Home truths about education reforms

Farming, Normal

The National – Tuesday, December 7, 2010

AARON HAYES, an experienced high school teacher and school psychologist who served in the
standards wing of the PNG Department of Education from 1997-2002, continues with the second part of a series of articles on outcomes-based education.


QUESTION: Is outcomes-based education (OBE) the only way to have “relevant curriculum for all”?
The home truth: No.
There is so much confusion between relevant curriculum and OBE.
These two terms do not mean the same thing, and, it is not true to say that only OBE is the only way of teaching relevant curriculum.
“Relevant curriculum” refers to the content of the school curriculum, meaning the facts and skills and processes that we want the children to learn, especially things concerning their lives here in PNG and not just imported concepts from overseas.
In Grades 11 and 12 chemistry, for example, it is more relevant to teach about extraction and refining of minerals like copper, gold, crude oil and natural gas because these resource projects are important in PNG.
A relevant chemistry syllabus for PNG will not focus too heavily on other extraction processes like diamond drilling and aluminium electrolysis because we do not mine these minerals in PNG.
At the primary level, relevant curriculum includes knowledge and skills that young people might need for survival if they leave school after Grade 6 or Grade 8, for example, some of the skills taught in the “making a living” subject.
We teach the students sustainable agriculture, cottage crafts and food preparation skills that will help them feed themselves and earn cash income if they do not go on to further studies or a paid job.
We do not teach irrelevant facts and skills copied from other countries like American history or how to speak Latin.
I would argue that we already had a relevant curriculum before the education reforms.
Today’s adults can surely remember from their pre-reform school days that mathematics, science, English, social science, home economics, practical skills, guidance and other subjects were all heavily focused on the PNG situation, using PNG-based examples, problems, activities and assignment topics.
Yes, there was room for improvement in the old curriculum and, especially, a big need for more teaching resources (textbooks, videos, computers and so on) but that does not mean it was necessary to throw out the whole curriculum and replace it just because of funding and resourcing issues.
Teacher-centred learning
Regardless of whether the content of a curriculum is “relevant” or “irrelevant”, the way a curriculum is structured and taught is called a curriculum model.
Some curriculum models are teacher-centred and some are student-centred.
Relevant curriculum can be taught in either teacher-centred or student-centred ways.
Before OBE, we used a teacher-centred curriculum model with the teacher controlling the learning environment and helping the students to learn the facts and skills by teaching them directly during structured lessons.
This approach is effective in developing countries like Papua New Guinea where the majority of village schools have large class sizes, not enough teachers, poorly stocked libraries and no access to live television, video programmes or computers.
In most village schools, the teacher’s voice, blackboard notes, worksheets and other handouts, standard textbooks and student workbooks have always been (and still are) the main resources for student learning.
Most PNG adults today were educated under this teacher-centred approach to classroom learning.
While a teacher-controlled learning is not perfect, it worked reasonably well for the last generation of students.
We know this because the whole country is now being run by adults who were educated under the old system.
The old system would have been even more successful if the government had provided more resources to schools like encyclopaedias, live broadcast nationwide, video learning programmes, computers with educational programmes and the internet.
Under-funding and lack of resources is the real reason why the old objectives-based curriculum was getting tired, not because it was “irrelevant”.
Student-centred learning
OBE, on the other hand, is a student-centred curriculum model whereby the class is given a list of things to learn (outcomes) and students are given time and resources to teach themselves under a teacher’s watchful eye.
Under OBE, the teacher is supposed to stand back and let the students work things out for themselves, helping when needed, and studies each individual student’s progress towards achieving each learning outcome (eg know how to write an essay) by noting his or her achievement of smaller milestones known as “indicators” (eg know how to choose a topic, plan the essay, collect information, draft the essay, rewrite the essay, proof the essay for errors and write the final copy).
If you think it is probably quicker and easier to teach the skills directly to the students instead of letting them work it for themselves – you are right!
Some academics say that student-centred learning is a richer educational experience for children because they get more satisfaction from using the trial-and-error approach and, finally, “discovering” things for themselves.
Realistic teachers like myself say that it is all very well when you have plenty of time and your students have plenty of resources at home and at school and have sufficient motivation and self-discipline to organise their own learning.
OBE might be workable in wealthy countries where schools have small class sizes, big libraries, lots of technology and plenty of extra support from teacher aides, tutors and parent volunteers.
But, in PNG, OBE is quite unsustainable at present and the millions of kina that Australian aid agency, AusAID, has poured into introducing this totally student-centred curriculum is just a drop in the ocean compared to what it will cost to provide all Papua New Guinea schools with the resources they will really need to implement outcomes-based education in the long term.
Trying to expand the school system and get every child into school as required by the new universal basic education policy while also trying to switch over to a hugely expensive new way of classroom learning is just beyond PNG’s national budget.
The reality is that, unless Australia is planning to pump half a billion kina into the PNG education sector on an annual basis (not including their revolving consultants and advisers), OBE is destined for complete failure here.
Despite the anticipated extra income from the LNG project, PNG will not have sufficient recurrent budget allocation to support the expensive OBE on an annual basis and we need to roll back to an affordable teacher-centred curriculum model now.
Of course teachers confident with using student-based learning and assessment activities will continue to do so as long as their time and resources allow.
Independent research assignments and collaborative group work were already common in PNG classrooms long before OBE arrived.
Student-based “discovery” learning can be an effective educational approach when used in well-resourced settings with motivated students but not when forced upon unprepared teachers in overcrowded classrooms that do not have the time, room or resources required.
Now we find ourselves in a situation where one system that the government struggled to fund has been thrown out and replaced by another which is 10 times more expensive.
On top of this, our schools and teachers were unprepared for it, and are still drowning in it.
Many teachers have already realised that
they cannot implement OBE in the way the reform policy expects and they are still “chalking and talking” in order to hurry their students through all the “indicators” by the end of the school term.
This is hardly any different to the old system of teaching only those facts and skills that would be tested in the examinations.
Yes we are already heading “back to the future”.