Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Teaching to Standards

Tim Fredrick's ELA Teaching Blog has an excellent post about classroom teachers who are hung up on teaching to standards (or feel they're forced into it)--to the point that they hang up the list of have-to-do's on the classroom wall and check them off throughout the year. Every kid has to read 25 books, period (even if 3 books might be a more appropriate goal for a slow reader). Every kid has to do so-many so-long writing assignments. And the bigger problem: who sets these standards? As Tim Fredrick points out, it's not usually the parents, teachers or local community. More and more, these decisions are centralized and made by people who don't know the students and who may be bureaucrats but not actually educators. (For those of us in Ontario, "standards" are just another word for something like the Ontario Common Curriculum. Third graders study such and such, fourth graders have to be able to do this and that.)

But don't gloat, homeschoolers. As I commented on Tim's blog, being enslaved to standards is not unique to classroom teachers. Homeschoolers can be caught up in school standards because of state or provincial education laws that require this subject, that book, this skill. Or they can put themselves there by following curriculum (any curriculum, from provincial guidelines to Ambleside Online) slavishly. There are homeschoolers who worry if every last exercise in the workbook isn't done (and figure they've covered everything as long as the book is completed). Some homeschoolers knock themselves out or empty their wallets trying to get one particular book, or they keep on buying gimmick after gizmo in hopes that they'll cover everything. And that's the point I'm trying to get back to: cover "everything." Teachers with standards on the wall are trying to cover everything that some bureaucrat has demanded. Homeschoolers squeezing two years of a curriculum into one (so their kids won't get "behind") are trying to cover more than everything.

The truth is that nobody can do everything, and that learning is a lifelong process. Setting goals and celebrating achievements is good; collecting assignments and checking off pages just so you can say you've "done it" is not. Ruth Beechick's book Heart and Mind: What the Bible Says About Learning (previously published as A Biblical Psychology of Learning) makes this point, after explaining a possible model of learning with arrows going in different directions:
But these ladders [arrows] are not meant to propose that we can do a great deal about setting learning in a linear sequence for our students. The ladders are simply insets taken from the total learning model, and if we look closely at the model we will see thousands of these ladders reaching in all sorts of directions, climbing on numerous levels all at once.

Try, for instance, to imagine a child learning the word Jerusalem. When he first meets it, it is likely to mean only a place--perhaps the place where Joseph and Mary brought baby Jesus to the temple. And of course the child has nothing like his teacher's idea of Jerusalem in his mind at such a time. It may mean almost nothing to him, but he does hear the word. As time goes on he learns more about Jerusalem: it has a temple in it, walls around it. His concept of city is also growing and he can begin to picture a city of Jerusalem....All through his growing years (which may be his whole life) he gains a continually richer meaning for the word Jerusalem....At what point will we say a student has "mastered" Jerusalem and is ready to go on to the next item?....In setting out curriculum content we make considered judgments about such things, and we keep our classes moving along in a general way. But individual students are bursting out all the seams. They do not stay in line. --Ruth Beechick, book above, pages 75-76
Bursting out all the seams--we're people, not standards on a wall. Celebrate it.


Anonymous said...

I hear what you're saying, but as a Waldorf-inspired homeschooler, I find my curriculum ladders pretty valuable. I have absolutely no plan to teach *everything*--that's impossible. And threads often pop up on the homeschooling boards that I'm on about "gaps" in education, as if there can be such a thing. OK, I'm not teaching about the Peloponnesian War, but if I want to learn about them, I can.

What I want to teach my kids is not just the curriculum I've chosen, but that when they have other interests, how to pursue them. We learn about how to look things up, how to be excited about a project, how to really get lost in learning. And that's not something that can be standardized, nor is it something that one curriculum can claim to do better than another. It's just an attitude towards learning.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! The thing to get homeschoolers to understand is that the list of standards is merely a tool, not the education itself.


Char Paul said...

as an online tutor and 'sometimes teachers' i value the use of standards a basic guide to socialisation.

the skills needed to navigate our western industrialised and technologic enviornments are unique to our culture. however, it would be lax to provide access only to western ways of thinking and values. there are many ways of seeing the world and of expereincing the self.

support for ongoing learning and devlopment of teachers, students, homeschoolers etc could enable more flexibility as to the choice of content to meet goals (standards).