The Learning Contract

Learning contracts and the time and place of planning

I have been following the DLMOOC and in one of the sessions on assessments had me asking the question if anybody had used learning contracts in their project based learning [PBL] work.

It seems that the panelists had not had that much involvement in using them. I was a little surprised as learning contracts seemed to form a core part of my student centered learning experience at the School for Independent Study in the 1980s/90s.

Most panelists in this week 7 seemed to be saying that appraisals assessments were done chiefly post-hoc – i.e. at the end when the project was finished and offered as feedback, instead of a feed-forward  à priori plan of what the student/s were going to discover, why and what they would need, and how they could be assessed [by what?].

Before Kant, concepts that are  à posteriori were therefore considered empirical derived from experience (Scruton, 1995: p.474). Kant developed twelve categories of mental processes that he argued are  à priori and enables us to make sense of sensory information. These categories are the means by which our mental processes enable us to interpret and have understanding of experience. Expanded upon this is in a similar vein we must learn regarding how to critique and judge.  As Kant indicated: “It is, therefore, a question which requires close investigation, and is not to be answered at first sight,—whether there exists a knowledge altogether independent of experience, and even of all sensuous impressions? Knowledge of this kind is called à priori, in contradistinction to empirical knowledge which has its sources à posteriori, that is, in experience.” Just what do we need to know before we embark on projects, and of course, any sort of evaluation of effectiveness or success, in terms of either outcomes or products, or in terms of learning experiences. I can remember I knew nothing about roofs in Scotland, until I got involved in a building project on a property I owned. Some months later casually staring out of the window of a high-rise flat in a tenement building, a friend’s house in Edinburgh.  I found myself not only recognizing but critiquing the manner in which the roofer had done his lead flashing round the dormers. Wow, not only could I read and speak ‘roofs’ but also understood something of the decision-making process, rationales, that went into them.

Can you read and speak roofs, can you be objective about them?

Daniel Bassill did mention about changing the course of projects in the process of their implementation which made me think about how decides on this, and how much of a deviation is it from the original strategic intent? John Dewey questioned the philosophical preoccupation with a search for absolute truth and certainty that exists before us in some forms a priori. This, he argued, had produced conservative philosophy concerned with the past rather than a better future. Knowledge for Dewey should serve our practical judgements, it should provide understanding that enables people to deal with problems as they arise. In Democracy and Education (1916) Dewey advocated experiential learning that nurtured reflection on experience and the systematic testing of ideas. Dewey’s approach to knowledge suggests that certainty is unlikely. But we can always reduce risk, as Pasteur said: “chance favours only the prepared mind. ”

At the School for Independent Study as an example of this was a free-standing ‘Planning Period’. This was where students were required to design their detailed personal curriculum. Acceptance of the programme was by a registration board and it was a condition of entry to the course and the registered programme established the elements of the final assessment and the criteria by which it would be made.

The board checked the integrity and feasibility of the programme. Extending this into  today’s working practice, this could be the means through which the stated project is evaluated against the learning outcomes of a common core or other form of assessment rubric. It could be at some other meta-level which regarded the student’s perceived outcomes in their own particular correspondence to shared outcomes. In any case at the School for Independent Study, the courses were ultimately accredited by a national body, The Council for National Academic Awards and considered to be at least equivocal to a standard honours bachelor degree course. Those responsible for the due diligence in ascertaining this were happy of this equivocation.

In the case of younger school age, including elementary, students – I hold that more or less assistance could fade in or out, offered by the teacher or peers in facilitating and helping the planning and preparing of the learning contract. such frmalised planning is the kind of academic mind-set which I hold can and should be inculcated early in the programme for students, so that it becomes, like learning the alphabet, a natural approach to working on independent and group based projects and project tasks.

I would note here that PBL and abilities to present work adequately, was a problem I identified in university age students both in the U.K. and in Cambodia and Africa. Learning to put forward your ideas on various media and platforms, but perhaps most importantly in face-to-face presentations are a superb means by which to learn essential communication skills.  I love the formats used by Pecha Kucha – 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images.

Overdoes of didactic and inflexible teaching styles and content have bred inabilities to properly articulate and express ideas, especially in the developing world, where teaching is reciting passages and showing your learning is reciting passages, often word for word, poetry recital style. But I have seen this in countless occasions and not only in emerging economies. At the world class institution where I completed my post-graduate studies, I couldn’t help notice that even in my tutorial groups there was a marked difference between the strong ‘debating society’ rhetoric and very able IT and essay writing skills of undergrads coming from the expensive British private schools, and that of their high-achieving state run comprehensive peers. The only difference seemed to be that in the private schools one was taught to be forthright and rigorous in your communication and had access to one-on-one tuition to boot regarding style, prose, content, and form.

The planning period the School for Independent Study – situated in a traditional institutional environment – also included a strong component of negotiation regarding the acceptance of their personal interests or problem identification with reference to the ways in which the institution embodied an intellectual field, compartmentalised in disciplines and departmental organizations, as well as potential outside agencies such as experts, practitioners, professionals etc. This sometimes meant getting involved in the politics, and sometime the economics of the matter. there were advocates and many critics of the radical method.

So independence, as it is understood here, was not to be seen as an absolute condition. Rather we came to realise that even in the most independent aspects of our work we are most often always dependent upon something or on others. It is better to acknowledge early that there was a spectrum of degrees of dependence and the course gave them the responsibility to decide what kind of risk to take in securing approvals from internal and external agencies, as well as locating and accessing knowledge and resources.  Continual assessment of the need for help from others, and what need was sought out seemed an important characteristic  for both evaluators and practitioners of projects alike, and this detracted from the ‘lust for result’ that typically characterises projects and often, their crisis.  This is somewhat like the extremes of potential strategies for creative artists and intellectuals between the purity of expressiveness on the one hand and journalistic subordination to the expectations of either readers, voters, clients, customers, partners, up line managers etc on the other. Not all of us can be Philippe Stark or Damien Hurst.

The ‘learning contract’ or `the statement’  [more onerous?]  – was designed in order to signify its origin as an expression of need and intent by the student. If there is no need and intent then can it be accepted that the project lacks authenticity?

Knowles (1986) reports that learning contracts tap students’` deepest motivation’ such as `increases in self-esteem, responsibility, creativity, and self-fulfilment’ (p42)., or as Tough (1979), in his studies of independent adult learners, observed earlier that `the pleasure or self-esteem from possession may be the primary reason for beginning and continuing a project’. Intrinsic motivation of getting into what Csikszentmihalyi termed ‘flow’ is one of the keys to deeper learning certainly with respect to motivation. We should also most famously remember Ivan Illich when he extolls us that :”We can depend on self-motivated learning instead of employing  teachers to bribe or compel the student to find the time and the will to learn; that we can provide the learner with new links to the world instead of continuing to funnel all education programmes through the teacher’ (p.73) Here in Cambodia there is a saying that goes: “Ches min chhnah chorng” which means “Willingness gets more successes than knowledge.” It gives values to a person’s attitudes rather than his or her knowledge. Knowing is not better than willingness [I wonder, could this mean persistence as well?].

But what are young people interested in? So while you can ask whether school and universities or media know what young people want, let’s start by turning it around: do young people know what they want from school and universities or media? And what do we say when all they want to do is let themselves be programmed by whoever wrote that game, or manufactured that image? When turning a Focualtian analysis into a Feminist analysis of Lady Gaga, is not what they would choose as a project, nor would infused contemplation of divine non-sense in respect to angry bird and Facebook. They may feel like they would rather exuberant in the shear gloss of it all, rather than dismantle, regurgitate and reassemble in order to see how it works. How can young people tell you what they want if they don’t know what’s available beyond the echo chamber of their offline and online peer groups?

And so another question dominates when we come to agency and structure as it presents in the minds of particularly young learners: in an age where commercial forces  and predatory business models predominate, and indeed global media is controlled by a handful of corporations, to what extent do we do projects on the subject of Google Zeitgeist the you tube cats, Kardashians [I still don;t know who they are], Ben 10, iPhone 5s,  Minecraft, or  “Gangnam Style” or the legions of seductive flash games that seek to addict on which turn their attention from mindful reflective practitioners into mindless button pushers, and quasi karaoke hip hop dancers whose pink and jet black spiky hairdos’ are operated by a flash programmer somewhere deep in Nickelodeon’s advertising department. The particular influence on Cambodia has been cited here and here.

The learning contract and its discontents:

1.       An identification of existing strengths and weaknesses in skills, knowledge and experience

The narrative of who a person is, what their educational goals, attitudes and interests are, and some self-appraisal of what they have learned is a crucial aspect of any student-centered approach. Clearly here the older the learner the more rich may be their experiences, and the more skills and knowledge, they may command. Not all of this may be relevant to the project or programme, but the best arbitrator of relevance  in a free market economy is surely the student themselves. This can be as broad or as specific as it needs to be for the individuals involved, relative to the current project or programme. Very young learners may be viewed as not possessing enough ‘general knowledge’ or ‘basic skills’ in order to engage in deep and lengthy projects or programmes, but even they can indicate this implicitly and explicitly [remember ‘context is king‘] as they progress. There really is no need to ‘dumb down’ providing they are those who suggested, subscribed to, or realised the project.  They may have difficulty even coming up with ideas for projects, or how to elaborate its planning. Other problems you may encounter:

•Significant differences between declaration and practice (i.e. use of feedback/ choice of resources)
•Feedback seen as a perpetual motion machine – integration was a problem
•Creating an image of who/where they wanted to be but not knowing how to get there
•Confusing directions/ lack of clear maps
•Choice paralysis [aka, Barry Swartz]

This is where the teacher/facilitator steps in as Devil’s advocate, a fascinated and involved member of an on-looking audience to the fish bowl, an intrepid anthropologist looking at an alien lifestyle, or Socrates herding his student to answer their own questions by making them think and drawing out the or an answer from them.  As E.M. Forster said: “Spoon feeding, in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” Clearly the students must know what a spoon is, and something of how it can be used [I won’t warble on as pocket book philosopher does about Heidegger……yet].  Similarly there must be some basic knowledge, like the alphabet, learned even by rote, that the students begin their excursions from.  Discussion of why a ‘  not a ‘q’ are fruitless escapades of philosophy made by those who ‘know’ why… Students are never ‘Tabla Rasa’ – and what is inscribed in the long term memory, or to paraphrase Maria Montessori  ‘sponged up’, should be those basic units which lend the largest amount of behavioural and creative outcomes [even arcane and abstract works of fiction like James Joyce’s  ‘Finnegan’s Wake’  are comprised of the 26 letters of the English alphabet] .

In our school we have children as old as first grade who not only are English Learners, but have never socialised with other children and had fairly cloistered social experiences generally. Accompanying this, we must also be aware of the historical, cultural and ideological considerations of being situated in Cambodia. These may be viewed to reinforce, what those from an active learning leaning would consider as extremely negative attitudes. These are captured in sayings such as: “First you learn respect, then your letters.” other attitudes which have been cited have included that: “Expressing oneself in the classroom is inappropriate.  A productive learning environment is one where everyone is very quiet and still“ And also: “a tendency not to seek help from the teacher when they do not understand something in the classroom.” Maybe the worst culprit here is “Do not try to grasp the mountain with your short  body and short arms”which basically means “Do not try to do anything beyond your abilities and available resources.” Or “egg not to hit the stone” which means weak (powerless) people should not to challenge powerful people. Who denotes [assesses] your abilities and what controls your available resources, and they who are legitimised to wield and impose power are taken to be independent variables of course. Without digressing too much into Focault we can understand that such folklore and sayings promote a fixed rather than a growth mindset.

In many ways the culture and democratic, individualistic ideologies which we may praise as tending towards ‘individual expression’, ‘inclusivity’ ‘open source’ ‘learning 3.0’ ‘deeper learning’ and ‘participatory’ – comes up against the milieu in which we operate in its conservationism and  very fixed mind-set. One where the opinion of others, right or wrong, is often viewed as more important.  An additional bugbear is the local media could be generously regarded as ‘impoverished’ in terms of its diversity and quality, with Channels operating under the hegemony of political parties; most programmes are government, police and military meetings etc. interspersed with Laurel and Hardy slapstick, dubbed Korean soap operas with regressive recurring themes of unrequited love , infidelity, and hospitalisation, Game shows,   Hong Kong gangster kung-fu. There are no local newspapers, hardly any civic resources, libraries, art galleries, theaters, and no outlets for youth such as youth clubs etc.  It is against these influences, which are very strong, persuasive and indeed dominant, that we work with students to understand and learn together. As Neil Postman said:

“Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?” 

If this is not all, we must exercise care to avoid the category error in thinking that reduced English skills mean lack of knowledge or motivation. Children may know more than they can express in the second language, and in any case the Philosopher of Science Michael Polanyi indicated that we always know more than we can say, and more than we can explicitly justify.  In the light of this is difficult to engender the reflection and reflexivity required to get students to stage a critical appraisal of their educational and other experiences.

2.       The aims and objectives of the proposed project or course.

The setting of clear aims and objectives with respect to what they expect to get out of the experience is crucial, not only to the motivations and success of the project but moreover, to providing evidence that they have already reflected upon and fully comprehend obvious and salient contexts and ramifications. It also paves the way to them consider the criteria and rubrics upon which they can judge from their own perspectives whether the experience was successful or not, completed or in need of more work and research.  Clear aims and objectives are also critical factors in professional practice and agency. Considerable practice in their determination is clearly desirable as part of the ethos of 21st Century Skills.

Again, due to lack of awareness of options or alternatives, or lack of any sophisticated worldview, or even social mores it can be difficult for students to identify specific areas of knowledge, skills and experiences as potentially relevant to the development of their programme of study or project.

3. The skills development required for the study.

Specific attention can be given to the skills requirement of the particular study. Depending on its nature, the development of problem-solving skills, teamwork skills or presentation skills may be seen as integral to the fulfilment of objectives. The question here is can the student identify their intentions, personal, academic, or even vocational [in the case of the older students] with regards to the project and overall programme?

4 The content, context and operation of the study.

Accurately defining a complete action plan for the study may again be a complex process – it requires specifying the content, wider contextual implications, the proposed methods and timescales. This and subsequent sections rely upon the clear aims and objectives in order to guide and organise this part of the planning – which may change over time top suit the exigencies of the real lived project, against the imagined one.  Never the less they should be able to say words to the effect that: “In order to acquire the above areas of knowledge, skills and experience I have formulated the following plans for individual work and research.”

5 The resource implications of the study.

Resources for the study may include both human and material resources, indicating institutional and employer supervision, access to academic learning resource material, laboratory facilities.

6. A clear statement of products or outcomes of the study to be submitted for assessment.

Clearly the invitation to the student is to address key issues such as level of performance required to secure external accreditation in the submission, for example, of reports, essays, dissertations, software, artefacts, presentations etc.  In other words what do I need to produce “In order to demonstrate that I have achieved my targets I propose the following form of assessment.” Just how much this should be in the form of the process and methods employed, as well as an understanding of the ups and downs of group dynamics will supplement the content. As John Paul Sarte suggested: “The aim of language… is to communicate… to impart to others the results one has obtained… As I talk, I reveal the situation… I reveal it to myself and to others in order to change it.”

Conclusion… if there ever is one..

In short learning contracts are a means, a tool basically to reinforce and consolidate learners motivations and inclinations towards the project and an opportunity for them and their teachers to learn regarding their individual processes. This opens the opportunity to improve the work and the methods, and to foster meta-level thinking with regards to projects which can sometimes distract through their instrumental demands from learning outcomes, aims and objectives. In short the question being asked is surmised by Hinds (1991) as:

a)     Where have I been and where am I now?

b)    Where do I want to go

c)     How do I get from a to b

d)    How do I know I have arrived?

More on assessments here.


Dewey, ]. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York, NY: Macmillan

Hinds, E, (1987) The school for independent study and international links Zentrales Institut für Fernstudienforschung. Hagen, November 1987

Illich, I. (1971) De-Schooling Society London: Calder and Boyers

Kant, Immanuel (1781). Kritik der reinen Vernunft [Critique of Pure Reason]

Knowles, M.S. (1986) Using Learning Contracts, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass

Postman, P. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business Harmmondsworth: Penguin

Tough, A. (1979) The Adults Learning Projects, Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education,


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