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Knowledge Update

Does Outcomes-Based Education do More Harm than Good?

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I am writing to you today as an educator and as a life-long learner.  My topic is:  does outcomes-based education or OBE do more harm than good? I will begin by defining outcomes-based education, then outlining major international examples of its failure - after which I will discuss key reasons for that failure and leave you with a possible solution.

First of all, what is OBE?  In practice, it means teaching and assessing students based on specific outcome statements instead of a set syllabus.  What is deemed to be important for a course is set out in a series of statements which begin something like this: The student will: demonstrate, apply, use, perform, etc.  The students are then taught according to those statements and evaluated as to their progress against those statements and nothing else.

An interesting question with OBE is, does OBE assessment reflect and support learning or hamper student success?  In OBE assessment, marks are weighted per stated outcome, firmly limiting the range of marks attainable per response by a student.  This can have negative consequences in the real world.  For example, if Albert Einstein had taken an OBE math test whose outcomes included adherence to set norms, he might well have scored badly or even failed the test.  OBE limits an educator’s ability to award marks according to their expert knowledge of student and subject, instead of forcing mark allocation according to pre-determined norms with no allowance for divergent thinking or alternative responses.

The next question is, where has OBE failed?  The answer is, everywhere,  as educators, we have known for years that outcomes-based education isn’t producing good results; major experiments in OBE in the US with the so-called common core programs, saw the USA go from 7th in maths to 31st in international tests according to the USA today; in South Africa OBE was introduced as the National Qualifications Framework and rapidly saw South Africa tumble in world educational ranking to the bottom, number 148 out of 148 in maths and science according to the world economic forum rankings.

Why has it failed?  To understand why OBE is failing so badly, my thoughts go back to the purpose of education as put by renowned educator John Dewey at the start of the 20th century.  He asked a simple question:  When we talk about teaching, are we talking about teaching rote facts and pre-ordained responses or are we talking about the ability to be creative thinkers and innovators.  Dewey’s question sets up a dichotomy between rote learning and creativity. Each of these two things has its own place in the learning environment, but only one is served well by OBE.

OBE calls for the educator to teach every student the same thing in exactly the same way every time, this is rote learning, it is not student-centred; it is instead focused on the need for standardization of output.  A prime example of this practice can be seen in the system of standardized testing now used for graduation in most school systems.  Fact-based material such as grammar, business models, procedures, and simple mathematical equations are examples of how OBE serves the first of Dewey’s purposes of education well, but not the second, and in my opinion the more important, particularly for higher education.

Perhaps you see my bias creeping in here, I have witnessed how outcome-based education locks educators into only teaching to prescribed, specific goals. The problem with this is that there are only so many hours in a course and those outcomes must be mastered within that time.  With time used up achieving  “measurable” outcomes, less measurable, but higher- order learning - like creativity, thinking skills, divergent thinking, even social, practical, and artistic learning take second place, or are not learned at all. 

Worse, and perhaps the key problem, is that outcomes are often treated as a one-shoe-fits-all solution by administrators who are trying to satisfy institutional licensure and program review requirements which have little to do with actual learning.  Being driven by such requirements is a huge disadvantage if you want a well-rounded and complete education.  The purpose of education should be to make students into well-informed thinkers who are aware of past knowledge, but able to creatively innovate and contribute in their future.

Teachers are experts in their field and experts in their knowledge of their own student’s learning capabilities.  OBE systems, set up by and suited to administrative top-down “quality” requirements, do not serve the learning needs of individual students or complement the expert knowledge of classroom educators.  Instead, they are intended to create academic rigor through some weird sort of pseudo-scientific knowledge outcome bean-counting exercise. In reality, outcomes induce a sort of intellectual stagnation - exactly because they are not learner-centred, or even educator-centred, and this must change.

The solution may be self-evident, it is to use outcomes where they have value, but not apply them where they inhibit or restrict learning.  In other words, to move away from the all or nothing thinking behind the implementation of outcomes so that they become a tool used to teach and assess where appropriate.  However, this solution will require a monumental shift away from the top-down managerial approach to learning which is pervasive today; a democratization of education if you will, where educators take back responsibility to educate from the managers who have usurped it.  This will make outcomes a tool of learning - not just a means of regimenting institutional activity.

Let’s stop blindly insisting on outcomes as a universal panacea for measuring the success of education and make learning learner-centred again.  Remember, this is not academic, it affects each one of us, students, educators and society alike - right here, right now.   As students and educators, we must speak out and start the debate around relegating OBE to the parts of education where it suits best and promote better adapted assessment structures in other areas of learning.