Education Reform

SomeDAM Poet: Education Needs Variation, Not Standardization

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Those who seek to apply business thinking to education make a huge error. SomeDAM Poet, a regular commenter, cites the work of the brilliant education scholar Yong Zhao, who has consistently argued that progress and creativity rely on diversity, not standardization. This is, for example, a fundamental flaw of the Common Core, which claims without evidence that the imposition of national standards for teaching, testing, teacher education, and curriculum will lead to vast improvements. Predictably, over a decade, it has failed to produce what was promised.

Bill Gates saw the Common Core standards, which he funded in their entirety, as necessary and beneficial standardization that would transform education. In 2014, he told a conference of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards that teachers should defend the Common Core.

He said:

“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

If students and teachers were toasters, he would be right.

SomeDAM Poet explained why standardization is wrong in these comments on the blog:

The error that the “education as a business” proponents make is in assuming that “standardizing” the process necessarily leads to higher quality output.

For a manufacturing process, that is actually true: the greater the standardization and control over the process, the lower the defect rate.

But, of course, the error is in assuming that an idea developed for manufacturing applies to education, where the goal is entirely different.

In manufacturing, the goal is to eliminate as much variation as possible and the best way of doing that is to carefully control the process.

With education, the goal should certainly not be elimination of variation, since that is the source of all creative thinking, which is more important today than it ever had been.

Yong Zhao has pointed this out many times, but of course, the billionaires, politicians and other widget manufacturers never listen to people who actually know what they are talking about.

Even in business, it is the “outliers” (Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and others) who drive change with new ideas.

It is only after the fact — after a new idea for a product like a smartphone or electric car has been proposed — that the mindless manufacturing focus on reducing defects goes into effect .

Evolution works this way as well. Random mutations sometimes produce characteristics that make an organism better adapted to its environment and it is only after the initiall change that the process settles down into a new stable state.

If all variation were rejected without regard for whether it makes an organism better adapted, there would be no evolution and hence no development of higher life forms.

The reason that standardization works well for manufacturing is that manufactured parts do only one thing and often have to fit together with other parts. For such a case , it is advantageous to eliminate as much variation as possible.

But what should be obvious is that humans don’t just do one thing, so the idea that one should apply a manufacturing model to education is just ridiculous.

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