Imagine a classroom where the geography teacher wants to teach children the best way to drive from Melbourne to Sydney. Based on a syllabus approach to learning, where teachers have a clear, succinct and easy-to-follow description of what is to be taught, the exercise is straightforward.
A syllabus would provide teachers with an outline of possible routes to Sydney, for example, via the Hume Highway or around the coast, and there would be details of what all students should learn and what constitutes a pass or a fail.
During the 1990s, Australia ditched syllabuses in favour of outcomes-based education. With OBE, the focus is no longer on what is to be taught or how teachers teach. Instead, the emphasis shifts to what students have learned by the end of the process. The ACT curriculum describes OBE as:
Curriculum documentation has until recently concentrated on subject matter and teaching methods. This emphasis has highlighted what teachers do in the learning process. The move to an outcomes approach attempts to recognise the importance of what students know and can do.
Based on OBE, not only are teachers denied a syllabus detailing the best way to Sydney, but children negotiate their own way in their own time, and as long as they eventually arrive, whether via Perth or Brisbane, all are considered successful.
While much of the criticism of Australia's adoption of OBE focuses on the fact that stronger-performing education systems have a syllabus approach and that OBE has failed to raise standards, equally of concern is the detrimental impact OBE is having on classroom teachers.
Given the West Australian Government's intention, beginning next year, to extend OBE upward into years 11 and 12, that state has become a battleground where teachers associated with the website www.platowa.com have mounted a sustained attack against Australia's current approach to curriculum.
Indeed, such has been the hostility to OBE that a parliamentary inquiry has been established and state Education Minister Ljiljanna Ravlich has been forced into a series of embarrassing backdowns, including replacing the head of the Curriculum Council.
Since being established in June, PLATO has attracted some 450 members and the website's forum provides an illuminating and at times startling exposé of how educational experiments such as OBE make teachers' work increasingly difficult, frustrating and onerous.
One of the common complaints voiced is that by denying teachers a syllabus that outlines essential knowledge, understanding and skills related to particular year levels, teachers and individual schools are forced to spend valuable time reinventing the wheel by writing their own documents.
Primary school teachers, as they have to deal with a number of subject areas, are particularly concerned about the additional workload: a workload made worse by the fact OBE documents are full of hundreds of vague and fluffy learning statements that drown teachers in meaningless detail.
One practising teacher states: "Many of us have tried very hard to change our teaching and demonstrate more and more that we were implementing the department's dictates. That it has led to a disaster, gross overwork and teachers leaving (and planning to leave - I know of five in my school alone) is hardly our fault."
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