Outcomes based education

John Howard had a column recently in the SMH about education. It was mostly a rant about the way education works these days –

“Many of the fads and politically correct fashions that have found their way into our schools undermine the quality of education. Where Big Brother or a text message jostles with Shakespeare and classical literature for a place in the English curriculum, we are robbing children of their cultural inheritance.”

But it also had a paragraph with a complaint I’ve seen before (US based, I’m afraid, but I think this controversy has been imported from the US on both sides).

“Experiments such as “outcomes-based education” not only short-change parents and children, they also put unjustified demands on teachers, with jargon-ridden curriculum statements leaving them overwhelmed when it comes to what must be taught and what standards of student achievement are expected.”

I don’t know much about educational theory, but on the face of it, outcomes based education doesn’t sound so terrible from the name. So I decided I’d better find out more about this terrible theory and how it had condemned our students to “jargon ridden curriculum statements”.

I found this this article, which explained the controversy a bit better.

The last third of this century has seen a fundamental shift in the way we determine educational quality. Previously, the conventional wisdom judged quality in terms of inputs: intentions and efforts, institutions and services, resources and spending. In the past several years, however, there has been an increasing focus on outputs: goals and ends, products and results, with a focus on core academic subjects. The first question asked is less often “How much are we spending?” and more often “What are our children learning, and how well are they learning it?”

Conservative education-policy analysts helped set the stage for this revolution in education, noting that student achievement had been declining while the input focus and resource-based strategies of the Great Society were in place and Americans spent increasing amounts of money on educating their children. The education establishment, however, showed little enthusiasm for this approach.

A focus on outcomes enables parents, politicians, and the general public to determine whether their investment in public education is resulting in students learning more and achieving at higher levels. It enables taxpayers to hold educators accountable for these results and decree appropriate consequences for success or failure. Bruno Manno explains why there is such conflict over what seemed such a good idea at the start. When states began efforts to institute outcome-based education programs, they turned the crucial task of defining outcomes over to the very education establishment figures most threatened by the process.

Having adopted in principle the focus on results, the educators present a list of outcomes that emphasize values, attitudes, and behavior and often reflect quasi-political or ideologically correct positions. 

So the problem (at least according to this commentator) isn’t really the concept – it’s the implementation. Apparently, although our politicians wanted education to be more about outcomes, the implementation by education beareaucrats and teachers has subverted it, so that the outcomes are “quasi-political and ideologically correct (note the values laden tone there – ideologically correct is clearly intended to imply left-wing, but really, should be a values neutral word).

So I had a look at the New South Wales english syllabus. Because English seems to be the main battleground. John Howard’s complained about it above, and according to Julie Bishop, our Federal Education minister, students are being forced to interpret Shakespeare through feminist and Marxist perspectives. Is it jargon ridden? Does it rob students of their cultural heritage?

The aim of English in Years 7 to 10 is to enable students to use, understand, appreciate, reflect on and enjoy the English language in a variety of texts and to shape meaning in ways that are imaginative, interpretive, critical and powerful.

Through responding to and composing a wide range of texts in context and through close study of texts, students will develop skills, knowledge and understanding in order to:

  1. speak, listen, read, write, view and represent *

  2. use language and communicate appropriately and effectively

  3. think in ways that are imaginative, interpretive and critical

  4. express themselves and their relationships with others and the world

  5. learn and reflect on their learning through their study of English.

Now John Howard’s problem was with “outcomes-based education”. So let’s look at the outcomes of the English 7-10 syllabus. These are the outcomes that if you have achieved them, you’ve finished the syllabus.

A student:

  1. responds to and composes increasingly sophisticated and sustained texts for understanding, interpretation, critical analysis and pleasure
  2. uses and critically assesses a range of processes for responding and composing
  3. selects, uses, describes and explains how different technologies affect and shape meaning
  4. selects and uses language forms and features, and structures of texts according to different purposes, audiences and contexts, and describes and explains their effects on meaning
  5. transfers understanding of language concepts into new and different contexts
  6. experiments with different ways of imaginatively and interpretively transforming experience, information and ideas into texts
  7. thinks critically and interpretively using information, ideas and increasingly complex arguments to respond to and compose texts in a range of contexts
  8. investigates the relationships between and among texts
  9. demonstrates understanding of the ways texts reflect personal and public worlds
  10. questions, challenges and evaluates cultural assumptions in texts and their effects on meaning
  11. uses, reflects on, assesses and adapts their individual and collaborative skills for learning with increasing independence and effectiveness.

So if you can do all that, you’ve finished the Year 10 English syllabus in New South Wales. From my perspective this set of outcomes does seem very jargon laden – the words text, composing and responding are clearly dripping with meaning that aren’t normally accorded those words. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that this set of outcomes is generally one that I would want my children to have – at least in my own interpretation.

The two outcomes that clearly cause the problems for the conservative commentators are outocme number 3 – “selects, uses, describes and explains how different technologies affect and shape meaning” . This one probably leads trendy teachers to use at least one lesson to compare and contrast the language used in SMS messages with the language used in Shakespearian plays. The other problematic one is likely to be outcome number 10 -“questions, challenges and evaluates cultural assumptions in texts and their effects on meaning” – this one clearly would lead to viewing texts through the prisms of various different types of thought – perhaps even Julie Bishop’s feminist and marxist thought.

There are some requirements in the syllabus for content – basically texts studied should have a spread of medium, place of origin, and time of origin. However, there is nothing about quality of content, except for the requirement for at least one Shakespeare play. Mills and Boon and Jane Austen would be equivalent, or to go back to John Howard’s example – Big Brother and a well written and researched documentary about World War I would be equivalent . I find it hard to imagine how you could legislate for quality of text in the syllabus, though – there is far too much written in the world and it is far too subjective what good quality actually means.

But really, I think that the conservative problem with this syllabus are about its usefulness. There is a lot less of trying to analyse old fashioned fiction than there used to be when I was at school, and a lot more about looking at reading and writing the english language in the many and varied contexts in which it is actually used.

It is incredibly useful in most contexts (certainly most workplaces) to be able to communicate by considering your audience, choosing the words and the medium for the occasion. If that’s what this syllabus actually does, it seems more useful to me than the focus on literature that John Howard and Julie Bishop seem to be yearning for.

So my conclusion? Yes, the curriculum does seem to be full of jargon to a non-educator. But providing I’m interpreting the jargon correctly, I don’t agree that outcomes-based education of itself is a bad thing. Looking at the year 7-10 English syllabus, which is probably the crucial one being argued about – everyone has to do it, after all – there seems to be a good balance between learning about our culture and learning how to communicate using the english language in its broadest sense.

But the big battle to me isn’t so much about what jargon the curriculum is written in, or whether SMS texts are available content. It’s the move towards studying English as it is used in society as a whole, rather than studying English as literature. And although I love literature, I’m not sure if I would feel robbed of my cultural heritage if I’d studied a little less of the 19th century novel and the Shakespearian play at school, and a little more of how to actually communicate.

  3 comments for “Outcomes based education

  1. February 18, 2007 at 5:11 am

    Hmm. Working with a mostly young team myself on their first jobs, I’d have to say that a frighteningly large number of them (all graduates) really lack basic English skills – essential in a business environment – such as grammar, spelling, the ability to write well-structured sentence…What I couldn’t say is why. The knee jerk response is “trendy educators” but it’s just as likely to be impoverished resources at schools, lack of proper essay writing skills being taught at tertiary level or the confusion caused by the on-going politicization of the simple notion of teaching people good reading and writing skills. What I hate is feeling like some sort of reactionary for expecting graduates working in an office environment to be literate. The rot seems to have set in seriously in the UK about 12-15 years ago – anyone over the age of 30 seems to have the same complaints. So maybe none of us could spell when left university and we just picked it up as we went along?

  2. February 20, 2007 at 11:09 am

    Hi Jen: This was really interesting. I tend to believe in outcomes-based education, too. In the US the fear of it seems to be mostly that teachers will “teach to the test” and that the kids will learn a few data points and nothing more. Taking a look at the syllabus walks right around that argument.

  3. Richard Jennings
    March 25, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    OBE in WA is complete garbage.
    Ludicrous outcome staements, laughable level descriptors and page upon page of the most frightening edubabbe that I have ever read.
    OBE has failed miserably in WA, it was too bad that we never learned from the US and UK experience and wasted $250 million of taxpayer funds and nearly 10 years to reah the same conclusion. OBE just oesn’t work.

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