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OBE in SA – too much of a good thing?

November 30, 2009

They say too much of a good thing can kill you. This seems to be what happened to outcomes-based education (OBE) in South Africa earlier this month: OBE is now officially dead. (Thanks Maggie for the link 🙂 ) The statement by Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga is disarmingly frank about the failure of a campaign upon which so many hopes were pinned at its inception. I remember our sense of excitement in the adult basic education sector, as we sought in the mid-’90s to reshape an education system that had deliberately – and systematically – failed its learners.

The same sentiments drove the discussions in both mainstream schooling and adult education: we wanted to drive the teaching to focus more on critical thinking and less on rote learning. We wanted to develop meaningful assessment processes for our learners, involving authentic tasks as opposed to answering closed, content-based questions in exams. And we wanted individual teachers to have more discretion to change the syllabus according to their context and link the teaching to their particular learners’ experiences. We believed in the logic of starting with the end in mind – in other words, starting with the behaviour we expected learners to be able to demonstrate at the end of the learning process, and designing the curriculum backwards from there. This way, we reasoned, the learning would be focused on a real-world application rather than on getting learners to regurgitate arcane facts. There were fierce debates about the extent to which educators could drive the learning process by focusing on desired outcomes.

My favourite moment in the midst of all this intensity was when the eminent linguist, NS Prabhu, who had led a highly successful English language teaching programme in India in the ’80s, visited South Africa and gave a seminar to the Wits Masters class I was enrolled in at the time. When someone asked him what he thought of OBE, he said simply, “I believe all learning is an accident. The teacher’s job is to try to create the conditions by which accidental learning is more likely to occur.” That comment simultaneously took the wind out of our sails and made Prabhu seem very wise, in an eccentric sort of way.

How OBE was implemented in practice in the last decade and a half is laconically implied in Motshekga’s statement, which tackles the issues pragmatically and without a hint of irony. Anyone reading it without the background might think the whole document was a spoof:  Teachers need text books? Textbooks should be written by recognised “experts” in the subject? Students shouldn’t be expected to create portfolios that distract from the core focus of the curriculum? Teachers and principals should be given training and support when the curriculum changes? All learners will receive their own textbooks? Umm…?!

But for those of us who were there when it all started, it is not really surprising. OBE became the catch-all term for the noblest of ideals. The pendulum had to swing away from the evil, repressive system left by apartheid rule, and somewhere along the line, it swung too far. The principles that had driven the OBE movement turned into farcical rhetoric, as education administrators were heard to cry out, “We do outcomes-based education, not materials-based education!” and the textbook publishing industry all but collapsed. Teachers were supposedly “empowered” to adapt the curriculum to their own contexts, but in the most disempowering way imaginable – being left more or less to their own devices. The outcomes were disastrous, as evidenced by SA learners’ poor performance on international literacy, numeracy and science tests. In its implementation, OBE was too much of a good thing.

We can only hope that, in the move towards undoing the damage done by the ill-managed execution of OBE, the original goals are not forgotten.

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