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April 20, 2009

Would National Standards Threaten Creative Teaching?

In response to my TAPPED post on national curriculum standards, commenter Josh G. asks:

How do you address the criticism that the "national standards movement" is just an attempt to Taylorize the teaching profession?

I once worked at a technical support call center where the management, at the urging of Accenture, switched from actual technical support to the use of scripts. The purpose was to dumb down the jobs so that they could be done by people with no actual experience who then would be paid near-minimum wage.

I've heard this question many times recently, and it's a good one. But there is no reason why national curriculum standards would have to entail a loss of creativity for teachers. The focus of standards should be on what skills students of various ages should have and on what basic facts they should know -- not on the pedagogical techniques used to teach those skills and facts.

For example, this past December, I spent a week in Finland, learning about that nation's education system, which the OECD ranks as the best in the world. Like almost every developed nation other than than the United States, Finland has a national curriculum. Here is an excerpt from that document, explaining the objectives for 5th and 6th grade history:

The pupils will:

  • come to understand that historical information consists of the interpretations of historians, which may change as new sources or method of examination emerge
  • come to understand various ways of dividing history into eras; they will use the concepts of prehistory; history, antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the modern era correctly
  • learn to recognize changes in the history of their own families or home region, and to depict changes, such as the birth of farming, that are seen as having had a fundamental impact on human life
  • learn to identify the continuity of history with the aid of examples
  • learn to present reasons for historical changes

To my eyes, these objectives actually encourage teacher creativity, not stymie it. There is no "script" here that teachers must follow, and no reading list. Indeed, the opposite is true; there is no enforcement mechanism used by the Finnish government to make sure that local schools are following these guidelines. Teachers and schools simply expect to be told what students should know. And the content standards aren't much more controversial than these "objectives." They include the following: ancient Greece and Rome, Finland under Swedish rule, the French Revolution, review of advanced cultures outside of Europe, and the evolution of trade.

cross-posted at TAPPED


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You have a good point that standards can be clear yet open enough to allow for flexibility and creativity by teachers (and students) in meeting those standards - flexibility that is necessary if schools are to nurture young people's individuality and help teachers continue to be excited about teaching.

But I hesitate when it comes to how those standards are used. Do they set the stage for high-stakes standardized assessments that necessarily defeat any hope for creativity and flexibility? I am wary that those assessment practices are at the root of many who favor national standards. Their goal seems to be to determine quick ways to say who is learning and who is not. Yet young people (indeed all people) are much more than a score on a test, and indeed such tests and the standardization and stress that goes along with them alienate young people, turn them off from learning, and lead many to drop-out of school. Assessment can be much more individualized and used as a tool rather than linked to high-stakes consequences.

To me this means that any approval of standards must not only be open and flexible (a la Finland's which you mention, or even more focused on qualities and skills and less on specific facts), but just as importantly standards must be understood as guides for teachers and students and not used for the high-stakes determination of a student's worth or a teacher's quality.

(I know the current trend towards greater teacher quality would dismiss my comments. On the contrary, I agree that teacher quality needs to be considered more highly. But instead of using tests to assess that, I'd suggest using student and fellow teacher surveys, observations, and discussions among students, teachers, and administration to determine whether teachers respect young people, inspire them, and are supportive of their learning).

To summarize: standards in and of themselves are beneficial, provided they recommend a focus on the most important qualities and skills we wish to develop in our citizens. But the minute they are tied to mandated assessments and high-stakes accountability, they get distorted and become instruments that damage young people, teachers, and the quality of our schools.

Dear Dr. Bennis,
I kindly ask you for a simple information:
whatis is finnish word for curriculum in official Finnish documents?
Sincerely, Vladimir Paar

P.S. An interesting model of connection national education standards - national curriculum you can find in Austria

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