Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Do standards subjugate students?

Old School is not a place - rather it is a state of mind that ultimately thinks very little of the mind, and there are as many problems with this kind of education as there are Old School Teachers.

Old School is more interested in what teachers are supposed to teach than what the students are learning, and it is this premise that the Tougher Standards movement is built on. And yet how often is the idea of standards ever questioned? What are the chances you'll see at your next conference a session titled "Do Standards Subjugate Students?"

Reflecting upon one's beliefs can be a very productive use of time, and I can think of no better time to do so than when we have come to mindlessly accept something as a given truth. When questions are no longer answered because questions are no longer being asked, it's time to pause and reflect. In his book, The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn encourages us to do just that:
These days, anyone looking for a cause without controversy would do better to come out in favor of higher standards for our schools. It's a safe bet that almost any audience will vigorously applaud such a sentiment, since it is widely agreed that our educational system is in deep trouble and that raising standards is the solution. On the other hand, whenever agreement is a bit too quick and consensus a little too broad, it's worth taking another look.
I have a problem with distant authorities who are pedagogically even further removed from the classroom than they are geographically dictating what everyone else should learn based on their personal assumptions about what it means to be well educated. In her book One Size Fits Few, Susan Ohanian adds:
Give a Standardisto a pad of paper and a pencil and he goes nuts making lists of essential knowledge - without ever laying eyes on the children who must learn it.
I believe at the heart of Ohanian's criticism is the idea that there is something inherently wrong with seeing an education as something planned and provided for us, and the only thing worse than a curriculum made by someone else is one made by someone who never cares to know us. When children are not welcome to play an active role in not only what they learn but also how they will do so, there is only one way they can experience school - that is controlling.

When the teacher's role is less about artfully guiding students to thinking and reasoning for themselves in a kind of logic gymnasium and more about dispensing right answers and disciplining wrong ones, we openly choose to ignore the roots of real learning. Sixty years of research tells us that we don't internalize knowledge by simply being told to do so. Real learning is constructed from the inside while interacting with others.

In his article Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests, Alfie Kohn warns us:
On the one hand, thinking is messy, and deep thinking is very messy. On the other hand, standards documents are nothing if not orderly. Keep that contrast in mind and you will not be surprised to see how much damage those documents can do in real classrooms.
Considerable research has demonstrated the importance of making sure students are actively involved in designing their own learning, invited to play a role in formulating questions, creating projects, and so on. But the more comprehensive and detailed a list of standards, the more students (and even teachers) are excluded from this process, the more alienated they tend to become, and the more teaching becomes a race to cover a huge amount of material. Thus, meeting these kinds of standards may actually have the effect of dumbing down classrooms. As Howard Gardner and his colleagues wisely observed, "The greatest enemy of understanding is 'coverage.'"
Learning is not like instant mashed potatoes; kids have not been through an industrial process of cooking, mashing and dehydrating to yield packaged convenience learning that can be reconstituted in the classroom in seconds by simply adding curriculum or standards.

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it's the only one you have; the idea of fixing school by simply 'doing what we've always done but better' (read: raise the bar) has held a monopoly over school improvement and education reform for too long.

At the very least, before we ask for guidance on how to best implement externally imposed standards, we should ask whether doing so is a good idea.

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