The Tyranny of Outcomes-Based and Standardized Criteria for Curricula and Research
Each spring, when I was in elementary school, our teachers would invite our parents into the classroom to watch a lesson. We were prepped, of course, and we knew the general outline of what was expected. One year we were primed to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” On the day, in question, while most of my peers responded with the typical status focused answers of doctor, lawyer, fireperson, performer, politician, nurse and clergy, I answered, “I want to write an award winning book on playbuilding as a research methodology and invent a new research methodology called duoethnography.” I was immediately dismissed from the class as being belligerent. I did not follow the prescribed script.
I now invite you to use the above allegory to trace your own career. What were your early plans? What life eddies changed them? In hindsight, were some of your stumbling blocks later redefined as steppingstones; were some of the steppingstones at the time later reconceptualized as misleads? How closely do you try to follow your plans or how open are you to changes that suggest a better route and/or destination?
If I were to assess myself according to my actual early plan, I would have to attest that I am a total failure. My plan was to be the high school drama teacher at my alma mater, St. Patrick’s High School in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As ludicrous as labeling my live as a failure may seem, a strict adherence in determining anything as a success and failure by prescribed standardized outcomes is equally so. Plans change, and as Barbarossa said about rules in The Pirates of Caribbean, “They are more like guidelines.” If plans change, so, too, must outcomes and often there are a variety of outcomes to a single action. A career change may result in a positive or negative relationship change and an educational innovation could result in a both higher scores and a higher drop out rate. We must be cognizant of the numerous outcomes of a single act.
Joyce and Weil (1972) remind us there are no such things as side-effects; all are effects but we label those that we are not looking for “side-effects”. The multi-billon-dollar grossing drug Viagra was designed as a heart drug that did not meet expectations. Upon a closer examination of the data, the side-effect was later reclassified as the major effect/outcome. Post-it notes is an example of a failed outcome, a glue that didn’t stick. In this case, another purpose was found. Fleming’s drawings on agar plates eventually resulted in the discovery of penicillin (Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein, 2001). Cloke and Goldsmith (2002) report that “Research at the University of California at Berkeley regarding key insights that lead to successful scientific discoveries found in interviews with scientists that the main activity that seemed to influence successful results was play. The more these scientists were able to enjoy light, seemingly off-purpose games and activities while engaged in research, the greater were their successes at breakthrough discoveries” (p. 11). The story of research is not as linear as standardized lab reports suggest and to shackle research to a set of externally imposed outcomes is antithetical to its nature.
This is not to suggest that plans serve no purpose. Fleming was involved in research activities, Pfizer scientists were researching a heart medication and 3M had a goal to create another glue. My goal to be a drama teacher brought me on a circuitous route to Brock University. While, in each case, the outcomes themselves were not met, creating them served a purpose. Not meeting the outcome may be a good thing but determining one’s success by predetermined or standardized outcomes can be a form of self-induced or systemic tyranny.
The same can be said about with teaching and learning. Standardization is the enemy of creativity and innovation according to Ken Robinson (2006) and others. Low level learning on Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) can be standardized and measured but higher level learning is much more diverse and predetermined outcomes impossible. Standardized outcomes besides discouraging creative risks resulting in teaching to and learning for the test also create bad habits of the mind. The pursuit of knowledge comes to be regarded as merely the accumulation of already known facts. The unknown cannot be prescribed nor standardized.
While we may applaud diversity, outcomes dictate conformity. An adjudicator in Baz Luhrman’s allegory, Strictly Ballroom, vehemently claims that, “There will be no new steps”, in attempt to encourage a strict adherence to traditional standards. Harold Benjamin’s (1939) The Saber-tooth Curriculum clearly demonstrates the need for curriculum renewal that addresses changing times and student needs and interests. Ken Robinson’s (2006) TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity and the movie Flight of Dragons (Bass and Rankin Jr., 1982) claim that the future is always uncertain.
To design an educational system based upon the present, makes it out of date before it will ever be implemented. Our society requires diverse creative thinkers that adapt to change in order to survive, and while creative thinking can be a desired outcome, it is far too diverse to preordain. Standardized and prescriptive curricula reinforce a mode of thinking that will, over, time, erode the skills so necessary for our mutual survival. As Robinson (2006) claims, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. Standardizes tests and outcomes and the meritocracy (external reinforcement) associated with them, discourage risk taking. The effect of our educational system produces, to some degree, fearful automatons that are controlled by an amorphous ‘they’. In teaching first year students some of my colleagues and I try to reverse this trend and reteach our students to play, a skill so necessary to the creative act (Norris, 2012).
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s (2008) prophetic Frankenstein warns of creating an inhuman machine that may turn against us and the educational system of Bobbit and Charters (van Mannen, 1977), modeled after the Ford assembly line maybe such a machine. Yes, we want consistency in the quality of our vehicles (machines) but do we all want to drive the same car? To desire such conformity in ourselves is inorganic, inhumane, immoral and a crime against humanity. My colleagues south of the border attest to this. The No Child Left Behind Act has resulted in an attack on the poor and disheartened and/or corrupted many caring teachers and students according Nichols and Berliner (2008). Many students and researchers do not fit a narrow prescriptive mold, nor does innovation.
Theorists and researchers across disciplines (Aoki, 2005, Briggs-Myers, 1980, Eisner, 1985, Gardner, 1983, Gess-Newsome, 2002, Henderson, 2001, Maruyama, 1975 and Peattie, 1960, et al) over the past 35 years and more outline a variety of epistemological, ontological and axiological diversities in teaching and learning. Collectively, they articulate that there are many ways to process information and generate meaning. Flinders, Noddings and Thornton (1986) articulate instructional biases in teaching and learning labeling the implicit messages we send in the manner in which we teach as the hidden-curriculum and what don’t teach as the null-curriculum.
Standardized course outlines ignore the well-researched concept of pedagogical content knowledge. Best practices may do nothing more that reinforce current hegemonic beliefs and behaviours that reify a traditional past, ignoring democratic, cooperative problem based-learning lessons that tend to be uncertain and ‘messy’. They may do little in preparing our civilization for an uncertain future. Course evaluations and the desired outcomes themselves must be evaluated to determine the ideologies that their criteria reinforce and reward. To do less is to maintain an outdated and heavily biased educational system that privileges a few and disenfranchises the multiple sides of the brain.
The same can occur in the false assessment of research. It has only been in the past thirty-five years that qualitative research gained some form of credibility and respect in some circles. While Saks’ (1996) question, “Should novels count as dissertations in education?”, was promptly greeted by two of which I am aware, Dunlop (1999) and Sameshima (2006), gains have been slow. Acceptance of a variety of forms of research and scholarship by granting agencies, publishers and tenure and promotion committees is mixed, at best. I continually hear stories from my colleagues who report exclusionary practices for anything that does not resemble the norm. This reiteration of Kuhn’s (1962) revolution is still being waged with numerous casualties from standardized outcomes-based research criteria. The biggest casualty, however, is much more than the researchers themselves but the advancement of our civilization. I contest that we are ignoring much relevant data in the name of ac(count)ability.
Current trends in both teaching and research define knowledge in very narrow ways, ways that exclude many legitimate ways of learning, knowing and conducting research. My fear is that there will be many more with present governments’ myopic and outdated accountability criteria. My cynical side ponders, “Perhaps, it is not about what is worth learning but more about who decides what learning counts.” The issues facing us are more axiological than epistemological.
Now, I am not naïve enough to believe that all will agree with this blog in part nor in whole and I am certain that some may have stopped reading long before now. What I profess goes against current government and administrative policies that equate accountability with control and surveillance. Still, in conscience, I believe that I must take a stand, even if it is on one foot, as throw my wooden shoe (sabot) into the machine about which Shelly forewarned us. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”
Joe Norris, BUFA Health and Safety Officer
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