Monday, July 16, 2012

What comes first, the student or the standard?

First: how can you tell the difference between a student and a standard?

They both begin with ST. One has six and one has seven letters. One ends with a D, the other with a T. So I guess they're pretty different.

A standard, in education, is a learning goal; a student is a human who spends a large portion of his/her time in learning activities; usually involved in some sort of formal educational institution.

In public education, one comes first, the other follows.

According to the past ten or twenty years of education history,  Alfie Kohn's "bunch o' facts" have come first. The teacher starts with those facts, figures out how to teach them, and then makes the transfer to the students. These facts have lately been organized for our convenience into a progression of learning goals called standards, taking a student from Kindergarten through 12th grade.

The newfangled "standards-based" or "proficiency-based" education system that many of us have been hearing about is said to be an advance in how we do public education. This is because, in generous acknowledgment of the differences between children, the elements of speed and method of learning has been been partly given over to the student's control (at least, that's the theory.) Students can decide for themselves how and when they learn that same "bunch o' facts, compressed and reorganized into learning standards.

Then there is the student: the person in the learning institution who is responsible for learning the standards.

So which comes first?

We are told that this newfangled system is the best of all worlds; that the system focuses education on both the student and the standard. How's that done, exactly? "You can learn in whatever way and at whatever pace you want, as long as you learn what I tell you.  And forget about jumping ahead or skipping around: you have to do it in a certain order."

This is our education revolution?

I don't believe you can ever make BOTH the student and the standard come first. I think that unlike the poor chicken and her egg, this is not a circular proposition. One will always push out the emphasis on the other. Either we get kids through the State-mandated, 12-year course of study called the Common Core, leaving students entirely out of the decisions over what they have to learn, OR we make the  focus to discover and nurture the desire to learn that exists in each child, and devote time, support and resources to helping them become the people they want to be.

 To paraphrase Ira Socol, What happens when an institution forgets what its purpose is?

As soon as standards supersede the wishes and needs of the student, the learning game’s been lost. I have invented a new word for it: what learning becomes when students are unwilling to do it but aren't given a choice. It's called "faux learning," or "f'learning." We need to stop thinking that learning can take place if the learner is unwilling. Motivation is a complicated thing, and it's dicey to generalize to this degree, but for the most part, if the learner is unwilling to learn, learning won't take place. How many kids in public education are not learning, but f'learning?

If we toss out the standards, liberate ourselves, as adults, from the notion that there is "stuff" that all kids need to learn; if we lay aside our own personal "sacred cows" of education, do we create a "white space" in our classrooms? A happy nothingness, something like Harry Potter casting an "imperious curse" on his friend Hermione? A void in education, an opportunity for absolutely nothing to take place?

If you take the lessons, the "standards" out of the classroom, what you have is a room full of children.

Do children have standards?

Children have what is inside them; they have the sum total of their 5-17 years of life and experience.

Their learning standards begin with who they are. If we acknowledge that a child is a fully-actualized human being, then who they are and what they do and know RIGHT NOW matters as much to them and to their world as that of any 45-year-old. They can progress from there to the people they see themselves becoming. So the standards they have "accomplished" or "mastered," (to use the nomenclature of the standards-based system) are what they know, what they fully understand. Their expertise; their passion.

Standards should be about children. Their "course of study" should start with who they are. What is a student's goals for personal success? Let's create that document, the Personal Success Plan, when they are in Kindergarten; let's work on it continually over the next 12 years, and let's make it the foundation of their activities. Their "standards." The working document of their journey through learning.


  1. What would be your response to the kindergartener who says, "I don't want to learn to read"? How about to that same student a few years later when she's in 7th grade saying the same thing?

    Your argument falls apart at assuming kids are "fully actualized" and, therefore, capable of making wise decisions that may well affect the rest of their lives.

    The whole "proficiency-based" argument falls apart by assuming that there are benchmarks along the way of every subject that must inevitably be mastered before proceeding to the next.

    As a simple example, I graduated from law school in the middle of my class; I never truly understood what certain types of evidence were until I was forced to know because I was advocating for a teacher/custodian unfairly accused of some misdeed or other. Had I mastered "Evidence"? According to the school, yes. According to what I realized many years later, no.

    In both the "fully actualized" and "proficiency-based" scenarios, I fell short. Most people do. Expounding a silver bullet solution to how all kids/people (should) learn is much too simple. Learning is a messy and non-linear process. Assuming any one person can know what's best - even for herself - is a poor basis upon which to build an entire public education system.

    1. Nancy, the only thing you say above that I disagree with is the nonsensical example of the kindergartner who doesn't know how to read.

      The rest of the stuff you say argues against the proficiency-based system, which I don't support.

      As to the kindergartner, that presupposes that "reading" is a subject. It isn't a subject; it is the key to what kids want to learn.

      When kids need to know something and the only way they can know it is by learnign to read, they learn to read. You want literacy? turn to the child, find out who he/she is and what they most want to know.

      Also, not every student has to learn to read at the same time. That turns kids off the whole activity. Is that what we want?

      That you don't understand this simple fact means that you need to read and talk and reach out to those who know more about this than you do. If you want to make a difference, accept that your vision is no batter than the "silver bullet" that you are afraid of.

      If increasing attention and focus on children as individual learners is a "silver bullet," as you say, then I'm absolutely on board with it, but that seems not to be even worth thinking about in your world.

      You have said in the past that you have followed those education leaders I go to for information and ideas, but you really don't seem to have understood them. Go back to Deb Meier. Start reading the blogs of Ira Socol, Chris Lehmann, Will Richardson and many others.

      Don't just target your lack of understanding at me; go to my sources if you want to make noise. And along the way, maybe the light will go on.

    2. Re-reading what I wrote...I don't undervalue the focus on literacy. I just think it's bass-ackward as currently practiced.

  2. It is a fallacy to believe that students are allowed to master standards when they want and how they want. To begin with, their teachers are forced to teach them particular standards at a particular time in a particular way. So Allie will be working standard a at the same time that Jessie does and in the same way that Joey does. And they are also forced to demonstrate mastery of those standards in the same way.

    We are also currently in an accountability era. Students are assessed and assessed and assessed. They are being assessed to determine readiness and assessed to determine progress. Assessment to determine mastery. And you can't forget assessment to predict future mastery. Although it sounds nice and has been sold quite well

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! You've made my mind busy on this matter. Thanks for sharing your personal success plan and the link.