“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’
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’