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Standards, Not Standardization

The last several posts on this blog have been the discussion of the immense power and the tremendous instructional opportunities inherent in the capitalization and effective utilization of student curiosity. Their curiosity is a gift students bring with them to this enterprises called "learning." As we have reviewed, many educational experts extoll student curiosity as being a key, if not leading, attribute of an instructional experience that students will find engaging, interesting or relevant. Yet, for inexplicable reasons, student curiosity is under utilized, if not down-right ignored, in typical American classrooms.


When asked "why do you do things the way you do?" or "why don't you try a different approach?", many classroom teachers will point to their overflowing plate of responsibilities and lament that adding one more thing would put them over the top. Underlying that lament is "I'm responsible for teaching the standards," like the standards themselves are a burden. What these teachers fail to recognize is that fostering and utilizing student creativity as an instructional tool is not "one more thing" being added to their seemingly impossible roster of tasks. Neither is curiosity in conflict with the standards. Using student curiosity in the ways outlined in previous posts actually makes room on the plate of roles and duties, while breathing life into the standards - making them real, relevant and exciting to the one who must learn them and breaking down perceived, or real, strictures to the one who must teach them.

Actually, the fundamental rebuttal for the inclusion of curiosity (or any other instructional innovation, for that matter) is the desire to maintain a degree of standardization of practice. Standardization feels efficient. It's predictable. It is a reliable method to structure and pace instruction and to keep all of the instructional arrows pointing in the same direction. A standardized classroom is measurable and seemingly easy to control. Indeed, our entire system of public instruction embraces standardization. For the same reasons of efficiency, predictability and measurability, the American system of public education has become one ruled and run on the expectation of a culture of standardization. However, while it might work for the greater system, and even for the daily practices of classroom educators, standardization fails our students.

We need standards. Standards define what we expect students to know and be able to do as a result of their educational experience. Standards offer all students a guaranteed and viable curriculum. They signal what we value and represent a common experience that we aspire for all students to achieve. Done well, the creation of a set of standards supports a desired degree of equality within the public education system. Yes, we need standards. But, let's be clear. The standards merely define what must be taught. However, they do not define, or instruct, how they should be taught. That decision lies within the purview of teachers, who in a perfect world, will reach those conclusions in partnership with their students.

On the other hand, standardization assures, by its very definition, that the resulting experience afforded students will be inequitable. Equity requires the flexibility and insight to offer what is required, in real time, to a student, or a group of students, based on their need, interest and circumstance. Equity does not attempt to make square pegs fit into round holes. It is adaptable, flexible and facile in its application. Our preoccupation with standardization overlooks students' uniqueness and their individual strengths and aspirations by reducing them to a common denominator. It is short-sided. It's devaluing and demoralizing. Quite simply, it's wrong. We need to return to practices that teach human beings in ways that allow them to flourish, rather than adhere to outdated practices that resemble widgets coming off of an assembly line. The intentional incorporation of intellectual curiosity into the classroom experience is a promising place to start.

Where is the harm, and what might be the reward, in inquiring "tell me who you are, what you know, what you love and what you are curious about." Following this approach, the standards will take on new meaning and profound interest in the experience of our students. Don't believe me? Try it and see it for yourself. It will cost you nothing and may pay a handsome dividend.

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