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Learning at its Best

The illusion of standardization

The beginning of wisdom is a definition of terms.


When “collaboration” is really code for standardization, professional development becomes nothing more than control over actions.

Just like how mandated sentences strips judgement from judges, so too does standardization deny teachers the ability to teach. Maja Wilson puts it this way:

Mandating practices in the effort to improve teaching paradoxically creates the kind of environment that undermines good teaching. [Standardization] contributes to an environment that actually stunts teachers’ ability to make good decisions in the classroom and obscures bad teaching with its illusion of uniformity.

It’s not easy to object to standardization; I know a lot of good teachers who believe consistency is a good thing…

While its true that standardization provides us with consistency, it tends to act less like a floor and more like a ceiling. In other words, standardization is attractive because it offers a kind of guarantee, but that guarantee tends to come at an alarming cost.

Seymour Papert describes with chilling accuracy just how costly the illusion of standardization really is:

It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems. They are worried about how to verify that the teachers are really doing their job properly, how to enforce accountability and maintain quality control. They prefer the kind of curriculum that will lay down, from day to day, from hour to hour, what the teacher should be doing, so that they can keep tabs on it. Of course, every teacher knows this is an illusion. It’s not an effective method of insuring quality. It is only a way to cover ass. Everybody can say, “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book.” Nobody can be accused of not doing the job. But this really doesn’t work. What the bureaucrat can verify and measure for quality has nothing to do with getting educational results–those teachers who do good work, who get good results, do it by exercising judgment and doing things in a personal way, often undercover, sometimes even without acknowledging to themselves that they are violating the rules of the system. Of course one must grant that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job. But forcing everyone to teach by the rules does not improve the “bad teachers”– it only hobbles the good ones.

If we are to achieve the kind of wisdom that Socrates spoke of, then we need to understand what standardization does and does not do. We need to understand what we are actually prescribing to when we standardize curriculum and assessment.

Children are not widgets that simply require a better regiment of assembly line workers. Children are not interchangeable cogs that would benefit from simply being treated more like their peers.

We have to stop pretending that we can meet one learners’ needs by pretending that all learners have the same needs.

We have to stop pretending that highly prescribed curriculums and standardized testing has anything to do with good teaching and real learning.

Our fixation on quantity and control is doing a massive disservice to our children.

In the context of educating children, a proper definition of terms would have us realize that standardization serves to make the shallowest forms of teaching and superficial learning appear successful.

About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


13 thoughts on “The illusion of standardization

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Joe. We’re in the midst of our “standardized” testing right now and we have to take a break from learning to do it. Not only that, but these tests never accurately measure student learning and they are certainly not standardized and well controlled instruments. I’ve become increasingly convinced that student access to social networks like Facebook and Twitter produces unfair testing advantages. If these tests are given in a “testing window” of a few days or weeks, there is absolutely no way to prevent students and/or parents from discussing the test and giving out answers to those who have not taken the test yet. Even the possibility of this kind of online information sharing should be enough to make anyone question the validity of these “standardized” tests in truly measuring student knowledge. More of my argument that standardized testing is broken by social networks can be found here . Thanks for keeping this issue on the front burners!

    Posted by Chris Ludwig | March 13, 2011, 1:05 am
  2. thanks Joe.

    as we seek to move away from standardization, i think we need to keep ourselves from validating what we do with, “and we still did well on the tests.” it’s like saying, see, we really are learning.
    i think that compromises more than we realize. it’s like the carrot is bigger because we’re denying it and acknowledging it all at the same time.

    Posted by monika hardy | March 13, 2011, 1:55 am
  3. Hey Joe,

    I’ve just been reading the McKinsey Report, “How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better” In one part of the report they talk about the ways that systems moved from being “fair” to being “good”. I understand the difficulties in defining what this means but, invariably, international test scores play an important role.

    But it was interesting to note that standard–even scripted–practice was a key at this stage. So too was a whole cadre (their words) of folks trained in the desired practice moving out to the system to make sure everyone knew how to do what was expected and were, in fact, doing it. This is the whole “best practice” thing.

    Here in Ontario, this is still being done, even though we were one of the provinces in the report that had moved beyond the “good” stage, and were approaching “best”.

    To your main point, the report points out that a gradual release of responsibility was evident in those schools moving from “good” to “great”. More local control over curriculum, strategies, design. More of a trust in the professionals working day-to-day in the schools.

    We should be moving to this stage of professionalism in many jurisdictions, but I don’t see it happening. And I desperately want to be working in an environment where it is happening!

    Thanks for getting me thinking on this. An important conversation.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 13, 2011, 7:02 am
  4. Joe, certainly more is lost from standardization than can be gained in terms of civic-mindedness, discovery, freedom, learning, and well-being.

    The problem with a lot of collaboration, as I see it, is that teachers are asked to collaborate on initiatives that many don’t buy-in to for various reasons. Even the freedom to choose when and how to collaborate, and to explain why or why not, could lead to more purposeful and innovative teaching amongst teams of teachers invested in changing schools rather than raising scores.

    If we could allow for such freedom and improve communication between teachers (faculty meetings are not faculty meetings), we could see a lot of grassroots classrooms and projects on the mend from the harms of standardization. A more organic cooperation and co-learning could develop between all learners in a school – a culture that acknowledges, values, and meets the diverse needs of adult and child learners figuring out how to communicate and learn well.

    Which schools do you think eschew standardization well?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 13, 2011, 7:51 am
  5. Iain McGilchrist calls this standardization the tyranny of the left brain. One of the most intractible problems I see is that the quants have become so ascendant that everyone views them as owning the problem of schooling kids. When (not if) they fail (and they always fail) the whole idea of public schooling will go down the sewer with them. So…how can the “qualitative” folks counterbalance them before they self-immolate and take us all down. Any ideas or do we just have to ride that Hindenburg to the ground and hope we can leap to safety?

    Posted by Terry C Elliott | March 13, 2011, 8:32 am
  6. @Monika you raise an important point. If we are to truly improve school, we have to stop measuring ourselves with out-dated and obsolete measurements. Innovations around differentiated instruction and learning have progressed but differentiated assessment is the equivalent to Bigfoot – we talk about it lots but rarely ever see it.

    Posted by joebower | March 14, 2011, 11:20 am
  7. What I see Papert getting right is this idea of CYA in most US public schools right now. When you can be punished for simply not testing enough of certain populations of your students, not even your students’ scores, things get a little crazy.

    It is also easier to script teachers’ lessons than actually take the time to help them hone their craft since the process of honing one’s craft means mistakes will be made along the way (God forbid). I think people don’t want their child to be a guinea pig as a teacher figures out the best way to teach kids. However, what happens instead is their child becomes the guinea pig in whatever fad ‘experts’ decide works at the moment.

    So what do we do? As teachers we need to be vocal about how these scripted programs hurt students and we need to continue to hone our practice to best teach our students.

    Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | March 14, 2011, 1:37 pm
  8. I think is a perfect way to explain the craziness of standardization in learning…Testing

    Posted by dloitz | March 14, 2011, 9:13 pm
  9. I loved this post, Joe. You are right in saying that to argue against standardization is hard to do; it sounds so good. Everyone doing the same thing, speaking the same language. Everyone on the same page. I’ll have to admit that I’ve fallen for this argument especially as it applies to the terminology we use with kids. At the moment, I’m finding myself stumbling over a particular kind of language that we’re being encouraged to use with our students that seems forced and misses the point. Until recently we were all encouraged to do the same thing as our grade level partners because, the argument went, parents would start comparing and start complaining. Although that trend seems to have fallen in popularity it is still advocated by some. How to convince others that diversity truly is the spice of life and that difference is what makes us strong?

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | March 20, 2011, 8:45 pm
  10. David, I am going to use that comic. Thanks for sharing it!

    @Elisa, you raise a very valid point about diversity. What’s good for culture is good for learning. We stopped believing everyone was the same a long time ago. We embrace our differences as strengths rather than weaknesses – and yet education lags significantly behind what culture has figured out long ago.

    Posted by Joe Bower | March 23, 2011, 4:34 pm
  11. Does anyone know who the original creator of this cartoon was?

    Posted by Natr | July 14, 2014, 3:06 pm


  1. Pingback: Children learn because they want to | Malcolm Bellamy's Lifelong Learning Blog - March 24, 2011

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