Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ratcheting Learning Outcomes

I've been reading about the Bologna Club [here], which is not related to social snacking as the title might suggest, but is a European agreement on standards in education. There are several parts to it, but I was intrigued by the piece that is described as a ratchet. Ratcheting in this context means that at each higher level of education in a field, particular accomplishments must be demonstrated. Specifically:

  • The reference points of “knowledge and understanding”
  • The contexts and modes of application of knowledge and understanding;
  • Fluency in the use of increasingly complex data and information;
  • Breadth and depth of topics communicated, along with the range of audiences for that communication; and
  • Degree of autonomy gained for subsequent learning

It's interesting to view these through the lens of what I've come to call the core skills: creative and analytical thinking, effective writing and speaking (see this post for more on creative and analytical thinking). Analytical thinking features prominantly here: knowledge, application, fluency in complex information, breadth of topics. Communication is mentioned once, and I assume it means various forms of communication. The last bullet, autonomy, has something to do with creativity I suppose, but it's very interesting that ratcheting up creativity is not specifically mentioned. I think this is not intentional, but it's unfortunate.

Creativity is where new knowledge is created after all. The bullet items could apply to any technical profession, like plumbing, just fine. I think there's something missing when you consider the research role of many academic disciplines. I'd add another bullet. Something like "Increasing ability to produce new knowledge." This ability probably doesn't grow linearly, but rather as an exponential. If you consider a primary schooler's knowledge of mathematics, there's little ability there to produce novelty (to them, I mean). Really good students will invent zero on their own, and really, really good ones will invent the negatives numbers. Richard Feynman recounts in his autobiography inventing the trigonometric functions. But normally, this ability wouldn't begin to develop for an average undergraduate until their junior or senior year. Those who like that experience may go on to graduate school. Of course, there are exceptions, but the rubrics should be written for the masses primarily.

It's a good exercise to examine a curriculum--including general education--and ask what the expectations are for the production of new knowledge. We spend so much effort trying to inculcate knowledge that we may lose sight of the purpose in doing that. Making this expectation explicit highlights the kinds of classwork that require creativity: creative writing, opinions and analysis with conclusions, or construction of formal systems in the more technical disciplines are examples. Personally, it's been helpful to me to help students by identifying these exercises as such. It eases their frustration somewhat to know that producing knowledge is naturally harder than absorbing it, and much more prone to error.

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