Learning Outcomes for the 21st Century: How and What to Learn in an Increasingly Dynamic World

cat robot Toshifumi Kitamura AFP

Picture credit: Toshifumi Katamura 

This script as PDF: Learning Outcomes for the 21st Century, Kompa 2017

Which are the Necessary Conditions for Learning in a Dynamic World?

As a saying goes, ‘One man’s jungle is another’s rainforest’. The choice of educational outcomes relates to rather diverse socio-cultural, economic-political, psychological and philosophical assumptions so that we may never find a final, all-encompassing consensus on contemporary educational goals. Still, in order to derive at a sensible pragmatic result, we can ask critically for the necessary conditions that are required for people of the 21st century to constitute their lifeworld and systems, to use the terms of Jürgen Habermas. At the end of the day, our influence on the real world is the final measure of success. If only the less capable and competent run our world it demonstrates that our educational and political systems are at peril.

We know that epistemological competencies of knowledge construction are equally as important as the ability to communicate knowledge within society or to create new knowledge in context. To add to the list of expectations, we are aware that the challenges of globalized and digitized societies raise the bar for individual self-regulation. This means that people need to be able to cope psychologically with ongoing changes (such as how workplace changes affect one’s personal life), unlike traditional societies that are still based on rigidly-structured and predictable cycles of knowledge acquisition. A good example of this change is the new ideal of lifelong learning as well as the awareness of the increasing diversity and discontinuity of contemporary careers and jobs markets. On a societal level, things do not become less complex.

This is how, looking for relevant goals, it is not only important to secure better individual and social learning opportunities for young people but to empower them to develop, manage and improve the social systems they live in. This notion entails the fostering of systemic competencies. If people do not want to become passive onlookers on their lives, they need to be able to mediate the disruptions and conflicts arising from technological and economic developments. This is how the superordinate educational meta-goals need to assist sustaining the continuous improvement of individual, social as well as systemic conditions. Since self-governance and cooperative problem-solving play a major role in our historical situation of globalized and technologically transformed societies, we find ourselves redirected to the values of autonomy and solidarity of the Age of Enlightenment.

The Overarching Structure of Modern Educational Goals

Traditional education systems rely heavily on the acquisition of individual-cognitive competencies (such as, e.g., traditional reading, writing, arithmetic etc.) which serve as a resource to draw upon for the rest of life. Society 4.0, in stark contrast, requires continuous professional development, the situational updating of social and intercultural skills as well as restructuring our psychological organisation to accommodate the complexity of multi-dimensional change. Once we become aware of the new societal conditions governing the 21st century, we can paint a fairly coherent picture of the critical conditions that are needed for sustaining successful biographical life projects within an open democratic society.

In this light, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 2012; Ryan et al., 2012) differentiates between the human needs for social relations, competence and autonomy. The latter relies not only on individual factors such as motivation and basic knowledge but on accommodating social conditions to empower autonomy. Since the cognitive acquisition of competencies remains the central topic in empirical educational science, the need for competency development is hardly an issue of controversy. Likewise, it is generally agreed upon that the acquisition of competencies depends on both individual and social conditions such as access to education for all, adequate support, well-equipped schools and small class sizes.

The concept of embracing both theory and practice corresponds to the German ‘duales System’ (dual system) which promotes a dialectic relationship between hypothesis-generation and application, similar to the idea of a scholar-practitioner. We know things by creating them. Instead of talking about the acquisition of competencies, psychologist Carol Ryff uses the term ‚Environmental Mastery‘, which points beyond an abstracted, context-unrelated acquisition of skills and knowledge. Her 6-factor model (Ryff, 1989, 1995) also forwards the question how people make sense of their lives, how they can find happiness and psychological well-being. Unfortunately, well-being and happiness do not play a role in the educational models proposed by the OECD.

The Social Construction of Individual Meaning

  • Positive self-concept and the Art of Living (Ars Vivendi)

Life goals and resulting life tasks develop through authentic experiences. A prerequisite to translate personal experiences into future-oriented concepts is a positive and self-regulating Global Self that remains active during all stages of life. The goal of education is thus to empower people to assume positive self-regulation and not only functional problem-solving. We need to develop an art of living which is able to safeguard our psychological well-being. We need to learn how to make and keep ourselves happy (in a eudaimonic manner) which entails embracing wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Human flourishing is what makes life worth living.

  • Future-oriented developmental perspectives versus alienation and social exclusion

Since life goals are mediated socially, political and socio-economic systems lose their legitimacy the moment personal and systemic interests and activities cannot be mediated reciprocally. Cutting the ties between lifeworld and system renders the system meaningless and epiphenomenal for all democratic participants. Hence, it must be a goal of education to foster mediation skills (systemic competencies) between individuals and democratic institutions in order to align individual life projects with institutionally guaranteed rights and benefits. Constructive political participation depends on properly-acquired socio-political competencies (e.g., how to mediate conflicts collaboratively and taking others’ perspectives into consideration), which renders in the light of emerging populism a strong argument.

  • Environmental adaptation

People find meaning in new and novel concepts of structuring their lives. In economy 4.0, more people work in teams and enjoy the benefits of a high division of labour but they are also confronted with problems that previous generations could never have anticipated (e.g., try explaining a Distributed Denial of Service Attack threatening the survival of a rural community to someone who had lived some decades ago). In highly dynamic economies such as of the OECD countries, young people are required to ‘learn how to learn’, as first conceptualised by Alexander von Humboldt. Self-motivation in solving problems, conceptual thinking skills and able to work in cooperation with others become essential skills to survive in job markets that currently polarize into higher and lower qualified jobs and thin out medium-qualified positions. Inevitably pressure mounts on education systems to formulate new educational goals that are based on understanding, designing and regulating processes rather than teaching static academic knowledge which is of only limited value in practice. Traditional school knowledge may not vanish completely, but it is currently reinterpreted conceptually (such as favouring mental operators, such as analysing, synthesising and evaluating, see Bloom’s Taxonomy, over factual knowledge) and has to prove itself in the context of transferability within interdisciplinary study paths.

Connecting points between researchers

In the following some remarks on the chosen authors to exemplify modern educational goals. Deanna Kuhn (Kuhn, 1991, 20056) defined competencies to formulate and discuss rational arguments, already present in the work of Barrows, from an epistemological perspective. Howard Barrows extended the rational construction of knowledge towards metacognitive reasoning (Barrows, 1992) which, in the meantime, has been further differentiated into individual and social metacognition (Briñol & DeMarree, 2012). As described by Barrows, problem-solving skills depend on a number of discursive-epistemological (hypothesis guided, relating facts to ideas) as well as social-communicative competencies (rational practice, open inquiry and collaborative deliberation). Albert Bandura, one of the most influential psychologists of our time, emphasises in his latest publications (Bandura, 2006, 2008) the necessity of rational, future-oriented self-directedness and self-efficacy to guard individual and collective perspectives of social action. All leading researchers agree on the rational foundation of knowledge construction.

Finally, my choice of including Claude Robert Cloninger is somehow ambiguous since I call the all-encompassing influence of genetically determined personality traits critically into question. Still, Cloninger identified in his Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) (Cloninger, 1994) important personality traits that are critical to future-oriented learning. These are in particular the development of personal resources, the ability to take responsibility, the social acceptance of others, the ability to empathise, openness towards new experiences and unselfish behaviour. These are noble qualities, we could argue with Bandura (Bandura, 1977), that can also be learned socially and are not exclusively determined genetically.

In conclusion, most leading researchers connect individual and social competencies with abilities of truth finding, concept generation and meaningful social action (Frith, 2012) that integrate systemic perspectives. The arising key argument is that individual, social and systemic competencies relate to each other in a reciprocally-interactive manner. Traditional education, in stark contrast, has primarily only focussed on the acquisition of individual and cognitive competencies. Active learning philosophy has added social skills, systemic competencies and a more advanced psychological regulation to the list of essential educational goals.

From coarse-grained to fine-grained educational outcomes

In the following, I have mapped the discussed educational outcomes within a matrix as a working hypothesis. Besides the findings of leading researchers, we can verify necessary goals by a simple thought experiment. All we need to do is to imagine the consequences of missing objectives, e.g., what would happen if students cannot relate ideas to facts, or if they are unable to work together with others, what if they fail to communicate their concepts to the public and so on and so forth.

An educational goal can be regarded as critical and necessary if its absence leads to logical contradictions, self-negation or compromises higher mental and psychological functioning. Necessary educational goals do not exist a priori, but they evolve from intersubjective relations, which means that the absence or deterioration of objectives (higher educational standards) leads inevitably to social pathologies such as the emergence of aggression-reinforcing group polarisation, the development of rigid social hierarchies, elitist privileges or establishing the permanent exclusion of minority groups.

The concluded critical educational objectives are listed in the following PDF as ‘Extended Educational Outcomes’ (Click here: Extended Learning Outcomes, Kompa 2017). The associated 24 criteria are by themselves latent variables that require operationalisation within didactic contexts. To this extent, the EEO should not be regarded as a standardised ‘one-size-fits-all’ model, but an array of logical building blocks that allow for an almost infinite number of pedagogically useful models. It would be insightful to investigate how qualitative and quantitative data of these latent variables could be integrated so that user-generated data-sets for the optimisation and enrichment of learning processes can be utilized more appropriately.

We have just begun to envision the design of more creative, innovative and more holistic schools that encourage the human spirit to flourish, rather than to stifle it. For now, I like to put forward these extended outcomes as a proposal in order to empower young people being able to master our increasingly complex world. Compromising these standards and settling for any lesser would render a huge disservice to upcoming generations that have deserved better.

Summary

While traditional education favours the development of (a) individual cognitive competencies, modern education encompasses in addition (b) social skills, (c) systemic competencies and (d) a more complex internal psychological organisation to empower learners of all ages. Learning outcomes are not arbitrary but are based on real-world environmental demands. The proposed model matches an earlier concept advocated by UNESCO titled ‘Learning the Treasure Within‘ (1996) differentiating between Learning to Know, Learning to Do, Learning to Live Together and Learning to Be. As leading researchers agree on the importance of a rational foundation of knowledge creation, the question arises how knowledge construction and extended environmental demands can be woven into a next-generation pedagogy.

 

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 164-180.

Bandura, A. (2008). Toward an agentic theory of the self. In H. Marsh, R. G. Craven, & D. M. McInerney (Eds.), Advances in Self Research, Vol. 3: Self-processes, learning, and enabling human potential (pp. 15-49). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

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

Briñol, P., & DeMarree, K. G. (2012). Social metacognition. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Cloninger, C.R. (1994). The temperament and character inventory (TCI): A guide to its development and use. St. Louis, MO: Center for Psychobiology of Personality, Washington University.

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).

Frith, C.D. (2012). The role of metacognition in human social interactions. Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 367(1599), 2213-2223. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195399820.001.0001

Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kuhn, D. (2005). Education for thinking. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press/Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ryan, R. M., Legate, N., Niemiec, C. P., & Deci, E. L. (2012). Beyond illusions and defense: Exploring the possibilities and limits of human autonomy and responsibility through self-determination theory. In P. R. Shaver & M. Mikulincer (Eds.), Meaning, mortality, and choice: The social psychology of existential concerns (pp. 215-233). Washington, WA: American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/13748-012

Ryff, C. D. (1989). “Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 57: 1069–1081. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.57.6.1069

Ryff, C. D. & Keyes, C.M. (1995), The Structure of Psychological Well-Being Revisited, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69 (4): 719–727

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.

 

Bibliography

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.