The term outcomes has come of age. Reformers from coast to coast agree that measures other than student grades and Carnegie units must be used for determining student and district achievement. But what outcomes are and what kinds should be expected of high school graduates are still disputed. Determining what students in the '90s need to learn and successfully demonstrate is further complicated by the emerging work on national standards, authentic tasks, and portfolio assessments.
The overriding issue affecting the development and implementation of outcomes today is significance. Do the outcomes we expect students to demonstrate matter in the long run—in life after formal schooling? This issue has stimulated a dramatic evolution in approaches to outcome-based education at the local level since the mid-1980s. In its simplest form, this evolution has been a shift away from small, relatively simple curriculum-focused segments of learning to much more complex and comprehensive learning experiences focused on life roles, which I call role performances. Why? Because evidence overwhelmingly shows that much classroom learning never makes it out the door, either into other classrooms or into the world beyond the school.
What Is an Outcome?
Before leaping into a discussion of role performances, we need to establish what outcomes are and aren't. Outcomes are high-quality, culminating demonstrations of significant learning in context. Demonstration is the key word; an outcome is not a score or a grade, but the end product of a clearly defined process that students carry out.
First, the demonstration must be high quality, which, at a minimum, means thorough and complete. (This criterion calls into question conventional grading practices that accept and label all student performances, whether complete or not.)
Second, the demonstration comes at the culminating point of the student's learning experiences, literally “at or after the end”—not “during the experience” as most people seem to assume. The term exit outcomes has emerged for those outcomes that occur at the close of a student's academic career, and students in more advanced outcome-based districts are going to be expected to demonstrate significant, high-quality learning with that ultimate culminating point in mind.
Third, the demonstration must show significant learning; significant content is essential. Content alone, however, cannot be an outcome because it is inherently inert. Much like potential energy, it must be manifested through a demonstration process.
Finally, all demonstrations of learning occur in some context or performance setting. The conditions and circumstances students face when performing affect what they need to know, do, and be like in order to succeed, quite apart from the cognitive, technical, or interpersonal nature of the task itself. We need only consider the difference between in-seat classroom demonstrations and public, on-stage performances to recognize how important this factor can be.
The Demonstration Mountain
The metaphor that we use in the High Success Network to explain differences in learning outcomes is the Demonstration Mountain. The mountain represents the act of climbing from basic demonstrations of classroom learning up to demonstrations that involve living effectively in the face of real-world challenges at home, at work, and in the community. One version of the mountain is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The Demonstration Mountain
The mountain consists of three major zones and six different forms of learning demonstrations. The complexity, generalizability, and significance of each form of demonstration increase as we climb from the lowest level to the highest. Also increasing as we move up the mountain are the ownership, self-direction, and self-assessment that students must apply to a demonstration.
The least complex forms of demonstrations fall in the Traditional Zone and are grounded primarily in subject matter content. These forms and their classroom context are relatively simple and limited to traditional subject categories. Because of their strong content grounding, these demonstrations are not generalizable across other areas of the curriculum or other performance contexts; school is the only place where they are typically performed.
Midway up the mountain lies the Transitional Zone, in which demonstrations are relatively complex and grounded in the kinds of competence that transcend given subject areas and that can be applied in a variety of relatively demanding performance contexts and settings. In this zone, demonstrations are generalizable across content areas and require substantial degrees of integration, synthesis, and functional application, thereby encouraging interdisciplinary approaches to developing the outcomes.
At the highest level of the mountain is the Transformational Zone. In this zone, demonstrations require the highest degrees of ownership, integration, synthesis, and functional application of prior learning because they must respond to the complexity of real-life performance contexts.
Beginning Our Climb
Within each of the three major zones on the mountain are two different levels of learning demonstrations. At the bottom in the Traditional Zone are Discrete Content Skills. Concrete and content-dependent, these microforms of learning demonstrations are narrow in scope, tightly structured by the teacher, and linked to small, specific segments of curriculum content. The skills demonstrated are virtually inseparable from their content, as in reading passages for meaning, spelling specific words, carrying out specific mathematical operations, drawing particular objects, or locating specific features on a map.
While some of these Discrete Content Skills do eventually serve as enabling outcomes for demonstrations higher on the mountain, most of them are discrete objectives—small and detailed pieces of learning that constitute components in a larger block of curriculum content. An example of a Discrete Content Skill used by Spence Rogers of the High Success Network is:
All students will correctly identify local government procedures for initiating new laws.
The next level of demonstrations, Structured Task Performances, may be the most prevalent and misinterpreted form of demonstration on the mountain. These performances include a broad range of demonstrations that vary substantially in the degree of mental processing required for their execution. Examples include: writing a paper explaining a specific topic; carrying out a laboratory experiment and comparing its results with established theory; or drawing a map of a region at a specific point in history and contrasting it with a contemporary map of the same region.
These Structured Task Performances represent most day-to-day classroom activities, homework assignments, and work tasks. They typically involve completing a series of steps that the teacher has defined (hence, the term structured), and they use Discrete Content Skills as performance enablers. In most cases, adding to the number of steps required in a Structured Task Performance does not change the nature of this form of demonstration, though it may make its execution more difficult. An example from Rogers for this level is:
All students will conduct a research project on methods of initiating new laws at the local level and present their findings to the class and/or to their parents.
Midway Up the Mountain
Climbing to the Transitional Zone of the mountain, we encounter Higher-Order Competencies. Higher-Order Competencies include analyzing concepts and their interrelations; proposing solutions to multifaceted problems; using complex arrays of data and information to make decisions; planning complex structures, processes, or events; and communicating effectively with public audiences. All of these demonstrations can involve many kinds of content. Although they are more generalizable across different kinds of subject areas and performance contexts than outcomes in the Traditional Zone, they do rely on some Content Skills and Structured Tasks as enablers. The example from Rogers for this kind of demonstration is:
All students will teach an adult civic group how to initiate new laws in the community.
In the next level of demonstration, Complex Unstructured Task Performances, personal ownership, self-direction, and self-assessment intensifies. Students create their own projects, defining the parameters, criteria, standards, and modes of execution and evaluation. These are the broad, complex demonstrations one finds in independent research and high-level applied projects, and they frequently require the integration of knowledge from many different sources and disciplines. At their core, Complex Unstructured Task Performances embody what Theodore Sizer characterizes as significant “exhibitions” of learning (1983, 1984). Almost by definition, these demonstrations involve much higher degrees of latitude and independence than in the Traditional Zone of the mountain. An example of a Complex Unstructured Task Performance is:
All students will design and carry out a project on a major issue or problem that uses data to heighten community awareness and proposes feasible ways to address it by initiating new laws.
Heading Toward the Top
To enter the Transformational Zone of the mountain is to depart from the formal curriculum and its content categories as the starting point and purpose of learning. Here we enter the realm of Role Performances. Operating with authentic life contexts as the backdrop, students demonstrate what real people do to be successful on a continuing basis in their career, family, and community. Almost all real-life role performances require complex applications of many kinds of knowledge and all kinds of competence as people confront the challenges surrounding them in their social systems.
Grounded in these real-world contexts are Complex Role Performances. These performances occur and recur as people carry out their responsibilities; they involve a high degree of generalizability across time and situations; and they demand a high degree of ownership, self-direction, and self-assessment on the part of their practitioners. Complex Role Performers have the motivation and commitment to continually carry out their role responsibilities, not just perform isolated tasks on demand.
Because this zone of the mountain seems to lie beyond the structures and frames of reference used most often in schools, we might ask two questions: Are Complex Role Performances possible in school? What Role Performances link the world of schooling to real life? Figure 2 sets forth 10 Fundamental Life Performance Roles that will help us answer these questions. The figure can also serve as a template for implementing transformational outcome-based education (Spady 1991, 1992; Brandt 1992/1993).
Figure 2. Fundamental Life Performance Roles
The framework shown in Figure 2 outlines 10 clusters of performance roles that are essential to almost all of the major life roles students will face once they leave school—citizen, employer, worker, parent, and civic leader. Consistent with the SCANS Report of 1991, which has been used to shape the outcome frameworks for the states of Florida and Oregon, Figure 2 serves as a design template for many districts throughout Canada and the United States. The bottom section of the framework deals with technical and strategic Life Performance Roles, while the top contains social and interpersonal roles. All of these roles can be carried out in Transformational classrooms just as they can in authentic life contexts. An example of such a demonstration is:
All students will organize and participate in a community service team that monitors major community issues and problems, develops alternatives—including proposed changes in laws—for addressing them, and explains potential solutions to key community groups.
Working with students on a continuous basis, schools can prepare them to be:
- Implementers and Performers, who can apply basic and advanced ideas, information, skills, tools, and technologies as they carry out the responsibilities associated with all life roles. They grasp the demands of a particular situation and use available resources to get things done.
- Problem Finders and Solvers, who can anticipate, explore, analyze, and resolve problems, examining underlying causes from a variety of perspectives and developing potential solutions.
- Planners and Designers, who develop effective methods and strategies for resolving issues and problems.
- Creators and Producers, who seek new possibilities for understanding or doing things and who transform those possibilities into original, workable products or processes that change the operating environment.
- Learners and Thinkers, who develop and use cognitive tools and strategies to translate new information and experiences into sound action, and who use their repertoire of knowledge and strategies to extend their capacities for successful action by assimilating, analyzing, and synthesizing new experiences.
- Listeners and Communicators, who can grasp and express ideas, information, intention, feeling, and concern for others in ways that are clearly understood and appreciated. They accurately comprehend and use words, pictures, gestures, deeds, styles, symbols, and mannerisms to receive and convey thoughts.
- Teachers and Mentors, who can enhance the thinking, skills, performance orientations, and motivation of others through the explanations they provide, the counsel they give, and the example they set. They share the information, time, perspectives, and skills at their disposal.
- Supporters and Contributors, who invest time and resources to improve the quality of life of those around them.
- Team Members and Partners, who contribute their best efforts to collaborative endeavors and who seek agreement on goals, procedures, responsibilities, and rewards, setting aside personal preferences in order to accomplish mutual aims.
- Leaders and Organizers, who can initiate, coordinate, and facilitate the accomplishment of collective tasks by perceiving and defining intended results, determining how they might be accomplished, anticipating roadblocks, and enlisting and supporting the participation of others to achieve the results.
If preparing students for this constellation of 10 Life Performance Roles looks like a major expansion of the school's vision and priorities beyond the practices of the Traditional and Transitional Zones of the mountain, it is. To provide this level of learning will require a transformation of what schools are and how they spend their time. But our young people deserve the significant learning experiences and capabilities that the Life Performance Roles represent.
The learning environments that continuously involve students in all 10 sets of Performance Roles are not impossible to conceive, design, and implement. The key is to continually engage students in both individual and team activities that explore important issues or phenomena, use multiple media and technologies, create products that embody the results of students' explorations, and call for students to explain their work and products to adult and student audiences. In short, the classroom becomes an active, high-challenge learning environment and performance center.
The question that remains, however, is whether schools can address and support the Life-Role Functioning outcomes at the top of the Transformational Zone. Can students carry out the requirements of adult citizens, workers, employers, and parents while still young and in school? To say no is easy; performances at that level require that people be in those life-roles and deal with the conditions and challenges that they encounter in those real-life contexts.
On the other hand, states and districts can design learning experiences and performances that can serve as exit outcomes based on the realities faced by today's adults and on the realities that we anticipate will face the adults of tomorrow. These performances can be simulated in both typical educational settings and in the real-world contexts with which schools are connecting more and more through business partnerships and service learning programs. Frameworks like those in Figure 2 can serve as guides.
If schools can't guarantee successful Life-Role Functioning, they can come close by helping students become competent Complex Role Performers with extensive experiences drawn from real-life contexts. Accomplishing this will make the climb up the Demonstration Mountain both compelling and rewarding for schools, their students, and their communities.
Brandt, R. (December 1992/January 1993). “On Outcome-Based Education: A Conversation with Bill Spady.” Educational Leadership 50, 4: 66–70.
Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). (1991). What Work Requires of Schools. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.
Sizer, T. (June 1983). “High School Reform: The Need for Engineering.” Phi Delta Kappan 64, 10: 679–683.
Sizer, T. (1984). Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Spady, W. G. (Spring 1991). “Shifting the Grading Paradigm That Pervades Education.” Outcomes 9, 4: 39–45.
Spady, W. G. (Summer 1992). “It's Time to Take a Close Look at Outcome-Based Education.” Outcomes 11, 2: 6–13.
William G. Spady is Director of the High Success Network, P.O. Box 1630, Eagle, CO 81631.