Programming Our Students: Standards-based teaching as dehumanizing

Yesterday I saw a presentation by Anne Weerda about measuring how much students learn while they are enrolled in our classes (“student growth” will soon be part of teacher evaluations in my state). This presentation was thorough and systematic in a way that many presentations I’ve seen about standards-based teaching and testing have not been.

As I engaged with this presentation, I started to see the “big picture” values and assumptions of standards-based teaching, a particular philosophy of and approach to school reform that that has been ascendant during the last 20 years or so of school reform. Standards-based teaching can be summarized as:

1. Telling students in great detail what they should be doing.

2. Seeing if they do it.

Of course, there are more-complicated ways of saying this, such as this from an introduction to the national Common Core standards:

the Common Core State Standards establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade.

And there’s this statement:

Standards-based schools develop clear rubrics that describe what partially meeting a standard looks like, what mostly meeting it looks like, and what actually meeting it (the goal, after all) looks like. Any student should be able to meet that goal with enough time, hard work, and coaching.

A there’s this definition, from this document from Illinois State Board of Education:

It is widely understood today that broad goals, while useful, are not sufficient to define student learning. Clear and specific standards communicate to students, teachers and parents exactly what is expected for students to learn. Specific standards make clear the types of tests and measures that accurately gauge student progress. Data from these tests inform educators and the public about student progress and where improvements are needed.

The epiphany that came to me yesterday is that this is only one system (among others) of teaching, and that this approach requires students to do exactly what, and only what, the teachers ask for. For example, if I want my literature students to read a novel and respond by writing an essay about the theme of that novel, the student must write an essay, and write it according to my specifications. Of course, in reality, there are lots of ways that a student might respond to a novel: she might write a different kind of essay, or she might respond with a poem, or a painting, or she might not feel moved to respond at all. Furthermore, when I teach creative writing, I give not detailed instructions but vague requirements. I don’t want students to give me what I expect — I want them to surprise me.

In work that is truly creative, the whole point is to question assumptions and standards and to go beyond them.

Sure, there are times when I do want my students to be able to do well-defined tasks. In my sophomore English class, we’re currently writing research papers, and this is a fairly rote, mechanical process that students will be expected to do in future classes and in some careers. When I assign students to write projects like this, I give them outlines to fill in and model papers to follow. In other words, producing this kind of work is less like open-ended writing and more like fill-in-the-blank work.

It occurred to me yesterday that I could be giving students even more explicit instructions about what I expect them to do, in the form of a rubric. In attempting to measure student growth, it is desirable for grading of student work to be reliable, meaning repeatable. Ideally, when a rubric is used to assess student work, the teacher using the rubric should apply it the same way over time to every student’s work, and even different teachers using the same rubric should apply it in the same way. This means “rubrics must be created and implemented so that the grader(s) have very specific understandings of what each level of the rubric means.

As I thought about what my “very specific” essay-grading rubric would look like, I realized that it would essentially be an algorithm, which could be written as a computer program. If a rubric is to be independent of the particular teacher using it, then it cannot require any subjective judgments, which means that it would be objective and could thus be computerized. Computers are already grading essays, although there is the problem that computers can’t check for lying, so a human mind may still be needed for language interpreting.

So a computer could be used to grade an essay, as long as the essay fits the particular form the computer expects. (Computers process information quickly, but they need information to be input within a narrow range.) And students will be writing essays to these narrow, particular forms, if we explicitly tell them what to do via our standards.

In other words, when we explicitly define the tasks that students are supposed to do, we are, in essence, writing programs that we expect them to follow. Standards are programs we expect students to run.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that we, as a society, have ended up here. I’m reminded of an idea I heard long ago, that people shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Once we started programming machines to do work for us, maybe we started thinking that we could program our students in a similar way. If we can break down complex tasks into simple, well-defined tasks, anybody and everybody can do them.

The problem with this as a model for education is that we don’t need to make our students into computers. We already have computers that are much faster and reliable at carrying out well-defined tasks than humans are. Many jobs that can be automated are in danger of being automated, which seems to suggest that we should educate our students to do those things that computers can’t do — create new ideas and things, solve new problems, and, just maybe, see ourselves as beings who are more than what we can contribute economically.

What my insight yesterday reminded me was that there are always other philosophical systems that are alternatives to the currently popular system. While I am required by state law and supervisor directive to run my classroom within the dictates of the standards approach, I can reassure myself by remembering that there are always alternatives. Just because one idea is widely shared doesn’t make it permanent, or even correct. I sometimes feel trapped within the idea of standards, that somehow the only philosophy in education is standards. But then I thought of standards-philosophy as not being the whole world, but merely being a house in which I currently reside, and that I can lift up the curtain and see that there’s a whole world of different philosophies outside.

No philosophy is perfect. One of the problems of standards-based teaching is that of student motivation. Why, exactly, would students care about completing my standards-based assignment-programs? Computers don’t need to be motivated; they have no emotions or desires or biological limits to carrying out programs. People, on the other hand, want to know why they are doing what they are doing. (And here’s at least one place where people can’t be replaced with computers: some people find that having a teacher to answer to in person motivates them better than having a teacher available only online.) The Common Core standards hold out as motivation a promise of adequately guiding students to employment, which is, of course, arrogant bullshit.

What the standards overlook is a fundamental difference between humans and computers — that humans are curious, that we enjoy things, that we can be self-motivated to pursue our interests and passions. These things — curiosity, enjoyment, passion — are things that teachers can inspire in our students, but these are not things that can be standardized or predicted. (Perhaps the standards not only treat the students like computers, but also the teachers as interchangeable machines.)

And, of course, what I love doing (and perhaps was inspired by my teachers to do?) is having new insights, experiencing epiphanies, revealing connections, analogies, and metaphors. This creativity is not something that any set of standards can demand or measure, but this is partly why I’m a teacher, and it’s one of the things I’d hope my students get from me: the ability to think for themselves, to seek their own philosophical understandings, and to realize that they are more than merely computers or employees.

P.S.: I don’t mean to criticize the presentation I saw yesterday. Anne Weerda did a fine job of explicating what, given the assumptions and philosophy of standards-based teaching, the implications and consequences for teaching and testing would be. Seeing this presentation made clear to me some of the assumptions and values of this philosophical approach.

One response to “Programming Our Students: Standards-based teaching as dehumanizing

  1. Reblogged this on logging entries in my life and commented:
    I really think he’s onto something here….

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