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Outcomes-Based Education

Why does there always have to be an "outcome"?…I can decide for myself what sort of outcome, if any, I want to have for my experience. More important, I can wait until the outcome reveals itself to me.

--  John Holt, Instead of Education.

Most of us know that there is something terribly wrong with education today. The signs are inescapable: a diluted curriculum, underperforming students, befuddled teachers, lack of historical grounding and civic responsibility, in short, the degradation of a noble institution and the dumbing-down of an entire generation. And many of us have rushed into the breach to propose one or another “solution” to the crisis which, nevertheless, stubbornly refuses to go away. I believe, however, that we are obliged not merely to react to but to understand the crisis as it unfolds in practice, both in the classroom and the halls of administration, as well as to ascertain the wider context of which it is both a part and a symptom. Otherwise we find ourselves, as is now the case, facing a multitude of competing schemes and paradigms that clutter the educational marketplace with increasing clangor and futility.

If we are to engage in responsible debate, we may agree that our predicament is to some extent explained by nearly a century of what is called Progressivist or student-centered pedagogy and the attendant ills with which it is associated. These latter include the erosion of academic scrupulousness, the exalting of the student’s impulses and desires over the civilizing mandate of the scholarly tradition, the privileging of unearned self-esteem over hard-won accomplishment, the invidious dismissal of intellectual merit as the propaganda of an elitist conspiracy presumably bent on polarizing society into the haves and the have nots, and a host of incremental “reforms” which, in their clumsy and unreflected application, have left a considerable part of a generation incapable of the most elementary alphanumeric operations, let alone thinking clearly. As Paul Fussell points out in BAD, or The Dumbing of America, programmatic reform in education, occurring within the Progressivist framework, aims at creating the conditions for “living a life untroubled by thought.”

Regrettably, “the teaching of the humanities and social sciences in the public schools,” argues Charles Murray in his recent Real Education, “continues to reflect a mindset that took hold as part of the progressive education movement” -- a movement that should be scrapped a.s.a.p. Easier said than done, obviously, given the prevailing mentality addicted to superficial novelty while continuing to malinger in an obsolete conceptual schema. Meaningful change would require a new breed of educational thinkers, practitioners and functionaries whose emergence is a slow and difficult process, dependent on a gradual shift in the cultural zeitgeist. This will take time, assuming its possibility. “It is a tough sell,” says Murray; still, there is no doubt that “educational success needs to be redefined.” The issue should be constantly pressed in the tenuous hope that repetition may eventually break through the shell of ignorance and sloth beneath which our educators cower.

But for the present, the Progressivist mindset remains largely in place, though it has been inflected and supplemented by a new performance model that focuses on the production of prepackaged results. It conceptualizes the classroom as a sort of cybernetic black box and envisages teachers and students as an army of obedient game sprites marching in a mainframe universe according to an inflexible set of rules or instructions. In this way, the latest innovation offers a computational model of learning whose systematicity leaves no room for ambiguity, sensitivity to context, or the unforeseeable contingencies associated with human knowing and discovery. It has, in effect, embarked on what Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies denounces as “the campaign against literate inwardness.”

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.

Given its lack of purchase on the real world in which an educated mind labors to come into existence, one might be excused for inferring that the Outcomes program could only have been confected by the Behavioral Science and Education departments at the University of Mare Imbrium on the moon. I do not mean to carpet indiscriminately all the partisans and fellow-travelers of the Outcomes system, some of whom are well-intentioned but seriously deluded. But I remain convinced that it represents the apex of all that is beside the point in general education, displacing the psychological centers of learning to the peripheries of pre-ordained acquisition, taxonomic infatuation and mechanical process, mere ectopic pedagogy at its routine and perfunctory worst.

The trouble is that the responsible and thoughtful self, reasonably secure in its grasp of the manifold complexities of life, modestly confident in the felt stability and continuity of its moral and intellectual center and capable as well of developing a consistent and defensible outlook on the world, is aborted practically at the start in the name of some presumptive competency. As Socrates confides to his attentive acolyte in the Phaedrus, “It is noble to aim at a noble goal, whatever the outcome” (italics mine). As for Outcomes-based education, it is little more and nothing less than a form of self-estrangement, the externalizing of mind into a set of operational prompts for actors who would otherwise forget their lines and spend a good portion of the play wandering aimlessly about the stage. As indeed they appear to do.

Students may at best acquire a small kit or cluster of professional “skills” -- but such specific competencies are only a fraction of what we mean and have always intended by “education.” It is true they may pick up a whiff of culcha from an incidental sprinkle of English and Humanities courses along the way, but this amounts to little more than a cosmetic nicety, the eau-de-toilette of pseudocivilized discourse. One thinks of the bereft condition of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, who wanted to say his prayers but could only remember the multiplication table.

The business of the teachers, writes Gilbert Highet in his classic The Art of Teaching, is “to pass currents of interest and energy through the facts” and that this may reasonably be done “more happily as improvisation than as a prepared part of a lesson.” Certainly it is preferable, at least in the Humanities, “to allow the teacher and the class scope to develop their discussions without being kept to a timetable.” It is discouraging “to have the work sliced up and packed into airtight compartments, each containing one week’s rations.” The thought goes back to Thoreau who, in the last essay he wrote, Walking, proposes that true knowledge is acquired by “sauntering.” This alone can generate “the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital of this profession.” It is precisely the joy of the leisurely and metaphorical saunter through a discipline or area of study which the current paradigm has sabotaged, substituting in its stead a rigid confinement to a narrow and pre-established methodological regime. The result is cultural destitution.

Having sent our students to the wrong explanatory paradigm, we are now presiding over a referential tragedy of the first magnitude. I am very much afraid that Thoreau is right and the “evil days” he warns against in his essay have at last come upon us, “when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road.” By the “public road,” Thoreau intends the conventional and uninstructed complacency of unchallenged assumptions about the world. The “knowledge” we are busy inculcating and the restrictive ways in which we are commanded to deliver it mean that we will not succeed in evoking in our students what Thoreau describes as “Sympathy with Intelligence” -- the broad, personal, and historically resonant form of knowledge which is the aim and ideal of all genuine education no matter how much it may be honored only in the breach.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)