Much of modern education policy places an emphasis upon outcomes. Of course, plenty of policies restrict process as well, often not intentionally, but because policy authors created them with a limited sense of what is possible. It is a classic faster horse versus automobile challenge. For example, the US department of education contributed to countless policies over the years that were informed by the mental construct of credit hours and seat time as a valuable measure. Yet, that limits countless practices and delayed any number of promising educational innovations. Nonetheless, that is not the main focus in many conversations today. People are talking about measurable outcomes, competencies, and report cards focused upon that which is easy to measure. This reaches one of its highest levels of emphasis in the world of competency-based education, where the focus is upon demonstrating competence, but often leaving ample flexibility on how you reach a given level of competence.
Much of this focus upon the outcome can be traced back to the concept of learning objectives, which I explained in this 2013 article. Here is a quick quote from that essay:
In fact, some point to a 1918 text called The Curriculum as the starting point for the modern idea of learning objectives. The utilitarian approach to education asserted in this text (clearly informed by the industrial revolution) sought to design lessons and units of instruction by first analyzing humanity in society, breaking down the necessary skills and knowledge into “objectives” that can then inform what one teaches in the classroom.
When I wrote this in 2013, my main point was that I saw (and continue to see) a growing contingent in education that represents what I call a post-objective perspective on teaching and learning. This includes growing interest in topics like motivation, engagement, passion, purpose, meaning, community, ongoing mentoring, and the like. Of course, since 2013, we’ve also witnessed even more of an outcome-based emphasis of education from others. This is going to be further amplified in the upcoming years by the dominance of big data and artificial intelligence. These innovations will value and amplify that which is more easily measured. The messier and less quantifiable, at least in the early phases of artificial intelligence, will get minimized. We then find ourselves reinventing our learning communities into servants of the numbers, measures, and outcomes that are valued by those with the most power or influence in a given domain.
What does this have to do with the title of the article? How you pick a tomato will eventually change its flavor, and what are the implications for education? Allow me to give a brief history of tomato picking. It used to be that the tomatoes you bought in the store made it there after being handpicked by someone and then delivered to the place where it was sold. Go back far enough, and it usually meant that it was both handpicked and grown locally. To get a sense of what those tomatoes tasted like, just buy a typical store-bought tomato today and eat it alongside a tomato picked out of your garden or the garden of someone who lives relatively close to you. In most cases, you will find a burst of flavor in the garden variety and a thicker skinned, less flavorful version from the store. There are a growing number of exceptions to this today, and that is encouraging, but it is still the exception, not the norm.
As industrial farming found its way into dominance, we found handpicked tomatoes replaced by those harvested with a combine head that mechanically picked tomatoes. This could do the work faster and more efficiently, only it benefited by using or breeding a different variety of tomato with thicker skin (that can hold up to the machinery). Unfortunately, such varieties also tended to be less flavorful as well. Things have changed over the years, with better machinery and other innovations, but along the way, the innovation of the tomato picker did not just change how tomatoes were picked. It created a chain reaction of events that changed the taste of the tomato that you buy in the store. That is my point in the title of this article. How you pick a tomato has changed and does change the tomato. It is still a tomato that looks basically the same. People buy it, eat it, and seem generally satisfied. Yet, there was something changed (and potentially lost) along the way.
This same concept is true in education. Outcomes don’t tell us everything about education. Change the system to make it more efficient and to hit certain numbers that you deem important. Raise test scores. Then celebrate your accomplishments. Only, we are wise to look more closely and think more carefully. Process matters. Culture matters. The experience matters. There is so much more that matters than what you measure, and in this current age, if we value these other things at all, we are wise to find ways that we can give voice to our value of process, culture, community, and many other things that are not as easy to fit into our latest algorithm or standardized assessment. Now is the time for us to celebrate the promise, possibility, and affordances of AI and big data, but right alongside that, we must find ways to amplify that with risks getting lost or minimized along the way.
This is not a call for us to return to some idyllic (and largely fictional) past. In fact, I contend that we’ve been in the era of dehumanizing education for over a century. Instead, I see these new innovations and this dynamic time in education as an opportune time to reflect, refine, and re-imagine learning. Let’s just do it in a way that embodies that which is most important to us. Let’s not forget the deeply and fundamentally human spirit of education.