Shift in focus, not in content

Last month, I briefly traced the evolution of the outcomes-based education (OBE) movement over the past 35 years: from its focus on expanding the conditions of success in schools and classrooms during the 1970s and 1980s, to the strongly learner-centred, future-focused, personally empowering emphasis of the five Cs in todays transformational models. These five domains of human functioning — consciousness, creativity, collaboration, competence and compassion — could (and should) be viewed as the real basics of learning, living and leadership in todays changing world.

This evolution of OBE in public education since the 1970s has been driven by an ever-expanding notion of outcomes, learning, achievement, success and learner empowerment. In short, this evolution represents a shift of focus from content-specific and subject- matter details — usually easily assessed by paper-pencil examinations — to an emphasis on the abilities and qualities learners will take with them into their lives and careers upon completing school.

Take note: this shift did not, and does not, mean an abandonment of content as a necessary and relevant component of learning. Instead, it means finding increasingly rich and complex ways for relevant content to be used and consistently applied by learners — ways that reflect the roles and responsibilities in which they will be engaged beyond school. This is one of the key meanings of the term transformational OBE as it was widely used in the professional literature in the 1990s.

There is a huge implication for educators in this aspect of OBEs transformational expansion. That is: it encourages them to see beyond the micro-content and learning tasks, instead of getting bogged down in them. Alas, I hear reports from everywhere in South Africa that this is just not happening. The requirement of formal assessment and record keeping of every single learning activity has led to an avalanche of paperwork that has seriously demoralised teachers.

Unfortunately, many believe that this emphasis on assessing and reporting everything that moves is an inherent feature of OBE. It is not. It is the consequence of focusing excessively on the micro details of the curriculum, rather than on the big picture abilities of the learners. It is also the consequence of a very traditional understanding of, and continued emphasis on, marking — even though continuous assessment and portfolio assessment are supposed to be an advanced OBE concept. Alas, in their current forms they are not.

The second important aspect of OBEs transformational expansion comes out of the rationale on which outcomes are based. Basically, the thinking goes: This is what this subject is about, and this is what students should know and understand to prove theyve learned it. In about 1990 this approach was named traditional OBE — and, from my perspective, this is strongly characteristic of much OBE implementation in South Africa currently.

The shift from this subject-based orientation to todays emphasis on the five Cs occurred in four major stages. First, the focus shifted from subject content to significant higher-order skills — such as analysis, problem solving, communication and decision-making — that cut across all grade levels and subject areas.

The shift was, therefore, from mastering content to developing competencies, giving all teachers in a school a common set of learning goals and good reason to collaborate across subject-matter and grade-level lines.

Secondly, learners were viewed as role performers capable of carrying out these higher-order abilities in increasingly more future-focused and complex situations. This really opened the door to using OBE as a learner-centred model, and it forced educators to examine the challenges their learners would be facing in their post-school futures and to design learning experiences for them around those realities.

The third stage challenged conventional notions of standardised outcome measures, instead recognising the value of the unique talents, interests and learning styles of students.

This further extended OBEs learner-centred orientation and potential, and it encouraged teachers to see that the same high-level ability (such as effective communication or entrepreneurship) could be demonstrated by different students in uniquely different — and legitimate — ways.

Most recently, this expansion has embraced the five Cs as a powerful and persuasive framework, both for defining a rich set of ultimate outcomes for learners and for designing curriculum areas that directly foster and support them. In other words, by seeing their mission as to send conscious, creative, collaborative, competent and compassionate learners out of the door at matriculation time, this version of OBE invites educators to create and implement learning experiences over the course of learners 12 years in school that deeply foster these five qualities.

How this can be done on the ground will be the focus of next months column.

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