Taking notes 58: For the love of thinking: eleven theses

[Credit: iStock .]
[Credit: iStock .]
by Jeff Noonan

(1) Teaching at the university level is not a practice of communicating or transferring information but awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things. The desire to think is awakened in students if the teacher is able to reveal the importance of the discipline to exposing to question established “solutions” to fundamental problems of human experience, thought, activity, relationship, and organization.  Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.

(2) True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom. Both are rooted in the most remarkable power of the brain:  not to simulate, not to sense, not to tabulate, not to infer, but to co-constitute the objective world of which it is an active part. In thinking we do not just passively register the world, we transform it in the act of knowing. To think is thus to cancel the alien objectivity of the world and to become a subject, an active force helping to shape the order of things.

(3) The awakening of the power to think in students is best accomplished in face-to-face contexts. When students and teachers are materially co-present to one another, the challenge-structure of learning is most intense.  Sharing the same learning space means that each can hold the others’ immediately accountable for their claims and in turn be held accountable for theirs.  The discomfort essential to learning is best produced in a materially shared learning space.  Information can be transmitted over the web, but education depends upon “the unease at feeling an earlier world-view challenged and exposed as partial, contradictory, or rooted in false normative assumptions …to become educated is to internalise this dissatisfaction with the given state of your understanding, to practice on yourself the critical questioning through which cognitive growth occurs, and then to engage others in the same spirit of respectful conflict, in formal or informal settings.” (Noonan and Coral, “Education, Social Interaction, and Material Co-presence: Against Virtual Pedagogical Reality,” Interchange, 43, No. 4, pp. 31-43, 2013).

[Credit: joebower.]
[Credit: joebower.]
(4) All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations. To love to think is identical to the need to question the given:  the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, the overall problems of life as such which given forms of social life try to answer.  To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things.  While often associated with education in the humanities, all disciplines are capable of cultivating the love of thinking to the extent that they foreground the questionability of past claims in the discipline and the world over the mechanical mastery of techniques, rules, and methods.  Of course, techniques, rules and methods are essential to disciplinary knowledge, but as means to the development of understanding  the human problems the discipline explores.

(5) Thus, the person who loves to think is critically minded. The critically minded person is not an undisciplined skeptic, but one who can detect contradictions between principle and practice, and between principles and the values to which they purportedly lead as means. Critical thinking is not the ability to solve problems within the established parameters of social, economic, political, aesthetic, and intellectual-scientific life. Change is impossible if all that people can do is apply the given rules. If the problem lies with the established rules (and fundamental problems in any field always concern the established rules), then confining critical thinking to “problem solving” always serves the status quo (i.e., repeats the cause of the problem as the solution).

(6) Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which problems are posed and the life of the interaction between teacher and students is collective effort to solve the problem, all the while understanding that fundamental problems must always be taken up anew. Claim, counter-claim, response, and development of the argument to a wider conceptual coherence constitutes the life of learning. Students who love to learn are willing to assume the obligation to always think in public regardless of what the authorities (political or disciplinary) say and thus push the inquiry or argument beyond where those authorities would like it to remain.

[Credit: Nick Sousanis.]
(7) Of course, learning to love to think is always developed in relation to a specific subject-matter and definite methodologies. Every class or course of study obviously has a subject-matter and outcomes in the generic sense of content and skills that the student must grasp as elements of learning the subject-matter and the techniques of the discipline.  Learning to think is not  opposed to acquiring specific skills and competencies (or being evaluated on how well one has mastered them), but thinking is not reducible to these skills or competencies either.  These are always means to the real end:  awakening and cultivating the love of thinking.

(8) The problematic form of learning outcomes are administratively-imposed, government-mandated, quantifiable (assessable) competencies. As the instructions for writing learning outcomes at my university explains, “The learning outcomes approach to education means basing program and curriculum design, content, delivery, and assessment on an explicit identification of the integrated knowledge, skills and values needed by both students and society … It differs from more traditional academic approaches that emphasize coverage by its emphasis on basing curriculum on what students need to know and be able to do as determined by student and societal needs not disciplinary tradition.”  They are problematic because: a)  disciplinary traditions are the heart of university education, b) “student and social need reduces to labour-market demand, and therefore, c)  they are explicitly directed against disciplinary autonomy and academic freedom in favour of a commodified conception of education as purchase of essential skills.  Learning outcomes are justified as proof of a new concern within the university with the quality of teaching and student learning.  In reality, they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking. Ironically, the passive, consumeristic attitude learning outcomes encourage in students works against both the motivations for learning and the acquisitions of the skills and assimilation of the information that the learning outcomes prioritise.

(9) While they are often sold to faculty as means to improve teaching and better serve the interests of students, what they in fact achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer. (See further, Furedi, Frank, 2012, “The Unhappiness Principle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 29th; Stefan Collini, “Who Are the Spongers Now?London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No.2, January 21, 2016). While teaching can always be improved, the motor of improvement must always be the desire on the part of the teacher to better cultivate the dispositions of critical thinking in the student, and never to simply comply with economic and administrative demands to adapt to passing fashions presented as the only way to really serve students’ interests.

[Credit: watotonatembo.]
[Credit: watotonatembo.]
(10) Learning outcomes are also instantiations of the emergent obsessions with quantitative measure as the only means of understanding the value of achievements or practices. As metrics, they are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition not subject to quantitative measure but only qualitative interpretation over time frames much longer than a class or course of study). In their belief that only that which is measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects (the “externalist fallacy,” John McMurtry, “What Is Good, What is Bad, The Value of All Values Across Time, Places, and Theories,” Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1, EOLSS Publishers, 2011, p. 269). Even if they are not explicitly justified in terms of  “customer satisfaction,”  it is clear that when thought within the context of society-wide changes to public institutions and attacks on public sector workers (which include professors in Canada), learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education.  They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers.  Learning outcomes submerge the love of thinking in bureaucratic objectification of the learner as a customer, a passive recipient of closed and pre-packaged material.

(11) Hence, there is no clear pedagogical value to learning outcomes. If there is no pedagogical value how are we to understand the current fad?  It is part of the attack on the professional autonomy of professors because it is no barrier to the imposition of market discipline on universities. See, for example: Jonker, Linda, and Hicks, Martin, 2014, Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation, Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario; Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (2012);  “Post-secondary Education,” Deem, Rosemary, Hilyard, Sam, Reed, Mike, 2007, Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Mangerialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bruneau, William, 2000, “Shall We Perform or Shall We Be Free?” The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers To Canada’s Colleges and Universities, James L. Turk, ed., Toronto: Lorimer; Massy, William F, and  Zemsky, Robert, 1995, “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.” If professors are allowed to define their own terms of work (legitimated by appeal to academic freedom and professional autonomy) they escape the discipline of market forces to which other workers are subjected.  This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour).  Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.

[Credit: Bill Watterson.]
[Credit: Bill Watterson.]
[Thank you Jeff for this contribution. This piece is a slightly revised and expanded version of “Ten theses in support of teaching and against learning outcomes.]

The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012. More of his work can be found at his website: http://www.jeffnoonan.org

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