Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Thirteen: A Critique of Outcomes-Based Education (OBE)

This is a continuation of a series of posts on summaries of articles, mainly on education.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

In previous posts (see for example A Principal’s Evaluation of My Teaching Basic French, or: How to Oppress a Worker Through Performance Evaluation, Part One), I have implied that the principal of Ashern Central School, Neil MacNeil, used, among other methods, outcome-based education as a method of oppressing me when evaluating my performance as a teacher. He wrote:

We discussed whether students should have learning goals identified for them. I pointed out the research backing doing so; Fred characterized this as unnecessary and counterproductive to the “inductive” methods he is utilizing with them. I also encouraged Fred to at least ensure that the learning goals were clarified in future preconference meetings.

In my written response, I replied to this:

If there is indeed research, I am certainly willing to read up on the issue. In fact, I indicated during one of the conferences that I would appreciate references so that I could read such research (especially articles since I do not have the time to read many books these days). He claimed that the specification of learning goals was the single most important variable in determining learning. As a philosopher of education, I am skeptical of such wide-sweeping assertions. My understanding of the learning process is that it is much more complicated than that. However, I am certainly open to such a claim and would enjoy reading up on the matter. I wanted to know more.

I did search for an hour at the resources on learning goals that the administrator provided me the day before I received the clinical evaluation report. I found no specific research that justifies the assertion that the specification of learning goals is the most important determinant of learning. Attached is a copy of evidence that I did go on the sites referenced by the administrator. I received the sites for resources only the evening before I received the clinical evaluation, and in effect only read them a little while before receiving the clinical evaluation.

Re: “Fred characterized this as unnecessary and counterproductive to the “inductive” methods he is utilizing with them.”

The use of “ ” marks in this observation may be a sign of a lack of respect for my ideas. The administrator has shown little empathy for my ideas.

OBE, therefore, has political implications.

The attached article for the ESJ Ning is prefaced by the following:
Hello everyone,
I sent another article to the ESJ Ning.

Colleen Capper and Michael Jamison, in their article, “Outcomes-Based Education Reexamined: From Structural Functionalism to Poststructuralism,” find that outcome-based education (OBE), though in a few respects empowering to students, generally reproduce the same oppressive school structure as before.

The immediate relevance of the issue of the extent to which OBE is empowering or oppressive is the push in Canadian circles for having teachers specify learning on the basis of outcomes (or “learning goals”), with the design of units to be a process of “backward design”.

The idea of specifying outcomes and then specifying the means to achieve those outcomes seems at first glance to be logical. The authors question, however, whether OBE is really as liberating for students (and teachers) as its advocates imply.

OBE has at least four aspects: the focus is on student success, with schools controlling the environmental conditions for success; curriculum design and pedagogy are a function of explicit learner outcomes; outcomes are differentiated into core (or essential) outcomes for all learners and extended outcomes (for the more gifted); mastery learning (based on Bloom’s concept of mastery learning), or the learning of prerequisite skills before moving on to more complicated or advanced skills with time constraints of the traditional curriculum being loosened (credit recovery, for example);  a management information system that permits the teacher to monitor students’ progress in terms of prerequisite skills learned and to group students according to skill sets already achieved; and, finally, an assessment system that tests the whole range of skills required for mastery learning a loosening of traditional time constraints, with an incomplete being assigned until the student has completed the set of defined skills.

Advocates of OBE imply that it enables a clearer conception of the curricula, permits the use of better pedagogical techniques and satisfies the need for more reliable and valid assessment measures of student achievement.

There are at least three forms of OBE. Traditional OBE involves the use of the same curriculum, but with clearer focus on learning outcomes. Transitional OBE specifies essential learning outcomes. Transformational OBE, being the most advanced form for some, in addition to specifying the essential outcomes to be learned for success, emphasizes attitudes and skills that have broad implications for success in their future in the modern world, such as critical thinking skills; it requires a reworking of the curriculum to satisfy those broad implications for success.

Ironically, one feature of OBE seems to have been at best only partially adopted in modern school systems in Canada—constraints of time. Traditional schooling has operated according to instructional time distributed over a set curriculum. OBE permits the breakdown of learning into outcomes that students can master at their own pace. Mastery of the material rather than ploughing through the material in a set period of time becomes possible; results can be the focus rather than the inputs from a set curriculum in a limited period of time. However, in Canada OBE the use of credit recovery, for example, only partially offsets constraints of time.

In addition to learner outcomes, a complete OBE program includes, among other things, a core and extended curriculum and criterion-referenced assessment. Its watchword is student success, and it assumes that all students can succeed.

The authors then analyze OBE from various theoretical lenses: structural-functionalist, interpretive, critical and poststuctural. Structural-functionalist and interpretive paradigms aid in reproducing the status quo; the difference between them is that structural-functionalism considers the status quo to be objective whereas interpretivism considers the status quo to be constructed socially and subjectively. Critical theory, by contrast, seeks social change by intellectually grasping and criticizing social reality that is largely oppressive. Critical theory is grounded in pure reason, considers a universal consensus among the oppressed to be possible and focuses more on class rather than on other forms of oppression; Capper considers these aspects of critical theory to be limiting factors.

Poststructuralism shares with critical theory a concern for social change but casts suspicion on any claim for universality and objectivity through reason given that people have multiple identities. Like interpretivism, it views the social world as a product of subjective reality.

The authors examine the language of OBE, its construction of personal identity and the extent to which OBE reproduces inequities from the point of view of the various paradigms.

OBE shares much with the structural-functionalist paradigm. For instance, knowledge is treated as a summation of its parts rather than the whole being more than its parts.  Discrete bits of learning are determined beforehand, dissected and distributed, often through a central agency. Control by others is the watchword despite the rhetoric of student success. Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment practices are centralized (controlled from a central bureaucracy), and learners are organized according to predefined skill sets.

Transformational OBE does share with the interpretivist paradigm a concern for cooperative structures of learning. However, the interpretivist paradigm also holds that students learn best when what they are learning connects with their own interests—something which OBE, transformational or otherwise, ignores.

From the point of view of critical theory, there is little in OBE, transformational or otherwise, that leads to greater social equity and equality of opportunity. OBE does not aim at social change in such a way that oppression is lessened. Tightened control over the teaching process is hardly equivalent to real social change that leads to more equitable results.

Advocates of OBE may reply that, by removing time constraints for achievement, students are indeed empowered to a  greater extent. They may even suggest that they are concerned with fighting against oppression and for social justice.

However, Capper and Jamison question such advocates claims since OBE’s underside involves authoritarian structures of power—as poststructuralist analysis reveals. In particular, OBE does fails those who are disabled, especially the cognitively disabled. Furthermore, since OBE grounds its assessment on performance of set achievements, if a person cannot perform adequately even if understanding of the material is present, then failure will ensue.

A more telling criticism of OBE, even in its transformative form, is that the skills and knowledge specified in advance as required for success are assumed to enable students to succeed in current society. Current social structures within mainstream society are assumed to be the standard; there is little criticism of that standard itself. OBE is therefore conservative in its very nature and hardly progressive. One can imagine a white, male principal defining OBE in terms of student success—as defined by the experiences of the white, male principal and not in terms of the student’s own background and experiences. In the end, as the German philosopher wrote of Schelling’s philosophy—all cows are black (or white, male and middle class in this instance).

Mastery of the curriculum outcomes typical of OBE leaves little room for co-evolution of the curriculum and the students’ experiences. Furthermore, those who determine the outcomes are little different from earlier, state-mandated curriculum: policy makers, curriculum consultants and a few teachers. The outcomes are externally determined and controlled and defined according to what this minority deems to be worthy and relevant to have learned by the time students have finished high school. There is little flexibility in terms of the content of the curriculum. Related to this issue is the lack of control by most teachers  in determining outcomes; OBE is a way of increasing control over teachers by rigidly defining what they are to teach and by assessing them on that basis.

Differentiation of the curriculum into core and extended components also easily leads to a continued division of students into average students and an elite set of students destined to university or other, more prestige post-secondary institutions.

Finally, criterion-based assessment, in practice, results in students in the same age-level working on  substantially different outcomes as some require to spend substantial periods of time in attaining the minimal level of achievement specified in advance for advancement to another level of skill. Some may never be exposed to the extended curriculum since they must demonstrate mastery at a certain level before they can advance. OBE, together with criterion-based assessment, merely reproduces the inequities that already exist between different sets of students—despite the rhetoric of success for all students.

OBE, in whatever form, essentially relies on the structural-functionalist paradigm, which merely reproduces the status quo of injustice and inequity.

The authors then argue that what is required is participation by students and community in the determination of their own curriculum and education. They then note that poststructural and critical theory may be wed in some fashion by critical theory providing the direction and poststructuralism providing the deconstruction necessary for reason to be continuously challenged through tension and disagreement.

Such a view, though, is so general that it provides little guidance in practice. For example, school bureaucrats, who are also representatives of the employers of teachers, are so certain that they are right in instituting OBE and criterion-referenced assessment (currently characteristic of Manitoba public schools) and all others who question them are wrong, that the question becomes: How are we to struggle against such authoritarian impositions?

Indeed, why is it that teachers have not engaged in such struggle? An answer may lie in the deskilling of teachers and their becoming more like the rest of the working class: cogs in the economic  and school structure. In other words, an answer may lie in what teachers also are: employees, or things to be used by employers.

Should we as teachers and as employees not query whether OBE leads to just outcomes and is educationally sound?


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