Outcomes-based education in developing countries

Focus, Normal

The National – Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Part 3 of a series on the outcomes-based education by AARON HAYES, who served in the standards wing of the PNG Department of Education from 1997-2002. Hayes was also involved with the curriculum division as a HSC chemistry examiner and a member of the subject advisory committee for personal development. He holds a masters degree in educational psychology from the University of Queensland.


QUESTION: Has outcomes-based education (OBE) been successful in other countries similar to PNG?
The home truth: No.
OBE has never been successfully implemented in any other developing countries.
South Africa is just about the only other developing country where OBE was introduced but it failed because their schools could not provide enough resources to support it.
Even some wealthy countries that have tried OBE are now backpedalling because it has failed to deliver any better results than teacher-centred curriculum models, despite the huge amounts of money injected.
In 2006, the state government of Western Australia announced that it was throwing out OBE because it had not resulted in higher education standards than cheaper teacher-centred systems.
In February this year, British shadow minister for schools Nick Gibb told parliament: “Wherever and whenever (OBE) is tried, it fails. It particularly fails those children who have no access to education elsewhere, other than (at) school.”
Dr Kevin Donnelly, who was the education adviser to former Australian prime minister John Howard, states in his book Dumbing Down: “Australia’s adoption of OBE is the reason why our education system is consistently at the centre of controversy. Since the development of the Keating government’s national statements and profiles in the early to mid-1990s, all states and territories have adopted OBE to various degrees.
“Internationally, only a handful of countries have attempted to implement OBE and those educational systems that outperform Australia in the TIMSS tests ignore OBE in favour of a more academic and teacher-friendly syllabus.”
The prevalence of OBE in the Australian state education systems suggests that this is why it was brought to PNG by Australian consultants, that is because it was the main curriculum model that they were familiar with and not because it was the most suitable model for PNG.
If you think the introduction of OBE in PNG sounds like a big mistake – you are probably right!
Q:  If OBE can work in Australia can it also work in PNG?
The home truth: No.
OBE is an offshoot of the mastery learning principle which states that, regardless of how smart or slow they are, all children can learn everything as long as they are given enough time and help.
This suggests that even the slowest student can go to university and earn a PhD if he or she is given enough support, even if it takes 50 years.
This is probably true but most school systems around the world, including PNG, do not have the time or resources to enable every student to stay at school until he or she masters everything in the curriculum.
However, the OBE system we have introduced is based on this idea that students can “teach themselves” everything in the curriculum as long as they have enough time, enough motivation, and enough learning resources including books, videos, computer programs, advice from the teacher and cooperation from other students.
Theoretically, this could work in wealthy countries where schools have small class sizes and plenty of resources.
In Australia, for example, most government primary schools even in remote areas have class sizes of 25 or less and most ordinary classroom teachers now have bachelors or even masters degrees in education.
Their libraries – now called “resource centres” – are well stocked with new books on every topic you can imagine.
For popular titles and reference books like encyclopaedias they usually have multiple copies or multiple sets so that students would not have to wait their turn to use one book.
Every month, they receive current copies of all kinds of magazines that students use for research assignments like New Scientist and National Geographic.
Primary school libraries in Australia all have a vertical file of maps and charts, a collection of commercially-published videos and DVDs, and their full-time library staff use DVD recorders to make copies of educational TV shows broadcast on free-to-air TV.
Students can select educational videos and TV shows to view privately in the library using headphones.
Encyclopaedias are now on CDROM and in seconds they can enter a keyword into the computer and find dozens of articles for their discovery learning.
Even the smallest schools in remote aboriginal communities have IT rooms with the latest computers loaded with interactive learning software, fast internet connections, and full time teacher aides and volunteer parents to help students learn in the classroom.
The Australian government also now has a policy to provide every primary student with a laptop computer with internet connection starting from as early as Grade 1.
Such wonderful learning resources might certainly allow students to work independently or in small groups using library books, videos, computer programs and the internet to “discover” their own education.
Schools with such good resources and small class sizes can also afford teachers the time to design separate learning programmes for individual children in the same class who have different levels of ability.
Here in PNG, the stark reality is that only the private schools and a few state schools in the cities have any hope of providing enough resources to allow students to work independently on self-learning activities as prescribed by OBE.
Ninety per cent of our schools are in village areas where children still sit on dirt floors or squeeze into wobbly desks and have nothing except a blackboard to look at and an exercise book to write in.
These schools are still 20 years away from having sufficient resources to sustain OBE.
The typical PNG village school has more than 50 students per class, with three or four students sharing a desk made for two and four or five sharing one textbook.
Now that we have signed the United Nations charter to provide universal basic education which calls for every child to be in school, do not be surprised next year if we see 60 or 70 students in one class.
I visited one primary school near Popondetta, which was so short of staff that one teacher was allocated two Grade 6 classes and he spent his time every day running from one classroom to the other trying to teach two lessons at the same time and keep a total of 100 pupils on task.
The classrooms had only basic furniture and basic textbooks, and the school had no library.
For schools like this one, implementing OBE is just “pie in the sky”.
Despite the in-service teacher training, and new textbooks coming through AusAID, this lack of resources in village schools is unlikely to improve radically in the near future.
PNG is just too big and there are just too many schools.
Even large budget appropriations for something like library books are quickly diluted – or misused for other purposes – and each school receives only a trickle.
Village schools have few learning materials and students must rely heavily on the teacher for their learning.
We need to acknowledge this by having in place a teacher-centred curriculum model.
Maybe, we can give OBE another try in 20 years time.