Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The problem with standards

Alfie Kohn has written widely about freedom in education and unconditional parenting.

Here's an article by him on the danger of standardizing education: "Beware of the Standards, Not Just the Tests".

Kohn argues that in all the concern about testing in schools, we may lose sight of the point that the very existence of uniformized standards is a threat to learning.

He writes:

We have heard the phrase "standardized testing" so often that we may have become inured to the significance of that first word. To what extent do we really want our students to receive a standardized education? At a national conference last fall, a consultant announced with apparent satisfaction that now, thanks to standards-based reform, "for the first time in my experience, people on a grade level, in a subject area, or teaching a course at a high school are [feeling] a responsibility to all have the same destination." That she did not even feel it necessary to defend this goal says something about the current acceptance of a one-size-fits-all model of education. 
Once again, the problem is not just with the construction of the tests, but with the uniformity of the standards. Wanting to make sure that students in low-income communities don't receive a second-rate education is a laudable objective. Wanting to make sure that all students in your state receive the same education, such that they are treated as interchangeable recipients of knowledge, is a very different matter. Even more troubling are grade-by-grade standards. Here, the prescribers are not just saying, "We expect students to know the following stuff by the time they're in 8th grade," but "We expect them to learn all the items on this list in 5th grade, all the items on that list in 6th grade," and so on. Apart from the negative effects on learning, this rigidity about both the timing of the instruction and its content creates failures unnecessarily by trying to force all children to learn at the same pace.

Reading this leads me to some introspection. Each time I give a mid-term or final exam in any of my classes, am I not treating all students in my class similarly as "interchangeable recipients of knowledge"? Is it not what I do whenever I "follow" a standard syllabus or adopt a textbook? The moment we package a set of facts or tools or approaches into the rigid curriculum for a class, we enter a danger zone, that should be navigated with a great deal of care.

We should be leery of all attempts to ensure that everyone "knows" the same things about the subject, because they generally imply a naive view of knowledge as an objective collection of facts and methods. But the veneer of objectiveness obtained, for instance, by the adoption of a standard textbook, masks the sheer subjectivity of the process of putting together a class.

Consider the new course I have been developing at USC on wireless networks. It is  informed entirely by my own readings and research, and is not how the course is taught anywhere else. Say I were to write a textbook based on my course notes, and it were to be adopted as the textbook for a class in another university some day. The view of the students on the subject is then shaped in a peculiar fashion (perhaps irreparably) after my tastes. Somewhere an employer will glance at a student's transcript, and noticing that he/she has taken a course on "wireless networks" and gotten an 'A' on the subject, will assume that he/she "knows" something useful about the field. Yet this knowledge, as *all* knowledge that can be acquired in or outside a classroom, is fundamentally subjective because its very roots were subjective, shaped and colored as they were by my experiences.

While my arguments about the subjectivity of knowledge may seem particularly compelling in the context of emerging new subjects, I argue that the situation is fundamentally no different even for "ossified" old subjects. Here decades of textbook writing may seem to have lead to a consensus about the "core" body of knowledge in the field, but the converged point of view is very much a function of how the original texts were written and organized.

The only saving grace about the college environment, in contrast to the more rigid standardized curricula in schools, is the far greater freedom students have in selecting their program of study.


Anonymous said...

This is video of Sir Ken Robinson, talking about how school kills creativity. Just thought of sharing it.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Thanks for sharing. There is also a link to another talk by Ken Robinson under Recommended Reading and Viewing, on the right hand column... He has been a very visible and compelling proponent of change in the educational system indeed.