Jonathan Jansen: The enduring legacy of OBE

22 July 2010 - 01:25 By Jonathan Jansen

Jonathan Jansen: One dark winter's night in late 1998 a group of political heavyweights came to my office in Durban with the simple agenda of threatening me. I had just published an essay titled "Ten reasons why OBE will fail".

A national conference was organised shortly afterwards with the agenda of taking apart the critic rather than his argument, through a scathing presentation by an academic comrade, now deceased.

If the disastrous consequences of Outcomes-Based Education were visible on television as millions of sick and dying children, we would be horrified by the effects of this experiment of our first democratic government. But since education wounds are not as visible as in a health crisis, we cannot immediately see the damage wrought.

The sheer dishonesty among politicians and unionists after Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga announced the obvious - that OBE was dead - was on the one hand, amusing, and on the other hand, disturbing. A former minister of education told a newspaper that a current minister of education was to blame; the latter claimed that he was not the one with the power to decide on OBE. A prominent education personality denied that he was the father of OBE. A union official joined the fray and said his organisation was always against OBE.

The rampant denialism reminded me of Nationalist Party politicians in the mid-1990s; none of them ever supported apartheid.

But what are the not-so-obvious damages of Outcomes-Based Education? I can think of six.

First, there are the costs in financial terms to the country. Hundreds of millions of rands were spent training teachers, developing materials, preparing curriculum facilitators, hiring international experts, commissioning expensive reviews and evaluations, writing and rewriting learning guides, arranging conferences, and on and on.

Second, there are the opportunity costs, ie the things we could have done in the past 12 years to build a new school system founded on a strong curriculum that built the foundations of reading, writing and thinking in the early years. That "window of opportunity" is forever lost as we now try to undo the intertwined damage of apartheid as well as OBE.

Third, there are motivational costs to be reckoned. The early years of democracy were a time of excitement and expectation; the system was ready for and open to change. Teachers understood that the apartheid curriculum had to go; they geared themselves for change. Many embraced, often clumsily, OBE as the remedy for apartheid knowledge.

Now they will not believe us as easily again. There is exhaustion among professional teachers, many of whom feel they were duped.

Fourth, there are the legacy costs. One myth about dramatic curriculum changes is that a senior official, like a minister, can make an announcement and the problem curriculum simply disappears. The problem is that OBE is now settled in the consciousness of most of our teachers; it will continue to reflect in their patterns of teaching and assessing; it remains in the organisation of classrooms. Just like the apartheid knowledge lingers in the teaching practices of many schools, so OBE will continue to negatively influence what teachers and learners actually do in their classrooms for a long time to come.

Fifth, there were and are economic costs. Fewer and fewer students, with or without post-school training, were capable of being absorbed in the marketplace.

It would be interesting to ask an economist of education to calculate the costs to the economy of OBE in terms of the trained labour we did not produce.

Sixth, and most important, there are serious human costs. Children already disadvantaged were exposed to a curriculum that made a fragile learning environment worse. Instead of learning those vital competencies of reading, writing and calculating, they were exposed to high-brow constructivist theories that kept many of them illiterate. Those effects not only forced many to leave the school system, they pushed weaker and weaker students into universities where they again struggled to succeed.

There should, of course, be political costs. Heads should roll. The architects of OBE are very much among us today - some left the department of education for the private sector; others run universities; a few have retired; and many simply shifted from one government department to the next. Here's the sad news: the arrogance in our political system means that none of these people would be held accountable.