Women in IT: Where are the disconnects?

cs-womenPicture credit: Harvey Mudd College

While the emerging knowledge- and service industries of the 21st-century is a continuing discussion topic of public discourse, the minuscule percentage of women embarking on careers in IT is deeply troubling. The IT industry struggles to find enough applicants to fill open positions as women are losing out on a personal and societal level by not embarking on beneficial career paths, effectively excluding themselves from Economy 4.0.

Problem Definition

Across Western cultures, very few women choose careers in IT. According to a recent study conducted by COMPTIA (2017), girl’s consideration of IT jobs wanes with age. While in Middle School 27% of girls still consider a career in IT, this number dwindles to a meagre 18% in High School. Only 7% of girls consider a career as a programmer (versus 25% of boys) and only 3% imagine a career as a software developer (versus 23% of boys). In Germany, only 17,4% of new job applications in IT are women according to a recent study ‘Recruiting Trends 2017’. Among the top 1000 IT companies in Germany, this number comes down to 13,2% of female applicants, constituting IT as a highly male-dominated industry.

The cited reasons for the low uptake are manifold. Early childhood socialisation favours boys to be associated with technology as compared to girls. As a result of this stereotypical expectation which is supported by many parents, boys are more encouraged to explore technology and science as compared to girls. Many women also feel uncomfortable to work as a minority in an already male-dominated field. In the social sphere, there are too few female role models available to guide and mentor younger girls. Many schools offer only rudimentary IT classes that do not inform and prepare students adequately for a future career. At the workplace, reports of unequal pay, unequal career development options and widespread gender bias within IT companies keep many women from joining. On top, very little useful information appears to be provided to young women about the diversity of careers in IT in general. We cannot dream about things that we don’t know about.

Although the general ‘acupuncture points‘ to why women do not take up jobs in IT have been identified in numerous international surveys, obstacles have not yet been specified by more thorough empirical research including validated models. What specifically keeps girls and women from embarking on careers in IT? How do factors interact? Can we draw inferences across cultural contexts? To dig deeper and go beyond generalised gender statements, we need to take a look at some of the leading theoretical frameworks in educational sociology and psychology.

Approaches in Educational Sociology

Raymond Boudon’s approach follows, as an external methodology, a rational choice approach based on an individual and situated cost-benefit calculus. In our case, young girls and their parents evaluate the costs, payoffs and likeliness of succeeding in careers in IT. The question is if and how young women from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds make different educational decisions after finishing school or college as compared to women from academic- and well-off families. The data gained from studies on the more fragile joints of education systems can inform interventions and communication strategies based on the attitudes and ways of life within a specific social milieu or class. Rational choice theories such as Boudon’s are good at examining the joints of educational trajectories such as transitions from secondary to tertiary and from tertiary to university- or polytechnic education.

Pierre Bourdieu’s Cultural Deprivation Theory, by comparison, looks at the ‘habitus‘, internalised patterns of socialisation, dispositions, daily routines and the in situ constitution of life-planning. His complementary concept of ‘doxa’ refers to the attempt of social members to bring subjective cognitive convictions into congruence with given (objective) social settings. In psychology, Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Festinger, 1957) deals with similar conflicts of cognitive non-congruence and scenarios where issues such as forced compliance behaviour, decision-making and effort play a central role. In our case, we are interested to find out how habitus and doxa affect the motivation of young women to engage in IT.

Psychological Approaches

Regarding observational learning and learning from social role models, Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory can inform our problem. What are the characteristics of role models in IT that inform and motivate young women? Which are the key predictors provided by role models for a behavioural engagement in IT?

As a motivational theory, Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2012) offers a useful framework to identify the levels of personal autonomy, competencies and social relations in IT careers. As a motivational theory, SDT differentiates between extrinsic motivation (which is e.g., reward dependent) and intrinsic motivation which is self-sustaining. Analogously to Bourdieu’s notion of internalised life practice, it would be illuminating to examine to which extent life-planning, given a specific socioeconomic background, is constructed by more intrinsic or extrinsic types of motivation. There is an interesting conflict here: given that IT careers are based on the prerequisite of lifelong learning skills, an entirely extrinsic motivation orientation (e.g., a focus on above-average salaries and material benefits) that may prompt some women into taking up IT careers might not be the same motivation that is needed to sustain long-term growth within the field.

As in rational choice theories in sociology, we find similar approaches in psychology. Well-supported rational choice theories such as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991) examine attitudes towards planned behaviour, normative beliefs and perceived behavioural control analogous to Boudon’s framework. The theory’s assumption is that actors make rational, individual decisions in favour of personal benefit and estimate their chances at achieving payoffs.

Badura’s Social Cognitive Theory (Bandura, 2002) focusses, by contrast, on the social context at hand and it researches the interplay between social modelling (such as by role-models and tutors), individual outcome expectations and the development of Self-Efficacy. The relevance of the latter for women’s interest in IT has been confirmed by previous studies. Social Cognitive Theory and Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) may also explain how the discrimination of women in IT, as illustrated by a recent example of open gender discrimination at Google, (a ten-page manifesto, by a software engineer, circulated internally and ranting against women’s capability in IT) discourages women to take up technology jobs. Why should women work in an environment psychologically hostile to them, objectively pays women less than men and progresses men faster than women in their careers, as claimed by many Google employees? Social Identity Theory can explain stereotype formation by the subsequent processes of social categorization (such as gender-based categorization), social identification (such as traits identified as distinctively male or female) and social comparison (such as concluding males more capable than women).

Strong Empirical Support

There appears to be solid empirical support for Cultural Deprivation Theory as well as the cited psychological theories, especially SDT and Social Cognitive Theory. Boys have earlier profound computer experiences, such as e.g., through computer games (Oosterwegel, Littleton, & Light, 2004) and display a more autonomous acquisition of technology as compared to girls. Fathers are reported to be stronger roles models for both male and female students (Turner et al., 2002). Girls tend to rate their computer skills generally far lower than boys (Young, 2000; McCoy & Heafner, 2004). Girls attend fewer computer classes and display lower self-confidence in the use of computers (Beyer et al., 2002; Durndell & Haag, 2002; Lee, 2003). Regarding the cultural value underlying IT, women in Applied IT “rated helping others as an important reason for choosing an IT major more often than did any other group.” (Organ et al., 2005, pg.20), suggesting a different set of underlying motivations for engaging in IT as compared to boys. Most of the recent studies such as COMPTIA (2017) and ‘Recruiting Trends 2017’ confirm findings of these earlier studies.

Graphic: Top Barriers identified by ISACA Study (2016). Workplace disadvantages have a significant negative correlation to IT enrollment by women. 

Defining the Acupuncture Points for Potential Studies

From a psychological perspective, there are at least three areas of interest that we could preliminarily define as a 3-factor model, following Bandura’s Triadic reciprocal causation model, consisting of the independent variables of  (a) social predictors, (b) workplace predictors and (c) intrapersonal predictors on the dependent variable of women to enroll in IT careers. As we know from the studies cited above, all of these factors influence women’s motivation to enrol in IT jobs. Under factor (a) items of interest are measures such as the availability of female mentors, female role models, early childhood socialisation towards technology and social milieu. Under factor (b) fall items such as gender bias/ gender fairness in the workplace, the perception of equal growth opportunities, equal pay as well as the prospect to work with other women and not only men. Under factor (c) items of interest might be tried-and-tested psychological variables such as the prevalence of traditional gender role beliefs, goal orientation (extrinsic versus intrinsic goal-orientation), control beliefs and attitudes towards IT. A working hypothesis as the basis for an Exploratory and Confirmatory Factor Analysis is sketched out below (Fig.1)

SEM Concept

Figure 1: The supervening working hypothesis for the factors predicting women’s enrollment in IT. We assume that social scaffolding, workplace support and intrapersonal competencies have an equal influence on women enrolling in IT jobs. Factor loadings of items would reveal in greater detail the more significant predictors.

More informative, from a social psychology perspective, would be multi group comparisons, e.g. between male and female students prior to applying for IT jobs (Study Design Option I – Differences between male and female profiles predicting engagement in IT careers) or between undecided female students and young women who have already embarked on a career in IT (Study Design Option II – Differences between female IT professionals and average female student population: Which factors predict enrollment in IT ?) in order to gain deeper insights on the most significant factors that keep women from joining careers in IT.

Another unresolved issue is if and how IT has been influenced by predominantly male concepts and values (Study Design Option III – Relation between IT, male constructs and values: Are IT constructs excluding female values and perspectives?). For example, current enrollment data suggests that women are more attracted to IT jobs that involve the motif of caring such as in biomedical research, environmental- or socioeconomic development. Which cultural values does IT represent and how is it related to gender constructs? Has IT been conceptualized, as suggested by Clegg (2001), as an obsessively masculine construct that lacks appeal to women? Ideological gender constructs of computing technology are no trivial matter. Clegg points out that most action-packed and competitive games have been designed and marketed by men for men. Computing has been widely associated in public discourse and media with military technology, cyber warriors and a competitive display of power – a technological machismo that few women find appealing and are able to identify with. Women, by contrast, have been marginalized in IT as secretaries, low-paid administerial workers or staff in online call-centers. New domains, such as in computerised lifelong learning, however, may offer a more fitting identification for many women.

Lastly, retaining female IT personnel and offering women long-term prospects in IT would be another relevant area of research (Study Design Option IV: How can employers retain female IT staff?). The outcomes of gender-based IT studies are useful for designing more efficient information campaigns, communication strategies, e-platforms, school- and college-initiatives as well as developing institutional policies for employers to motivate young women to join IT-related careers.


As Economy 4.0 embraces collaboration and cooperation, it opens the female notion of caring which appeared as a strong motif in all of the studies. From a caring female perspective, IT can be reformulated as a means to re-establish our connections to nature, to others and our future potentials. It is not so much that women have an issue with IT, but that IT has been widely cultivated and advertised as a predominantly male domain. New developments such as in online learning, computer science or AI development offer new role identification opportunities for young women.

The illustrated working hypothesis suggests that multiple factors predict the involvement of women in IT rather than a single argument. In addition, media images and stereotype clichées of the lonely nerd or socially deprived hacker are not helpful to any gender since IT relies heavily on the ability to work in teams. Instead, it would be more productive to develop cooperative spaces within IT where gender domination does not obscure the love for creating technology that is beneficial to all.



Ajzen, I. (1991). “The theory of planned behavior”. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 50 (2): 179–211.

Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (pp. 94-124). New York, NY: Routledge.

Beyer, S., Chavez, M., and Rynes, K. (2002, May). Gender differences in attitudes
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Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 85-107). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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How Unregulated For-Profits Degrade Higher Education: The Case of Raffles Education Corporation


The picture above: The Raffles Campus in Bangna, Bangkok. Nice to look at, but where are the students? After losing the TEQSA accreditation, the student population dropped from about 340 at the Silom Campus to about 70 after moving to the Bangna Campus.

The Commercial and Academic Failure of Unregulated For-profit Education

The following is a summary of my experiences that I made in over a decade with Raffles Education Corporation. The presented argument states that for-profit providers who turn education into a mere money-making business are unable to educate young people to a satisfactory standard. Education requires knowledge, skills and mindsets that commercial entities are not able to provide. The value proposition of Raffles Education Corporation is derived from its current affiliated partners, such as the University of Northumbria who does provide quality education. In the US, similar enterprises can be found operating on the same business model (such as e.g., Apollo Education, EDMC, DeVry, CEC, Corinthian Colleges Inc., Kaplan or Bridgepoint, to name a few) which is why the following analysis is framed as a systemic case study. Due to their rather rogue modes of operation, unregulated for-profits pose an international problem.

For example, Raffles Bangkok failed to set up proper academic committees as required by the Thai Ministry of Education to advance their final college license. Master programs had been scheduled without a university license while none of the current staff was qualified at a doctoral level. As a result, Coventry University pulled out of cooperation plans with Raffles. Raffles has still not acquired a valid international college license (as per November 2017) – and so the list goes on.

In terms of total student numbers, this is not a large company. Officially, Raffles cites on its website a total of 15,000 students across 25 international campuses, making it on the average 600 students per campus on paper. Knowing how Raffles tends to inflate numbers, I would not be surprised if there are no more than half of those students still studying with the company, perhaps far less. Even if one believes the official count, the entire student population across the Raffles network would be equivalent to an average polytechnic or university but spread out over 23 countries. This is not much by a large margin. Calling itself the ‘prime’ private education provider in SE-Asia gives the wrong impression that this is a large enterprise. Measured in overall market size, Raffles is not a significant market player in Asia’s educational landscape. Laureate Education as another private education provider, by comparison, claims about at least 80,000 students for the Asia Pacific region with a mix of for-profit and non-profit institutions such as Stamford University in Bangkok. On an international level, Laureate has received mixed reviews for putting marketing hype ahead of quality education, similar to Raffles.

Run top-down in an autocratic manner by its CEO, Raffles has never been a progressive and innovative company from its beginnings. Demanding high tuition fees while cutting down on anything that remotely incurs costs to improve the quality of education has led to a continuous deterioration of the stock-listed company which continues generating net losses. Many students and their parents have started to see beyond the blown-up advertising slogans promoted in glossy brochures.

The concluding message is that a neoliberal approach to education has failed as a pedagogical concept as well as an economic model. For now, the following account serves the purpose of learning from the mistakes that Raffles Education Corporation has cultivated over the past two decades. The company’s narrative elucidates the discrepancy between a naïve commercialism of making quick money from students by putting together a rudimentary infrastructure versus the demanding task to provide evidence-based quality education.

The official court verdict of the Federal Court of Australia that decided Raffles losing their accreditation is available here federal-court2015fca0734

The Australian Universities Quality Agency 2009 audit that highlights the systemic issues of Raffles can be downloaded here Report of an Audit of Raffles College of Design and Commerce


How the cookie crumbled

I joined Raffles Education Corporation in 2005 after a productive decade serving at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. The first year I worked as Senior Lecturer in the Visual Communication department at the Raffles Shanghai branch (Dong Hua University/ Raffles-LaSalle) before being promoted to Program Director for Multimedia Design (and later also Visual Communication) at the Silom Road Campus in Bangkok.

Five years later, rumours surfaced that Raffles had not obtained a proper legal license to operate in Thailand, an accusation that proved to be true. In the local newspapers, Raffles was quoted as a rogue education provider offering international programs that it had no adequate permit to deliver. As the threat of foreclosure became imminent in 2010, Raffles committed to building a campus in Bangna to appease the government and to indicate that the company would play by the rules from now on. Raffles has, however, still not obtained an international college license and is flying under the radar.

In June 2015, another scandal hit Raffles. The entire network, via the Raffles College of Design and Commerce in Australia (RDCD), lost its accreditation granted by the Australian government for undergraduate programs for not delivering education of satisfactory standard. More than 1000 students across Asia ended up stranded and were forced to either complete their studies at branches in other countries or to cut losses by discontinuing their education with Raffles. Closures of branches across Asia started to become more frequent. At the time, I was still completing my Masters in Applied Psychology with the University of Liverpool. After I graduated in December 2016, I left Raffles in February 2017 in mutually amicable agreement as I dissented with the company’s business ethics and educational standards, or lack thereof. This is the story of an unregulated and deeply dysfunctional education provider.

This following document is written in gratitude to all of my students who put up with the inadequacies of the company during their studies. Despite the institutional shortcomings we all faced, I deeply value our learning journeys. This summary is also written in appreciation of my ex-colleagues who have been through their share of professional frustrations. In order to gain a more objective perspective, policies and regulations at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore are compared to corresponding frameworks at Raffles, setting the stage for directly comparing unregulated private education with regulated government education.

Joana Stella Kompa, June 2017


Chapter 1

Who teaches the teachers?

Were all instructors to realise that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.

John Dewey, Democracy and Education

A good starting point to assess the quality of an institution of Higher Learning is to probe the qualification of its teachers. How can schools, polytechnics, colleges or universities function without competent staff; not only competent in their field but also competent as educators and mentors of young people?

Temasek set up a dual strategy for teacher training. The first strategy was to offer a general two-year pedagogical certification program for academic staff conducted by SEDA, the Staff and Educational Development Association in the UK. At the end of the two-year program, staff obtained an international ‘Teacher in Higher Education’ accreditation. In essence, academic staff had to compile an evidence-based teaching portfolio ranging from applying pedagogical objectives in classroom settings to creating new programs that align with SEDA’s core values. These values entailed understanding how students learn, demonstrating concern for students’ development, commitment to scholarship, cooperation with colleagues, practising equal opportunities and ongoing reflection on professional practice.

The second pillar at Temasek was the further specialisation in active learning, student-centred pedagogy. In the case of Temasek, Problem-based Learning (PBL) was implemented across all faculties as a student-oriented pedagogy about 15 years ago. My task as Associate Consultant for PBL to Temasek Design School was the training of staff and students while managing the implementation of PBL for Temasek Design School.

At Raffles, by comparison, staff pedagogical training and development is non-existent. There are no qualification programs available of any kind to develop and improve even basic teaching skills. Typically, the staff is recruited from the industry with a Bachelor or Master’s degree which is regarded as sufficient for employment. Raffles leaves the issue of teacher qualification unregulated, most likely since pedagogical training poses a significant cost factor. This neglect does not stay without consequences.

The deregulation of pedagogical standards encourages academic staff to replicate their personal teaching styles which lead to a predominantly instruction-based program delivery based on rote learning. Teachers tend to replicate same learning conditions under which they have learnt themselves. In such settings less capable staff, especially a large number of untrained part-time teachers fails across categories. Many teachers are incapable of basic classroom management. Some teach the wrong subjects or modules, tell students the answers to multiple-choice exam questions in advance, copy materials from the Internet or fill classroom time with nauseating PowerPoint presentations or YouTube videos.  These counterproductive practices are amplified by Raffles demanding four-hour teaching blocks, tempting teachers to fill time with superfluous activities. There is no regular student that I know who could pay attention for a continued four hours. Pedagogically absurd concepts such as the four-hour teaching blocks are however religiously enforced to accumulate, on paper, stipulated subject hours.

Once Raffles’ untrained teachers enter the classroom they occupy their private kingdom. An evidence-based, peer-reviewed process of measuring the progress of students’ learning is not implemented. Teachers are asked pro forma to provide formative feedback to students but then again, no staff has ever been trained on how to structure and conduct efficient formative feedback. How can students possibly improve when all they receive is feedback of a teacher’s personal commentary? On a corporate scale, why would a franchise network consisting of 26 colleges with fluctuating staff turnover be interested investing in long-term pedagogical staff development?

Another example for teacher-centeredness is regularly conducted teacher course evaluations (so-called ‘TEVALs’) which are handed to students each term to assess the performance of their lecturers. Out of 20 questions to students, 12 relate directly and exclusively to lecturer evaluation. Only six questions relate to assessing the subject and not a single question refers to the different roles of students as learners.

In theory, as in practice, Raffles is a teacher-centred institution. It cares very little about students’ development, be it on an individual or social level. Pedagogy is treated as an unnecessary cost factor while teachers blindly assume that their natural gift for teaching is sufficient to prepare students for the knowledge- and service society of the 21st century. The real problem is that it is irrelevant what a teacher teaches, but it is critical what a student has learnt. But how can teachers track students’ ongoing progress in the absence of structured and mandatory assessment procedures?

Chapter 2

The Raffles Curriculum: Jack-Of-All-Trades, Master of None

‘Franchised Arrangements: Where an offshore entity delivers a regulated course on behalf of a provider under license. (…) This model is likely to be higher risk as the provider does not contribute to the delivery of the course and has less control over the quality.’

Australian Government/ TEQSA Report on RCDC, October 2014

Besides a qualified staff, curricula are of the essence. The quality of offered programs is the very backbone of any institution of Higher Learning.

Curricula at Temasek were, as in most progressive government institutions, subject to critical review and improvement based on the feedback from students, academic staff, senior lecturers, program directors and PBL consultants. It is only by a comprehensive cooperative review that curricula can be successfully updated and improved. Changes affect particularly learning outcomes. New developments in technology and socio-economic contexts require a continuous updating of subject outcomes in order to remain valid and relevant. Secondly, curricula should not only offer solid foundation studies but beyond basics they should allow students to achieve mastery, achieving a professional standard in their field.

The origins of the Raffles Advanced Diploma curricula go back to the 1990s when Raffles started business operations in partnership with the Canadian LaSalle College of the Arts and Design. Some parts of the curricula were designed ad hoc by available academic staff and their peers. Since then, Raffles University System (RUS) is the sole guardian of the curricula as it centrally disseminates the programs to all of Raffles’ branches as a franchise. Unlike Temasek, no feedback or data is gathered from students, staff or Program Directors to improve the 25-year-old curricula. Instead, a small expert group at RUS takes care of updating the programs. Such contained routine has multiple ramifications.

On a subject level, even the most prolific experts cannot be specialists at everything leaving the content of many subjects outdated and obsolete. For example, Raffles multimedia students still learn Adobe Flash although Flash stopped being used on the web for many years due to its massive vulnerabilities. New critical skills such as developing mobile applications have never entered the Raffles curriculum. More demanding skills such as advanced scripting and coding have never become part of multimedia programs, arguably because students with lesser aptitude would be overwhelmed. The culture of compiling ‘softball subjects’ affects lecturers as well. For motivated lecturers, the teaching of Raffles’ curricula can turn into a rather dull affair since they are not allowed to make sensible improvements that would change standardised learning outcomes, assessment, and assessment criteria. Instead, all that is required by lecturers is to deliver uniform packages, a practice that can be demotivating for staff whose professional qualifications supersede those of the curricula-guardians at RUS. No data and information are collected to find out how stipulated learning outcomes fare in the current context of industry and academia. The underlying blind assumption is that the recommendations of the RUS expert group are reliable, scalable and suffice as a benchmark.

Outdated content is not the only problem. The delivery of standard packages within the franchise system renders a lecturer’s qualification largely irrelevant: A young and inexperienced lecturer with barely a Bachelor under her arm qualifies equally well to teach diploma subjects as compared to a senior and highly experienced professional on a graduate level. From the perspective of delivering standardised syllabi, high staff qualification is of secondary interest. The less specialised the syllabus, the easier employees can be substituted.

In order to understand the reasons behind the limited specialisation of study paths on program level one has to keep in mind that Raffles is a commercial entity. The profit formula of the company dictates that a maximum number of students are taught by a minimum number of lecturers resulting in a limited number of subjects on offer. This also results in lecturers teaching 6-7 subjects (courses) per term, so between 24-28 teaching hours. The upper limit in most regular, non-research based universities is about four courses.

The multimedia curriculum at Raffles, for example, contains mixed sets for video production (3 subjects), animation (2 subjects), web-technologies (3 subjects) and interactive media (3 subjects) offering basic introductions to various aspects of multimedia, but not advancing into any area in depth. Let’s assume a student intends to study filmmaking. At Raffles, this student would cover the subjects ‘Storyboarding’, ‘Video and Audio Editing’ as well as ‘Experimental Video’, which are three subjects in total.  A student on diploma level at Temasek, by comparison, finishes 21 core subjects in video production (plus 9 electives). A student of ‘3D Interactive Media’ at Temasek enjoys 23 specialised core subjects (plus 5 electives) while a student at Raffles covers in the same field a mere six subjects relating to 3D animation and interactive environments.

The lack of specialising subjects is easily explained. Although Raffles operates a wide network of campuses across Asia, student numbers for each campus are typically small which renders the employment of large numbers of staff uneconomic. This is also one of the reasons why highly specialised for-profit education providers such as, e.g., Full Sail University in the U.S. rely on a centralised campus with a large student population. Only with a larger pool of academic staff, it is possible to offer a wider array of specialised subjects. The paucity of subject specialisation at Raffles, particularly in the second year of studies, stands in stark contrast to its marketing promise of achieving career excellence.

Where in public institutions of Higher Learning well-staffed faculties create vivid communities of scholar-practitioners, lecturers at Raffles carve out an uninspiring solitary existence. Alone or with very few colleagues there is little incentive for them to create new exciting programs since syllabi are cast in stone. To this extent, the Raffles franchise model kills innovation in education.

The tale of an unsustainable business model

Company development on the stock market: After the crash of the global stock market in 2008, net profits declined correspondingly with a diminishing student population across the Raffles network. Most money was made during the short and rapid expansion based on the opening of new branches between 2006-2008.

Detailed view: Continuing losses after 2011

Chapter 3

The Achilles Heel of Government Licensing

‘(21) In the event that TEQSA made a recommendation under section 9AA for RCDC’s registration to be renewed, the Secretary would need to have no reason to believe that RCDC (…) does not have the clearly demonstrated capacity to provide education of a satisfactory standard; or (…) is unlikely to be able to provide education of a satisfactory standard.’

‘(32) It is implicit in that observation that I reject the submission that the defaults identified by TEQSA were only record-keeping matters. In my opinion that understates the significance of many of them, particularly the ones concerned with the ability of the students to speak English at an adequate level.’

From Court Verdict Raffles College Pty Ltd v Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency [2015] FCA 734 of 20th July 2015

Taking it Easy with Licensing and Working Around It

The Achilles heel for all private education providers is official accreditation and licensing. In December 2016, Raffles obtained government approval to set up a Private Higher Education Institution, pending government conditions, after operating without a valid permit since 2003 when the company started as ‘Raffles Design Institute’ on Silom Road. Apparently, Raffles was only licensed as a tutorial centre. It had neither obtained a vocational nor a college license to legally operate in Thailand. Raffles Design Institute was licensed to provide one-year short courses while the official RUS Advanced Diploma program was set out as a two-year program. Raffles’ solution to enrol students was simple: student visas for foreign students would be renewed annually. On paper, a student would e.g., study Graphic Design in the first year and Interior Design in the second etc., a convenient workaround to official regulations to run the full RUS diploma program.

Providing Misleading Information to the Press: Smokescreen Tactics

In 2010, the Ministry of Education found out about Raffles flying under the radar of the law and threatened to close down operations. A deal was struck and Raffles committed to building a proper campus in Bangna on the outskirts of Bangkok as a prerequisite to qualifying as a Higher Education Provider. Forbes magazine mentioned the pending shutdown in one of his articles but the CEO of Raffles, Mr Chew Hua Seng, demanded from Forbes magazine to publish a correction. In his letter to Forbes on 2nd of August 2010, Mr. Chew Hua Seng claimed that “Raffles Education Corp is working closely with Thailand’s Higher Education Commission to comply with its requirement for RBK to acquire a university permit in addition to the vocational education license it had obtained in 2003 when it started operations in Bangkok.” Factually, Raffles had never obtained a vocational license. It was only in April 2016, six years later, that Raffles attempted to secure a proper vocational license by negotiating with the Ministry of Education – an idea Raffles later abandoned in favour of aiming at a Higher Education license. Needless to say, Raffles never acquired a university permit either and was at no stage qualified to apply for one.

Smokescreen Tactics in Other Countries: The Example of Raffles Colombo

In December 2016, the Thai Ministry of Education granted Raffles the license to set up a college, pending conforming requirements. Although it seems like good news that Raffles Bangkok appears finally on its way towards becoming a legitimate education provider, similar reports of starting operations under the radar of the law surfaced in other countries. In October 2015, Raffles in Colombo, Sri Lanka was accused in ‘The Sunday Leader’ of June 16, 2013, in the article ‘Raffles Colombo Misleading Students’ of deceiving students by pretending that it had obtained government licensing for its diploma programs when in fact licensing had not substantialized yet. Raffles went ahead advertising its programs while government approval was still pending.

In their rebuttal to the article, Raffles made some misleading statements. It claimed that the company was ‘granted in-principle approval’ from the government which is not identical to obtaining final approval. The original Sunday Leader article, written by Nirmala Kannangara, was attacked by Raffles accusing her of ‘malicious intent (…) calculated to ridicule and injure the reputation of Raffles Education Corporation Ltd.’ Based on the aggressive response, one cannot evade the impression that the author may have hit a nerve.

The rebuttal further stated, “The truth is Raffles is not banned in Thailand and in fact, we are in the process of being upgraded to university college status by the Thai authorities.” It is true that Raffles was never banned in Thailand, but one may add the light fact that it ran 13 years illegally without a valid permit. The fine print in the Raffles rebuttal used the term ‘in the process’, a standard smokescreen description employed by Raffles to buy time, evade factual scrutiny and formulate pre-emptive strikes: How dare you to accuse us when we are in the process of becoming legitimate? The term ‘university college’ used in the rebuttal was misleading as the pending Thai license is de facto only a college license. Besides, in the UK, the title ‘university college’ is protected by law and requires authorization by an act of parliament which is why Raffles should perhaps avoid the term altogether, in particular when cooperating with UK universities. The fact that Raffles started advertising Masters programs from Coventry University without a university license suggests that it blatantly continues to violate the law.

Chapter 4

How the Raffles Franchise Model Affects Students

Any student with a credit card and a wallet can enrol at Raffles.” Former College Director

The Loss of Accreditation affecting all Raffles Branches

The Raffles franchise model affects students on a socio-economic, educational and psychological level. Since Raffles is a for-profit corporation, it reserves its right to open and close branches as the economic situation dictates, with little regard for students and parents.

In its short history, Raffles has closed branches in Chandigarh, Kolkata, Dhaka, Bangalore, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Manila, leaving students stranded or forcing them to relocate and continue their studies at other branches of Raffles. In June 2015, Raffles College of Design and Commerce (RCDC) in Australia lost its accreditation with TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency), an independent statutory authority within the Australian Government, for not complying with requirements of the Higher Education Standards Framework. During legal proceedings, Raffles appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to have its name suppressed, a request that was denied by the court. In its verdict, the Federal Court in Australia attested RCDC that is ‘does not have the clearly demonstrated capacity to provide education of a satisfactory standard’. The Honorary Judge Perram particularly criticised the lack of students’ English language proficiency. Subsequently, more than a 1000 students from campuses at Bangalore, Bangkok, Colombo, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Kula Lumpur, Mumbai, New Delhi, Shanghai, Singapore, and Ulanbataar were affected. Agreements were made to ‘teach out’ TEQSA’s undergraduate programs at selected campuses in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Colombo in order to provide an exit for stranded students who only had few subjects to complete.

For those students who were not able to take this exit, choosing Raffles translated into wasted time and financial resources for students and their parents. Most government agencies in SE-Asia lack legal frameworks for ensuring consumer protection to hold private education providers such as Raffles accountable for disastrous mismanagement. Due to the loss of accreditation, the student population in Bangkok diminished from approximately 340 to about 70 shortly after the college moved to its new campus in Bangna. Subsequently, classes shrank to only a few students per class. Since subject delivery works in four-hour blocks, in a worst-case scenario a single student would be taught by a lecturer for a full four hours. Needless to say, that this is neither an enjoyable experience for the student nor a sensible pedagogical proposition. By replacing the lost accreditation of TEQSA by a new partnership with the University of Northumbria, Raffles hopes to restore its student population.

Educational Consequences

The psychological and pedagogical consequences for students at Raffles are manifold and start with enrollment policies. As a former College Director at Raffles eloquently put it, “Everyone with a wallet and a credit card can enrol at Raffles”. To enrol, prospective students neither face aptitude tests nor qualification interviews or portfolio reviews. Due to limited numbers of new applicants, everybody qualifies. Language standards are likewise lax. On the Raffles Bangkok website (as per 23/4/2017) it was stated that an IELTS level of 5.0 is regarded as sufficient. Band 5 in IELTS officially signifies ‘modest’ language proficiency, meaning that the student can communicate in most situations but may struggle in an academic environment. An IELTS score of 5.0 is therefore in no way adequate when aiming for an undergraduate degree (standard is IELTS 6.0 or 6.5) with an affiliated partner university. Little seems learned from previous failures.

The unregulated intake of students also translates into unbalanced student distributions, resembling an inverted Bell curve. Highly qualified students share the same classroom with students of low aptitude, compromised cognitive abilities and low motivation making it difficult for teaching staff to cater to both groups. Motivated students tend to feel that they underperform in class while challenged students still struggle with regular assignments or skip classes. Failing by attendance numbers are unusually high. Since a common ground for over- and underperforming students is difficult to establish in absence of any pedagogical strategy, students’ overall learning remains suboptimal. Occasionally, I was lucky to coach a small group of talented and motivated students, which allowed establishing a more motivating and successful level of studies. Such instances, unfortunately, were the exemption of the rule.

Lastly, for many private students, commercial education is synonymous with the entitlement to a degree. As paying customers, students feel entitled to pass even when putting minimal effort into their studies. They feel entitled to receive extra services such as favourable treatment when it comes to non-attendance of classes, the extension of deadlines, turning a blind eye on plagiarism or better grades from their lecturers. Pleasing few paying customers (that maintain the business) puts academics and management in a compromising situation. The same is true for admissions: Turning down students with low aptitude translates directly into losing paying customers. The conflict of interest between keeping students and upholding standards is obvious.


TEQSA Report 2014: One of the last external audits reveals a lack of implemented quality assurance policies (“But much work is necessary to further develop and implement the [quality assurance] system across RCDC and its transnational delivery sites”). If Raffles was a young start-up still catching up to fulfil official regulations this would be a different story, but the company has been in the business for the past 25 years.

Chapter 5

From Distinguished Academics to a Service-providing Precariat: The Degradation of Academics in Commercial Education

‘At RCDC there is little evidence of systems to support the academic committees. (…) AQUA (…) advises the College to increase its efforts to ensure the implementation and regular monitoring of quality assurance policies and their practical application at all levels of the College.’

Australian Government/ TEQSA Report on RCDC, October 2014

From the perspective of academic staff, Temasek and Raffles represent two entirely different worlds. Temasek invested heavily in staff professional development, encouraged motivated staff to take on extended responsibilities while the institution rewarded efforts via salary increments and bonuses. For example, I was supported to speak at international conferences and was provided overseas training to develop educational competencies. As my employer, Temasek also paid into a retirement fund, the CPF (Central Provident Fund) contributing to my social security.

Regarding the importance of professional development, a former superior of mine at Temasek made perhaps the most important comment: “As a lecturer and working in education for many years, you will lose your market value gradually. You are no more in competition with your peers in the industry. This is why it is our responsibility to upgrade your skill level to a point where you are on par, at least approximately, with industry should you ever decide to return. We owe you that much.”

At Raffles, it is the absence of benefits and professional staff development that defines general working conditions. Since most staff is recruited from non-academic backgrounds, benefits such as academic research activities or participating at international conferences are not supported. Staff members that need to upgrade to a Masters or postgraduate level will have to do so at their own expense, creating hidden costs of employment for academics. Offering a poor two weeks of annual leave, Raffles clearly follows standards of the corporate but not the academic world. In the absence of accredited professional training, there is no official categorization system in place to distinguish junior from senior staff and subsequently no corresponding progressive salary structure.

Looking at staff benefits and rewards, the outlook is equally bleak. Raffles offers no performance bonuses or a year-end bonus. When I joined the company, I was assured that bonuses would be paid in lieu by staff stock options since Raffles is a publicly listed company on the Singapore Exchange. However, since Raffles stock steadily declined after the global financial crisis in 2008 to less than a tenth of its peak value, stock options have become redundant.

Unlike academic careers in the government sector, careers at Raffles are limited based on the following grounds:

  1. The lack of professional development to build competencies and a decent portfolio
  2. The lack of bonuses and incentives for good performance
  3. The restriction of employment to fixed contracts that can be terminated at any time
  4. The narrow task of delivering pre-packaged curricula without active participation in their design, which creates a rather passive working environment based on mere compliance
  5. The absence of academic activities and scholarship such as support for research, publications or attending international conferences
  6. The limitation to only two weeks of earned annual leave based on standards for commercial organisations but not academia

Lecturers are told that they need to compile their own teaching materials on an individual account. No workgroups or processes are in place to formally review and update those materials.

Subsequently, academics in the commercial sector degrade to a lowly qualified precariat. The trajectories of academic careers are tied closely to the commercial success of the company to which no long-term guarantees can be given. For this reason, distinguished academics from reputable colleges and universities will find little appeal in joining companies such as Raffles.

In the marketing speak of Raffles, the lack of pedagogical requirements for staff is advertised as ‘Our educators are more than teachers. They are creative practitioners and experts in their own professions. ‘ (studyatraffles.com, 2017). There is no such thing as ‘more than’ teachers. It rather appears that Raffles never bothered to take up the intellectual challenge to look at internationally established professional standards of teacher qualifications and applying them to their business.

Chart: Comparison with other private education providers

Chapter 6

The Learning Environment

‘The independent expert report provided under paragraph b of this condition expressed concern about the functionality and adequacy of resourcing of the libraries in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. While TEQSA considered further information provided by RCDC, TEQSA remained of the view that RCDC is at risk of not complying with the PCAS in respect of:

  • PCAS 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4 relating to the adequacy of course resourcing and of access to library and information services, and to the adequacy of IT resources; and
  • PCAS 1.9 in respect of the courses ensuring equivalent student learning outcomes regardless of a student’s place or mode of study’

Australian Government/ Report on imposing conditions on the accreditation of two higher education courses offered by Raffles College Pty Ltd (t/a Raffles College of Design and Commerce (“RCDC”), 9 June 2016.

In more than a decade of service, beyond minimalist coverage, I have not yet seen any substantial equipment purchase required for students’ studies. Although on paper Raffles does have a recommended equipment list, our multimedia students were never provided video editing suites, audio equipment, broadcast-level digital cameras or related software that would qualify as a sufficiently well-equipped learning environment. Due to the lack of equipment, students eventually had to bring their own cameras, had to improvise with inferior equipment such as Sony Handycams or record audio using their mobile phones instead of professional audio recorders. As a result, student work always lacked the polish as compared to productions from other institutions that use industry-grade equipment. Essentially, the new campus at Bangna has been an empty shell since its opening.

All that students could hope for was to produce passable, but improvised low-resolution pieces that have little in common with the ‘sparkling diamonds’ promised in the Raffles marketing brochures. Nevertheless, why would a company invest in costly equipment when it is used in only a few subjects and for a limited number of students? Some of my alumni who felt pity for the poor choice of equipment available to our multimedia students offered their high-end professional equipment to come to the rescue. As a Program Director and their former lecturer, I felt both thankful and embarrassed. The dire lack of equipment and studios was no different when I worked at Raffles in Shanghai or when looking across departments. Until today, the product design department in Bangkok e.g., has no 3D-printers. The visual design department still lacks basics such as professional font libraries, binding equipment, laser cutting machines or silkscreen printing facilities. For academic work, students do not have access to digital libraries (and no up-to-date analogue library either) while the few functioning classroom computers still ran on Windows XP, as per March 2017, unable to run the latest versions of required Adobe software. The commanding of high tuition fees stands in no relation to the deplorable state of the learning environment. It appears, contrary to its public image as a prestigious education provider, that the Raffles network might be simply running low on funds. Many issues relating to the learning environment go beyond facilities.

From 2006 to 2017, Raffles Bangkok employed a total of seven College Directors (the position of Academic Directors was abandoned for all colleges below 500 students in 2014), each with a different personal agenda on student support, such as promoting or abandoning English language programs, which effectively prohibited a consistent educational policy. The high rate of part-time teachers likewise does not allow for a consistent and controlled delivery of subjects.

Are all private education providers bad apples?

Raffles is an extreme case of an unregulated for-profit education provider that has managed for many years to fly under the radar of government regulations and public scrutiny.

For-profit providers do not categorically provide an inferior education. Numerous private education providers open their institutions to regular independent quality audits, such as e.g. Stamford University in Bangkok under LAUREATE Education, and have established a sensible academic culture.

In Germany, as another example, all private schools have to conduct standardised government exams and adhere to federal policies – the reason why many private schools and colleges are government funded and charge little or no tuition. This is a very different approach as compared to entirely corporate providers. The objective in Germany is to offer parents different pedagogical approaches such as, e.g., Montessori, ‘Club of Rome’ or ‘Jenaplan’ schools that advocate global responsibility, social context immersion, social inclusion and democracy, higher goals that are not even on the radar of Raffles Education Corporation.

Many private providers charge tuition fees that still remain within an affordable range for middle-class income families. In stark contrast, the latest tuition fees for a Raffles-Northumbria undergraduate degree (two years’ diploma with Raffles plus the final year with Northumbria) have increased to about two million Thai Baht (approx. 57,000 USD or 54,000 Euro). The justification of such high fees in a local context deserves a separate discussion. On their website, Raffles Bangkok recommends to potential students to contact local banks for loans. Raffles’ corporate culture to live on borrowed credit seems to have been passed on to its customers and the institution obviously has no scruples to talk students into loans in excess of 50,000 USD. A tiny argument here is that Thai banks don’t approve student loans.

Then there is the choice of programs. From a business perspective, campus size matters. An institution with a large staff and student numbers such as Full Sail University in the US (15,700 students as per 2016) can offer an infinitely more efficient learning environment and more differentiated curricula as compared to smaller colleges.

Quality is next. A relevant syllabus requires continuous updating and improvement – not by self-declared expert groups but by contributions from all participants of the learning process. Keywords are qualitative course feedback, dedicated academic quality workgroups, and a cooperative curriculum design. Ideally, curricula should include interdisciplinary studies and additional electives. Again, such setups require a reasonable staff size to achieve functional complexity. At Raffles Bangkok, a faculty typically never exceeded more than two staff members inclusive of the Program Director. Lastly, there has not been a single senior management member at Raffles who has ever worked on a doctoral or postdoctoral level at a reputable university, so how can one possibly expect an understanding of academic culture at a managerial level?

Conclusion: How Private Education Providers Require Regulation

Let us not lose sight of the supervening issue as there is a huge difference in accountability. Government institutions have a national mandate to provide quality education to the public while private education providers such as Raffles can hide behind marketing campaigns, glossy brochures and high-flying promises to a privileged clientele. Unless for-profit education is regulated and subjected to external governmental auditing and binding obligations to consumer protection policies, such companies will continue to degrade the status of academia, hinder educational innovation and feed educational inequality. For-profits with high tuition fees inevitably promote a social system where financial status translates directly into degree entitlements to secure advanced life positions for the affluent. At the same time, governments in SE-Asia are taken to rigorous task to improve their public education systems and benchmark them against international standards as well. The burden of proof of quality is independent of the type of education provider.

Ultimately, Raffles has to be held accountable for its claims. This is when Raffles claims to provide quality education when in fact its franchise model compromises quality at the very core. It is when Raffles claims to support creativity and innovation but in fact, avoids investing in student-centred pedagogy, equipment and up-to-date curricula. It is when the Raffles group claims to operate at a university level but barely functions on a college level.

In order to protect the interests of students, parents and academic staff, government- and consumer protection agencies need to press for policies in the following areas:

  • Private education providers require regular quality audits by state agencies on a national level and, as they offer international programs, a separate audit by independent auditors on a transnational level to allow for international benchmarking.
  • In the case of potentially closing colleges unannounced or on short notice, for-profit providers with a history of financial mismanagement need to provide security bonds (or safety agreements) with local governments to protect parents’ investment in their children.
  • The academic staff deserves not only protection under local labour laws. Legally binding guidelines need to be set in place to ensure adequate working conditions for academics, such as relevant staff training, a salary structure based on competencies and holiday entitlements equivalent to academics in the public sector.
  • Parents and students need to be provided with transparent, detailed mandatory information about the college, such as staff qualifications (both professionally and pedagogically), facilities such as studios and up-to-date libraries, relevant external audits, faculty size, student numbers per faculty and typical class size, quality assurance policies, institutionalized student participation, alumni contacts and enrolment criteria.

In conclusion, postsecondary for-profit education cannot continue hiding under the smokescreen of unregulated education since it is publicly answerable to acceptable educational standards, quality assurance and accreditation on a national and international level.  Private institutions of Higher Learning cannot disguise themselves as reputable education providers while serving as conduits for wealthy elites to obtain prestigious degrees with little or no effort. Instead, they are, just like their public counterparts, taken to task to contribute more rigorously and creatively to the knowledge and service economy of the 21 century. Since universities serve as the apex of academic systems anywhere, evidence-backed study competencies (such as language proficiency, research-, critical thinking and social skills) are mandatory for students aiming to enter universities from a wide diversity of postsecondary institutions. To this extent, assessment for testing student competencies on postsecondary trajectories requires a formal and auditable format.

Raffles presents an excellent case study to demonstrate the effects of unregulated commercialization in education. In this light, Altbach, Reisberg and de Wit (2017) note in their study ‘RESPONDING TO MASSIFICATION – Differentiation in Postsecondary Education Worldwide’ fittingly that, “The burgeoning and often problematical private postsecondary sector needs to be categorized and regulations put into place to ensure that the private sector can serve the broader public interest.”

Constructivism Today: How Should Students Learn?

nürnberger-trichterOur schools: Same old, same old

The most commonly voiced out critique against traditional rote learning is that it doesn’t deliver what it promises, this is that acquired knowledge fades fast and students start to forget mental content shortly after their exams. In this model, learning serves to achieve a good grade by internalising syllabus material as fast as possible, forgetting it as fast as possible and to move on to the next short-term goal. But even if students would fully remember the knowledge that they were presented in class, they could do very little with it – perhaps with the exception of impressing their peers in TV game shows and quizzes that test for the recall of isolated facts. Knowledge acquired by rote learning is internalised passively. It is neither actively acquired by the learner, which would entail intrinsic motivation, nor applied within a real-world (and not merely academic-hypothetical) context.

Above: Traditional German illustration of the ‘Nürnberger Trichter’ (‘The Funnel of Nürnberg’). The writing says ‘First dumb and stupid, now clever as Goethe, all of which has been achieved by the funnel’s power’.

How about intelligence?

According to Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Sternberg, 1985), the mere recall and modulation of fixed content circumvents various forms of intelligence, which are analytic intelligence (the ability to apply new knowledge to solve real-world problems), creative intelligence (the ability to create innovative and novel ways to solve problems and to design systems) and practical intelligence (the ability to make internal changes to adapt to new environmental conditions). As a result, students in traditional schools learn hard but remain incompetent. What is measured in most schools and colleges are not aspects of intelligence, but the individual ability to endure stress and anxiety, the level of supportive upbringing provided by parents and the ability to regurgitate and parrot the mental content set out by the school’s curricula. Within such settings, students are assessed as solitary actors in a rather mechanical manner, illustrated fittingly by the ‘Nürnberger Trichter’.

new jobs

Above: Courses advertised at Udacity. The digital economy requires proactive, self-directed and intrinsically motivated learners. From the perspective of emerging technologies, Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence celebrates a comeback.

It is not about how long we remember what we have learned

The primary goals of knowledge acquisition, however, are neither the long-term recall of mental content nor to become a tough solitary learner. Actual cognitive and metacognitive performance is demonstrated by students being able to create concepts and tools to solve problems, to design systems that help people improve their lives, to develop positive social relations with others and to strengthen their autonomy. These educational outcomes are rarely assessed in most institutions of Higher Learning but they are more commonly found in elite education. Elite learners know how to contextualise newly created concepts (such as e.g., in information technology, social sciences or engineering) and they are aware of underlying historical and cultural conditions that scaffold local social development.


Above: Managing comprehensive project administration and supervision based on modern research and sustainable local development (picture: biodiversity project in Haiti by Helvetas, 2017)

As for most movements, constructivism has been developed by many contributors, notably by their founders Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s approach can be described as socio-interactional constructivism with emphasis on the individual learner, whereby Vygotsky’s approach can be described as a cultural-historical and activity-based constructivism with emphasis on the social scaffolding of learning via a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2006). Both approaches share the assumption that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge are actively constructed in the learner’s mind, that learning evolves contextually and is facilitated by social interaction. The mind is not perceived as a passive container to accommodate fixed sets information and limited cognitive processing within the boundaries of these sets. Piaget was grounded in the biological imperative, set out by Darwin, of a child’s adaptation to the environment. Vygotsky, following Marxist philosophy, focussed on the collaborative and transformative nature of learning. His approach remains highly relevant in today’s digital economy and media society which is characterised by the omnipresence of collaborating teams, complex multi-layered project development, intelligent knowledge management and highly integrated network groups. Curiously enough, it is these cooperative competencies of 21st-century working environments that are barely taught, if at all, at schools.

As for most movements, constructivism has been developed by many contributors, notably by their founders Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Piaget’s approach can be described as socio-interactional constructivism with emphasis on the individual learner, whereby Vygotsky’s approach can be described as a cultural-historical and activity-based constructivism with emphasis on the social scaffolding of learning via a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vianna & Stetsenko, 2006). Both approaches share the assumption that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge are actively constructed in the learner’s mind, that learning evolves contextually and is facilitated by social interaction. The mind is not perceived as a passive container to accommodate fixed sets information and limited cognitive processing within the boundaries of these sets. Piaget was grounded in the biological imperative, set out by Darwin, of a child’s adaptation to the environment. Vygotsky, following Marxist philosophy, focussed on the collaborative and transformative nature of learning. His approach remains highly relevant in today’s digital economy and media society which is characterised by the omnipresence of collaborating teams, complex multi-layered project development, intelligent knowledge management and highly integrated network groups. Curiously enough, it is these cooperative competencies of 21st-century working environments that are barely taught, if at all, at schools.

How Design Thinking extends Constructivism

Although it is correct that context, learners’ self-regulation and social scaffolding play a central role in active learning, the success of achieving learning outcomes depends largely on achieving mastery in the construction, application and evaluation of cultural tools. In design education, tools are commonly known in association with software- and hardware tools (from silk-screens to 3D printers and visualisation software), but also as concept maps and design theories, such as ergonomics, human-centered design and social design.

Broadly defined, cultural tools are instruments of mind that encompass concepts, strategies, information collection and processing methodologies, culturally-mediated reflective and communicative practices as well as methods to relate inductive-empirical and deductive-theoretical inferences. Cultural tools are the means by which our lifeworld is designed and mediated. Cultural tools empower students to connect ideas with facts, to minimise the margin of error of empirical tools and to maximise the validity and relevance of theoretical concepts. Without the mastery of effective tools, teamwork and context awareness do not yield productive outcomes by themselves.

Design thinking is closely related to Problem-based Learning (PBL) as it consists of a series of logical steps to design products and services. These shared steps are (1) group setting, setting up a team, (2) problem definition and cooperative reframing of the problem if necessary, (3) the review of prior knowledge and hypothesis generation (for explaining phenomena) or setting goals and expectations (for creating designs and implementing interventions), (4) the identification of learning issues and gaps of knowledge (5) going through reiterative cycles of research and research review (inclusive of experimentation and creative exploration), (6) concluding solutions development, (7) final outcome presentation and (8) post-project assessment by the entire team. PBL, as well as Design Thinking, are grounded in procedural inquiry and follow best practices of empirical research. Solutions are developed in logical stages by a team and they are not arbitrarily assumed by a solipsistic learner following an elusive ‘model answer’ or ‘model solution’.


Above: Modern production facilities like here at Tesla are a good example for the need of skilled and competent workers that can solve complex problems, such as to program and manage robots or track and diagnose anomalies within automated production processes.

On the point of mastering cultural tools, Howard Barrows noted that PBL has one root in the apprenticeship method whose roots go back to the dawn of history (Wee Keng Neo & Kek Yin Chyn, 2002) where learning by doing emerged within an intergenerational culture of mastery. Today, mastery is rooted in science, also referred to as learning science (Bransford, 2000) shifting the educational focus on the mastery of scientific methods in support of new and innovative ideas.

Another argument for a procedural approach to future education is that without explicit awareness of the in situ implementation of knowledge, corresponding responsibilities cannot be assigned in a meaningful manner. As we live in a highly complex and interconnected world where responsibilities dilute across chains of institutions and businesses, a central theme in Badura’s recent work on moral disengagement (Bandura, 2016), the need to design systems of responsibility and accountability reinforces the call for fundamental educational reforms. If students are not taught on how to build a better world at an early age, how can anyone expect sensible societal progress?


Bandura, A. (2016). Moral disengagement: How people do harm and live with themselves. New York: Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning.

Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vivanna, E. & Stetsenko, A. (2006). Embracing History through Transforming It: Contrasting Pigetean versus Vygotskian (Activity) Theories of Learning and Development to Expand Constructivism within a Dialectical View of History. Theory of Psychology, Sage Publications.

Wee Keng Neo, L. & Kek Yin Chyn, M. (2002). Authentic problem-based learning: Rewriting business education. Singapore: Pearson Malaysia.

The Ethics of Grading (About Grades, Part 2)

multiple-choice graphic

Grading is a method to measure students’ performance while the type of grading system employed is a representation of its underlying educational ethics. The more simple the grading system, the more simple the assertions of graders about the graded. The more multi-faceted the grading system, the more factors an assessment entails. In the latter case, justifications for stipulating assessment criteria need to be provided. Typically, no or little justifications are given in the case of simple grading methods, such as multiple-choice, true-false, matching, or simply accumulating errors and points that are commonly used in primary and secondary education.

But what are the ethics behind grading systems? Do some grading systems violate ethics and if they do, how should students be assessed instead? Let us have a closer look at the relation of ethics and academic assessment.

Low-level Grading and its Underpinnings in Social Darwinism, Liberalism and Behaviourism

Simple low-level grading is underpinned by a set of assumptions. These are that students should be graded individually regardless of social context and prior conditions, that given grades are a truthful account of a student’s performance and aptitude and that final grades are fair. One could argue that such grading is rooted in both liberalism and social Darwinism since only the fittest survive (at least from the perspective of teachers) and that teachers bear no responsibility whatsoever for their students’ learning – analogously to the view that governments should not interfere in markets. In such a more Darwinian outlook, some students are simply more gifted than others. It is nature above nurture, genetics above pedagogy. According to the philosophy of natural selection, traditional grading simply ‘separates the wheat from the chaff’.

As a tool of behavioural control, grades are commonly set out as rewards (‘An A, well done!) while bad grades serve as punishment. In principle, there is little difference between pupils getting grades and a rat inside a Skinner Box receiving either food or electric shocks as positive or negative reinforcements. The main task for students inside the learning box is store content temporarily in short-term memory in order to pass exams and to forget the acquired knowledge shortly after; a cycle that the German philosopher Richard David Precht described as ‘bulimic learning’ (BulimieLernen). As a side effect of bulimic learning, students learn that knowledge is dispensable and not meant to be part of an all-encompassing lifelong learning process. As grades are applied universally all over the world and across institutions, the systemic conditioning towards the belief in grades is strengthened along learners’ educational trajectories.

Mid-level Grading and its Meritocratic-liberal Stance

More complex grading based on criteria requires a justification of these criteria and is, subsequently, open to debate. Some institutions of Higher Learning assess higher-order learning outcomes such as, e.g., the use of specified evidence, the quality of the evidence cited, the ability to understand and differentiate concepts, to relate facts to ideas, to frame a general problem within a local context, the ability to argue cases and integrate multiple perspectives, to choose adequate methods of analysis, to be able to employ critical thinking as well as to demonstrate overall consistency. Such comprehensive, mid-level assessment takes time and requires educators to design adequate scoring rubrics.

The advantage of mid-level assessment is that students do not only know why they have received a specific grade (which could still be equivalent to providing or not providing a ‘model answer’) but indicates which areas to put more effort in. Scoring rubrics have the advantage that they can serve as a formative feedback to learners. A disadvantage is that they are typically limited to assess only cognitive skills.

From an ethical perspective, we could label mid-level scoring as a meritocratic approach: Although assessed on an individual account, all students are provided with a fair chance to improve their identified weaknesses and to build on their strengths in order to gain merit via continuous improvement. This concept is also liberal in a sense that individuals are provided with an opportunity (or right) for improvement, at least at face value, while it ignores an individual’s ability (or inability) to capitalise on a given opportunity. Meritocratic-liberal assessment is still based on the assumption that learning happens primarily individually and independent of social context, contrary to evidence provided by psychological research.

The different social starting points of learners and their contextual limitations (e.g., some students might have highly supportive parents while others have not, some have the financial means to pay for tutors or to participate in international exchange programs while others have not) are not subject to potential interventions. To this extent, mid-level grading is not directly engaged in providing equal opportunity since no support is offered to weaker students for improving their performance, even if it is pointed out to them which areas of studies they should focus more. It is like telling a thirsty person in the middle of a desert not to worry about water since the next oasis is only a couple of hundred miles away. This is why meritocratic-liberal assessment is more suitable to homogeneous classes where students are approximately on the same level rather than heterogeneous, socially diverse student populations. But how about exceptionally gifted students?

High-end Social-discursive Evaluation Beyond Grades

Jane Robbins wrote about elite students in InsideHigherEd that ‘They want the more complex, nuanced, individual (or small group), creative work. And while they can do a great deal in interaction with each other, they need and want, the guidance of experts with depth and breadth in the field at hand. They want and need feedback because they don’t yet have experience in solving those kinds of problems. Neither are they satisfied just to get their A- for many top students, A’s are easy, but the A in and of itself does nothing to motivate them, or do other than present a false sense of complete mastery; you can get an A and still need to advance to the next level of thinking. So for elite students, the teacher is mentor, coach, prodder, supervisor who provides his or her guidance through feedback.’

On the highest level of learning, students are evaluated for a plethora of abilities. Among them are the ability to empathise, social cooperation and teamwork skills, to take on different social roles and responsibilities within a team, to conduct research in meaningful projects on authentic problems (or phenomena) and to foster originality and creativity. Elite learning is (a) socially scaffolded and discursive. It embraces (b) critical discussions and the development of mastery in learning, while (c) underlying motivation is entirely intrinsic and not extrinsic.

Why a Hierarchy of Evaluation Systems is Counterproductive

In many elite universities, grading has already become redundant. Equal opportunity is mediated by including all students in research projects. The adequate description by Robbins begs the question why only elite students should be worthy of mentors and coaches. Isn’t achieving mastery in learning even more relevant for weaker students, especially at an early age?

It seems awkward and illogical that few lucky students are rewarded by high-level social-discursive evaluation systems (once they have made it through the maze of socio-Darwinist and meritocratic-liberal systems), but such privilege is kept away from ordinary students in the beginning of their development when they need such scaffolding the most.

By looking at learning environments that foster highly successful students, our journey into grading systems turns full cycle. Simple methods of evaluation are subject to social bias and confirmation bias can only yield distorted and inadequate conclusions about the true complexity of students’ learning and potential. Especially at a younger age, pupils deserve to develop the full range of social, emotional and cognitive capabilities to support more differentiated cognitive and metacognitive schemata some years later. Tell me your assessment system and I tell you how qualified as a teacher you are.

How can we tell that students have learned? Why traditional exams and grades do more harm than good (About Grades, Part 1)

Picture: College students taking an exam, Credit: Chris Ryan via Getty Images

The PDF version of this Blog entry: How can we tell that students have learned – Kompa 2017

The ideas behind traditional exams and grading

In traditional teaching, a teacher presents a learning unit by introducing new knowledge to the class via a series of lectures and presentations. Typically, brief question and answer sessions allow students to probe, at least to some extent, what they have not fully understood. In addition, pupils are given homework to apply the new knowledge in given exercises. At the end of the learning unit, an exam or test verifies the learner’s competence to replicate and apply the new knowledge. The resulting individual grade is regarded as a reliable and truthful standardised assessment of a learner’s competence of achieving the stipulated learning outcomes.

This is, in essence, the brief idea behind grading which was developed since the 16th century and gained its momentum in the 19th century with the introduction of compulsory education. The nagging question that is debated among educators is if standardised grading is actually measuring students’ learning and if it is not, what else it is measuring. Another question is how useful or even harmful standardised assessment plays out in real life.

What is assessed and how?

Constructivist learning pedagogy promotes active learning and assesses not only cognitive abilities (such as the application of mental operations to a set of varied problems), but includes furthermore the measure of students’ study skills, their individual ways of learning, verbal and nonverbal communication skills, social competencies, intrinsic motivation and metacognitive reasoning (the ability to reflect critically on mental content, methodology, knowledge creation and its meaning for the learner). By comparison, traditional exams only assess the minuscule part of cognitive abilities, like the ability to temporarily store subject knowledge in short-term memory, while ignoring all other relevant competencies.

In order to conduct sensible educational measurement, lecturers need to establish baselines of such competencies in order to understand students’ varying prior conditions. A series of semi-structured interviews combined with preliminary tests or exercises can reliably provide information on students’ prior conditions. As sociological research has demonstrated, students from academic families fare generally better as compared to students from working class families or students brought up by a single-parent. Socio-economic settings as well as age- and family-related factors set students at distinctively different starting levels for their studies. The responsibility of a fair education is to mediate and diminish such differences.

Let’s assume we have two struggling students with similar aptitude trying to pass the next exam. Student A comes back home from school to a household with two younger hyperactive siblings that deprive her of any opportunity to study and focus, whereby student B is luckier and has parents that can afford to send her to tutoring classes. In the final exam, student A fails while student B has achieved a decent grade. But what was measured by the exam was not a superior cognitive ability of student B, but a given social advantage. Or we may imagine a student with brilliant ideas, but incapable of time management to organise them, or a younger student who has exactly the same mental potential as everyone else, but is distracted by joining his friends on the football field while neglecting his studies. Or we can imagine a highly intelligent student who simply fails by not being able to handle exam anxiety, and so on and so forth. In most cases, we evaluate the influence of confounding factors on learning, but not learning itself.

Grades are not only unsuitable as an impartial evaluation tool, they also interfere with the very motivation to learn. Many students, sadly enough, learn in order to achieve good grades, not because they enjoy learning something new, exciting, personally enriching or useful. The main learning outcome is often not the acquisition of competencies, personal growth or new knowledge and skills, but a good grade. This is the point where the traditional learning system has turned ad absurdum: when the reward for learning is represented by the affirmation of prior social status via grades, true learning has lost its relevance as a driver for the development of young people. In many schools, colleges and universities, grades have become the symbolic trophies for representing achievement. What was originally intended only as a tool to evaluate learning outcomes by a simple scale has turned into a central outcome by itself with counterproductive side-effects. If education was strict science, grades would be removed as a confounding variable from the setup in an instant.

We could compare grades to political polls. Originally designed to objectively measure political trends within a population, polls have become a strategic tool for political parties to influence their voters. By employing polls, perceived instrumental threats and opportunities start to govern decision-making rather than good policies, arguments and well thought-out concepts. The same is true for students who calculate their minimum attendance requirements and bare pass investment in studies.

Alternatives to traditional assessment: Multi-perspective evaluation and scoring rubrics

This leaves progressive educators with at least two proven options for a more learning-centered evaluation. One is to assess projects in a PBL-like manner, which includes self-evaluation as well as the evaluation of others: How have I and others performed as team members, as problem-solvers and as researchers? How do we assess the shared learning process and outcome of a project? Here is also the opportunity for reflective journals that worked well with my students at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. The PBL assessment emphasises students’ social roles in interaction with cognitive and metacognitive reasoning. This is why this approach is well suited to postsecondary education in situations where discussions with students and their facilitators/ coaches play a central role.

The other option is to work with scoring rubrics that many educators are familiar with. The advantage of rubrics is that students know in greater detail how and why they are being assessed. Expectations are made clear from the beginning which makes this is a more structured approach. Students also learn that explaining phenomena, relating facts to ideas and integrating knowledge is of greater value than to cut, paste and simply summarise information, a common habit among digital natives. In many institutions, rubrics are still translated into grades, but they are still a far cry from simple point and error accumulations followed by a final grade and perhaps a brief commentary by the teacher. Both a PBL-like approach as well as scoring rubrics assist students’ learning to learn, which is why they are preferable to traditional grading. The desired procedural learning outcome is that students achieve mastery in learning, which is likely one of the reasons why some of my best students became teachers themselves.

Tracking progress: What sound assessment entails

Institutions that blindly grade students based on standardised tests measure de facto a plethora of prior conditions, rather than learning. Measuring actual learning progress would require the implementation of two more conditions. Firstly, that students need to be provided (a) adequate formative feedback for self-improvement on above-mentioned competencies and (b) follow-up investigations by teachers to verify if and how formative feedback was successfully internalised. As weekly assignments and projects continue, actual learning progress can be measured and facilitated efficiently in this manner.

Students are coached continuously and they understand how they have been assessed on multiple levels. A formative and reflected approach is obviously more helpful to fine tune ongoing learning than receiving a single summative grade at the very end. New technologies such as online feedback can speed up and further specify ongoing improvement.

Another harmful effect of grades is that they condition motivation.  A weaker student may find in low grades the confirmation to be a ‘born loser’ or a ‘failure’, while good students can find reassurance to belong to a class of eternal winners. Grades are often perceived as a judgment of the Global Self, especially among adolescents,  which explains how low grades tend to diminish self-esteem. In this light, grades represent a cruel tool to retroactively punish weaker students for their compromised position in life. On the brighter side, many teachers find that they do not need traditional tests. When conducting, e.g., more complex interdisciplinary projects, tests become redundant. It would be fairly ridiculous, for example, to conduct a traditional test at the end of a group’s research project, which would not only trade an information-rich assessment for an information-poor one but would be superfluous as learning outcomes and assessment have already been achieved and documented.

The Bell Curve paradigm

A more progressive assessment deviates from the assumption of a static Gaussian standard distribution also known as the ‘Bell Curve’. It represents the idea that typically some students are naturally at the top, some at the bottom and most positioned in the middle of the spectrum of abilities. At the beginning of a course, student levels might indeed be represented by a standard distribution. However, if performance levels remain unchanged for an entire term then a Bell Curve signals that learning among students has not taken place. Students that were good at the beginning are still good at the end of the semester while students who failed in the beginning still fail towards the end. A static Bell Curve is a reliable indicator of the fact that the education system or the teacher has failed. We can only tell how students have learned once we can demonstrate how constructive and motivating feedback has fostered their autonomy, contributed to their personal and social development and has built their competencies. Without such provisions in place, blindly conducting tests and grading papers tells us nothing about how students have learned. In the traditional assessment, the learning process remains unexamined simply because the dependent variable of learning progress is not related to the independent variables of the learning environment and other controlled factors facilitating learning.

What makes us human? What makes us a whole person?

As an empirically-validated domain, education should not fall into the traps of confirmation bias by repeatedly verifying prior conditions or conditioned responses. Education should elevate weaker students while providing new opportunities to stronger students. Every student is deserving of empowerment to develop into a strong, self-directed and lifelong learner.

But how about students that appear obviously lazy, who display negative attitudes towards their teachers or the institution and simply act out anti-socially in every perceivable way? One of the advantages of a multi-level assessment is that it includes personal factors. Difficult students can be counselled, which is better than failing them and pushing them over the edges of society. This entails of course that institutions of Higher Learning employ professional counsellors and that personal development is taken seriously as a hallmark of quality education – to connect to the ideal of a holistic humanistic education as first envisioned by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), or the idea of developing one’s personality as outlined by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). From a future-oriented constructivist perspective as well as from the perspective of humanistic philosophy, conventional exams and grades are a poor excuse for not understanding students’ learning and not contributing to their development as personalities and democratic citizens.

Remembering Prof. Howard Barrows: Notes on Problem-based Learning and the Schools of the Future

hbarrowsMe: “Howard, can I ask you a more general, philosophical question? Considering all your pioneering work in Problem-based Learning, how would you imagine the school of the future?”

Howard Barrows: “To start with, there would be no subjects. There would be no isolated classes for students such as geography, chemistry, accounting, history and so on.”

Me: “How can this work? What is the point of abandoning specialised subjects?”

Howard Barrows: “It is the designed learning outcomes that drive the learning process and in real-world problems, these outcomes are interconnected. As an example, you come from design. Supposed your students need to produce a TV program, then this is not only about holding a camera and putting it on air, but it is also about casting, accounting, clearing copyright, the ethics of journalism, buying airtime, mastering technology… a whole bunch of learning issues and they are all related. “

Me: “The school of the future would offer highly-integrated projects instead of traditional classes?”

Howard Barrows: “Yes. We would offer complex interdisciplinary projects that already include all the outcomes that traditional subjects intent to convey. Students develop knowledge and skills by achieving the designed learning outcomes. By presenting outcomes in the form of real-world problems, learning becomes more meaningful and relevant to students.”

Hallmarks of Constructivist Active Learning Pedagogy

These were not Howard Barrows exact words as this was not a recorded interview. But it is a truthful account of one of our last conversations during a teacher training workshop in Hamilton, Canada many years ago. Currently, almost two decades, later, Finland started abandoning traditional school subjects in favour of a curriculum reform under the title ‘Phenomenon-Based Learning’, which has much in common with Problem-based Learning (PBL) beyond sharing the same acronym.

(1) Problem-based Learning and Phenomenon-based Learning follow both a constructivist educational philosophy which refers to the idea that knowledge and the meaning of knowledge acquisition are actively created in the learner’s mind. The focus is on students’ critical evaluation of their learning, rather than passively internalising content. (2) Learning is contextual. A real-world problem or phenomenon such as climate change is contextual and requires considering different aspects and perspectives, such as e.g., the quality of people’s lives, mathematics, geography, meteorology, politics and policies, social psychology such as changing consumer behaviour and so on. This is different from most academic problems. Less complex and practical problems such as e.g., running a cafeteria would be another example. Each type of problem-solving or investigation into phenomena requires different kinds of competencies, each problem entails a distinct set of corresponding learning outcomes.

However, not all subjects can or should be replaced, such as e.g., languages, as they are by themselves meta-contextual in nature. Other subjects such as mathematics and music will e.g., still be taught in Finland which is adopting Phenomenon-based Learning. As Prof. Pasi Sahlberg of Harvard University comments “Finland’s National Curriculum Framework is a loose common standard that steers curriculum planning at the level of the municipalities and their schools. It leaves educators freedom to find the best ways to offer good teaching and learning to all children. Therefore, practices vary from school to school and are often customised to local needs and situations.”

(3) The combination of social immersion with autonomous motivation is the key to sustainable, self-directed learning within social contexts. Given the complex nature of most problems, problem-solving is ideally conducted within cooperating teams, rather than competing groups.

(4) The tutorial group structure of PBL avoids oversimplification that easily occurs on an individual level, but it also prevents ‘groupthink’ by encouraging open inquiry and critical, diverse thinking among group members. By discouraging individual power positions, social loafing but encouraging active participation, open inquiry, and consensus based on the better argument, tutorial groups resemble an approximation to what the social philosopher Jürgen Habermas called in his early philosophy ‘ideal speech situation’, which he later concluded as Discourse Ethics. Habermas’ doctrines almost read like a PBL tutorial guide, e.g., ‘Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse‘ (principle of social inclusion) or ‘Everyone is allowed to question any assertion at any time’ (principle of open inquiry).  In classroom practice, real world problems appear more meaningful to students as compared to decontextualized abstract tasks and thus support their intrinsic motivation.

pbl2Image above: Outline of the core PBL process for a tutorial group. It involves the stages of the group setting, problem identification, idea generation, the identification of learning issues, self-directed learning (research), research review, solutions development and the final self-assessment of learners of their individual and social roles. Educators such as Donald Woods have diversified the process structure for numerous faculties.

(5) In constructivist educational philosophy, reality is based on multiple representations allowing for multiple and multi-faceted solutions to emerge – unlike the single ‘model answer’ in traditional education. During the research and development phase, students become aware of different conceptual and practical approaches. Final solutions are the result of reiterative rounds of research and synthesis by the team, they are not spontaneous assumptions based on somebody’s pet ideas.

When we talked about grades, a hallmark of traditional education, Howard Barrows put forward a rhetorical question “If a pilot is taking 250 passengers from Frankfurt to New York, and you ask him how he feels, what would you think if he answers ‘Like a C minus’?” If an industry representative would ask me which of my students is able to do the job – wouldn’t it be ideal if I can honestly answer ‘All of them, all of my students can perform the job well’? Besides, what does a grade tell us? For example, if a student has obtained a ‘B’ in web-design, is this because she could handle the backend well, or the graphical user interface, or the integration into a database or any combination thereof? Does a grade tell us how a student was performing as a team member, a problem-solver or as a researcher? Traditional assessment is disappointingly un-informing when we take the requirements of a 21st-century workplace as a criterion. As compared to a mere summative assessment, assessment rubrics and formative assessment procedures have undoubtedly narrowed the gap to a fairer and more efficient evaluation, but social skills and research skills are rarely part of academic appraisals.

What is a ‘Problem’ and what is its function?

My colleagues and Howard also had intense discussions about the term of a ‘problem’. Doesn’t ‘problem’ sound too negative? We rarely perceive problems as something we would wish for. Problems can be of high and low complexity and they come in many forms, shapes, and sizes. Some problems might not be considered problems per se, but challenges. A product that works perfectly well without problems may just need an update to keep up with the times, or people might want to discuss openly competing models of desired social futures. More than often, we pose general questions even when we do not face an immediate functional problem, e.g., how do we conceptualise social fairness? What makes a happy childhood? What do we wish for the future of our communities? What is our political utopia?

At the end, the terminus ‘PBL’ was simply too well established in academic discourse so that alternate proposals, such as e.g., ‘Challenge-based Learning’ never gained popularity. For now, it needs to suffice that we talk about ‘problems’ in an extended sense meaning that issues can be of quantitative as well as qualitative nature. In a Kantian understanding, problems and system design issues can represent instrumental as well as non-instrumental (pure- intrinsic) types of rationality. In each case, it is the problem or issue at hand that drives the learning process, not the lecturer or teacher. From a research perspective, theoretical frameworks can complement PBL (by e.g., integrating Critical Theory, Social Conflict Theory, minority group perspectives, Social and Ecological Sustainability, Prospect Theory etc.), depending on the decided research approach.

In the light of terminology, ‘Phenomenon-based Learning’ as in the Finish example represents a limited signifier as well. Phenomenology typically refers to the particular structure of consciousness from a subjective, first-person view. It is a good term in a sense that it emphasises the active construction of new knowledge by a learner, but it neglects one of the key principles of constructivism which is the construction of knowledge with others in social context. It is in intersubjectivity, the reciprocal exchange of perspectives, where learning takes place. Related psychologists in support of constructivist learning are Albert Bandura (Social Cognitive Theory) and Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky contributed an interesting perspective to learning by differentiating areas where a student can learn unaided, where a student can learn with assistance and a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) where learning takes place in terms of a coherent social scaffolding for knowledge creation.

Unlike traditional education, PBL questions its own assertions by promoting metacognitive skills in students’ reasoning and epistemology. A probing tutor asks for the grounds and justifications of group members’ reasoning and asks how group members truly know what they assume to know. In academia worldwide, PBL has established itself as a sound pedagogy to address the deep social, economic, ecological and technological challenges of the 21st century.

Extraordinarily great pedagogy requires extraordinary effort: What is the price to pay?

Since much of what has been claimed about constructivist learning may sound too good to be true, the question arises if I had ever experienced any drawbacks. From my experience, there are critical institutional and individual obstacles to overcome. Constructivist pedagogy requires substantial training of staff and it demands a likewise substantial commitment by the education provider to promote student-centered pedagogy. Policy implementation should be conducted across the institution based on a voluntary buy-in. It requires support by consultants and needs a clear normative endorsement by management. In summary, the implementation of constructivist learning pedagogies is a huge collaborative effort.

On teacher level, resistance to new modes of curriculum delivery is rather common. Teachers that have been delivering classes by rote learning their entire careers often feel reluctant to let go of their cosy classroom authority. Many traditional teachers are not ready to give up their role as classroom authority and to embrace the more meaningful role as a facilitator of students’ learning. They feel that PBL is depriving them of their privileged status. To them, the classroom is their private kingdom. On the other hand, each school or college has some teachers that are motivated to try out learner-centered pedagogy. There are opportunities for supporting and recognising such teachers, to offer them the opportunity to become role-models for others, to organise’best practices’ sharing sessions and to publicise student feedback to persuade those that are resistant to change. On a university level, empirical studies might convince more scientifically oriented staff.

Another issue to resolve is the topic of prior knowledge. How much of prior (mostly conceptional) knowledge should be taught to students as a professional ‘body of knowledge’before they can embark on PBL? Especially students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds deserve to start on the same level as their better-off peers. Related academic discussions contributed new ideas to the qualifying issue of prior knowledge such as e.g., initial lectures on common underlying concepts, ‘lectures on demand’ (by external experts, not necessarily lecturers) or ‘flipped classrooms‘, among many others. During policy implementation, it is critical to carefully balance the dissemination of prior knowledge with classroom learning expectations and to explain to all academic staff how both aspects complement each other fairly.

As a memorable experience, I remember my very first PBL class at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. Long after the class ended, I had to chase students literally out of the classroom (they ran overtime and the room was booked for other students) as they were still passionately immersed in discussions. I asked myself when was the last time that I saw students truly thrive this way. International studies have confirmed PBL as a superior and more efficient pedagogy as compared to traditional teaching, but practitioners and consultants are in rare supply.

Howard Barrows died in March 2011. To me, he was one of the most influential mentors, reformers, and innovators in contemporary educational philosophy. The list of groundbreaking innovations that PBL brought to the most diverse fields of education is incredible. It ranges from establishing students’ personal responsibility for their learning to learning in structured tutorial groups, employing simulated clients (today we also use computer simulations) and basing curricula on real-world multidisciplinary issues. Most importantly, Howard Barrows’ concept of PBL contributed to empowering learners of all ages by taking an active role in knowledge construction. PBL brought back meaning to students’ learning by introducing process-based solutions development for real-world applications. To conclude with a perspective of Albert Bandura, people are not merely onlookers of their behaviour, but proactive subjects capable of creating desired futures.



Barrows, H. S. (1971). Simulated patients (programmed patients): The development and use of a new technique in medical education. Springfield, Ill: Thomas.

Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980). Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. New York: Springer Pub. Co.

Barrows, H. S. (1992). The tutorial process. Springfield, Ill: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

Barrows, H. S. (1996), Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1996: 3–12. doi:10.1002/tl.37219966804

Barrows, H. S., & Wee, K. N. L. (2007). Principles & practice of aPBL. Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Why it is Time to Retire Bloom’s Taxonomy


Picture above: Exam among Chinese Students (Source: Tomo News)

“You cannot teach today the same way you did yesterday to prepare students for tomorrow. ” John Dewey

1. Historical Credit and Positioning

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning has reigned as one of the most influential pedagogical concepts for the design of school curricula until today. Formulated by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in the mid-50s (Bloom et al., 1956), the taxonomy attempted to break away from behaviorist theories as well as learning via remembering (rote learning) by promoting higher-order thinking skills, such as analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating concepts. Taking a more holistic approach, the taxonomy includes the cognitive- (knowledge-based), affective- (emotive-based) and psychomotor (action-based) domain which explains its intuitive appeal to many teachers. We do not only learn with our heads but also by our actions and emotional experiences that reinforce cognitive processes and give them meaning.

In 2001, Anderson & Krathwohl (2001) published a revised edition of Bloom’s Taxonomy, suggesting that in the cognitive domain, creation appears as a higher-order process as compared to evaluation (ISU, 2017).

2. Limitation of Bloom’s Taxonomy

The most commonly voiced out critique to the taxonomy is that thinking does not operate within hierarchies, but that cognition and affect are neurologically and phenomenologically distributed processes that can assume a plethora of possible configurations. Additional reasons that cast doubt on the usefulness of Bloom’s taxonomy as a pedagogical concept shall be outlined in the following.

2.1 Lack of Scientific Validity

Currently, Bloom’s Taxonomy is more than 60 years old and it had been developed before extensive empirical research into cognition, metacognition and motivation were conducted. As such, the taxonomy’s main categories (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation) are not supported by empirical research on learning, be it as a category or as a category within a hierarchy ranging from lower to higher-order thinking skills.


The only terms of Bloom’s taxonomy that are validated by research are factual-conceptual knowledge (described in modern pedagogy as ‘prior knowledge’) as well as procedural- and metacognitive knowledge. In psychology metacognition is further differentiated into metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive regulation and metacognitive experiences (Efklides, 2006; Schraw & Moshman, 1995; Schraw et al., 2006) and it can appear in the form of individual metacognition, the reflective thinking related to mental content ‘due to me’, or social metacognition, the reflective thinking related to thinking about mental content ‘due to others’ (Briñol & DeMarree, 2012; Kim et al., 2013).

The question remains if lower- and higher-order thinking skills exist as such. A closer look questions this assumption. Some examples: The hierarchy of Bloom’s cognitive domains is broken in the case of (a) a problem-solving scenario where a solid comprehension of basic facts may outweigh an evaluation that is based on biased perceptions (besides, where does comprehension stop and where does evaluation start since both processes work reciprocally) or (b), where a concept is tested for the robustness of its causal and conditional relations (analysis) in order to obtain approval (final evaluation). In such case, analysis and evaluation are interdependent and one cannot be confirmed without acknowledging changes in the other.

If e.g., a situation is evaluated as problematic then this stimulates analysis on how to deal with it, entailing a subsequent evaluation of potential solutions. Even if a final solution is decided this leads to a retrospective analysis and check on the efficacy of the applied solution – and so on and so forth. There is, strictly speaking,  neither a clear-cut hierarchy nor sequence of cognitive processes since we are dealing with interactive, mutually dependent processes: no analysis without prior evaluation, no evaluation without prior analysis.

Creation, to comment on the revised taxonomy (Anderson et al., 2001), does also not necessarily constitute a higher order domain when underlying data analysis and conclusions of a project are faulty. Without proper research, creations remain guesses and assumptions. More than often, people try to promote their pet ideas and care little about thorough procedural solutions development. How do we determine the value of creation? In research, deductive and inductive reasoning are interdependent: we cannot blindly analyze things without an initial sense of intuitive comprehension (such as notions of purpose) and we cannot comprehend things without some sort of prior evaluation. Inductive-empirical and deductive-theoretical inferences relate reciprocally. The more tightly deductive and inductive inferences relate, the smaller the margin for error in research and development. For this reason, assuming a static hierarchy of domains like in Bloom’s Taxonomy is not helpful.

2.2 Lack of an Epistemological Base

Knowledge creation and relating thinking skills do not exist as a priori phenomena, but they are evoked and engaged by people. Knowledge is a foremost social construct while learning is facilitated by social processes (Bandura 2001, 2006). In this light, Bloom’s Taxonomy does not take into consideration the social relation of persons in the creation of knowledge. This includes crucial aspects such as the motivation to acquire knowledge, reiterative and diverse cycles of research, dynamics of open inquiry, the validation of related arguments or the ongoing refinement of concepts within teams. Bloom’s Taxonomy tells us nothing about the role that learners play in knowledge acquisition and creation, including a learner’s intellectual values, the psychological effects of learning experiences, individual differences in cognitive processing, or the communicative processes involved in research and development. Bloom’s Taxonomy does not explain how people collaboratively create, manage and modify knowledge.

Epistemological questions ask things like ‘How do we know that we know?’ or ‘How do we make sure that our knowledge is valid, reliable and relevant?’ The answers to such complex, but critical questions cannot be concluded by attributing general categories (e.g., ‘to analyze’, ‘to synthesize’), but via open deliberation among multiple learners.  Assessment cannot be based on ticking boxes of which cognitive domains have been covered by a student, but by assessing the quality of underlying reasoning.

2.3. Practical Disadvantages and Methodological Flaws

Other potential disadvantages of applying the taxonomy in curricula are (a) the lowering of expectations for higher-level deliberation and reasoning among students by ascribing complex, interrelated processes to simple domain identifiers (b) creating a false notion of ‘higher order’ versus ‘lower order’ outcomes. The taxonomy misleads educators to apply these perceived categories in separation, hampering a natural flow of logical reasoning such as in group discussions and (c) the identification of cognitive processes within an individual learner makes little sense. Instead, a student project can be structured according to logical stages, such as problem identification, problem reframing, identification of learning issues, self-directed research, research review, solutions development, solutions presentation and team/ self- review.

Bloom listed specific ‘action verbs’ that he claims are identifiers for the main cognitive domains, but it is easy to demonstrate that such simple correlations using ‘action verbs’ are misleading. For example, if we take Bloom’s domain of ‘evaluation’ in isolation and only look at action verbs, a student may e.g., ‘compare’ facts without involving analysis, ‘describe’ a phenomenon without explaining its underlying causality and context, or ‘justify’ an argument without giving valid reasons to why is should be believed. It is the power of interconnected, reflected and articulated reasons that drive cognition, not the mere presence of verbs.

3. Conclusion

Educators are looking for evidence-based strategies to enhance their students’ learning. Since Bloom’s Taxonomy is neither based on scientific findings nor offers an epistemological base that explains how knowledge is specifically created and modified within a socio-cultural context, it provides little reason to why it should be employed in educational settings.

The advantages of a constructivist approach, by contrast, are obvious: what matters is not the categorical identification of cognitive processes for the sake of ticking boxes. What matters is to determine how cognitive constructs have been assembled by the learner, which reasons and motivations went into the formulation of mental content and how knowledge-creation ties into larger meaningful frameworks such as cultural identity, human relationships, consensus finding, policy making, or the advancement of local and global communities.

In closing, Bloom’s Taxonomy, despite its historical merits, should be retired as an educational philosophy on the following grounds:

  • The taxonomy is not empirically validated
  • The taxonomy focusses on abstract cognitive domains rather than on learners. The taxonomy is not learner-centered and does not answer questions regarding a learner’s autonomy, competence and social relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2012), all critical to learning.
  • Real-life contexts and their relevance for knowledge creation are not part of Bloom’s taxonomy
  • The taxonomy does not take into consideration the meaning that knowledge creates for a learner or a community of cooperating learners
  • The role of prior knowledge is not operationalized from an epistemological perspective
  • Motivation, the key component to learning, is not part of the concept
  • Individual differences in learning styles and attitudes remain unaccounted for
  • The taxonomy provides no sensible, specific criteria for assessment, such as evaluating students in their role as team members, researchers, and problem-solvers
  • Thinking processes are not based on strict sequences or hierarchies. Depending on the kind of problem at hand and its complexity, learners structure affective, cognitive and metacognitive processes accordingly
  • The obsession with individual cognitive skills and processes is often exercised at the expense of personal development, social skills, communication skills and the development of cooperative behavior

In all fairness, we have to consider that Bloom lived in a time and culture that celebrated uncompromised individualism. Bloom still shared the assumption of solipsistic learners whose learning can be objectively measured by a clear-cut hierarchical taxonomy. Empirically validated theories of social learning and studies investigating intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation or cognitive construction had not yet appeared on the horizon when Bloom worked on his taxonomy.



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