It's OBE, but not as it should be

Outcomes-based education is in trouble in South Africa. While politicians continue to affirm its importance for the school curriculum, its worldwide architect, Willian Spady, declares that it was never implemented in South Africa. According to Spady, what passes for OBE here has no relation to the true principles of OBE.

Whether we call it transformational, radical or messed-up OBE, the first problem with the way in which the curriculum is interpreted by many teachers and implemented in most of our classrooms is that we seem to have lost sight of the essence of schooling, the promotion of knowledge acquisition by children.

I am talking about what the educationist Michael Young calls powerful knowledge, conceptual knowledge that takes children beyond their circumstances and gives them access to further study opportunities and a variety of meaningful work possibilities. This is the knowledge expressed in subject disciplines that have been under construction by humankind for at least the past 5 000 years.

In fact, the heart of South Africa’s national curriculum statement for schools remains the knowledge disciplines, not the myriad “OBE” devices that swarm around it.

These devices - such as the critical and developmental outcomes, contextualisation, indigenous knowledge, human rights and so forth - are designed to make the curriculum more relevant to the lives of learners, to make knowledge more accessible and to ensure that knowledge is used for developmental purposes rather than for repression and domination.

The problem is that, when these OBE devices are foregrounded to the extent that they obscure the subject discipline, they distract teachers and learners and hinder access to the powerful knowledge that is the birthright of all citizens.

Take contextualisation, for example. While it is a good thing to use real situations, like calculating the height of a tree or the area of a field, to introduce and apply trigonometric principles for rural learners, if they are to know enough trigonometry to study for an engineering degree, they will need to focus on the concepts, equations and graphs that make up the discipline. If we keep to the trees and the fields, then we leave these children in their rural environment, denying them the only available route out of poverty.

The very point of schooling is to take them beyond their personal experiences. In too many of our classrooms today we see grade seven children still drawing sticks and stones in their books to do calculations such as 57x17, instead of using the standard algorithms, which are much faster and more accurate than counting sticks. Too many teachers seem to have a fear of abstraction, which is the very essence of powerful knowledge.

A second and closely related problem with the way the curriculum is delivered in our classrooms is that the overwhelming majority of teachers do not use textbooks to prepare lessons, and even fewer use them in their classes. For example, in a baseline study in two rural districts we observed the grade three language and maths classes in 24 schools for three days. Although sufficient books were available for children to share or to have an individual copy in 70% of the schools, in 90% of language and mathematics classes little or no individual reading by learners was seen.

Somewhere early on in the introduction of Curriculum 2005 teachers got the idea that textbooks were somehow suspect and that idea has stuck, even in the most well resourced schools. The invention of writing remains the greatest human technological achievement and since its emergence about five millenia ago it has been the preeminent method for communicating knowledge, across time and space.

The aversion by South African educators to textbooks is a huge problem, because a good textbook contains, in a single source, a comprehensive study programme for the year: it lays the curriculum out systematically, providing expositions of the concepts, definitions of the terms and symbols of the subject in question, worked examples of standard and non-standard problems, lots of graded exercises, and answers.

There certainly are examples of bad textbooks in the country, but there are many good textbooks, and these provide the single most valuable teaching and learning resource.

In the absence of textbooks children only see fragments of the curriculum, presented through standalone worksheets or isolated, short exercises written on the board. Not only should learners see and use textbooks every day in class, but they should be given the books to keep for the year so that they have access to the whole curriculum in an integrated form, and to which they can continually refer throughout the year.

Furthermore, the use of a textbook would greatly assist the teacher not only with daily lesson planning, but also to achieve curriculum coverage. The fact that South African teachers have such an aversion to the most important teaching and learning resource, when we have the money to buy books for every child, and indeed when most schools have at least some supplies of books, remains one of the most damaging aspects of post-apartheid education.

South Africa, sadly, has turned its back on common practice around the world: teachers adopting a single text and allowing this to be at once their year plan, the source of their activities and their interpretation of the curriculum. And, most importantly, a good textbook provides the most accessible source for learning those parts of the subject that are new to the teacher, or which he or she may have forgotten since her own school or college days.

A third problem with OBE, as practised in South Africa, is that, in its quite correct desire to be seen to be doing something different from Bantu education, the post-1994 government created the impression that the new curriculum was such a radical departure from anything that had gone before that it bore no relation to the knowledge that had been taught before.

Consequently, teachers came to understand that they could not teach OBE, in either its original Curriculum 2005 or the subsequent National Curriculum Statement (the revised curriculum) manifestations, without extensive training. This attitude remains deeply entrenched today: thus, the constant call from unions, teachers and academics alike is that implementation of the new curriculum is only possible with extensive support to teachers.

I would not wish to trivialise the difficulties involved in dealing with large, often poorly resourced, classes and I do not want to suggest that many teachers do not require subject matter training. The point I am making, rather, is that a dependency culture has developed in many South African schools. Indeed, teacher unions are resisting being held accountable for the performance of their learners until they have been adequately “developed” and “supported”. Certainly, everyone needs development and support, but the prevailing attitude reveals a deep-seated dependency on external assistance, a helplessness, debilitation and abdication of responsibility.

This dependency culture among schools and teachers is based on the myth that OBE is so significantly different to everything that went before that no teaching can take place until teachers have received extensive re-training. The problem with this attitude is that it is both impossible to re-train all teachers in the country on all aspects of the new curriculum and it is also unnecessary to do so.

It is unnecessary because, as I have pointed out, the subject disciplines remain at the heart of the curriculum. And the elements of this knowledge are well laid out in good textbooks and are, therefore, accessible to all teachers. Once this realisation is made, teaching of at least a reasonable quality lies within the reach of every teacher in any school with a set of basic resources.

The first thing that such a newly enlightened teacher should reach for is a good textbook that covers the curriculum statement requirements for each of the grade levels for which he or she is responsible. The next step is to spend half an hour every day after school preparing each lesson for the next day: preparation should include a clear outline of the concept to be studied, the way it is to be conveyed to children (discovery, exposition), attendant skills (algorithms, analytical techniques) for applying the concept, exercises for practising its application and any appropriate assessment tasks.

The teacher should plan to work through the entire textbook in this way during the course of the year. This would ensure curriculum coverage, at the level specified by the NCS.

Once teachers have attempted to prepare lessons on specific topics, using a good textbook, wrestling with more difficult topics themselves, working through the exercises and checking that their answers are correct and consulting other sources if necessary - including other books, or colleagues - will the real gaps in their knowledge become apparent.

There is no doubt that many teachers do have real problems with some topics, even after they have tried to solve these on their own, and they need help with these. But by this stage, if they follow the process outlined above, teachers will have taught themselves much of the stuff they might have had problems with and the task of in-service training becomes much more manageable.

Instead of trying to do the impossible and train teachers on every aspect of the curriculum, trainers will be able to focus on a limited number of difficult issues. Besides, once teachers have taken personal responsibility for the quality of their own teaching and for seeking help on specific issues that they have wrestled with in vain, they are much more likely to attend training sessions and be open to and active in the pursuit of new learning.

The fourth and final problem I see with current teaching practices in the majority of South African schools is that far too little writing is done by children. Writing is key to the development of literacy. When children are encouraged to write about what they have read and experienced, it not only advances their reading skills, but develops their cognitive processes as well - as they search for words and syntactic structures to describe their experiences and express their feelings.

The study of any subject - history, literature, mathematics - is essentially about learning a specialised form of literacy, and any form of literacy - from learning to read, to reading to learn any subject - consists of performing a range of reading, writing and talking activities at the level of cognitive challenge appropriate to the grade. As learners encounter increasingly complex vocabulary, grammatical structures and ideas, all of which are best studied through written text, their language abilities develop and so do their cognitive capacities. This process is greatly reinforced if they write about their own feelings, observations and analyses of the topics they are studying.

The acquisition of subject knowledge is what empowers children to reach their full potential; for poor children this is the only route out of poverty. And yet too many schools are substantively failing to teach their learners this powerful knowledge. In particular, the disparaging attitude of most South Africans towards books - the principal carriers of subject knowledge - and the inadequate quantities of reading and writing - the primary tools for developing such knowledge - undertaken in the majority of schools, is nothing short of educational suicide on a national scale.

Nick Taylor is CEO of JET Education Services

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