Standardization and Schooling

As mass schooling became the norm across the world, certain structures arose (and continue to this day) that we can readily recognize as characteristics of schools. Many of them are so universal that we now think all schools must have them in order to be schools. This video from Reuters shows the incredible similarity of classrooms around the world. The differences are equally interesting and fun too. Some of the more fixed structures have come to typify what some call the factory model of schools. Classes are of a fixed time, in a fixed classroom space, and the time to transit from one to another is signaled by a bell (or, at ASH, what I like to call “the fog horn.”) The day is usually divided into four or eight periods, just as factory work was divided into shifts.

Curriculum is also supposed to be standardized, with objectives driven by some governing authority or ministry of education. In many countries, this is set by a national authority, whereas in others, such as the US and Canada, this is regional. There are thus, in effect, 50 different curricula in the US, one for each state, but in general, courses are organized around the three Rs, plus a few others, and sequenced according to student age relative to the starting age of the school. The grading system, too, is thought to be standardized, following the A B C D F model first established in the late 1880s, though the numbers that correspond to the letters differ widely. We will hear more about grades and grading in a future blog entry.

All of this standardization, which was very much a sign of the times in the early industrial revolution, was designed to prepare students for the growing job market in industrialization. It was also a way to cope with a student population that was growing at a rate that outstripped the growth rate of the number of teachers. Grading by shorthand and quick, multiple-choice methods was much easier than considering student work carefully and giving careful feedback. Over time, students (and parents, once giving information to parents also became the norm) started using many of these shorthand methods to think and talk about themselves as well. Likewise, standardizing the content of courses was easier than seeking out and depending on the expertise of teachers.

The reality is there is great variability in all these aspects of schooling. Just like in the video of classrooms around the world, the similarities are no more remarkable than the differences between them. Schedules are slightly different, courses are arranged differently, and grades mean different things depending on the school employing all of these. It is in these differences that schools distinguish themselves, and the same is true for students. In future blog entries, we will explore how standardized systems of education globally may mask what is truly needed for people to be successful in work and in life. As we continue to see a rise in student anxiety and stress, much of it driven by the pressure to conform to these standardized models, we should be asking ourselves if we might be overlooking some key measures of success. In so doing, perhaps we are also overlooking those special differences that make our children precious and unique.

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We are determined to create a school where everyone is confident and able to take control of their own learning, and the world is our classroom.