The Documents We Teach By

Documents play significant roles in our practices. It is an invitation to see what documents do to our work. They promote particular educational values and establish norms and conventions that we then must follow (over time) blindly and diligently.

The Documents We Teach By

Over the years, I have become lazy. What I mean here is that I have become less than the teacher I aspire to be. The drive and desire to follow in the steps of those who have inspired me have been pushed out of my memory. Well, how could I possibly remember clearly? I have been indoctrinated by documents. The technology that has snuck in to “replace” me whilst I focus on content and technology are not mobile phones, laptops or any portable devices but the documents that I teach by and with and which to some extent have done the teaching for me. This is not good at all. I have been reduced to a mouthpiece, to speak for the documents. There have been instances that I do feel I am just a puppet of documents. I have shifted unknowingly but willingly the gaze of my students away from my teaching to the documents of syllabus, programme guides, academic misconduct, plagiarism and attendance policies for the sake of compliance and control and in the name of quality assurance. There is nothing reassuring about the paper-work that directs and dictates my pedagogical practice.

Unfortunately, over the years, I have found myself using revised course templates year after year. The layout, content and policies are protected, locked and pre-written. I do not understand this practice of quality assurance. The sole goal and intent is consistency. As Adam Heidebrink-Bruno points out, they “never offer a critical examination of the rhetoric or imagine a purpose beyond the mundane,” that is, the documents themselves. The syllabus, a documentary tool and tech, at a closer look, reveals more than an attendance policy or a reading list. My syllabus reveals Bloom’s taxonomy and intended learning outcomes, and I hesitate to admit they rule how things should be. I never did commit to this, not explicitly anyway. How Bloom, and all the documents that are “made to rule” in his name, assembles a putative reality in my everyday academic work. Bloom’s taxonomy dictates how my students are to become critical thinkers based on pre-organised “verbs.” This baffles me completely. The hierarchy of thinking based on the hierarchy of verbs is nonsense. Verbs like “describe,” “analyse” and “critically discuss” are put to work in documents based on Bloom’s taxonomy. For example, our syllabi use “describe” for first year students’ learning outcomes and “analyse” along with “evaluate” are most frequently used for second-year students’ learning outcomes. I have found myself required to abide with this logic of conformity or convention that is not at all transparent, self-evident or fully sensible.

In this document, I want to do something else with words and “talk back.” Documents play significant roles in our practices. It is an invitation to see what documents do to our work. They promote particular educational values and establish norms and conventions that we then must follow (over time) blindly and diligently. To facilitate my documentary intent in writing this, I return to John Law’s paper on “collateral realities” which is useful here. “Collateral realities are realities that get done incidentally, and along the way. They are realities that get done, for the most part, unintentionally.”  

We must focus on the “e” of experience, experimentation and emergence, not expectations. Ben Van Overmeire has said it, we must not force the document to do too much and dare to have a blank syllabus, the negotiated and live document of learning processes. If knowledge is not the same as recall, then as Sean Michael Morris said in his 2016 keynote, “Not Enough Voices,” we need to go further. We need to create alternative documents, not of remembering, but of reflecting. In short, I have objections when it comes to intended learning outcomes. First, their clarity, explicitness, and objectivity are largely spurious or contrived. They give the impression of precision only because we unconsciously interpret them against a prior understanding of what is required and an opaque construction of what the verbs mean, pretending or wishfully establishing a shared meaning on purely behaviourist grounds.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Despite many revisions and alternative taxonomies and frameworks adapted to various disciplines and courses, Bloom’s taxonomy, published in 1956, remains the dominant framework for classifying, categorising, and designing programme aims and intended learning outcomes. One of the most important and influential works for more than half a century, Bloom’s taxonomy continues to do at least two things. First, it eliminates the social aspects of learning; and second, it defines learning outcomes as individual goals and in behavioural terms. It is widely used and well established as a way to view, develop, and evaluate learning objectives. Educators have turned to Bloom’s taxonomy to provide the language or more specifically, the appropriate verbs for educational levels. As such, it is a document-at-work and in complete circulation in educational systems around the globe. I have to remind myself that Bloom’s taxonomy was and is still a guide that focuses on the cognitive domain of learning, assuming learning could be compartmentalised, stored and retrieved for higher-order thinking skills. It is often overlooked or forgotten that it was part of the three-part system of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains. Consequently, it has survived various educational shifts from behaviourism to constructivism and from a focus on learning content to student learning outcomes. Undeniably, it has been a key document in articulating the scope and level of intended learning outcomes beyond subject-matter content items in “measurable” (ie. usage of similar verbs really) terms. However, the collateral (unintended) reality of this is that it limits knowledge with a view that the mind is a “mental filing cabinet,” where knowledge could be stored and retrieved for higher-order thinking skills. Ultimately, Bloom’s taxonomy perpetuates and promotes the view that learning is a product.

Oh no, what have we (I) done? It frames learning as a product. Unbeknown to us (me), it has been a ‘perfect fit’ for the marketised view of education. This taxonomy that has become ours or simply mine is as complicit as we are, perhaps unknowingly, in circulating learning as a commodity. In encouraging the spread of the taxonomy in our (my) courses, we (I) have uncritically deployed and disseminated an outdated conceptualisation of learning and knowledge. With our (my) help, the learning-as-product view has remained resilient. What have we (I) done? Bloom’s taxonomy has been put to work for far too long and as such, it has become one of the institutional norms and the gold standard of quality.

Intended Learning Outcomes

Outcomes-based assessment has become a fully developed and deployed system in higher education institutions. Intended learning outcomes based on Bloom’s taxonomy are standardised and executed through documents of academic framework, curriculum guides, syllabi and rubrics. Intended learning outcomes have to do more with administrative and regulatory necessity than serving the purposes for which they are adapted. They are irrelevant to my teaching where I want my students to have unintended learning outcomes.

I am expected to be specific and transparent about the learning outcomes of my courses. I have to make sure these are measurable and consistently assessed for all my students. These are false assumptions that must be unpicked and exposed in driving syllabi, courses and programmes through a set of predetermined outcomes. Learning outcomes remain ambiguous whatever verbs and descriptors are used. A verb could not really “stand in,” though this is what documents have been allowed to do despite the better judgements of institutions and academics. Of course, we know that we have to formulate our learning outcomes based on the subject matter, an understanding of the requirements of the course and educational level and informed by our experiences of teaching and marking at various levels. These are not easily captured in text and even if they are, students would not necessarily have the expertise or experience to read the ‘intended meaning or message’ assigned or would the verbs themselves be able to precisely mean and articulate academic standards and expectations. Hence, the written learning outcomes do not make things transparent at all. First, writing learning outcomes down does not make them transparent. Instead of teaching, I spend too much time explaining the universal learning outcomes to all my students with varied backgrounds, interests and abilities. How could I be instrumental in making them focus on the product and not the process of learning? I should not do this. Yet I have to answer students’ questions. The learning outcomes are written down in their syllabus. Once read, the interpretation is varied and the meaning is not easily shared. Ultimately, they are only transparent to those who create and write them.

Documents become sources of standards and are, to some extent, circulated as standards. As such, they become performance monitors that carry the weight of invisible and yet dominant positivist values. They control and regulate the behaviour of teachers and students. I must not allow this to be done to me or my students. Just as “words do things,” documents do things, too. They are not just inscription or recording devices that could be set and used before, during, and after in teaching and assessment. They are not neutral probes. They have effects. Although something like a syllabus seems to offer more transparency, it also conceals and ignores the emergent nature of learning and its outcomes. Ultimately, they become checklists for self and external regulation and surveillance. This culture is very much defined and bound universally and persistently with Bloom’s taxonomy and intended learning outcomes in the documents we (I) circulate to our (my) students. Its enculturation is encompassing and calls into being national degree standards and systems of external examiners (at least where I am). And now, we have become culturally stuck with Bloom’s taxonomy and verb-driven learning outcomes, which are arbitrarily ordered from low to high. If unexamined, there is a real danger that uncritical acceptance of increasingly prescriptive standardised outcomes are created and maintained with a level of stability and false assurance of quality in teachers and learners alike. We (I) must intervene and re-engage with the critical dimensions of pedagogy. What is written down “does” deliver unintended (collateral) realities. Outcomes become sources of standards and to some extent they are circulated as standards.

Let us be clear, I am not arguing that learning outcomes should be abandoned. Articles and colleagues in this journal have used, revised, and implemented Bloom’s taxonomy in their own terms. I do agree that the curriculum of any programme or course must introduce the learner to concepts and ideas at progressively more complex levels. However, my argument (thinking aloud for myself here) is that I must not do as the documents ask me to. I must act creatively and critically. I shall put Bloom’s taxonomy on the table and subject it to close scrutiny with my students. I must resist the regime of quality control, which has become more about the control, than quality. That first-year students must “describe,” second-year students must “explain” and “analyse” and in their final year (In the UK) they must “evaluate” or “analyse critically” is most absurd. These may seem “natural” and universally accepted. Yet there is nothing “natural” about Bloom’s taxonomy and its hierarchical levels of higher thinking skills.

To change the content of document templates is to be non-compliant and to be warned about collaboration and teamwork with fellow teachers, including students who have learned to aim for prescribed outcomes. Borrowing the words of Lee Skallerup Bessette and revising them slightly here, “are we just teaching [our students] … to achieve a static goal [aka intended learning outcomes!]? Are we providing too inflexible a template (ie. Bloom’s taxonomy in this case) to have their [outcomes] ... be anything more than the illusion of … [learning]?” For my colleagues’ sake (and sometimes my own sanity) I must comply. How do I intervene and interrupt the doings of documents, the boxes that dictate my teaching position and paradigm? How do I re-work what matters to create context? And consider what must be undone to make visible the mattering of teaching and assessment?

A Different Document

With the works of colleagues here and your (my) voice/s, we (I) must create a different document and not worry so much about how to use “verbs” properly based on Bloom’s taxonomy. I rarely tweet, but I had one about a call for unintended learning outcomes. I should have added #unintendedlearningoutcomes to my post. But I simply forgot.

Reflection, Not Recall (for I forget)

I am not arguing that learning outcomes should be abandoned or that we (I) should not have them in our (my) syllabi. They do matter. However, they have to matter less than us (me) and our (my) students. I do agree that students must be introduced to concepts and ideas progressively towards more complex levels. But this should not be done through documented outcomes which could potentially limit the possibilities of teaching and learning practices and devalue our (my) emergent and dialogic relations with students. How could we (I) possibly submit my academic work to pre-determined outcomes in documents and how could they possibly matter more than the emergent realities of what is learned? Documents are both producers and products of practice through repetition and coordination. This is not a complaint or criticism of the things we do or indeed about the standards we are expected to maintain. It is an attempt to attend to what documents actually “say” and “do.” It is an observation about the nature of practice, which is not something I and my colleagues simply do. It is done alongside documents, which are also “at work.” Instead, it is a recognition that documents could be done differently or in more than one way. We must look at them and not through them. They must do work for us (me) and for our (my) students.They must serve us (me) and not the other way around.