Friday, November 12, 2010

Standardisation or creativity; McDonalds or Weta Workshops?

Anybody who spends time in a classroom soon appreciates that children do not arrive in standardised packages. They have similarities and differences and, as they grow, diversity should be part of the process.That is unless we want them all to be the same. Weta workshops employ a wide range of individuals many of whom may well have not done well in academic learning.Workers at McDonalds, in contrast, are trained in clone like precision. Lucky for McDonalds there are no below average potatoes to worry about.

Canadian educationalist contributed the following to an Education Today Magazine. If time visit his website

The term “standards” is particularly topical in New Zealand and thrown around very loosely everywhere else especially by the right-wing press as some panacea for everything it perceives is wrong with schools and teachers.

On the surface there is nothing wrong with articulating expectations for students.

There is a substantial research base for suggesting that effective teachers hold high expectations for all learners. Indeed one could argue to not have high expectations for all learners is inhumane.

But as anyone who has spent five minutes in a classroom will know, the parents keep sending the ‘wrong’ kids. They don’t come to us in nice little homogeneous packages ready and keen to learn whatever it is we have to offer and for whom common immutable standards are appropriate or even possible. Children differ in every way we humans can differ and yet politicians and some academics expect common outcomes.

I’m surprised that the New Zealand government with its nations long history of democratic education, its attention to minority children, and its very enlightened and progressive 2007 curriculum is prepared to risk all this in the mistaken belief that defining standards will magically eliminate underachievement in its schools.

Without rehashing the for or against arguments, the very vagueness and spin that people put on the term standards is what is of concern, because in most countries that have gone the standards route ‘standards’ have become standardized - standardized curriculum, standardized, tests, standardized teaching which contrary to American rhetoric, results in many children being ‘left behind’.

The pattern is quite universal - declare a crisis, impose standards in a big hurry to avoid debate, then impose measures to ensure compliance with the standards, declare the results of the measures unsatisfactory, blame the teachers and the schools for poor performance, label critics whiners and wimps for using poverty and endemic unemployment as crutches for their own failures.

For schools and teachers it is a ‘catch-22’. If schools refuse to play the game and resist, they are branded as malcontents and worse, or if they work hard and raise levels of student achievement, especially on standardized tests, then the critics will declare that the tests are too easy and schools are still failing. The trick is I suspect, to resist at the right time.

Once the standards-standardization train gets rolling it is impossible to resist. For New Zealand, the train hasn’t quite left the station, and working with and using standards in conjunction with an enlightened curriculum to optimize learning is still possible. At the moment, a reasonable case can be made that well developed and thought out standards as defined in terms expectations for learning can enrich the curriculum. As long as time to reach the standards is a variable, standards can work.

But once the tests come and the meaning becomes more punitive and adversarial and all children are to arrive at the same place at the same time in their learning then my advice is to fight like hell for the sake of your kids and state-supported education.

Just look at the educational ‘train-wrecks’ in the U.S. and U.K.

Sadly for those who see standards as a ‘quick and easy’ way to reform education the route to quality education remains the same - develop a well-educated, well-paid, dedicated teaching cadre, promote leaders who are leaders of learning, and ensure equitable educational opportunities for all.

Not very sexy I’m afraid but tried and true.


Mac Stevenson said...

What an inspired piece of writing.

Please send to the Listener and various other media poinitng out this is written by someone from outside of NZ.

Alison said...

Inspirational - Mac, that's what I was thinking as I was reading this post, and then I saw that you had written more or less the same thing. But anyway, I'll say it again! Inspirational. Thanks for that Bruce.

Bruce said...

Thanks Mac and Alison. The full article by Dean is in the latest Education Today.

Anonymous said...

Best bit of writing on the standards - thanks for sharing Bruce