Don't We Need Standards?

A recent developer of professionalism says to my staff, "We all know we need to be teaching standards. If we're not, the kids just aren't going to learn."

Holy cow. What a comment! Without standards, children can't learn.

Woe to those miserable educators since time immemorial who tried teaching anyone anything without standards. Glory to contemporary American schooling.

In my fourth year of teaching, I worked at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC) in Washington, DC. I had just moved to DC and was impressed with how organized the administration seemed to be around supporting instruction in the school. The administrator over the social studies department mentioned on a number of occasions that CHEC was was committed to "standards-based instruction." He talked at length about the perils of planning your instructional activities before thinking through your standards.

At the time, I remember wondering: So if we do 'standards-based instruction,' what's the alternative? Presumably, you would only have to voice your commitment to such a practice if some sort of other practice existed. I'm pretty sure I asked him what the alternative was once, and his response was something along the lines of "crappy teaching." And there I had it. Wondering over.

In January, I wrote a post on why I think standards are murdering school. In today's post, I'd like to further deconstruct the notion of standards as essential to teaching and learning.

For decades, plenty of educators have eloquently voiced their resistance to the notion of standardizing education. They tend to have more liberal/hippie attitudes toward teaching and learning, and have often been quickly dismissed by more conservative thinkers and administrators toward the top of the educational career ladder who like standards for what they can offer in terms of data and assessment.

In his extraordinarily popular TED talk, Sugata Mitra notes that the origin of our current school model dates back to the Age of Empire, approximately 200-300 years ago. (You can find a more detailed history of the primary school in Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Empire, which I talked about in this podcast.) Mitra says that the most incredible computer was actually not a computer as we think of computers. It was, in fact, the European bureaucratic machine. The output was society, and the inputs were civil servants - people who had been trained in school to read, write, and think the same way in order to participate in the creation and maintenance of society, or in the case of the British, empire.

Hobsbawm refers to the period between 1870-1914 as the Age of the Primary School. This was not coincidentally also a period of time when Europe's newly emerging nations were competing for citizen allegiance. You see, back then, the notion of countries and nations was still a relatively new idea. Convincing the average citizen to pledge their allegiance to some government and flag by the name Germany or Italy (both countries only came into existence as we know them today in the 1800s) was still a work in progress for the European political elite. The primary school turned out to be a pretty effective tool for unifying diverse peoples with different languages and dialects under national banners. This was largely done with language instruction (languages that had only recently been, or were in the process of being, standardized).

It turns out that when your goal is to create a society of people who think and act alike in service of some larger purpose, standards can be pretty useful.

BUT here's the rub: humans are incredible organisms. As a species, we've thrived for millennia without standards or classroom agendas. There will forever be an infinite vastness of skills and knowledge for humans to learn. Seen in this way, learning is really just an expression of our attempt to interact with our environment. We never really achieve total understanding or mastery of anything. We merely strive to exist and to adapt.

Now - I understand that, in that last paragraph, I've perhaps gone far to the left of any of the administrators who may work 'downtown,' or the education policy wonks in DC. But I have to defend this perspective on learning because I feel it is a far more humane way to view what should be happening in schools.

Our 21st-century world is an outrageously complex place and time. It would be naive to disregard the idea of standards-based instruction entirely. There are some very important uses for standards. However, the notion that students will not learn except from standards-based instruction seems to me a tremendously unhealthy way to understand the human brain.

Believing that students cannot learn without standards is extreme pedagogical arrogance. Students learn all the time, and mostly the learning that is meaningful to them is not in alignment with the teacher's goals. Learning is natural, and it comes easily given the right context.

As Dewey pointed out, the purpose of school in the modern world is primarily to help students develop literacy (see more on literacy here), which requires at least some formal instruction for most students to find success. Literacy and numeracy can be helped along tremendously by educators who have clear goals in mind for their students. But the most wonderful parts of learning are mostly accomplished by the individual and align with his or her unique strengths.

For these reasons, I will always see my job primarily as a facilitator of student development than as a deliverer of standards. 


  1. Hi James, I think you bring up some good points! Learning, not education, is something that comes naturally. Kids are learning every day from the interactions they have and from the things that they see. Sometimes that learning is not what we hope for as adults, though. The question that I think we need to ask then, is how can we align the standards to what students will need to participate in the world? I think that when you distill the common core standards down to a set of action words they are asking us to make decisions based on evidence. If we can use CCSS standards and that way and not teach to a test, or force standards into our practice I think that we can help guide students to become independent, thinking adults.


  2. Thanks so much for this post! I really love your blog, keep up the great work here!


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