, essendo perciò il fine loro per lo piú di guadagnare senza troppa fatica il vivere ed essere ben vestiti, aver adito in camera e a la tavola de li signori da ogni tempo, e scherzar con loro liberamente, e insomma dare gioia e festa a ciascuno. Si vede chiaramente che cercano tutti dilettare, se bene talora offendeno chi si sia, facendoli alcuna beffa, che nondimeno la beffa risulta in piacere a chi la vede o la sente recitare’, (letter to Paolo Silvio) Novelle 4.26.

53 Adone 16.148.

54 Paradise lost 2.515.

55 John Biggs, ‘What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning’, Higher Education Research & Development, vol. 18, no. 1, 1999, based on a distinction between deep and shallow learning in F Marton & R Säljö, ‘On qualitative differences in learning. 1—Outcome and process’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 46, 1976, pp. 4–11.

56 ‘me ne dirà il risultato’, Carlo Goldoni, La gelosia di Lindoro 1.4.

57 ‘Il diverso parer che nelle varie / Nostre menti risulta, / Pensar mi fa che utile più saria / Introdurre fra noi la monarchia’, Carlo Goldoni, Il mondo alla roversa 2.1.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson