Outcomes-based education (OBE) has not worked in South Africa. For someone of the stature of Mamphela Ramphele to say this openly and courageously is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifling atmosphere of lip-service being paid to the ANC-government’s ill-starred, bureaucracy-blighted policy by many educators who admit privately that teachers are despondent and at their wits’ end regarding the educational inefficacy of OBE.
It should take no genius to know that all good education has always, at least since the time of the ancient Greeks’ schools of philosophy — including those of the sophists — been “outcomes-based”. The difference has been, of course, that such education and teaching were not bogged down in mind-numbing, grey, boring, and most significantly, education-undermining administration (that is, bureaucracy).
One may wonder how I could make this claim about the ancient Greeks. Consider Aristotle’s famous notion, that causality is four-fold (a more sophisticated conception of causality than that of many people today, who think of it only in terms of one of Aristotle’s four, as I shall point out). The four kinds of causes that Aristotle distinguishes are: the formal cause, the material cause, the final cause or “telos”, and the efficient or “working” cause.
The “formal cause”, for Aristotle, is what makes something what it is, in contradistinction to something else. So, for instance, the formal cause of cats is their “cat-ness” or “feline-ness”, that is, what makes them conceptually classifiable as belonging to the genus “cat” and to (one of) the more limited groups of cat-species. At the more general metaphysical level of Aristotle’s conception of every individual being as an “entelechy”, or functioning individual substance, the formal cause corresponds to what he calls “form”.
The “material cause”, by contrast, is that which is a prerequisite for anything to be “individuated”, that is, to be an individual thing or being. Without the material cause, the form “human being”, could never be instantiated in the guise of an individual human being. At the more general level of individual substance, the material cause corresponds to what Aristotle refers to as “matter”.
The “efficient” or “working” cause corresponds to the (narrow) conception of causality that most people adhere to today, and have been doing, for centuries, at least since the advent of modern science in the work of Galileo and Newton, namely the “mechanical” cause. It is that which “works” from within to make something grow, or that which makes things move from an exterior position to it (such as a billiard ball that makes another move when it connects with it).
The “final cause” or “telos” is the one that is most pertinent to outcomes-based education or teaching, and should have been regarding OBE in South Africa. For Aristotle, the final cause is that towards which, in the case of living beings, the thing strives or is developing — an acorn’s final cause or “telos” is an oak tree, for example. In the case of inanimate things, such as marble, they can be taken up in a process where an agent such as a sculptor involves it as material cause to work towards the telos or goal of the finished sculpture of a great statesman or athlete. Final causes, although seldom recognised as such in today’s technology-obsessed world, are the ones most abundantly operating in human beingss lives: we go to university motivated by the “final cause” of what we want to “become” (an architect, a nurse, a teacher, etc.), that is, motivated by a final cause of sorts. Even our daily lives revolve around final causes — we get into the car to go shopping because we are spurred on by the “final cause” of the dinner party we are giving tonight, and so on.
Just how pertinent the concept of “final” causes is to all education, and specifically to something that is named OBE, is apparent when one reflects that the purpose of all education and teaching since time immemorial has been to get someone (the pupil, student or learner) to the point where she or he “knows” something (for instance how to distinguish conceptually between plant iron and meat iron, or between the phenomenological method and the participatory method in the human sciences) or is able to “do” something (for example how to use a bow and arrow in action, or how to operate a complicated machine in practice). In this respect, OBE has never been anything new. Any teacher, when she or he teaches, would find it hard, if not impossible, to justify his or her teaching, at least (among other indispensable things) with reference to what “outcome” they hope to achieve on the part of their pupils or students.
So why has it not worked that way in South Africa? Primary and high school teachers would probably be able to answer this question far better than I could, but as far as I can see, the general answer is simply that, while the intentions behind OBE were good, it has not worked because the actual teaching and education have been smothered by everything that a teacher (and in some, if not all cases, university lecturers too) is expected to do by way of preparation for every lesson, and archiving, recording or giving an account of what she or he has done in their teaching.
More particularly, as far as I can make out (and this may not be completely accurate, but one should get the general picture from this sketch), when a student teacher has to be given a crit (as I believe it is still called) by a senior teacher or a lecturer, she or he has to prepare the lesson in written form, under different headings (like “Introduction”, “Conclusion” and “Revision”), and be seen by the assessor as following these step by step during the teaching session, within the allocated time. If she or he rushes through these stages of teaching a specific lesson, it would count against them to finish too quickly, and it they go too slowly, likewise, no matter how well they explain things or communicate with the pupils.
Here one already encounters a flaw in the way OBE has been implemented in South Africa (and possibly also in other countries, where good sense eventually prevailed and the system was abandoned): human beings are not machines, real life is messy, and it is therefore seldom that a “real” teacher is able to teach a lesson in a “mechanically perfect” (and for that reason “humanly imperfect”) manner every time according to a preconceived plan. Unexpected, unpredictable things invariably crop up, such as a pupil feeling ill, or a data projector malfunctioning, or the teacher suffering from hay fever and sneezing his or her head off (thus wasting precious time). Good teachers can usually cope with such contingencies, and work around them, without letting their teaching suffer excessively. OBE seems to be blindly predicated on the assumption that teachers can teach like machines, in a time and space unaffected by normal, to-be-expected eventualities. But such things do occur in the normal course of events — that is what it means to be (finitely) human.
The crux of the matter, as far as I can judge, also concerns time, and how to make use of it. In what appears to be an effort on the part of the Department of Education to exert maximum control over teaching practice, teachers (and even more absurdly, lecturers too) are expected, on pain of something presumably worse than death, to prepare courses, course outlines, lessons, and keep a record of all their preparations, for teaching specific lessons or giving specific lectures, and then to report on what they have done in retrospect, some time later — and, of course, keep all of this in some or other filing system. God knows where teachers and lecturers have to find time for actually getting to know their subjects better — yes, I know they were supposed to get to know them at university, but the things one studies at university unfortunately have way of developing, expanding, becoming revised, refined, and so on, and if you want to be a good teacher, one has to keep abreast of what is happening in one’s field of teaching (which is therefore always also one’s field of research).
In other words, the way that OBE has been implemented in South Africa seems to me to have had the effect of having systematically shifted the focus away from the actual teaching to all the (to my mind largely redundant) administration, archiving, reporting, and all the rest of it, which comprise nothing less than what Foucault called a system of panoptical surveillance. And it may well be a very effective system for reducing teachers to what Foucault described as “docile bodies” in this panoptical system, but no one should labour under the illusion that it promotes good teaching — that is, that the youth of the country are being given a good education in the sciences and the humanities. The teachers (and increasingly, lecturers too) are far too busy keeping their files up to date.
Small wonder that so many teachers have left the teaching profession, and are still leaving — all that admin is simply choking them to death. And I find confirmation of my diagnosis in the fact that it is, more often than not, the good teachers who are leaving — the ones who love teaching, and relish the knowledge that they have imparted valuable knowledge to their pupils or students. They are the ones who lament the fact that they have been forced, by the invidious (and insidious) panoptical archiving system, to abandon something they love, namely teaching. I personally know several such ex-teachers, whose departure from teaching is a great loss to the educational system in the country.
Ironically, if “outcomes-based education” were to be understood in the Aristotelian sense of “final cause-oriented” education, minus the anaesthetising administration, it would probably be a very good system. But this could only happen once the “authorities” in charge of education in South Africa understood that teaching and the administrative account or record of what is taught are two very different things. Once they understand this, they may realise anew that good teachers are people whose knowledge and “skills” are part of their very being (including memory and intellect), and that they may therefore be called upon to teach at short notice, even when there is no neat, written-down “plan” or schema of the prospective lesson or lecture.
Instead of writing endless outlines and reports, teachers and lecturers should be encouraged to write in the form of research articles or books in their chosen fields — that way they would be challenged to reflect critically about these disciplines, too, and in the process get to know them better. This is the way one should teach — one’s teaching should always be based on what one is researching at any given time, and instead of giving students overly long course-outlines (beyond a one-pager) to read, one should give them your published research to read instead. In most cases it will have been peer-reviewed, and therefore in the process “quality-assured”, too.
This is something I learned long ago at some of the top American universities, where leading academics invariably teach on the basis of their research. Moreover, if one teaches in this way, you also find that, in the process of teaching, you come across new insights, or sound commentary and criticism from bright students, which further help to refine your thoughts. This should be the direction for education to develop in this country — it would have the added benefit of cultivating (on the part of both teachers and students) the ability to reflect critically on what is being taught.