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Outcome Based Education

The Dilemma of Defining Outcome Based Education, Objective Based Education as a Reform Ideal

Few educational concepts have sparked as much interest, enthusiasm, misunderstanding, and controversy during the 1990s as Outcome Based Education (OBE). In one form or another, and sometimes against their political wills, educators the world over are increasingly focusing their efforts on what are variously being called outcomes, results, performances, competencies, or standards.

Whether proposed by national governments, as in Scotland, South Africa, or the United Kingdom; by state or provincial policy bodies, as in Australia, Canada, and the United States; or by local jurisdictions and institutions, as is happening on virtually every continent, how these changes are being applied to traditional forms of education vary as much as the terms themselves.

The Dilemma of Defining Outcome Based Education

One can begin to bring some clarity to this melange of meanings and models, however, by looking systematically at the term outcome based education itself. At face value, the concept is quite simple and straightforward: Start by developing a clear picture of what learners should ultimately be able to do successfully at the end of a significant educational experience (i.e., the outcome). Then base (i.e., develop) the curriculum, instruction, assessment, and reporting (i.e., education) directly on that clear picture. This is a simple matter of clearly defining what one wants learners to be able to do (the end) before the beginning, teaching them how to accomplish that end, and then assessing and documenting the end they were to achieve in the first place. Notice the fundamental cause- and-effect logic of this model: Education (the means) is based on the outcome (the end), not the other way around.

When are learners successful in such a system? When or whenever they can demonstrate the intended learning outcome. How many chances are they given to succeed? Usually there is more than one and sometimes there are several chances.

Real world examples. If these basic ends/means elements of OBE sound simple and straightforward, they are, and there are many examples from the "real world" to illustrate them. They include skill and technical training of all kinds (that sometimes reaches back hundreds of years to the craft guilds of the Middle Ages in Europe); ski schools; Boy Scouts' merit and honor badges; pilot and transportation licenses of all kinds; first-aid training; almost all military and athletic training; and virtually all licensure programs in the practical arts.

What is the essence of each of these examples? In some cases successful performance is a matter of life and death, but in all cases two factors stand out:(1) A clear criterion of success or standard of performance (the intended end) guides both instructors and learners; and (2) there is variability in the time and number of opportunities (critical means) that learners might take to achieve the standard. Having learners successfully demonstrate the outcome is what counts the most in these models. In OBE language, successful learning or performance (the end) is the constant, and the time required to attain it is flexible.

The education system reversal. But in virtually all formal educational systems across the globe, just the opposite configuration of these two defining conditions prevails. There, time is the constant, and learning or performance is the variable. Consequently, defining exactly what is and is not OBE on the education scene is extremely problematic in formal education because the two factors that most fundamentally define OBE are not only not present, they are actually reversed.

As William Spady described it in both 1994 and 1998, the world's education systems are time based: that is, they are defined by, organized around, focused on, and managed according to the calendar and clock, not outcomes. Virtually everything that happens within them is forced to exist within fixed, predefined blocks of time, no matter how much actually needs to be accomplished by either instructors or learners. When an official time block ends, so does the learner's opportunity to pursue the outcomes and improve performance on them.

From this perspective, introducing outcomes into a time-based system is like trying to force soft, large, round pegs into rigid, small, square holes. To date, the holes have emerged the overwhelming winners. Across the globe time has remained the given and the constant, even though outcomes have increasingly been emphasized as the reason the time blocks exist.

The other set of rigid square means–holes into which outcomes are being forced–is the curriculum, and it too has prevailed as a dominant force in this implementation dynamic. Although some countries and states have adopted frameworks of outcomes that reach across or go beyond existing curriculum areas–frameworks that contain complex kinds of performance abilities, which link to eventual career and life performances–the over-whelming approach to OBE across the globe has been one of developing outcome frameworks for the major subject areas in the existing curriculum. The latter are variously called program outcomes, specific outcomes, learning area outcomes, curricular outcomes, and standards. In this approach, the curriculum's content structures are the givens, and outcomes are derived from them, resulting in a "tailwags-dog" approach. As a result the system's means are used to determine its ends, even though the term outcome-based implies just the opposite.

Better to call it "CBO"? Given the fundamental discrepancy between what the term OBE implies and how it has been so overwhelmingly applied, it is wise to distinguish between its conceptual meaning and its implementation realities. Those interested in upholding the inherent meaning of the OBE concept and its reform ideals view the broad sweep of imitation implementation practices in a skeptical light, often referring to them as "CBO" rather than OBE. Among other things, CBO stands for curriculum-based outcomes, calendar-based organizations, content-bound objectives, convention-bound orientations, and convenience-based operations.

Objective Based Education as a Reform Ideal

Those who generated the OBE movement in the United States during the 1970s through the 1990s were deeply influenced by the research and concepts of two key individuals: John Carroll (1963) and Benjamin Bloom (1968). Carroll's revolutionary ideas about aptitude as rate of learning rather than fixed ability opened the door to an expanded view of learner potential, which Bloom promoted and tested over the next twenty years. The resulting reform initiative was both a philosophy of expanded learning success for all learners and a classroom instructional strategy called mastery learning.

Based on the documented successes of a variety of mastery learning initiatives in the 1970s, a coalition of researchers, practitioners, and reformers founded an organization called the Network for Outcome Based Schools (NOBS) in 1980. The NOBS and its members generated major interest in both mastery learning and the expanded notion of OBE throughout North America during the 1980s and early 1990s, hosting many national and regional conferences featuring practitioners who had achieved major improvements in student learning through the systematic application of the network's key operating premises and principles. Several of the most notable of these local successes are documented in Spady's 1994 book.

Objective based education's four power principles. The spirit and intent of the NOBS operational philosophy was to convince educators that they could dramatically improve student learning success and their professional effectiveness by consistently, creatively, and simultaneously applying four key operating principles in their schools and classrooms. These power principles are:

  1. clarity of focus on culminating outcomes of significance,
  2. expanding opportunity and support for success,
  3. high expectations for all to succeed,
  4. designing down from ultimate outcomes.

Over time the network's members became convinced that if any form of OBE was to exist, it needed to consistently embody these four principles because without them educators would lose the leverage these principles gave them in expanding what NOBS called the conditions of success–the basic ground rules around which learning and learning opportunities are fundamentally structured.

Do all learners have a clear picture of what they are ultimately expected to demonstrate before a learning experience begins? Is every learner given more than one routine chance or block of time in which to reach or exceed the expected standard? Are positive and challenging expectations for learning success applied equally to all learners, with no bell curves or success quotas applied? Has the curriculum been systematically designed back from the end point that learners are expected to reach, so that there is a clear path for getting there? If the answer to any of these four questions is no, then constraining conditions of success are deemed to exist and, as such, the model in question falls short of the sub-stance, integrity, and spirit of the four power principles. For more than a decade, models of OBE were held to this exacting standard.

Outcomes as Competence

By the mid-1980s the leaders of the rapidly growing OBE movement had come to understand that outcomes were culminating demonstrations of learning, which required learners to do things of significance with what they knew and understood. As such outcomes required both complex mental processing and the ability to carry out visible and accessible processes–processes that were specified by the verbs used in defining the outcome (e.g., describe, explain, design, negotiate, organize, produce, disseminate), this demonstration component brought skill, competence, and performance to center stage in out-come-based models and sent implementation efforts down three quite distinctive paths, depending on the designer's conception of a learning demonstration.

The disciplinary path. The disciplinary path focused on student mastery of quite specific skills, often the skills and tasks imbedded in daily lessons and multiweek units of instruction. Usually these were skills inherent in the curriculum content itself. This approach was quite consistent with the original mastery learning model, was subject-focused and disciplinary in nature, and invited minimal change in curriculum structures and instructional delivery patterns. The application of the power principles took on a distinctive "micro" focus, usually within self-contained classrooms.

Because of its focus on specific content and skills, the disciplinary path eventually led to the development of standards in the subject areas and to the standardized testing efforts being employed by education systems worldwide in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its proponents, however, see in the latter efforts virtually no attempt to systematically address OBE's four power principles and would in no way regard these initiatives as real OBE.

The interdisciplinary path. A second path took a much more interdisciplinary and change-oriented tack, prompted by its proponents' conviction that learning performance could and should take more complex forms than content-focused skills. In the main these were educators who saw what many called higher-order skills as having no exclusive disciplinary home–abilities such as communication, critical thinking, planning, and problem solving. Nor did these abilities fall into age-specific categories. These higher-order competencies, they argued, were fundamentally developmental, increasing in complexity as learners matured, and needed to be taught that way. Consequently they needed to be addressed and fostered in all subject areas and grade levels for all learners.

By connecting the concepts of higher-order, interdisciplinary abilities with outcomes, these reformers intended to take both OBE and educational change to a new level. That level involved an elevated, more complex notion of learning and competence; a developmental approach to curriculum design and instruction; an authentic approach to assessment and reporting; a dramatic expansion of what was meant by instructional time and opportunity; a frontal challenge to traditional tracking, streaming, and promotion systems; and an intensive connection and collaboration among all players within the education system in addressing student learning and success. It forced both thinking and practice out of the traditional square holes, and it gave the four power principles a whole new meaning and expanded scope of application.

Much of this approach is embodied in the cross-disciplinary outcomes of the national system in South Africa, several of the states or provinces in Australia and Canada, as well as numerous local districts in North America. Because of its developmental, interdisciplinary nature, however, it is fundamentally inconsistent with national and state policy emphases on content standards and time-based standardized testing.

The future-focused path. The third path represents an even more dramatic break from the small, square holes of time-based, curriculum-bound traditional educational practice. The future-focused path emerged in the late 1980s as some leaders of the OBE movement took the notion of culminating demonstrations of learning to its logical limit, recognizing that real outcomes matter and occur after students have finished their formal educational experiences. In other words, authentic outcomes are only known after all of the instructional preparation is complete, and for graduates that means they will be played out in the future they face, not simply in the schooling they have had.

This transformational departure from the norm further elevated the notion of competence beyond education itself to the life and role performances in which individuals engage in their career, family, and community lives. Life, not school, is the real measure of an education's significance and impact, argued these future-focused proponents, and the design of outcomes and learning systems must begin precisely there: with the challenges and conditions that the constantly evolving future inevitably offers.

This future-focused approach to OBE both invited and challenged educators to look far beyond the curriculum and system structures in which they were currently immersed, to examine the kinds of performance abilities required of successful adults in this world, and to design and model their efforts on this dynamic and expansive template. Only then could they ensure that the education their students were getting was actually aligned with the realities and challenges they faced in a world of continuous discovery and constant change. In so doing, they would add a third critical dimension to the OBE learning model: content, competence, and context–the actual settings and conditions in which performance abilities are ultimately tested.

Without question this third role-performance conception of competence represents a radical departure from the standards-based models of reform that have taken such a powerful hold of education in the 2000s. It further expands the meaning, applications, and implications of OBE's four power principles, and it openly challenges the very paradigm on which the education systems of the past century are based.

The Future of OBE

The enormous inertia that surrounds and pervades traditional education systems leaves the widespread implementation of authentic Outcome Based Education very much in doubt. Because they are under enormous public pressure to show results, public systems will continue to advocate outcomes, but almost inevitably in a CBO format. Externally imposed accountability reforms will keep things constrained in small, rigid means holes, with educators compelled to find ways to engage and empower a very diverse population of learners within those inflexible constraints.

Consequently, in the early twenty-first century, trends suggest that true OBE may only survive in alternative settings–schools that are given the flexibility to meet the needs of nontraditional learners in ways that transcend the constraints and inflexibilities of traditional education as we have known it. Outcome Based Education is fundamentally about system change, but the forces of system inertia are prevailing in the accountability-driven world of the 2000s.


BLOCK, JAMES H. 1971. Mastery Learning: Theory and Practice. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

BLOCK, JAMES H., ed. 1974. Schools, Society, and Mastery Learning. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

BLOOM, BENJAMIN S. 1968. "Learning for Mastery." UCLA Evaluation Comment 1 (2):1–12.

BLOOM, BENJAMIN S. 1976. Human Characteristics and School Learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

CARROLL, JOHN B. 1963. "A Model of School Learning." Teachers College Record 64:723–733.

SPADY, WILLIAM G. 1994. Outcome Based Education: Critical Issues and Answers. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

SPADY, WILLIAM G. 1998. Paradigm Lost: Reclaiming America's Educational Future. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators.

SPADY, WILLIAM G. 2001. Beyond Counterfeit Reforms: Forging an Authentic Future for All Learners. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

SPADY, WILLIAM G., and KIT J. MARSHALL. 1991. "Beyond Traditional Outcome-Based Education." Educational Leadership 49 (2):67–72.


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