A do-able curriculum

2008-12-15 00:00

An 1869 exam paper written by Maritzburg College pupils asked them to translate the following into French: “Have you thought of my penknife?” It would be reassuring to think that such monumental, educational irrelevance had disappeared with the 19th century, but sadly the tendency to think of education as a thing apart from real life has a robustness which has seen it endure into the present century, otherwise why would geography pupils in a 2006 exemplar paper be asked to identify Steven Spielberg.

Irrelevance was one of the things which outcomes-based education (OBE) was meant to address, and therefore it is rather shocking to find that the geography paper referred to was supposed to be based on the new curriculum.

This underlines one of the major problems with the new curriculum: like Dennis the Menace it has a good heart but is widely misunderstood, including, unfortunately, by many officials and examiners appointed to provide guidance.

The recent writing of the first matric public examination based on an OBE curriculum has unleashed a gale of criticism against the underpinning outcomes-based philosophy. It has also led to a fair amount of nonsense being talked about OBE in general.

The first thing to get clear is that outcomes-based education simply means that pupils — in the context of OBE philosophy the word is not simply irritating jargon as it is meant to encompass everyone from the very young to the positively ancient — will be assessed against a clearly defined set of outcomes known to the teacher and the pupils, in place of the traditional system, which tends to stress inputs rather than outcomes. In its fundamental principle, therefore, OBE is profoundly logical. After all, who would feel comfortable working for a factory that consumed vast amounts of energy, employed thousands of people, but did not have a clear idea of what it was producing.

Things become a bit fuzzy mainly because OBE is frequently packaged with a whole lot of other educational theories such as constructivism, group learning and school-based curriculum development. None of these are necessarily bad ideas, but trying to introduce so many changes at once in South Africa’s impoverished educational environment is a bit like slipping one’s safety harness in the middle of a space walk.

The most important aspect of OBE is assessment and this is underpinned by a few key principles. The most fundamental of these is that every pupil should eventually be able to succeed in mastering the clearly defined learning outcomes — hence the use of the term “mastery learning” in the United States. To achieve this, teaching needs to be tailored to the needs of each individual pupil. This will mean that some pupils will master the outcomes more quickly than others and therefore time scales need to be flexible to allow for these differences. OBE assessment is therefore less a measuring device and more a means of developing the individual to the point where he or she can demonstrate achievement of the outcomes.

OBE works brilliantly with short courses, but is vastly more difficult to apply to a school system. It was always going to be a tall order to apply individualised, pupil-paced tuition to roughly 12 million pupils, but when one factors in inadequately trained teachers, large classes, poorly resourced schools — close to 80% are without libraries — and the pervasive patronage system which has deprived teachers of competent, qualified leadership, the task of implementing a fully developed OBE system becomes, for all practical purposes, impossible.

What is rather worrying about much of the criticism that OBE is attracting at the moment is the regular bleat about getting “back to basics”. What do the bleaters mean by this — surely not that we should return to a system predicated on rote-learning and regurgitation?

We need to accept that the digital revolution is one of the most profound of modern times. For instance, the need to store vast amounts of factual information in our heads has been overtaken by the ease of accessing information about virtually any topic on the web.

Education now needs to focus on getting those in classrooms and lecture halls to interact meaningfully and critically with this Niagara of information. And with the many social problems we face, it needs pupils of all ages to engage with the real world.

William Spady, the “father” of OBE, has denounced South Africa’s present system as not being OBE at all. I really don’t think it matters what Spady or any other educational ideologue thinks. I believe that, despite all the dead ends and fruitless expenditure involved in trying to pursue the chimera of a fully fledged OBE curriculum, we have ended up with a do-able curriculum, which could more accurately be described as skills-based education.

It is now time for consolidation, not for further radical change.

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