John Seddon is a UK based systems thinker working primarily in the public sector. One of his core arguments is that when targets are imposed (a command and control managerial approach) on a system , it results in de facto purposes being created which, in turn, constrains the methods being used to undertake the work at hand (Seddon 2008, 82) – this is critique of Michael Barber’s Deliverology. I think that there is a lot in this simple analysis for educators when trying to innovate teaching in educational institutions.
One example of this in a higher education context is the use of learning outcomes for management and to make uniform the way in which curriculum are described, offering the prospect of a common student experience and a way of standardising evaluative judgements about achievement. This has lead to a way of authoring course/module specifications that severely restrict what and how students are assessed. Successfully meeting learning outcomes (coupled with assessment criteria) has become the de facto purpose of the educational system. As a consequence, educational methods (teaching practices) are severely constrained so that the purpose is met; learners and teachers work tirelessly towards successfully completing the assessments for a course.
Working this way severely distorts the students education in a direction imposed from the outside by what are often poorly constructed requirements in the first place. Little attention is payed to the needs of the students and there is limited scope for teachers to innovate in their practice as the risks are too high of students failing to meet the targets.
It doesn’t have to be like this. I would argue for putting the target setting back in the hands of the teachers and learners to identify their local needs (their purpose) and set their own targets thereby enabling teaching methods to be liberated. This doesn’t have to be a free-for-all approach, but a redressing of the balance back towards the professionalism of the teacher and sharing responsibility for learning with the student will I think improve the outcomes. In practical terms, there is a place for well crafted learning outcomes that focus on the capabilities we are seeking to develop in learners but that allow for significant negotiation of how to achieve and demonstrate this.