Outcomes-Based Education

The new form of pedantry has come to be known as Outcomes-based or Competency-based education -- which in reality represents nothing so much as a fundamental lesion in educational thought. This menu-oriented pedagogy states that fixed purposes must rigorously and necessarily precede activities and that criterion levels of competency must be strictly specified in advance. It would be completely oblivious to the wise observation of Paul Feyerabend who, in Against Method, cogently argues that the complexities of learning and thinking “defy analysis on the basis of rules which have been set up in advance and without regard” to changing circumstances. Outcomes further asserts that learning occurs in discrete units that are readily quantifiable and replicable and that demand continual testing and assessment, that pedagogical performance is essentially predictable, and that failure is the teacher’s, not the student’s, responsibility, an aberration that goes by the name of “accountability.”

As Dianne Bateman, one of the most vocal of Outcomes proponents, writes in an internally circulated motherhood document addressing Quebec’s college system, Rhetoric of the Reform: “The basic assumption underlying this approach is that educational improvement depends upon a shift in focus from inputs to outcomes. Once desirable student outcomes are identified, all educational practices are keyed to these outcomes, and educators are held accountable for achieving them. ... The entire curriculum is redesigned into coherent, thematic programs, courses and units that support the outcomes.”

Leaving Bateman’s problematic and stentorian claims aside for the moment and charitably forgetting the obvious fact that most teachers have always concerned themselves, for better or worse, with testable student proficiencies and material results, Outcomes pedagogy is vitiated by the logical fallacy that the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in his Discourse on Metaphysics called “the misidentity of discernibles,” namely, the idea that specific methods and principles readily transfer from one domain to another -- which they manifestly do not. It gives the mind the wrong cognitive address. In other words, the Competency template (minus the reprisal psychology associated with the barbarous accountability proviso) which is differentially suited to certain arenas of endeavor -- for example, the early phase of literacy and arithmetic training in the primary grades (as opposed to “whole language” theory), sports, the technical subjects (including computer training), or the initial stages of science education in which the acquisition of “skills,” techniques, and facts prevails -- is resolutely misapplied to another set of disciplines with which it has little in common, in particular those grouped under the title of the “Humanities.” Even apart from its misapplication, the Competency approach is little short of catastrophic, for the following five reasons.

First, it militates against chance, serendipity, and the emergence of unforeseen ideas that may provoke the teacher to alter the class syllabus in mid-process; that is, it divests both teacher and student of intellectual freedom. Secondly, as a corollary of the above, the Competency model works against the spirit of play that is essential to the creative delight and exhilaration of authentic learning. Thirdly, Outcomes places obsessive measurement before real learning. Fourthly, it deprives the student of personal responsibility for both success and failure. And fifthly, implicit in the previous four attributes or properties of the Outcomes syndrome, it functions merely as a kind of epistemic plug-in, as one more piece of standardized equipment, one more item in a shopping list of presumably “skill-fostering” exercises.

If children, writes E.D. Hirsch in Cultural Literacy, “were taught texts with cultural content rather than 'developmental' texts that develop abstract skills, much of the specific knowledge deficit of disadvantaged children could be overcome.” In today’s diminished educational milieu, this stricture applies to the current generation of “Twixters” as well, that cohort trapped between adolescence and maturity. It is as if our students, even at college and university level, were learning to write algorithms rather than to write sentences, to exhibit a sequence of behavioral tics and performative convulsions on demand rather than to establish a cohesive, literate and “well-rounded” personality.

What Outcomes is trying to do, really, is what mathematicians call “tesselating the plane,” that is, filling up a flat surface with tiles or rectilinear shapes until it is completely covered with an endlessly repeating motif. This tiling effect looks great on bathroom floors and mathematical surfaces, but as a curricular paradigm it works against the extemporaneous and the unprecedented, the nonperiodic ways in which a plane can be interestingly tiled or a mind inventively formed. Or to put it another way, there is a sense in which the Outcomes blueprint is nothing more than a backward pedagogical catechism intended to restrain inquiry and to legislate and control response. At the same time it creates a false sense of purpose and achievement, inhibiting the imagination as severely as any ideological mantra or programming code.