Prescribed Outcomes in Formal Education


Today I came across an image entitled, Types of Student Inquiry, which sparked a Twitter exchange around the notion of prescribed outcomes. I would like to dig a bit deeper into the idea of prescribed outcomes, specifically within the context of formal education.  By formal education, I simply mean teaching and learning that occurs in schools which follow some form of written, taught, and tested curriculum.  This argument does not hold up to informal learning contexts.  My Twitter exchange with Sanchez is more related to what is meant by the term prescribed outcomes and less about educational philosophy; having followed her for some time, I can say we agree on most things when it comes to education.  My argument here has more to do with how others might interpret the idea of inquiry as it relates to their own local practice.

My initial reaction to the types of student inquiry related to the small degree of difference between structured, controlled, and guided inquiry, followed by an enormous jump from guided to free inquiry.  The differences that I am referring to have to do with transitioning learners from being dependent, to independent, to finally becoming more interdependent (You can find more about this by searching interdependent in this blog).  But what stood out the most from these different types of student inquiry was the definition of free inquiry:

Students choose their topics without reference to any prescribed outcome.

After a few Twitter transactions, Sanchez suggested that students, “first come up with ideas & the topic which are approved [by] the teacher but they still choose“. (Emphasis added.)

So, one could argue that giving students opportunities to choose about what and how they are learning aligns with the definition of free inquiry based on the definition above.  It sounds logical that letting students decide is equivalent to freeing up the inquiry process. But looking at the underlined part of the definition is what is in question: ...without reference to any prescribed outcome.

When teaching grammar, language educators typically have two approaches: teaching grammar prescriptively and teaching grammar descriptively.  Teaching prescriptively is about making a clear distinction as to what is correct or incorrect when it comes to grammar.  In contrast, teaching descriptively has more to do with teaching or learning grammar based on how it is currently being used within a particular speech community.  An example might include the subjunctive verb, were.

(Prescriptive grammar): I wish I were a millionaire…This is the correct use of the verb were and saying I wish I was a millionaire… is incorrect.

(Descriptive grammar): I wish I was a millionaire…Using was in this case is commonly used in songs, poetry, and common day-to-day interactions in both formal and informal situations, and therefore is acceptable.    

Just as a doctor prescribes medicine or a way of life to a patient who is ill, a teacher at some point “prescribes” an outcome, process, product, or content to a student who is experiencing a gap in knowledge and/or skill sets.  The word prescribe within the context of this post relates to a ¨correct or incorrect¨assessment of outcomes to a given set of desired results (e.g., the curriculum).  Agreed, feedback can be qualitative or quantitative, but in formal education, a student typically either passes or does not pass a class.

Sanchez states, “The image doesn’t say students do whatever it says no prescribed outcomes”.

If teachers agree that students can choose topics but should be approved by teachers, then the approval process must be based on criteria or a set of standards that all students must follow.  The criteria are usually related to (or based on) outcomes, products, processes, and content.  The criteria are the expectations the students should meet based in large part on the curriculum, and are reflected in the outcomes, etc.  This does not mean that students have no input or may not make any decisions on the outcomes, product, process, or content, but there are expectations that students must meet, and these expectations impact the expected outcomes students are to pursue.

Now, one could argue that teachers may not dictate these outcomes, products, processes, or content before the learning sequence, but the learning objectives are (or should be) determined beforehand.  Outcomes that align with learning objectives can emerge (inductive learning) or they can be shared beforehand (deductive learning);  they can be implicit or explicit. Regardless, at some point outcomes must adhere to standards that will be assessed based on the curriculum.  And because instruction and (formative) assessment are so closely intertwined, topics students discuss must (at some point) be referenced to some prescribed outcome.  This can happen without specifying how the outcome was determined (or by whom) or when throughout the learning sequence the outcome is determined.

As a side note, the act of inquiry is part of an overall learning sequence that likely will also include collaboration, cooperation, creation, etc., so saying that free inquiry has no reference to any prescribed outcome could lead some to believe that outcomes are completely separate from the inquiry process.  It seems logical to believe that the inquiry process (regardless of kind) would also consider various kinds of outcomes.

If students are to receive a grade, or fail/pass marks, then at some point student outcomes become prescribed to the degree that outcomes meet or fail to meet some level of criteria or set of standards that align with a curriculum.  Without such criteria, student outcomes would take on any form.  Having prescribed outcomes simply means that expectations about those outcomes have been communicated, discussed, negotiated, etc., between teachers and all learners.

What are your thoughts about inquiry?  Agree or disagree with my argument?

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