Learning outcomes vs learning opportunities

Learning outcomes vs learning opportunities

“You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink”.

This sums up my discomfort with the terminology “learning outcomes” that underpin much curriculum development. Sure, it is usually preceded by the wordy catch-all “on successful completion of this course students will…”, but there seems to be a hot potato of responsibility for achievement sitting just below the surface. In our arguably justifiable discomfort with the traditional concept of the dominance of didactic delivery we are in danger of foisting responsibility for satisfaction onto the learners for failing to come to the ‘success’ party…where entry is overseen by burly assessment bouncers flexing their evidenced-based pedagogy.

On that note, a chance corridor conversation with a colleague forced me to consider my flippant use of the term ‘pedagogy‘. “That’s teaching children – we’re really more about andragogy – teaching adults”, he observed. Intellectually squinting in the light of his statement, I fled down the internet rabbithole to dispel this fake news. Turns out the best I could do was to decide that we were actually (at least aspirationally) herding towards heutagogy: self-determined learning. Not just self-directed – apparently that is so Education 2.0 (Gernstein, 2013). No – this is where the curriculum can change according to what the students decide they want to learn – quelle horreur for control freaks or indeed anyone planning a course and hoping for a quiet life. Terry Heik discusses the differences here and includes an oft-cited table from a blog by Jackie Gerstein (that now only exists in the web archives) that compares the three ‘gogies.

Heutagogy is particularly evident and nurtured in communities of practice, where people engage in collective learning united by their shared interest, joint activities and practice. In the words of Gauthier (2016):
“The main purpose of cultivating a class community of practice is to bring about the class community’s own internal direction, character and energy. To try to predetermine too many learning outcomes or how learning will emerge and evolve would be contradictory to this approach”.
She suggested therefore the purposeful use of the term ‘learning opportunities’ – rather than prescribing what students will learn. I’d much prefer to design a course that proffered learning opportunities instead of confidently asserting ‘learning outcomes’.


Fun fact – I also discovered that heutagogy has NO direct relationship to the term heuristic  learning (“trial by error”) – they just look a bit similar and came into my life at about the same time.

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