Tag Archives: education

Education – the journey and the destination

With a high school student about to enter 12th grade, we are finding colorful mailings from colleges in our mailbox every day. It’s a competitive market for students, and college marketing offices need to make their institutions attractive. 

As I was sifting through the pile, something struck me about how schools are trying to appeal to my rising senior. For over 20 years now, education at all levels has been driven by an accountability ethos. This is intended to ensure schools’ accountability for their quality by defining student learning outcomes (SLOs) and reporting students’ achievement of those outcomes. In an age of rising education costs and the demand for value for money (and for institutions that want to benefit from federal government financial support) this is considered to be good for students. And the definition and assessment of SLOs has become a centerpiece of accreditation standards. 

The funny thing is, I’ve never yet met a student who cares much about student learning outcomes. And if students did care about them, you would think the college marketers would have cottoned on to that fact by now. But look at some of the messages in the mailings we’ve been receiving…

“A college experience built around your definition of success.” 

This doesn’t sound like a college that is pushing its SLOs as a selling point. It is about the student finding meaning in the college experience. 

How about this student quote from another mailer…

“I’ve had professors who truly care about what I am doing and how I’m moving forward in my life.” 

I doubt you will find a requirement for ‘professors who truly care’ in your accreditor’s standards. 

“Best college town, extraordinary college experience.” 

Again with the ‘experience.’ Again, not a sales pitch based on outcomes. 

“Your (college name) story starts here.” 

College as a story – something filled with experiences and will create memories and meaning. 

“The question isn’t where you want to go. It’s how to get there” – an explicitly anti-outcome statement. 

And finally, my favorite: 

“You’ll never be bored in Buffalo.” 

Enough said? 

My point is that in the push for accountability and compliance, we can become too focused on outcomes that students may not be very interested in, and not pay attention to the quality of their experience. When we focus only on results, we can forget that what makes an education memorable is the location, the personalities, the interactions, the participation in the process, the experience of undergoing all that. A quality education should be rich in experiences, should encourage personal growth, should open us up to different ways of understanding the world. This is all very difficult to express as a measurable learning outcome. 

Does this matter? I think it does for several reasons. 

  • What does the grade for your course represent? Is it only the final result, the achievement of the outcome? Most teachers want to include assignments, projects, class participation and contribution, and quizzes – formative activities on the way to the goal – as part of the final grade. This is because teachers know that an education is not simply about the destination but also about engagement in the process. Students who fail to engage in the class but nonetheless achieve the learning outcome may have ‘succeeded’ in meeting an outcome, but may have failed to gain an education.


  • When can you consider that a class ‘worked?’ An education professor criticized teachers she observed who thought their class had ‘worked,’ because they failed to clearly define and assess an outcome for that class. But perhaps teachers know that ‘working’ can also mean having students engage in a process, in activities that enrich them in ways that are hard to measure – none of which is interesting to an outcomes-only oriented observer.

  • What is important when designing an educational program? Striving to comply with accreditation standards, many schools are focusing heavily on teaching to and assessing outcomes. An equal focus on how to get there – the journey too, not just the destination – should be taken seriously by schools and those who hold them accountable.

  • Is online learning just as good as in-person learning? From a purely outcomes point of view, maybe. Good online learning can of course be rich in experiences. But is it possible for good online learning to be as rich and engaging as good in-person learning? Personally I doubt it. 

And here comes the caveat, of course. I’m not arguing that establishing and assessing outcomes is not important. Clearly if education is going to consume students’ resources – their money, time, and effort – they want to know that they will gain knowledge and skills from it. I am concerned though that – as in many areas of life – the pendulum can swing too far in one direction. I’m arguing that it ought to swing back some way. College marketers, teachers, and students have understood this all along.

“Why can’t we get rid of SLOs?”

Yes, a teacher asked me this recently. While her question seemed mostly an expression of frustration at what she saw as a loss of control over her teaching, it is also a question that educators should consider seriously. After all, education proceeded quite well for thousands of years without SLOs. Socrates never referred to them, nor did Jesus, the Buddha, or any other well-known teacher you could name.

A few years ago I was taking classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, just for intellectual stimulation and to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. I signed up for a few classes taught by a remarkable teacher, Michael Koran, who taught classes in poetry, drama, religion, and other fields. One class in particular was intriguing. It was called “Reading Aloud.”

In Reading Aloud class, a small group of us (all men, it turned out) read short stories aloud and discussed them. That was the class. What is remarkable, in light of today’s fixation on SLOs, is that not only were there no stated outcomes for this class, but that the name of the class itself described the process, and not the product, of the class. What Michael Koran understood was that by engaging in this process with a group of people, something would result, learning of some kind would happen, but that it could not be defined in advance.

I don’t know what the other participants in this weekly class got out of it, but one of my big takeaways as a teacher was the value of reading aloud in the classroom, an activity that had been shunned as ‘unrealistic’ by misguided proponents of the communicative approach to language teaching. Reading a text aloud puts the words out into the public space of the classroom, where they can be discussed and analyzed. After that class, I incorporated reading aloud back into my classroom. I found that it also offers the teacher a chance to hear students speaking in a controlled form and to offer correction or group practice of challenging words or phrases. None of this was expressed as a student learning outcome in Michael Koran’s class.

Today most schools are held to a standard of public accountability that requires them to justify their quality claims through defining, assessing, recording, and publishing student outcomes. Most of this has nothing to do with the teacher’s art, which is about process, atmosphere, experience, and attention to each student as an individual. This gap between what some teachers would rather  focus on and the accountability measures they are being asked to fall in line with underlies the question that started this post.

We cannot get rid of SLOs, and we probably shouldn’t, given that education is expensive and people want to know what they are getting for their money. But it would be nice if we could turn some attention back to the quality of the educational experience and understand that not all outcomes can be planned in advance.

The push and pull of power in intensive English programs

…a review of Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership (2nd Edition) by Gilbert W. Fairholm

Power has a bad reputation in educational environments. In many people’s minds, it is associated with terms like ‘power-hungry’ or ‘greedy for power,’ and yes, I’ve heard it used by faculty to describe what they see as overreaching administrators trying to control their work.

But power, according to Fairholm, is ethically neutral; it is the  motives of the individuals who use it that determine whether its outcomes are positive or negative. And power is intrinsic to any group of people that aims to get things done, so reading a book about organizational power politics can give you insights not only into your own power and how to use and increase it, but also into the power tactics of those around you. In turn, you will gain a deeper understanding of how your organization works, and especially why some people or groups are more powerful than others.

In any group or organizational setting, power is the ability to control scarce resources in order to achieve your aims, even if others oppose you. While you may think of power as coercive (hence its reputation), power is exerted in a number of ways, listed by Fairholm on page 12, ranging from coercive at the top, to consensual at the bottom:

Force
Authority
Manipulation
Threat/Promise
Persuasion
Influence

Those who are higher in the organizational hierarchy are more likely to be able to access the direct forms of power at the top of this list, while those lower down may exercise the indirect power types at the bottom. Yet power is not only about where you are in the hierarchy, and other sources of power include expertise, criticality to the organization, and group solidarity. This means that the exercise of power can be inverted, and power can be exerted upward. Fairholm describes “the power exercised by… lower-level workers who dominate their superiors through their control over resources (e.g., skill) the leader needs” (p. 55).

In many educational settings, especially in universities, there is a tension between faculty and administrators over the use of power. While it may be inappropriate to talk about who is higher and lower in the hierarchy, this struggle often manifests as one between authority legitimized by formal position among administrators, and the threat exercised by faculty who know that their expertise and skills are critical to the institution. Faculty in many university intensive English programs are challenged by the administrative invocation of the authority of non-negotiable accreditation standards. Fairholm sums this situation up concisely: “Promulgation of standard operating procedures, requiring prior (or post) approval of subordinate decision or actions and an over-adherence to organizational traditions, exemplify this tactic” (p. 125). Note that in the case of IEPs, it is often ‘organizational traditions’ that are promoted by the faculty in opposition to the ‘standard operating procedures’ imposed by the administration.  Note also that teachers in proprietary IEPs have long been subject to organizational standard operating procedures, and are unlikely to be able to draw on institutional tradition as a counter-weight. This is one reason why proprietary IEP teachers have relatively less power in their organizations than their university counterparts.

If you want to understand the workings of power in your organization, and gain insight into your current power and how to increase it, Fairholm’s book – with its sharp analysis, questionnaires, and lists of strategies – is a good place to begin.

Fairholm, G.W., Organizational Power Politics: Tactics in Organizational Leadership, 2nd Ed., Praeger 2009