European and international experts took part in Cedefop’s 3rd policy learning forum (PLF) on learning outcomes in vocational education and training (VET), in cooperation with UNESCO, in Thessaloniki on 21 and 22 June.

Used in different settings and for different purposes – ranging from qualifications frameworks to qualification standards, curricula and assessment criteria – learning outcomes influence the way teaching and learning is organised and carried out. This makes it increasingly important to reflect on the conceptual basis of the approach and its implications for policy and practice.

Cedefop Head of Department for VET Systems and Institutions Loukas Zahilas opened the forum, stressing the excellent cooperation with UNESCO and the international character of the event with 30 countries represented, including EU Member States, South Africa, Laos, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago and United Arab Emirates. He also talked about the history of learning outcomes from 2007 to 2018, the ‘success story’ of Cedefop’s European handbook on defining, writing and applying learning outcomes, which was published in 2017, and the ambition to make it international.

Building on discussions from the 2015 and 2016 policy learning forums, the handbook outlines the different uses of learning outcomes, points to the dilemmas involved in writing and using them, and proposes an array of practical ‘rules of thumb’. The 2018 PLF built on messages from the handbook, focusing on four main issues:

  • conceptual roots of the learning outcomes approach;
  • the role of learning outcomes in governing education and training;
  • learning outcomes as a common, international language;
  • updating the handbook.

Discussions on the topics above, particularly including international experts, will feed into revising and strengthening the 2017 learning outcomes handbook.

In the first day’s keynote speeches, Sequel IEC’s John Hart called the handbook ‘a comprehensive piece of work’ and focused on whether learning processes should be dumbed down or opened up. He showed how the move towards outcome-based education and training systems puts the pupil/student/learner at the centre of the process.

Cedefop’s Jens Bjornavold reflected on the use of learning outcomes as an instrument for governing education and training systems. Some stakeholders see the learning outcomes approach as a way to balance central control with local autonomy. Mr Bjornavold partly supported this aspiration, but warned against too narrow, result-oriented approaches and underlined the need for a wider process-orientation in this area.

Country cases of how conceptual shaping of learning outcomes affects their use in policy and practice were presented, and working groups went deeper into the issue identifying challenges and opportunities.

UNESCO’s Borhene Chakroun discussed qualifications and their link to the labour market in the second day’s keynote speech. He said that learning outcomes are the language of lifelong learning that bridges the world of education and the world of work. He also argued that, when comparing qualifications we need to look at the content, not only at the levels as they may differ from country to country, adding: ‘Our work with Cedefop shows that we can compare learning outcomes; we have the tools to do so.’

International experts presented observations on the role of learning outcomes in promoting international cooperation, communication and networking, and a panel discussion explored the requirements for the actual use and potential benefit of learning outcomes in practice.

The forum ended with the commitment to continue work in the area, engaging also international stakeholders.