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Why OBE has not worked in South Africa

Outcomes-based education (OBE) has not worked in South Africa. For someone of the stature of Mamphela Ramphele to say this openly and courageously is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stifling atmosphere of lip-service being paid to the ANC-government’s ill-starred, bureaucracy-blighted policy by many educators who admit privately that teachers are despondent and at their wits’ end regarding the educational inefficacy of OBE.

It should take no genius to know that all good education has always, at least since the time of the ancient Greeks’ schools of philosophy — including those of the sophists — been “outcomes-based”. The difference has been, of course, that such education and teaching were not bogged down in mind-numbing, grey, boring, and most significantly, education-undermining administration (that is, bureaucracy).

One may wonder how I could make this claim about the ancient Greeks. Consider Aristotle’s famous notion, that causality is four-fold (a more sophisticated conception of causality than that of many people today, who think of it only in terms of one of Aristotle’s four, as I shall point out). The four kinds of causes that Aristotle distinguishes are: the formal cause, the material cause, the final cause or “telos”, and the efficient or “working” cause.

The “formal cause”, for Aristotle, is what makes something what it is, in contradistinction to something else. So, for instance, the formal cause of cats is their “cat-ness” or “feline-ness”, that is, what makes them conceptually classifiable as belonging to the genus “cat” and to (one of) the more limited groups of cat-species. At the more general metaphysical level of Aristotle’s conception of every individual being as an “entelechy”, or functioning individual substance, the formal cause corresponds to what he calls “form”.

The “material cause”, by contrast, is that which is a prerequisite for anything to be “individuated”, that is, to be an individual thing or being. Without the material cause, the form “human being”, could never be instantiated in the guise of an individual human being. At the more general level of individual substance, the material cause corresponds to what Aristotle refers to as “matter”.

The “efficient” or “working” cause corresponds to the (narrow) conception of causality that most people adhere to today, and have been doing, for centuries, at least since the advent of modern science in the work of Galileo and Newton, namely the “mechanical” cause. It is that which “works” from within to make something grow, or that which makes things move from an exterior position to it (such as a billiard ball that makes another move when it connects with it).

The “final cause” or “telos” is the one that is most pertinent to outcomes-based education or teaching, and should have been regarding OBE in South Africa. For Aristotle, the final cause is that towards which, in the case of living beings, the thing strives or is developing — an acorn’s final cause or “telos” is an oak tree, for example. In the case of inanimate things, such as marble, they can be taken up in a process where an agent such as a sculptor involves it as material cause to work towards the telos or goal of the finished sculpture of a great statesman or athlete. Final causes, although seldom recognised as such in today’s technology-obsessed world, are the ones most abundantly operating in human beingss lives: we go to university motivated by the “final cause” of what we want to “become” (an architect, a nurse, a teacher, etc.), that is, motivated by a final cause of sorts. Even our daily lives revolve around final causes — we get into the car to go shopping because we are spurred on by the “final cause” of the dinner party we are giving tonight, and so on.

Just how pertinent the concept of “final” causes is to all education, and specifically to something that is named OBE, is apparent when one reflects that the purpose of all education and teaching since time immemorial has been to get someone (the pupil, student or learner) to the point where she or he “knows” something (for instance how to distinguish conceptually between plant iron and meat iron, or between the phenomenological method and the participatory method in the human sciences) or is able to “do” something (for example how to use a bow and arrow in action, or how to operate a complicated machine in practice). In this respect, OBE has never been anything new. Any teacher, when she or he teaches, would find it hard, if not impossible, to justify his or her teaching, at least (among other indispensable things) with reference to what “outcome” they hope to achieve on the part of their pupils or students.

So why has it not worked that way in South Africa? Primary and high school teachers would probably be able to answer this question far better than I could, but as far as I can see, the general answer is simply that, while the intentions behind OBE were good, it has not worked because the actual teaching and education have been smothered by everything that a teacher (and in some, if not all cases, university lecturers too) is expected to do by way of preparation for every lesson, and archiving, recording or giving an account of what she or he has done in their teaching.

More particularly, as far as I can make out (and this may not be completely accurate, but one should get the general picture from this sketch), when a student teacher has to be given a crit (as I believe it is still called) by a senior teacher or a lecturer, she or he has to prepare the lesson in written form, under different headings (like “Introduction”, “Conclusion” and “Revision”), and be seen by the assessor as following these step by step during the teaching session, within the allocated time. If she or he rushes through these stages of teaching a specific lesson, it would count against them to finish too quickly, and it they go too slowly, likewise, no matter how well they explain things or communicate with the pupils.

Here one already encounters a flaw in the way OBE has been implemented in South Africa (and possibly also in other countries, where good sense eventually prevailed and the system was abandoned): human beings are not machines, real life is messy, and it is therefore seldom that a “real” teacher is able to teach a lesson in a “mechanically perfect” (and for that reason “humanly imperfect”) manner every time according to a preconceived plan. Unexpected, unpredictable things invariably crop up, such as a pupil feeling ill, or a data projector malfunctioning, or the teacher suffering from hay fever and sneezing his or her head off (thus wasting precious time). Good teachers can usually cope with such contingencies, and work around them, without letting their teaching suffer excessively. OBE seems to be blindly predicated on the assumption that teachers can teach like machines, in a time and space unaffected by normal, to-be-expected eventualities. But such things do occur in the normal course of events — that is what it means to be (finitely) human.

The crux of the matter, as far as I can judge, also concerns time, and how to make use of it. In what appears to be an effort on the part of the Department of Education to exert maximum control over teaching practice, teachers (and even more absurdly, lecturers too) are expected, on pain of something presumably worse than death, to prepare courses, course outlines, lessons, and keep a record of all their preparations, for teaching specific lessons or giving specific lectures, and then to report on what they have done in retrospect, some time later — and, of course, keep all of this in some or other filing system. God knows where teachers and lecturers have to find time for actually getting to know their subjects better — yes, I know they were supposed to get to know them at university, but the things one studies at university unfortunately have way of developing, expanding, becoming revised, refined, and so on, and if you want to be a good teacher, one has to keep abreast of what is happening in one’s field of teaching (which is therefore always also one’s field of research).

In other words, the way that OBE has been implemented in South Africa seems to me to have had the effect of having systematically shifted the focus away from the actual teaching to all the (to my mind largely redundant) administration, archiving, reporting, and all the rest of it, which comprise nothing less than what Foucault called a system of panoptical surveillance. And it may well be a very effective system for reducing teachers to what Foucault described as “docile bodies” in this panoptical system, but no one should labour under the illusion that it promotes good teaching — that is, that the youth of the country are being given a good education in the sciences and the humanities. The teachers (and increasingly, lecturers too) are far too busy keeping their files up to date.
Small wonder that so many teachers have left the teaching profession, and are still leaving — all that admin is simply choking them to death. And I find confirmation of my diagnosis in the fact that it is, more often than not, the good teachers who are leaving — the ones who love teaching, and relish the knowledge that they have imparted valuable knowledge to their pupils or students. They are the ones who lament the fact that they have been forced, by the invidious (and insidious) panoptical archiving system, to abandon something they love, namely teaching. I personally know several such ex-teachers, whose departure from teaching is a great loss to the educational system in the country.

Ironically, if “outcomes-based education” were to be understood in the Aristotelian sense of “final cause-oriented” education, minus the anaesthetising administration, it would probably be a very good system. But this could only happen once the “authorities” in charge of education in South Africa understood that teaching and the administrative account or record of what is taught are two very different things. Once they understand this, they may realise anew that good teachers are people whose knowledge and “skills” are part of their very being (including memory and intellect), and that they may therefore be called upon to teach at short notice, even when there is no neat, written-down “plan” or schema of the prospective lesson or lecture.

Instead of writing endless outlines and reports, teachers and lecturers should be encouraged to write in the form of research articles or books in their chosen fields — that way they would be challenged to reflect critically about these disciplines, too, and in the process get to know them better. This is the way one should teach — one’s teaching should always be based on what one is researching at any given time, and instead of giving students overly long course-outlines (beyond a one-pager) to read, one should give them your published research to read instead. In most cases it will have been peer-reviewed, and therefore in the process “quality-assured”, too.

This is something I learned long ago at some of the top American universities, where leading academics invariably teach on the basis of their research. Moreover, if one teaches in this way, you also find that, in the process of teaching, you come across new insights, or sound commentary and criticism from bright students, which further help to refine your thoughts. This should be the direction for education to develop in this country — it would have the added benefit of cultivating (on the part of both teachers and students) the ability to reflect critically on what is being taught.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 14 September 2009

    @ Marco, thanks for your remarks on David Harris. He is one of our abecedarian acolytes. I dont know how he can conclude Bert is not an educator from his blogs! Bert is clearly passionate about the subject and I agree with his views, especially endless, grinding admin – which I dont have – wholeheartedly.

    Bert’s blogs are not one-dimensional, Forest Gump’s reading of them is one dimensional.

  2. Corne Corne 14 September 2009

    Somehow you lost track of the entire argument. Discuss the topic, do not get personal… What do you mean by ‘knowledge of OBE’? Are you referring to first hand experience or the idealistic details proposed by the department of education? Are you a teacher Dave? I am, and I can tell you that the current education system is a joke. Children are becoming more illiterate by the year, not to mention extremely irresponsible. No one wants the old education system back, but does that mean we shouldn’t try to improve on the current joke we have going? People like you only prohibit growth. This is an education discussion, lets try and keep it at that.

    By the way, having had Bert as a lecturer for four years I can attest to his brilliance as an educator. In fact, he is definitely the best teacher I’ve had in my years of education…

  3. mallencolly mallencolly 14 September 2009

    @ Dave Harris

    So you admit that the education we subject our children to IS second rate. The financial implications of it are not so serious when you consider the money wasted by the current government and stolen by the civil service. Also, they closed down the means to create resources, to my mind the most important ones, in closing teachers training colleges.

    I notice that you never put forward what OBE HAS achieved (anywhere) but rather what it ATTEMPTS to do. Whatever OBE attempts to do, clearly it is failing. Time for a rethink, no?

    If you want free thinkers and emotional intelligence, perhaps you could afford yourself a few weeks to think about Mr Olivier’s suggestions re the academic teacher. Failing that, just reread his third last paragraph.

  4. Dave Harris Dave Harris 15 September 2009

    @the Bert fan club
    If only one of you could address the issues and questions I raised to Bert, I’d appreciate it.

    “financial implications of it are not so serious”
    You obviously have NO idea on how ANY education system is run or financed.

    ” teachers training colleges”
    Why do we need another bureaucracy like the old ” teachers training colleges’ when we have universities that can train teachers -like they do in the rest of the world.

    “Time for a rethink, no?”
    Possibly, but rethink the implementation of OBE and the structural problems prevent us from overhauling and improving the education system that grew out of the Bantu Education Act.
    BTW. I’ll let Bert educate you on OBE, since teaching is his fortes, isn’t it? ;-)

    “reread his third last paragraph”
    Puhlease, spare me!

  5. mallencolly mallencolly 15 September 2009

    @ Dave Harris

    1) You raised three issues.

    Teaching methods – Mr Olivier didnt question them.

    Racism – I questioned the reasoning that allows you to draw the conclusion you did, you havent answered.

    Equating varsity and school – A number of commentators, high school teachers amongst them, have supported his criticism.

    All your points have been answered.

    2) The actual quote was “The financial implications of it are not so serious when you consider the money wasted by the current government and stolen by the civil service. ”

    That second section is important. ie. Better financial management and a shift in priorities will leave you more money to finance your new prioritised projects.

    3) Because the rest of the world dont have the same history and socioeconomic environment as us. If we’re going to scream lack of resources we cannot really be closing down the resources we do have.

    4) Well there is your difference. The difference that proves that your screaming racism at every corner is, at least, misguided. You seem satisfied with an improvement on Bantu Education. We expect a much higher standard.

    5) So you rubbish the paragraph where Mr Olivier says that OBE would be a very good system? What you seem to be missing here is that, since you admit that the admin aspect is a common criticism, You and Mr Olvier are pretty much on the same page as far as OBE is concerned. Which makes your rant against him a little silly.

  6. Bert Bert 15 September 2009

    Thanks Mallencolly, for giving Dave a lesson in logic! Thanks, too, those who have supported me, especially Marco, Rod and Corne.

  7. Dave Harris Dave Harris 15 September 2009

    Once again the issues I raised way back that remain unanswered are:
    1. Bert’s shallow knowledge of OBE as demonstrated by:
    “OBE seems to be blindly predicated on the assumption that teachers can teach like machines,..”
    2. Bert’s apparent lack of understanding of the dynamics and scale of a university vs school systems.
    3. Bert’s political agenda – hurling stones at our government’s honest attempt at overhauling an inherently unequal system thats a relic of the apartheid era. As an educator, Bert should be engaging in objective scientific assessment of OBE’s strengths and weaknesses in the SAn context? Changing an education system is a tectonic societal shift that provides golden opportunities for research and contribution.

    Now you want to bring us to the level of the previous “white education system” but keep silent about the the pitfalls and costs which were different for Africans, Coloreds and Indians. There simply isn’t enough educational funding to spread the equivalent resources that ALL white kids were entitled to under apartheid, to ALL our kids in present terms. Neither of you provided ANY research or even point to some scientific study to tell us how we can accomplish this. Is screaming racism and hurl rocks at the government all you can do? If you are the “intellectuals” you profess to be – “show me the money”.

  8. mallencolly mallencolly 16 September 2009

    @ Dave Harris

    Priorities, Mr Harris. Management, Mr Harris. Schools rather than submarines. Teachers rather than submariners. Desks rather than bonuses for CEOs of failing Parastatals. Security at existing schools rather than millions on walls. The list of irregualrities is pretty long. As an example of priorities, have you seen the HQ of the VIP protection unit in Sunnyside in PTA? It is bigger than the buildings for Damelin in Braamfontein. would make a good school but, hey, those blue lights have to park somewhere. Accross the road is a pretty run down building that with, a bit of renovation, could just as easily serve the purpose of housing a drastically reduced VIP protection unit.

    If you want research into education in general, there is plenty of it supporting small class sizes. By not investing in infrastructure and resources – like school buildings and teachers – you increase the size of classes. Something has to give. With the amount of admin that OBE requires things will give quicker. And they are. You cannot teach, maintain discipline (preventative not punishment), give individual attention to 35 – 40 kids and do all the admin.

    As for your points

    1) I dont think you can draw the conclusions you do from that statement. Mr Olivier expands on it very well. You should be left in no doubt as to what he means.

    2) Once again, his view is supported both here and worldwide. Does he really have a lack of understanding?


  9. mallencolly mallencolly 16 September 2009

    3) His political agenda? Mr Harris, in a democracy, it is the political right of every citizen to have a political opinion. And, yes, that includes an opinion on the schooling system. “Hurling rocks” at a government is the right, possibly even responsibility, of every member of that society. They are our represetatives, not rulers. They are not some sacred cow which has to be left untouched.

    Getting back to the benchmark, and scientific research, what research is necessary? There is evidence aplenty that something is wrong. We need to understand why. It seems you hold a Panglossian belief in the current system. And we have to wonder why?

    But that aside, what sort of research would you like? An approximate amount for the building of new schools? The proven social benefits of education via research? A theoretical adaption of the current system? Societal welfare benefits of good education over submarines? Some money making schemes?

    From your language, it is fairly easy to tell that you see this as, primarily, an attack on government. Perhaps, as I suggested previously, you could take the criticisms seriously, stop making assumptions about peoples motives, and think about what is said. Im sure you will come to the same conclusion as others. Something is seriously wrong in our education system.

  10. Bert Olivier Bert Olivier 16 September 2009

    Mallencolly – I could not have answered Dour Dave better than you have, and after reading your use of the word ‘Panglossian’, I can gather that you are either in Philosophy or in literature – who can mistake Voltaire’s Candide in this? It also explains your Voltaireian ‘pessimism’ resonating in your Nom de Plume – a pessimism regarding human nature that is entirely justified; witness Dour Dave! Not to mention those (who think of themselves as ‘elites’) who arrogate to themselves the use of resources that could be channeled elsewhere where they are sorely needed, like education.

  11. Dave Harris Dave Harris 16 September 2009

    @mallencolly and Bert
    1. Sorry, Bert is just plain wrong.
    2. Not so. You are spreading misinformation. The jury is still out on OBE, for many reasons it is still being implemented in US, Australia etc.
    3. Yes, I consider it a politically motivated attack on our governments honest attempt at overhauling a reprehensible unequal education system inherited from apartheid.

    What a topsy turvy world we live in! Now “intellectuals” are scoffing at conducting scientific research? Luckily for us there are many dedicated researchers and educators out there who are making a positive difference instead of engaging in selfish petty politics. Take a look at this article on M&G – that uses a scientific approach to measuring and improving performance in our schools.

    Rather than blowing smoke with half-baked, crazy ideas, if you try working with these researchers and educators (the true intellectuals) to help overhaul and improve our school system instead of wasting time and energy engaging in selfish petty politics under the guise of “intellectual” discussion.

    btw. Bert, the name calling is unbecoming of an “intellectual” isn’t it?

  12. mallencolly mallencolly 16 September 2009

    @ Dave Harris

    Please show me where in the article anything is said that contradicts what has been said here. Does this article disprove Mr Olivier’s thoughts? Does it does it disprove the mountains of research that points to smaller class sizes?

    That is a nice summary of research into class sizes/pupil to teacher ratios/teacher workloads. The bits about less priveledged children and mathematics are fascinating ;)

    Read it. Then come back to us with informed criticisms, not a newspaper article reporting that some results will be realeased. Results that you probably have not read yet.

    @ Bert Olivier

    Im in neither, but have a blossoming interst in both. More from a ‘philosphy of’ perspective with particular interests in ethics, meta-ethics and political philopsophy.

    Panglossian is a lovely word. :)

  13. Teacher from PE Teacher from PE 18 September 2009

    “OBE seems to be blindly predicated on the assumption that teachers can teach like machines,..”

    I am sure that anyone in the education system in contemporary times can confirm this assertion. This past week, inspired by the discussion on this blog, I decided to take what Dave would call a “scientific” approach to things. I made a point of recording the amount of time I spent on administrative work. That is, non-teaching hours in the past week. Organizing ‘formal mark sheets’ for the department; arranging a CASS file for each and every student; updating my teacher’s portfolios (which includes ridiculous amounts of paper trails for lesson plans, assessment schedules etc); moderating and re-moderating other teacher’s tests (which have already been moderated in the first place); running after lazy students in order to complete the paper trail the department requires…

    On these aspects, which have reached a new high since we’re approaching the end of the year, I have spent an average of 5 extra hours a day, excluding marking time and teaching time. This is not much less in other times of the year. Most of these requirements are barely checked by the department, but you have to complete it to avoid trouble from the school, and possibly (but improbably) the department of education. By the time I’ve finished this on a daily basis, I barely have the energy to prepare for lessons and mark…


  14. Teacher from PE Teacher from PE 18 September 2009

    These strict admin policies were implemented for schools where there are serious problems concerning the standard of work being done, as well as the quantity. However, the irony of it all is that these are still the schools who do not even attempt these arduous paper mountains (as I, and all my colleagues, have noticed at cluster moderation sessions). While the teachers and schools who do work are burdened with so much extra admin that it is literally becoming a burden. Add to this the level of illiteracy and lack of discipline in today’s students, and you have something that can only be considered to be a tasteless joke.

    I had a conversation with an exceptional maths teacher, who has been in the profession for 27 years now, who said to me that “all this admin is busy strangling teaching”. I couldn’t agree more. No wonder I have seen so many teachers quit their job in the last year. I have decided that this will be my last year of teaching as well. The pressure is becoming unbearable, and only the desperate, under-qualified and lazy are left to do the job. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. Are you a teacher, Dave? The way you treat Bert’s above quoted statement seems to prove to the contrary. Try to look at things on ground level, that is for teachers, and not politically.

  15. Dave Harris Dave Harris 18 September 2009

    “mountains of research that points to smaller class sizes”
    Who’s speaking about smaller class sizes? I thought this ENTIRE article was about Bert’s claim of “why OBE has failed”?

    The recent article that I pointed you to is a comprehensive scientific study to determine performance improvements in SA schools. Its baffling as why you and Bert cannot admit that one cannot claim that OBE has failed without a SCIENTIFIC evidence and then have the gall to call me Panglossian! – this just shows how strange SA “intellectuals” have become or maybe you guys are like being just like being sesquipedalian ;-)

  16. mallencolly mallencolly 18 September 2009

    @ Dave Harris

    Smaller class sizes and WORKLOAD of teachers. Implied in the criticism ‘too much admin’.

    Anyway this is getting tiring so…

    This article SUPPORTS OBE in South Africa

    Read in the conclusion on page 12 about the high demands it places on teachers.

    This is the harshest criticism of OBE I have seen

    The section “Planning Documentation Deluge” is the relevant section. Take note of the country of the author. Australia.

    Next is from Spady, “The Father Of OBE” as he was apparently introduced to SA audiences, the book “Outcome Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers”, Page 21, where he discusses HOW OBE can be prone to being “bogged down” in detail and the effects that may have .

    This is Spady’s opinion on OBE in SA

    The beginning of the last paragraph is quite telling.

    “So now, with a decade of confusion about OBE behind us, I would encourage my South
    African colleagues to stop referring to OBE in any form. It never existed in 1997, and has
    only faded farther from the scene since. ”

    So now whether the criticism ‘too much admin’ is common and fair is out of the way.


  17. mallencolly mallencolly 18 September 2009

    As for whether OBE is a failure or not

    1) Spady does not consider it to be OBE ie a failure in implementation
    2) Consistently bad results – which if you dig further, are not very different, demographically, to pre 1994 academic results ie failure as an equaliser
    3) We are a net loser of teachers ie a failure in retaining resources
    4) We critically need skills in maths and science. OBE is not supplying them, also demographically failing to equalise.

    So, overall, OBE is failing. This article provides info for the above with the organisations that provide the numbers.

    Most of that is supported in HSRC publications and on their website

    btw, that article you posted is not scientific. It is a newspaper article. It is not one study and neither of the two studies mentioned in the article re quality will be able to answer questions about OBE in SA. At most they will be able to tell whether there has been a change in quality since 2000/2001. The Economic analysis of Hanushek mentioned in that article is discussed in that link summary I posted.

  18. Dave Harris Dave Harris 18 September 2009

    I’m not sure what your barrage of comments is supposed to do? The article I pointed you to is obviously not actual the scientific research but a POINTER to the researchers conducting the studies, yet you deliberately cause confusion by spreading misinformation.

    You seem to fail to grasp the simple concept of OBE. A simple wikipedia definition states: “OBE is a recurring education reform model. It is a student-centered learning philosophy that focuses on empirically measuring student performance, which are called outcomes.”
    It does not speak about class sizes or quality of teachers or any of the other host of issues that you chose to deliberately confuse this conversation with.

    To measure outcomes, there has to be rigorous, periodic TESTING. If you read the article:
    “The 2007 grade three results from the Systemic Evaluation will be comparable with those of 2001, and the 2007 grade six results from the Southern and Eastern African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq) will be comparable with those of 2000. ”
    Futhermore, ” The Systemic Evaluation, on the other hand, tests a sample representing all learners, at the primary level (which is of course where the quality problem starts), using tests that are comparable across time. It is programmes such as these that have become the gold standard in the more educationally ambitious developing countries in recent years.”

    Anyway, this discussion is SOOO tedious and sadly turning out to be an absolutely futile. I’ll let you have the last word.

  19. Marco Marco 19 September 2009

    Fantastic research, Mallencolly! I hope this shuts Dave up.

  20. Bert Bert 19 September 2009

    Wow, Mallencolly – all these articles you have pulled out of your sleeve go a long way towards making your argument (and my original piece) convincing.
    Teacher from PE – thank you so much for your contributions. As someone who is in the field every day, you are in a better position to judge than anyone else, myself included. The fact that you confirm my intitial judgement is a wonderful vindication of my argument, that the OBE-system, EVEN if the original motivation behind its implementation was a benevolent one, serves to promote exactly the opposite of good teaching. Teachers are in the position of would-be racing car drivers who have to spend most of their time filling in forms about how they are planning to drive, how they have driven, how many corroborations there have been of the quality of their driving, etc., etc., instead of actually DRIVING. The result? In the end they lose their enthusiasm for their real passion, namely, driving, because they don’t get to it, or when they do, they don’t have any energy left to do it well, with full concentration. There is another perspective on this, of course – one opened up by Michel Foucault’s claim – with which I agree – that we live in a society where people are systematically ‘infantilized’, that is, treated like children incapable of accepting any responsibility; hence the endless paper trails. OBE is a paradigmatic instance of this – the infantilization of teachers.

  21. EvylShnukums EvylShnukums 20 September 2009

    *sigh* All my comments just disappeared but the short version is this:

    1. OBE is not unique in its philosophy or its aims. All education really is about outcomes and empirical measuring thereof.
    2. Practical matters like class size, teacher training, resources etc should be encompassed in any educational philosophy/system.
    3. OBE isn’t working in SA. Our matrics fail, our Gr 3s are illiterate, I think we can all accept that these are not the desired outcomes.
    4. It is time for something new. We have little enough resources that our teachers should not be bogged down and demoralised by reams of admin but should be teaching.

    As you were

  22. mallencolly mallencolly 21 September 2009

    @ Dave Harris
    I don’t believe I need a last word but in the interests of not leaving everything hanging I will oblige.
    Measuring a trend in the quality of education is certainly important but does not really amount to determining success or failure. Improvement on a bad base does not imply attaining your goals. The goals in this instance being children able to move, without too many problems, to varsity or employment.
    To consider class sizes as “confusing” the matter shows a lack of knowledge of education systems in general and, as you have enjoyed throwing about, OBE in particular. OBE, as with many alternative education models, has as it’s underlying reason for existence, the fact that children do not develop and learn at the same pace. The Spady book will tell you that. Class sizes follow necessarily from that. Having a class of up to 50 children, all at different levels and with all the individual attention that implies, and trying to maintain some semblance of good teaching is patently impossible. To introduce a system that demands that level of individual attention, without the necessary reduction in class sizes, is foolish. Negligent even. That is before other non academic failings of our school system like violence are taken into consideration.
    But hey, this is the best of all possible worlds, is it not? OBE was introduced with good intentions, so those good intentions necessarily constitute proof of success, do they not?

  23. mallencolly mallencolly 21 September 2009

    @ Everyone else

    One thing that is fascinating about this conversation is that it illustrates another criticism of OBE (internationally) very well. Who gets to determine the Outcomes and to what purpose? Do we settle for the “its better than Bantu Education” great equalizer subject to budget constraints cos we bought a submarine outcomes or do we expect our children to slot seamlessly into varsity or meaningful employment?

  24. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 21 September 2009

    This has been a confusing debate and even Dave Harris’s belated offering of a definition of OBE does not manage to rescue it.

    Accepted that the focus of OBE is on ‘student performance’, it is essential to be clear what the objectives are before anyone can claim that performance has come up to scratch or might do in future.

    Further, if the emphasis in SA has not been on achieving basic numeracy and literacy, it seems perfectly sensible to censure ‘OBE’ as failed on those grounds, and teacher training, class size and much else, including too much red tape, would then be relevant to that failure, whatever Dave Harris says. So would the quality of teacher training and teachers’ subsequent supervision.

    But no reader here has been enlightened as to what the objectives of ‘OBE’ in SA are in the first place.

  25. mallencolly mallencolly 21 September 2009

    @ Paul Whelan

    These are the “Critical Outcomes” from the Revised National Curriculaum Statement

    ” The critical outcomes envisage learners who will be able to:

    1.Identify and solve problems and make decisions using critical and creative thinking.

    2.Work effectively with others as members of a team, group, organisation and community.

    3.Organise and manage themselves and their activities responsibly and effectively.

    4.Collect, analyse, organise and critically evaluate information.

    5.Communicate effectively using visual, symbolic and/or language skills in various modes.

    6.Use science and technology effectively and critically, showing responsibility towards the environment and the health of others.

    7.Demonstrate an understanding of the world as a set of related systems by recognising that problem-solving contexts do not exist in isolation.

    The developmental outcomes envisage learners who are also able to:

    8.Reflect on and explore a variety of strategies to learn more effectively.

    9.Participate as responsible citizens in the life of local, national and global communities.

    10.Be culturally and aesthetically sensitive across a range of social contexts.

    11.Explore education and career opportunities.

    12.Develop entrepreneurial opportunities. ”

    In other words (and a lot less of them), not very different to traditional curriculum based outcomes.

    You can find the entire document here

  26. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 22 September 2009


    Thank you for setting out the Critical Outcomes. They are so widely drawn as to make it possible to argue almost any ‘outcome’ as an objective, or as desirable, and to demonstrate that many may or may not be being achieved.

    In that sense they make it no easier to measure and test whether current ‘OBE’ is ‘working’.

    What seem permanent ‘outcomes’ are that teachers feel overworked and underpaid (what’s new?); examiners as often feel ‘standards’ are dropping; many pupils leaving school are hardly literate; and educationists like Ramphele and practitioners like Bert fret that the current system is failing.

    Bert’s view is that red tape is stifling creativity and soaking up gifted teacher’s time. He is probably right. Many suggest the problem is also that there are not enough gifted teachers.

    Perhaps Ramphele needs to be more specific about her concerns (or I haven’t heard the detail of her speech). If she means that education has become so politicised that shortcomings cannot even be discussed, that seems probable because in the new SA the authorities will see themselves as rectifying historic injustices and reject criticsm
    altogether: Dave Harris’s view.

    But what are we educating for? will not go away in the new SA.

    And if we answer it too ambitously, as the Critical Outcomes do and must, is there not a danger of missing out on the basic essentials – the things that sound teachers always hark back to in the end?

  27. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 22 September 2009


    Thank you for setting out the Critical Outcomes. They are so widely drawn as to make it possible to argue almost any ‘outcome’ as an objective, or as desirable, and to demonstrate that many may or may not be being achieved.

    In that sense they make it no easier to measure and test whether current ‘OBE’ is ‘working’.

    What seem permanent ‘outcomes’ are that teachers feel overworked and underpaid (what’s new?); examiners as often feel ‘standards’ are dropping; many pupils leaving school are hardly literate; and educationists like Ramphele and practitioners like Bert fret that the current system is failing.

    Bert’s view is that red tape is stifling creativity and soaking up gifted teacher’s time. He is probably right. Many suggest the problem is also that there are not enough gifted teachers.

    Perhaps Ramphele needs to be more specific about her concerns (or I haven’t heard the detail of her speech). If she means that education has become so politicised that shortcomings cannot even be discussed, that seems probable because in the new SA the authorities will see themselves as rectifying historic injustices and reject criticsm
    altogether: Dave Harris’s view.

    But what are we educating for? will not go away as a question in the new SA.

    And if we answer it too ambitously, as the Critical Outcomes do and must, is there not a danger of missing out on the basic essentials – the things that sound teachers always hark back to in the end?

  28. mallencolly mallencolly 22 September 2009

    @ Paul Whelan

    The critical outcomes are very, as you say, widely drawn. OBE, “real” OBE, is supposed to be a system that is “designed down”, ie. each level down expands a bit more on the previous level until you get to the actual detailed outcomes that teachers will be using. If you read the literature, you will notice a lot of jargon that is vague enough to be interpreted in many ways. And it is. Spady and company seem to find themselves constantly having to redefine and add to their existing definitions etc.

    That aside, the goals are, apparently, to move away from the type of schooling that is characterized by memorising enough to get you through a once off exam.

    As to the basic essentials, Im not sure what you are referring to but I would consider the means to teach as being the one thing that a good teacher requires. Time and space. Given that, I believe things will come right, and a lot faster than any pescribed system can make it happen. What are the systems other than summaries of observations of good teachers formalised?

    Throughout my explorations in education I cant help
    thinking that we are trying to reform the wrong thing. I cant help thinking that it is the school system, rather than the teaching methods or curriculum, that needs reform. An idea that may be tapping Mr Olivier on the shoulder if I understand his academic teacher idea correctly.

  29. Siobhan Siobhan 26 September 2009

    Just in case anyone is still following this debate, I’d like to add a comment. As a young prof I approached my teaching with a passion. It seemed to me that university education was the last bastion of intellectual freedom in an increasingly homogenous society. I was quickly dis-abused of that notion. The ‘administration’ decided in the mid-70s to adopt the use of ‘behavioural objectives’ for every ‘course’. Having studied psychology extensively as an undergrad I was appalled. The ‘objectives’ had to be couched in measurable ‘outcomes’ based on ‘Skinnerian’ and military model and was designed for the assessment of manual skills and ‘factual’ (yes/no) information only.

    It was not appropriate or effective as a means of teaching or assessing skills like analytical, critical, or conceptual thinking. It was not useful in assessing things like language usage in various contexts or as measure of comprehension of abstract or analogical thinking and expression. It certainly was not useful in any of the Arts and had limited applicability in the sciences apart from those skills like dissection, laboratory procedures, etc. which involved observable ‘behaviours’ that established mastery of the ‘objective’.

    Beyond the requirement that all courses be designed ‘by objective’, every class had to be outlined in detail and the ‘objectives’ checked off against the list that had to be adopted by the entire department and applied uniformly.

    One would expect all hell to break loose, right? Oh,no, conformity prevailed. TBC

  30. Siobhan Siobhan 26 September 2009

    It was apparent that the barbarians had arrived. What I loved about teaching was the give and take between the students and me. When illustrating a point a book or article I had recently read might suddenly come to mind as an ideal way to elucidate my point. This often led to discussions that went beyond the original scope of the lecture but greatly enriched the experience for me and for the students. (One of my more vocal students called it ‘brain candy’!) Had I confined myself to a list of points to ‘cover’ the rich exchange of ideas and points of view would not have happened and I would not have got to know my students at all well.
    It is in the exploration, not the presentation, of ideas that learning occurs.

    OBE was already an old idea in the 70s. It failed almost everywhere outside of the military because it stifled the responsiveness and curiosity of the students and prevented teachers from enlarging on or creatively applying the concepts they were communicating.

    Administrations love trivia. They thrive on it and on ways to increase the quantity of it because it LOOKS LIKE ‘productivity’. Teachers loathe trivia because it defeats the purpose of education which is to encourage enquiry. OBE would be useful if it were Montessori inspired and focused on individual intellectual development. As it is, OBE is a re-tread of ‘Teaching By Behavioural Objectives’ from the 70s.

    OBE was designed for the convenience of administration, not students.

  31. Darren Darren 26 September 2009

    A thought: The problem with SA education and so many other areas has a fair amount to do with ‘backlash’. Since ‘democratic rule’ began in our country the baby has consistently been disposed of, along with the filthy bathwater that apartheid created. Now we see not only a rejection of anything not immediately and directly ‘African’ but we also see a reaction to criticism, a reaction not commensurate with what was originally said. The wholesale destruction of leadership structures in order to satisfy racial and political agendas has meant that often there really are not enough experienced leaders to perform the roles required of them. This does not mean that these people are incapable (although some truly are there purely as a result of politics). We also see top down authoritarian structuring of so much of our society. Managers – the curse of the age – are rife in SA. In many cases they would not be needed if we decided they weren’t. Lateral structures prevent this, but require mature, experienced, expert and committed teachers / lecturers etc. If teachers were allowed, with responsible peer reviewed checks and balances, to do their work, we’d have a lot more well educated kids. As things stand, the ‘learners’ are in deep trouble.

  32. Bert Bert 30 September 2009

    Darren – I could not agree with you more about managers being the curse of the age. But rest assured, the obsession with ‘managing’ everything has to do with a growing realization that things are just too complex to ‘order’ or ‘tame’ once and for all – the insight of complexity theory as well as chaos theory. In the place of ‘managing’ and all that goes with it, such as endless ‘policy-making’, I would like to see a rediscovery of what it means to be autonomous as an individual, and hand in hand with this, a willingness and ability to take responsibility for one’s actions. Management through policies is a way of avoiding such responsibility. Of course, this implies the kind of education where people arrive at a position where they ‘know’ certain things in the Greek sense of techne, and don’t simply have ‘skills’ – one of the fashionable terms of our time. Skills without knowledge are not worth much.

  33. Michael Francis Michael Francis 2 October 2009

    @Everybody – do not feed the Dave Harris troll. He is a vile repugnant individual who always resorts to personal attacks.

    @Paul Whelan – if you are having trouble with the capthca code before you hit submit select and copy your text (copy with cursor and ctrl ‘v’) so when/if it messes up you can retry without retyping. Or write in word and copy and paste across.

  34. Bert Bert 2 October 2009

    Michael – I fully agree – there is no point in engaging with someone if he or she is pugnacious without rhyme or reason.

  35. Keith Keith 2 October 2009

    OBE is indeed a disaster for the ff reasons:
    1. Inadequate teacher training
    2. Poorly resouced learners ie. little or no axxess to library, books, magazines, newspapers
    3. Parents who take little or no interest in their childrens’education ie. only 100 parents attend a meeting of a 515 learner school.
    4. The demands on educators to plan OBE lessons is excessive and unrealistic
    5. Failure bu the DoE to present educators with a sample set of lesson plans per subject which can be implemented immediately and which can allow educators to improve upon.
    6. Failure to consider that large class sizes are not suitable to OBE. This has implications for the teacher:learner ratio. Recording(observation) the work of a large class can take up the greater part of time allocated to a period, leaving little time for constructive learning.
    7. Text books (LTSM) were not designed by the DoE in keeping with an educators “old” nated 550 mentality. An acceptable transition to OBe would have encompassed a text-book with a teachers Guide which incorporates lesson plans in a sequential manner, leading to coverage of a Work Schedule (old “syllabus”) .
    8. Ill-discilpined learners who simply ignore an educators instruction to complete tasks or Portfolios. Learners who dont care if they fail.
    9. The inefficient procedures for learner discipline has resulted in schools tending to ignore problems or deal with them illegally by expelling a learnere.
    10. Failing to place learner-expulsion in the hands of Principals

  36. Dave Harris Dave Harris 3 October 2009

    @Michael Francis
    Gosh, “vile and repugnant” – darn! I gotta stop wearing Old Spice when I go online…LOL
    It must be the onset of that LONG Canadian winter thats caused this grumpiness eh?
    Take heart old chap, maybe you can huddle together with the other “SA white refugee” Brandon Huntley ;-)

  37. marc marc 11 October 2009

    I have taught matric students for fifteen years. Recently a group of colleagues and i were busy with the mountains of admin involved in what is called CLUSTER MODERATION. We lose five days of teaching time to complete just this task…checking up on each other! (five schools to moderate. It takes a day to do each.) First an assessment task must be INTERNALLY moderated. Next: CLUSTER moderation. Next: REGIONAL moderation. Finally: NATIONAL moderation. In other words, my teaching and assessment practise is quadrupally mistrusted. If a certain LO or AS is found to be missing from a task, a cross is made against my name on a form with many checkboxes. This is delivered to the desk of the school principle who will determine my remuneration based on this document.
    The funny thing is, my colleagues and I were joking the other day, as we laboured resentfully amongst mountains of paperwork, that we should all attend the next national subject OBE conference wearing bibs. We should arrive with dummies in our mouths. Someone might wear a nappy and drool with their mouth agape as we listen to the detailed instructions to be OBEyed for next year’s portfolio requirements. “WOEBETIDE THE TEACHER WHO FAILS TO MAKE SURE THAT EVERY JOT AND TITTLE OF THE LAW IS COMPLIED WITH IN THIS REGARD(!)” will be the unspoken message conveyed by the utterly condescending softspoken patronising ‘tannie’ instructing us with her slightly impatient smile.

  38. marc marc 11 October 2009

    I have taught matric students for fifteen years. Many of my students have gone on to make really great names for themselves: at universities in South Africa and abroad; and in their careers in the learning area I teach. I have always really loved teaching. I have always loved the passion and creativity of the students and the energy of a creative classroom.

    Now that the OBEdience masters have assumed their unassailable positions of authority predicated on their proven track-record of Obssessive Compulsive beureaucraziness and are evidently enjoying the task of foisting their deforesting paperwork demands and sadistic psychosis on the rest of us and on the children they (is ‘teach’ the right word?), I think I will change direction. I am an adult human being. A free agent with feelings, thoughts and a free will. I don’t need this; and I don’t believe the children of South Africa do either.

  39. ian shaw ian shaw 12 October 2009

    At my university, before OBE there was one semester test and an exam at the end of a course. After the introduction of OBE there was a test at every lecture and every practical (for about 60-80 students per class).Since the lecturer could not possibly cope with the marking alone, poorly motivated honour students were literally forced to do this additional work and they mechanically had to follow the “memoranda” of “correct answers” given to them by the lecturer. Needless to say that this stressful testing system did not really measure knowledge, only the degree of rote memorization. This practice, rooted in OBE, has transformed these university courses into diploma mills.

  40. Bert Bert 13 October 2009

    Keith, Marc and Ian – Thank you for providing such eloquent confirmation that my stance on OBE is not unfounded. In fact, what you have pointed out, and appears to be based on personal experience, strengthens my case tremendously. I hope some people from the Department of Education read your contributions. Under the conditions that you describe, it would be a miracle for any teaching to be done, given the amount of time that has to be channeled into administration!

  41. Khotso Daniel Moabi Khotso Daniel Moabi 5 November 2009

    Prof. you are great! You are like a bulldozer. Last week I did hear the minister for education clearly stating that the government has decided to let teachers to focus on their expertise rather spending time on administration purposes.
    You are great!
    That is why I am OLIVIERAN!!!!

  42. Concerned Concerned 18 December 2009

    Well I must say I enjoyed reading this thread. OBE is certainly an emotive and controversial issue.
    Yes most will agree that there are noble intentions in the OBE system but OBE is simply unworkable in the South African context where we have large class sizes, many under resourced schools, many under skilled teachers.This was made clear to the DOE by prominant educators such as Professor Jansen and others from the very beginning.
    In the Skills/Occupational area learnerships and skills programs and the SETA’s have failed dismally as well.
    Clearly the problem is not to do with the concept of ideology of OBE but the actual implementation of OBE.
    This lead to the South Africanisation of OBE to the extent that Spady himself said our current education system is NOT OBE.
    In short what happened is that the ‘rigorous assessment requirements’ swamped the actual educational delivery. A mountain of paperwork simply bogged the whole system down.
    So now we have the next 10 years or so to try and rescue and remedy the current educational crisis.

  43. Jo Jo 13 July 2010

    I have read the article, and all comments, with much interest,and sometimes amusement, especially now that OBE is going to “bite the dust”.

    I taught Mathematics for 30 years and ended up retiring sooner than I had planned simply because of the demands made by the OBE system.

  44. teacher teacher 20 September 2010

    So now the NCS (National Curriculum Statements) have been scrapped and replaced by the much anticipated CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements). These are in the public domain for comment by stakeholders.
    The documents were released a couple of weeks ago and the closing date for comment was friday last week.

    Whereas the word “Outcome” appeared more than 40 times in the NCS document for the subject I teach, the new CAPS document uses the word only once, fleetingly.

    No mention of the word “rubric” either.

  45. Leon Leon 24 September 2010

    Any educational system that is over-regulated, over-controlled by the relevant educational authority and where there is an over the top emphasis on assessment is doomed to fail. CAPS will simply be a similar animal under a different name.Educators and learners become disillusioned and swamped with paperwork and all enthusiasm for the learning experience is killed off.Achievers in the system are lost amongst the ‘group’or team. How on earth will CAPS be successfully implimented in all the dysfunctional schools in the disadvantaged areas? Basic core educational infrastructure has to first be put in place before fancy educational systems are even thought about.Get back top solid educational basics that have been proven to work over centuries and have produced the world’s finest thinkers.

  46. Edward Ross-Adams Edward Ross-Adams 12 July 2011

    The education system of every country where OBE and its offshoots has been introduced has become an actual complete portrayal of MISEDUCATION.
    One should take time to read the essays of Professor Renato Constantino of the Philippines on Miseducation. MISEDUCATION being a tool of psychological warfare.

    The current education is 100 times worse than it appears and as it appears it is reverse education. Bright and potentially capable people are reduced to unthinking hopelessness. At its heart is a complete disregard for the concept that a person, any person can and should be enabled to be the most they can be.
    Education in South Africa is a tool, utilized unfortunately, for the brainwashing of the populace. The manipulators aim, being to compel, and obtain peaceful, subservient citizens who comply with political wishes.

    Our education is in the hands of social scientists and psychologists whose interests lie in behavior modification; for political and economic interests.

    What OBE and its mis-educating offshoots does is incapacitate the ability to reason or think, thereby bringing the population into a frame of reference by which they can be steered at will.
    The perpetrators have blood on their hands, the blood of the hopes and aspirations of several generations of youth, from whose minds a hope and desire for jobs, the chance for a better forward life, have been violently ripped

  47. Roelof Roelof 19 September 2011

    I am a first year B.Ed (FET) student and currently we need to discuss OUR views on OBE and the Death thereof in S.A context. I have found this blogg via search, and admittedly I am now even more confused as from the starting point. I for one are by far NOT pro OBE or atleast not of the practiced version currently in S.A, but I have discouverded that the OBE as designed by Spady IS FAR FROM what we use in S.A context. (Spady, W. (1994). Outcome-based education)

  48. Saiful Saiful 2 December 2011

    Hello Bert, after reading all this, now i understand the crisis of implementing of OBE better than before. For my part, i also a lecturer but not as experienced as you of course. My worries currently in Malaysia, they introduce OBE in my institution, wait not introduce but order to implement it. I fear the complexity of the system will kill the education entrusted to us.

    A system should support teachers responsiblity rather than burdening it. we expected to give tradition mark and also OBE related grade but i expect it is no more than just number rather than the education content itself. A sad reflection for what an improvise system but lacks the mean to support it……because of TOO MUCH ADMIN

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  50. Dan Dan 10 November 2014

    OBE, which refers to a specific idea of how education should be carried out, even though one could say all education has always been outcomes based, has never worked anywhere. South Africa is not the only country burying their teachers under a massive destructive bureaucracy. The US and UK have both trashed their education.

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