Standardised Lessons is a Dystopian Vision of Education

“All our science is just a cookery book, with an orthodox theory of cooking that nobody’s allowed to question, and a list of recipes that mustn’t be added to except by special permission from the head cook.”

– World Controller Mustapha Mond from ‘Brave New World’

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In the Times today, Dame Sally Coates claimed that all schools should teach identical lessons in order to address social inequality. She claims that “all children aged four to 14 should learn precisely the same things from a uniform curriculum in the same order throughout their schooling.”

This is an impoverished and dystopian view of the profession that should be resisted. It is a misguided attempt to impose an order where it’s almost impossible to do so, that views teachers as disposable dispensers of a hotly contested set of ‘standards’ and will ultimately cause more problems than solutions.

I can certainly see the appeal however. Current curriculum and assessment models vary so much from school to school that the landscape sometimes looks like the original thirteen colonies with differing constitutional systems of self government and legislation around a loose federacy. The idea of uniformity would certainly allow greater co-operation between school systems who would speak a more common language instead of the loose lingua franca there currently is.

But what this view fails to appreciate is that we are strengthened by our differences not limited by them. Creativity doesn’t come from uniformity, it comes from debate and dialogue with different voices and perspectives not some imposed singularity from outside. And the idea that uniformity can solve social inequality and ‘unleash creativity’ is part of a movement that takes its cues more from the assembly line than the classroom and for me, has uncomfortable resonances with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’

The central claim of a standardised curriculum is that through standardised testing of that curriculum you will be able to fairly evaluate progress against a common standard. The main problem here is that by piling so much emphasis on empirical notions of progress, you are unleashing a culture of high stakes accountability that views success in terms of exam results and worth in terms of league tables and too often sees teachers as disposable elements in that enterprise.

What makes this claim all the more baffling is that we have a pretty good example of what happens with mass standardisation (albeit an ‘opt-in’ model as Coates as advocated) in the form of the U.S. common core where the notion of a uniform ‘raising of standards’ as a driver of improvement is being robustly challenged.

At least three reports from the Education Department, including a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, have found no relationship between the difficulty of a state’s test and the level or change in student achievement.

The other question is who decides what to standardise and what goes on the curriculum? Schools should have standards but they should not be imposed from outside, and certainly not by people who have never been in the classroom. Of course schools should not be able to’do what they want’ but they should have the autonomy to choose what is right for their pupils in their own context.

A further problem is that beyond the curriculum things get even more difficult to standardise. Despite all the research on the classroom there is still very little consensus on what truly works so what exactly is it are we proposing to standardise? And who precisely is deciding what those pedagogical standards are in the first place?

And what if standardisation doesn’t stop at the curriculum? Imagine a world where it was suddenly decided that you not only had to teach character as a new ‘standard,’ but to evidence that against a set of pre-defined set of ‘character metric’, and then this was measured and compared against some sort of ‘national index of character’. We’re back to the sort of big-data-double-speak of Blair and his “rural community vibrancy index”.

I can’t think of a more depressing landscape where all schools are teaching exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, where every lesson is ‘off the shelf’ and where teachers are essentially painting by numbers. In teaching, like in poetry, form and content are inextricably linked, they inform one another and create an overall effect that is impossible to control never mind ‘standardise.’ The best teachers teach a curriculum that comes from within not without, it is content that they are enlivened by and are desperate to communicate to kids.

Teaching is a far more mysterious enterprise than advocates of standardisation appear to realise. It has many disparate parts that are prone to flux and change and often resist order and blunt categorisation. Attempts to quantify the mystery of the classroom have largely failed, so perhaps we should be brave enough to allow at least some of it to remain a mystery, to not reduce everything to numbers and seek to ‘tag and bag’ every single thing and instead celebrate our differences as opposed to eliminating them.

“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too-all his life long. The mind that judges and desire and decides-made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions… Suggestions from the State.”

‘Brave New World’

6 comments

  1. ephemeral321

    Hi Carl, as a parent in the state system I think it is attractive to have textbooks, which surely impose an order on the classteacher and the learning? I also currently think it is attractive to have a standardised curriculum so parents roughly know the core content of each term’s learning; taught by a human being whose own experience along with the class’ will result in dialogue and experiences that can’t be replicated. Bespoke learning of the ‘Ender’s Game’ style are to be avoided in my world. But some national consistency in the basic content during each term is desirable. It also allows children changing schools to have a relatively uninterrupted learning experience within key stages.

    Re. your point that “The best teachers teach a curriculum that comes from within not without, it is content that they are enlivened by and are desperate to communicate to kids”. I think the best teachers will always teach something beyond what those who are mediocre offer. If a teacher is enlivened by content and desperate to communicate it a standard curriculum will not limit their creativity, and a curriculum can be refreshed.

    NB: scripts have been shown to be pretty dire for customers experiencing 3 minute call centre conversations, anyone suggesting this as a teaching method is nuts.

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  3. David Weston (@informed_edu)

    Hi Carl,

    I agree that we definitely don’t want to have teachers reduced to delivering scripts! I also think that, for practical purposes, you can’t have every pupil learning the same topic in the same week. It just wouldn’t work for slotting in extra-curricular activities, as well as severely limiting the necessary flexibility and professional autonomy needed for teachers to ‘shake things up’ and respond to the needs of their class. A perfect example would be a school which has suffered a bereavement – why should they have to ‘stick to the script’ rather than going with the flow of the children’s needs?

    However, I wouldn’t want to abandon all attempts to pool wisdom either. Constructing and sequencing a curriculum is a hugely specialist task and most schools don’t have deep expertise in this area, so it makes sense to work in larger clusters and draw in experts. Also, constructing valid and reliable assessments to match this curriculum is hugely specialist, so again it makes sense to draw upon expertise and have a baseline curriculum with carefully matched assessments, materials and resources which can be used flexibly by well-trained and properly-supported teachers. I’ve also found it hugely frustrating as a science teacher to have to constantly reinvent the wheel and spend so long looking up leading ideas for practicals, explanations, demonstrations and exercises.

    It’s simply not reasonable nor practical to assume that we can give every single classroom teacher the time, training and support to enable them to be an expert in every area that they teach, every assessment they create, every curriculum they sequence and every need of their pupils. However, we can assume that, by being the ones at ‘the chalk face’ in closest contact with their pupils then they will be the ones best placed to make professional decisions about what is appropriate, drawing on expertise that exists elsewhere.

    It feels like there is a sensible middle route which says, here are two or three well-constructed curricula with constantly growing and developing resources that are closely linked and which have embedded within them deep pedagogical expertise and research. This frees me to use this approach as a base, modifying with professional autonomy or occasionally abandoning, but only where I can explain, through professional dialogue, how I’m being careful that my new approach is both appropriate and likely to be at least as good. I’m not talking about scripting lessons at all here, merely presenting key principles and resources and letting the teacher use, combine these in any way she feels appropriate. Where I can show that I have good expertise then I should be allowed to go ‘off-piste’ and follow my own route.

    I know what I’ve *hoped* to express with this comment, although it may well be read in a way I didn’t intend, so I’d be delighted to discuss further. It may well be that there are practical consequences of this position which I hadn’t understood or forseen, so I’d welcome your critique.

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    • Carl Hendrick

      Thanks David. I would agree with this on the whole. I like the idea of there being a particular song with a set chord progression and melody which is then improvised by various musicians in various ways. Although each time is different, the essential ‘song’ remains.

      I think that there is key knowledge that should be passed down; “the best that’s been thought and said” as Arnold reminds us, and indeed in terms of content I don’t think there is much debate there, nor is there any call for over-prescription in that regard. But what I think we need to guard against is *how* that content is taught particularly when faddish methodologies are advocated and then mandated by inspectors and SLT and then subsequently used to beat teachers over the head with.

      In many subjects also I feel there is a strange relationship with teachers and certain lessons they have created and adapted over a long time, again like a jazz standard that a musician has taken many years to prefect in many arenas there is a symbiotic relationship between teacher and lessons that exist largely in their head and instincts. We should not want to lose that kind of expertise in the name of efficiency but I certainly take your point that in giving teachers a base from which to explore in terms of content it may well free them up to become virtuosos by not having to reinvent the wheel every year.

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