Revisiting the essence of OBE

In August, I was asked to share some of the ‘cutting-edge essence” of my 35 years of experience with OBE in two seminars at the University of Pretoria. It was an exciting day for me – an opportunity to address some of the most basic concepts surrounding OBE thinking and practice in South Africa and elsewhere, and to respond to a host of deep and challenging questions about learners, learning and learning systems.

The audience appeared to resonate strongly with five major issues:

  • The education systems of the world are ‘boxed in”.

    Their deeply ingrained structures, thinking, programmes and practices make it virtually impossible for schools to implement the purpose-driven, learner-responsive, flexible nature of genuine outcome-based models. The curriculum box, time box, grade-level box, opportunity box, testing box, marking box, achievement box, school box and classroom box all severely constrain how teachers and learners function and think about ‘outcomes”. With education defined by and organised around these many layers of inflexible boxes, it requires enormous insight and commitment from teachers to use outcomes to impact significantly on these entrenched practices.

  • Why these systems called OBE are really ‘CBO”.

    ‘CBO” stands for things like curriculum- based outcomes, content-bound objectives, calendar-based opportunities, convention-bound orientations, convenience-based operations, and compliance-bound obedience — to name a few. And all of these CBOs directly reflect and reinforce the entrenched boxes noted above.

  • Outcomes are demonstrations of competence.

    This reflects what learners can do with what they know.
    OBE’s focus on competence means that learning is expanded and enriched by adding a second critical element to our content-dominated curriculum thinking and designs. Competence, doing, action, performance and application are all closely related, and they all compel us to focus on the action verbs we use in writing/defining outcomes. Why? Because the nature of an outcome — the kind of action/process/competence/performance we want our learners to carry out — is going to be determined by the verb or verbs we use in defining that outcome.

    For example, if we were to use the not-very-powerful verb ‘list” in an outcome, it would directly imply that:

    a) we want our learners to be able to develop the competence of listing;

    b) we are committed to teaching them how to list;

    c) our assessment will ask them to list; and

    d) our reporting will document that they can list — regardless of the content involved.
    If these four conditions are not met, we will have violated OBE’s fundamental ‘laws of alignment” — making sure that our classroom practices directly match and support our outcomes.

    If we were to use the more powerful verb ‘explain” instead — or the even-more-powerful verb ‘design” — the same four laws and conditions would still apply, as they would with any other action verb that we used.

  • Competence takes many forms.
    Competence — a demonstration of learning — varies enormously in the complexity and significance of the skills it embodies.

    My August workshops described six different ‘forms” that competence takes. At one end of my continuum are the narrow, specific, content-focused micro skills that we often ask students to demonstrate as they engage with small chunks of prescribed curriculum in small, prescribed chunks of time.

    Competence becomes more complex, highly integrated and genuinely ‘transformational” as we move along this continuum, with each step requiring much more curriculum and much more time to develop and refine the skills implied. At the far end of the continuum lies the most complex form of all — what sociologists call ‘life roles”. They are the highly complex, integrated, context-driven role performances that life requires of us as citizens, parents, employers and career professionals. Role performances are the true future-focused, long-term ‘acid test” outcomes of any curriculum, and they take many years of focused endeavour to develop and refine.

    Imagine thinking of the two most specific micro forms of competence as ‘bricks”; the two intermediate forms as ‘walls”; and the two most macro forms as ‘castles” — what genuinely transformational approaches to OBE call ‘exit outcomes”. Using this metaphor, the workshops explored three simple propositions:

    1) a pile of bricks isn’t a wall;

    2) a bunch of walls isn’t a castle; and

    3) building a castle requires a carefully designed configuration of bricks, walls and other materials.

    We lamented the fact that too many South African teachers have been led to believe that being in the brick-making business is the same as being in the castle-building business.

  • Beyond competence to ‘total learning”.

    Learning to build castles requires more than competence in its various forms. My latest work shows that harmonious learning, living and leadership all rest on five pillars, each beginning with the letter C. They are: consciousness (deep awareness of the possibilities open to us in every moment); creativity (and the desire to use our powerful imaginations); collaboration (and the power that comes from acting in true community); compassion (seeking to serve and enhance the greater good in the world); plus competence.
    Ultimately what really matters in the long run is the kind of human beings who leave our classrooms, not the academic content they memorise in order to pass examinations.

    Dr William Spady is the founder of the HeartLight South Africa Trust in Port Elizabeth

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