Outcome-Based Education: Why Creative Learning Should Not Replace Real Learning


A New Visions Commentary published March 1996 by The National Center for Public Policy Research.


"That is how it sounds," insisted the 12-year-old who was carefully printing "borad of eudaction" on my wooden pointer. She meant "board of education," of course.

That incident occurred about thirty-five years ago, during my first year of teaching. Neither my skills nor my experience in teaching was developed enough then for me to connect her poor spelling to her equally poor reading skills.

I remembered the episode as I listened to parents call Rush Limbaugh one Friday afternoon to defend the new inventive/creative spelling and writing of Outcome-Based Education. In this system, "borad of eudaction" is acceptable, as is free written expression and free interpretation of written material.

But by the time of Rush's show, I had had years of experience, including classroom teaching of "remedial" reading, writing for a developmental reading programs, and establishing guidelines for programs addressing reading and writing for content deficiencies.

Rush's callers were concerned, for the most part, about first and second graders; I had worked on all levels, but I had taught high school, and I knew where these progressive ideas really lead.

They lead to functional illiteracy and diagnoses of dyslexia. The callers missed so many important points:

  1. children undergo their greatest period of intellectual development between the ages of 2-6 years.
  2. any six-year-old child (the age group most frequently mentioned on Mr. Limbaugh's program) should be able to write a diary of his/her experiences, real or imagined. But the real point has been missed, and that point is teaching the child to convey those same thoughts and feelings effectively to another child, especially one whose background is different. The focus should be on common understanding between communicators and not on inventive spelling and/or interpretation.
  3. this "creative" system hurts the children of less well-educated parents more than it does the children of well-educated parents. Children of less well-educated parents are less likely to hear their parents discussing complex issues; these parents are likely to have far more limited vocabularies; good grammar is less likely to be the rule in communication; and reading is less likely to be a prioritized part of family life.
  4. "creative spelling" limits a child's ability to use the dictionary, an ability more important to children whose parents have a smaller vocabulary than it is to children who routinely hear a larger variety of words.
  5. Inventive definitions, also a part of inventive spelling, undermines a child's ability to develop "word sense." This is the ability to derive (not guess) the meaning of a word from the sense of the sentence. This critical ability does not develop when there are no restrictions on the meaning of words or sentences. The important factor in interpretation is not what the reader thinks the writer meant, but what the writer really did mean.

This is called "reading for content." Those who believe that it is not an important focus and direction for six-year olds simply do not understand the communication process as it applies to learning.

Callers to Mr. Limbaugh's program frequently spoke of the "creative" content of their children's writings and insisted the content was more important than the mechanics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization, especially in grading. I always thought the content of a student's work was important, as well as the mechanics by which he/she expressed it.

That is why most teachers who are concerned with the development of the child's skills give a double grade, one for content and one for mechanics. This double grade was written, "A/B," with the top grade for content (thus giving the importance to content) and the bottom grade for mechanics. Contents and mechanics were not considered mutually exclusive, as they now seem to be, unless the single focus on "creativeness" is the laziness Mr. Limbaugh felt might be the real source of the problem.

Progressive, Outcome-Based Education is a bad idea that has only got worse, as I learned once again when a librarian asked me last spring to write some guidelines for a "reading for content" program.

The children liked the program, because they were getting meaning from their reading and listening activities as compared to imposing their own ideas on material that was totally unrelated to those ideas.

In short, the children were learning, and they liked to learn, which is natural to little newcomers to the planet. As for me, I've developed the habit of writing "borad of eudaction" on scraps of paper. I'm trying to write an article from those scraps, but somehow my thoughts won't focus.

That's odd, because when I write "board of education," I know exactly what I want to say and how to say it, so that others can understand. But an article about the board of education addresses a very different topic from one that addresses the "borad of eudaction."

This little article is about children and the development of their learning skills. I'm not sure just how the borad of eudaction relates to that. On second thought, I'm not sure borad of eudaction has any relationship to education at all. I'm not even sure the borad should relate to education.

The borad of eudaction sounds sort of gnu-frangible to me.


by Camille Harper, a member of the national Advisory Council of the African-American leadership group Project 21, is editor of the Chicago-based newsletter Strobe.


The National Center for Public Policy Research


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