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Outcomes option flawed

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 18 May 2005

As stated in the Curriculum Council’s Curriculum Framework document, published in 1998, Western Australia’s school curriculum is based on an outcomes-based approach. Since the late 90s, OBE has been implemented during the compulsory years (K-10) and now the intention is to extend it to years 11 and 12.

The above document defines OBE as: “… identifying what students should achieve and focusing on ensuring that they do achieve. It means shifting away from an emphasis on what is taught and how and when, to an emphasis on what is actually learnt by each student.”

While, in theory, OBE might sound fine, in practice, both in Australia and overseas, it has proven to be a dismal failure and those countries, such as the USA, that have experimented with OBE have forsaken it in favour of more academic and rigorous alternatives.


Bruce Wilson, the recently retired CEO of Australia’s Curriculum Corporation, freely admits that Australia’s adoption of OBE is inherently flawed and that it represents, in his words, an “unsatisfactory political and intellectual exercise”.

The flaws and weaknesses of an OBE approach are manifold. Firstly, unlike syllabus documents that give teachers a clear and succinct road map of what is to be taught at the start of the year, OBE documents are inefficient, cumbersome and impossible to implement in the classroom.

Especially at the primary level, teachers are forced to confront hundreds of outcome statements that they have to implement and monitor for each student. Not only is valuable teaching time wasted, but also many of the WA outcome statements are so vague and imprecise that they lack any academic rigour.

This dumbed down approach to curriculum is made worse by the way OBE adopts many of the failed educational fads and jargon that have bedevilled Australian education over the last 10 to 15 years.

The whole language approach to literacy in the early years, where students are taught to look and guess, instead of being taught phonics where they learn the relationship between letters and sounds, especially amongst boys, has led to high levels of illiteracy.

In the edubabble much loved by those committed to OBE, parents and teachers are told that learning is “developmental” and “constructivist”. The result is that students float through school, from year to year, without learning essential knowledge, understanding and skills.


The OBE approach is the opposite to a syllabus-based curriculum where students are regularly tested on the basis that there is a set year-level standard of work that must be mastered.

A syllabus approach also stresses more whole class teaching, where teachers teach instead of being facilitators, and the importance of rote learning and memorisation.

Given the failures of OBE it beggars belief that the system is to be extended to years 11 and 12. This is especially cause for concern as those at the Curriculum Council appear ignorant that similar approaches, both interstate and overseas, have either failed or led to public controversy and lack of trust.

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First published in the West Australian on May 2, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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