Unstandardized benefits

Every educational organization falls in love with developing standards for learning outcomes at one time or another. We fuss over learning outcomes like mental products that can be documented and measured across classes, instructors, programs, and institutions. At its core, standardization is a reductionist approach to the craft of education.

The push always comes with the best of intentions; the good intentions tends to block out examination of the costs of standardized instruction. The common arguments against standardizing teaching are the bureaucratic overhead and that standardization means losing any flexibility to meet students’ needs.

I think there’s a hidden, deeper cost. Standardized approaches to developing skills and building knowledge means giving up specialization and unique experiences. No specialization for an instructor’s natural strengths, for regional interests, for the unexpected interests of a class. I know of a psychology professor who spends 3 weeks on the topic of sleep in his introductory to psychology class, a topic that usually makes up only a portion of one chapter. He’s a sleep expert, so he can connect it to many topics and delve deeply. I suspect his students are lucky to have that unique experience. But ... it’s non-standard. Other topics are swept aside or will be at least greatly minimized in order to provide that emphasis. Our own inventiveness gets set aside.

If a student wanted 120 credit hours of mathematics instead of General Education, what’s the harm? —Sam Pickering, 2007

Strangely, as a society we perceive greatness in a motley crew. We flock to superhero movies to watch individuals of mixed talents and skills form alliances to solve problems; this inspires us. No one looks to the cloned Stormtroopers and says, “now there’s an exciting collective of achievers.” Instead, we want Jedi and rag-tag rebels. This appeal may highlight an underlying truth: instructional diversity leads to group adaptability, even when applied to knowledge and skills.