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College Quarterly
Spring 1994 - Volume 1 Number 3
To OBE or Not To OBE
by Walter Froese

With curriculum challenges facing the colleges as a result of CSAC (especially the definition and implementation of general education), it would appear that this would be an opportune time to discuss the principles upon which we hope to construct education at college.

I suggest that there is a need to develop a curriculum model for the colleges at least partly because there has been no common view of education articulated in the college system and that the most common unstated view, the industrial-training model, is inadequate in framing the complex nature of learning which takes place in college. Since we have not been given a model, it is important for us, as places of learning, to articulate our own principles of education upon which we intend to construct our curriculum.

Outcomes-Based Education

I would like to contribute to this discussion by examining the limitations of the unstated assumptions of the outcomes-based model of curriculum which is generally encouraged and commonly followed in our colleges. In bold strokes, outcomes-based education (OBE) is a view of curriculum that provides a plan for designing and evaluating curriculum based on the assessment of clearly defined learning outcomes. These outcomes are usually divided into three broad categories: cognitive, affective and psychomotor, which in everyday language are ideas, attitudes and activities. As professors, you are thus asked to plan a curriculum by identifying as precisely as possible the things you want your students to learn in terms of the three broad categories of knowledge, values and behaviour. Usually this means that you plan your test items before you plan your lessons because you need to focus on the end product. The theory is that, if you have defined the learning clearly enough, it will be possible to measure accurately the amount of learning which takes place, and to ensure that standards are met. That is the theory.

McKernan (1993) identifies a number of limitations to the OBE approach to curriculum:

  1. to cite significant outcomes in advance is absurd, since that suggests that the course of learning is really behaviour modification rather than free enquiry by individuals: learning takes many intended and unintended detours as it unfolds;
  2. breaking down learning into “exit-outcomes” distorts the nature of knowledge and reduces everything, whether appropriately or not, to statements of uncontested fact;
  3. there is no evidence that OBE improves the curriculum: it may add to the mastery level of defined content but there is no built-in critical reflection on the content itself: without this reflection, the curriculum could become trivial and possibly even captive to unintended agendas;
  4. because the outcomes are often set by outside agencies and tested externally as well, the role of the teacher is trivialized along with the content; the professor becomes a technician implementing programs rather than creating learning environments;
  5. the most dangerous limitation of OBE is that it has no internal self-critical framework; if we are to teach students to produce with maximum efficiency without considering the social implications of their actions, the ethical validity of the whole process is called into question.
The Procedural-Inquiry Approach

The alternative McKernan suggests is a procedural-inquiry approach to curriculum which begins with principles of enquiry not with outcomes, and ultimately relies on the strength of the teacher.

The model is divided into three parts: (1) a broad aim; (2) principles of procedure; (3) criteria for assessing student work. Discussion is seen as the best strategy for enhancing learning and the teacher, while remaining “neutral” in exchanges about moral issues, should assume the role of facilitator in class. The nature of enquiry may then be discerned as having a central logical structure with key concepts giving meaning to a discipline, and establishing tests to be used to verify new knowledge.

This approach values teachers in planning and implementing curriculum as well as in researching the process of learning. In this view, the emphasis is on “incomes” and the curriculum becomes a hypothesis which is constantly being tested.

So, what difference does all this make to students and teachers? Plenty, especially as we attempt to develop an approach to general education. It is plain that there are contending views about curriculum, held by different individuals and that agreement may be difficult on some issues. In a situation like this it is important to indicate clearly the principles which underlie our approach to education.

At this moment, I believe that there are two competing views of education rather than two complementary ones. They are represented clearly by the two models of curriculum described in Figure 1. Both models have advantages and disadvantages when applied to different elements of the curriculum. For example, general education which focuses as much on process as on product would more suitably be developed under the procedural-inquiry model, whereas some specifically career-related courses might be more suitably developed under the OBE model. Just as colleges were designed to meet both career and lifelong learning objectives, so these two models of curriculum development can, by informing each other, help develop a more balanced view of curriculum.

Figure 1

Characteristics of Outcome-Based and Procedural-Inquiry Models of Education

Outcome-Based Model Procedural-Inquiry Model
Exit outcomes; unit and lesson objectives Broad curriculum aim stated in terms of pupil understanding and knowledge
Standards of student performance embodying the goals and objectives Content selection based upon selection of materials, methods, and concepts representing criteria and procedures for doing the subject
Content selection based upon goals and objectives
Materials and units sequenced in logical fashion Unit method not necessary
Curriculum divided into micro-units Teaching viewed as reflexive social practice
Instruction directed at specified goals Inquiry-discovery orientation vs. instruction-training
Convergence emphasized Emphasis on divergence, intuitive thinking, and quality of experience
Time adjustment for mastery depending on student aptitude Many possible outcomes
Feedback and correctives given to non-masters Complex evaluation with teacher as judge-researcher
Assessment and evaluation through objective tests Qualitative and quantitative data collected
Assessment and measurement according to mastery schedule Assessment judgemental and interpretive

Model and key ideas taken from, Perspectives and Imperatives: Some Limitations of Outcome-Based Education, Jim McKernan, Journal of Curriculum and Supervision: Summer 1993, Vol., 8, No. 4, 343-353.

Also in this item, Perspectives and Imperatives: Outcome-Based Education Reform and the Curriculum Process. Allan A, Glenhorn

Of related interest, The Novel as Metaphor for Curiculum and a Test for Curriculum Development. N.V. Overly & E. Spalding. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision: Winter 1993, Vol. 8, No. 2 140-156.

A long time ago I was told that my main goal as a teacher was to make myself unnecessary, by creating an environment wherein my students would learn to operate independently so that they no longer needed me except as a colleague. That, I believe, is still the fundamental goal in my classes. The obsession in North America with OBE and with technological fixes to education has made dependent learners who must continually come back for reprogramming rather than develop their own strategies for continual learning. The behaviouralist approach to education embedded in our schools also devalues all learning which cannot be quantified in a narrow “scientific” paradigm. B. F. Skinner expressed this most clearly toward the end of his career when, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he suggested that because such things as love, freedom and dignity cannot be measured, they do not exist. Rather than develop an epistemology which allowed for the exploration of subjects which are the essence of life, he chose to exclude them from his scope of enquiry. In developing our own approach to curriculum, we would be well served by a thorough exploration of our philosophy of education, so that we might have an adequate framework within which to construct a complete curriculum for our students.

Walter Froese is a Professor of Business at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario.