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The predictable journey of outcomes based education

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 9 October 2006

I recently received advice on some educational material that I had submitted that instructed me to preface each session with statements that defined learning outcomes by using the words: “At the end of this session, you will be able to ...”  I had at last been confronted by outcomes based education and I must say it did not warm the cockles of my heart. 

The reason that outcomes based education has been foisted upon us is that it is supposed to be a corrective for students who do not seem to be affected by their education. Outlining clear outcomes enables teachers to produce accurate assessment of students progress. If we know what the student is expected to learn then we can assess it.

This seems all very rational except that it subverts the very essence of what education is because it is predicated on the requirements of assessment and not on the enlightening power of the material to be studied. Our focus on education has been taken over by the bean counters who want accountability at all costs and by fixing definite outcomes we think that we can control the educational process, just like we control productive processes in a factory.


The educational process is subverted because our destination has already been set. So it does not matter how well the teacher excites the interest of the class or what the members of the class bring to the classroom, the destination will be the same. So instead of each class being an adventure in a particular topic with a destiny influenced by the syllabus and the contribution of the teacher and class, we have the slow plod to a destiny already prescribed by someone at a distance from the class who thinks he or she knows the gist of the matter. We wonder who would want to go on such a predictable journey.

Imagine beginning a sermon with the words: "At the end of this sermon the congregation will be able to ..."  Sermon writing is instructive because one begins by listening to readings from an ancient text far removed from our present situation and proceeds from there. The preacher, even though he is informed by theological reflection and critical analysis of the text, never quite knows how the sermon will pan out until it is finished. The dead sermons are the ones that we know from beginning to end even before we begin writing. The exciting sermons are usually based on a text that the preacher does not understand or is offensive or obscure and results in the preacher following his nose to an unknown destination.

Just so with the educational process. By defining outcomes for each bit of teaching we limit the imagination of both the teacher and the pupils. Our attempts to control the process down to the last detail kills any sense of excitement or adventure.

Outcomes based education springs from a profound scepticism of the truth of any syllabus and the subsequent resort to pragmatism. It is because we do not trust our subject matter to carry the day that we have to construct more and more rigorous assessment of what is going on in the classroom. In our search for foundations we choose to measure. But if we have lost faith in the validity of our curriculum how are students to find that faith? Any love of learning will be corrupted by constant assessment. If scepticism leads to pragmatism then pragmatism leads to managerialism - the science of the possible.

The increase of the influence of managerialism in our time ensures that our grip on the important things in life will amount to a strangle hold. Our attempts to control and to make others accountable will squeeze the life out of us. Because we do not trust each other to do our job, part of the scepticism bred from the loss of foundations, we insist that  every minute of a worker’s time be accounted for. Outcomes based education comes from the same stable of ideas.

The scepticism that is at the root of all this comes from our turning away from the One who guarantees the reality of the world and the truth contained therein. It is significant that there are so many institutions of education scattered around the world that have been named after the Trinity. While few institutions bearing this name will now acknowledge the connection between education and the church’s doctrine of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, nevertheless the connection is crucial. The name of God has descriptive power.


The doctrine of the Trinity reveals the nature of knowledge in that the truth (God) of the human (Son) is revealed in subjectivity (Spirit). This is a model of how we know about anything. The truth is not to be confused with the event or object from which the truth is sought. That is, the Father is not the Son. The history and writings of Israel and the life and death of Jesus point beyond themselves to the truth. Anything else would be idolatry. It is by the power of the Spirit that human subjectivity makes up the third person.

In the Church the syllabus is the Bible which is the witness to what happened to a specific nation and the thoughts and poems and songs that were derived from that experience. The life and death of Jesus is continuous with this history. Thus the Bible is witness to the Son, the events of human living, the reality of the world which can never be reduced to a dream or to subjectivity.

The theology of the Bible is the ongoing meditation on the meaning of the events of human living and thus constitutes the Father. For the Father stands for the truth of all things. The reader of the Bible may be untouched by what he reads or he may be caught up by it. The unpredictability of this necessitates the inclusion of the Spirit because being caught up is not under our control. That is why evangelism is an act of faith.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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