During a workshop I recently offered at the annual conference of the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO), I was surprised–though not really, now that I think about it–that the Q&A at the end of my presentation took a turn toward questioning and critiquing the notion of learning outcomes. Many of the dance educators in attendance teach either at the K-12 level or in higher education and, while accustomed to being drilled on the importance of learning “outcomes” by school administrators and education experts completely unfamiliar with dance, showed skepticism, if not outright hostility, toward the notion of assessable outcomes. But my questioning of the fundamental philosophy behind this push in education definitely struck a chord with the teachers I met that day.
The subject came about inadvertently while I was discussing the notion of teaching as performance. I hadn’t intended to explicitly criticize the notion of learning outcomes but I think some of those in the session surmised that sentiment from my main point that, as educators, we should be focusing on creating transformative experiences for our students. And, as ambitious as that sounds, that is really all any educator can hope to offer their students–a crafted experience. Furthermore, the “crafting of experience” is how I choose to define the act of performance.
The larger point I was making was that the act of performance itself is a powerfully transformative subjective experience. To take to the stage is to enact an experience that ultimately will result in changes to our audience and, ultimately and more importantly, changes to ourselves. I think it’s helpful to consider performative and educational experiences in terms such as “time spent” or “changes felt” in a real time and space and in a real body, rather than as simply “learning outcomes” achieved.
During my presentation, I hinted that we should re-imagine the goals of our teaching not as skills to be achieved in some concrete way but in terms of transformative experiences that we can craft for our students that bring about meaningful shifts.
I think teaching objectives should be rephrased from sentences that sound like:
“At the end of this course, students will know . . .”
To those that sound more like this:
“At the end of this course, students will have gained experience [ -ing verb] by [another -ing verb] [direct object (like project)].”
“At the end of this course students will have gained experience performing on the stage by participating in live performances.”
“At the end of this course, students will have gained experience writing academic essays by developing projects in a variety of academic genres.”
We could even further expand these to include the role of the teacher:
“ . . . with guidance throughout the creative process.”
And we could further expand these outcomes to offer some degree of some conclusive outcome assessable on the singular basis of whether or not it took place:
“ . . . performed in front of a live audience.”
“. . . subjected to a peer review process.”
Outcomes written this way fit both the criterion for measurable assessment (‘did this happen?’ or ‘are students walking away with something that we had promised them?’) but also the critical principle that learning is a subjective transformative experience, whose very power resists objective, quantifiable measurement.
To be content with positivist, objectified (to the degree objective measurement is possible in wholly subjective disciplines) assessments of student learning to neglect the undeniable power of emergent transformations that occur when enactive, cognitive, and affective processes are allowed to synergize in one subjective experience, namely the act of performance.
As any teacher who has nervously waited in the wings while their student steps onto the stage and braves the glare of the spotlight can attest, it is that transformational moment of doing/thinking/feeling/changing before our very eyes that we know changes lives. No mere bureaucratic instrument of assessment can come close to measuring, capturing, or even comprehending that transcendent power that we ourselves have experienced all our lives. As true for writing as it is for dance, transformation can be invited but not necessarily understood.
It happens in the moment of performance and that is all we need to know.