Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Standardization: it will fill you up but with nothing good

I know an awful lot of teachers who see consistency and standardization as a good thing.

It reminds me of the old sports joke where one spectator asks another "what did you think of the officiating?" and the other says "it was consistent... consistently awful... but it was consistent."

You can walk into a McDonald's anywhere in the world, order a meal and be "guaranteed" to get exactly what you expect... it will fill you up, but with nothing good. Sure, you could get by living off this standardized guarantee, but who would want to?

Sir Ken Robinson continues the fast-food metaphor for standardization in his book The Element:

Education is being strangled persistently by the culture of standardized testing. The irony is that these tests are not raising standards except in some very particular areas, and at the expense of most of what really matters in education. 
To get a perspective on this, compare the process of quality assurance in education with those in an entirely different field - catering. In the restaurant business, there are two distinct models of quality assurance. The first is the fast-food model. In this model, the quality of the food is guaranteed, because it's standardized. The fast-food chains specify exactly what should be on the menu in all of their outlets. They specify exactly what should be done in the burger or nuggets, the oil in which they should be fried, the exact bun in which they should be served, how the fries should be made, what should be in the drinks, and exactly how they should be served. They specify how the room should be decorated and what the staff should wear. Everything is standardized. It's often dreadful and bad for you. Some forms of fast food are contributing to the massive explosion of obesity and diabetes across the world. But at least the quality is guaranteed. 
The other model of quality assurance in catering is the Michelin guide. In this model, the guides establish specific criteria for excellence, but they do not say how the particular restaurants should meet these criteria. They don't say what should be on the menu, what the staff should wear, or how the rooms should be decorated. All of that is at the discretion of the individual restaurant to meet them in whatever way they see best. They are then judged not to some impersonal standard, but by the assessment of experts who know what they are looking for and what a great restaurant is actually like. The result is that every Michelin restaurant is terrific. And they are all unique and different from each other.
One of the essential problems for education is that most countries subject their schools to the fast-food model of quality assurance when they should be adopting the Michelin model instead. The future of education is not in standardizing but in customizing; not in promoting groupthink and "de-individuation" but in cultivating the real depth and dynamism of human abilities of every sort.
Just as standardization ensures that a real cook will never be employed by a fast-food chain, education reforms that mandate highly prescribed, content-bloated curriculums and standardized tests are working hard to ensure that real teachers need not work in schools again.


  1. Embracing the reality that differences are to be valued is not the norm in education. We do nearly everything to standardize what we offer and what we expect, but do close to nothing to make sure what we offer and what we expect is what's needed or desired to respond to differences and promote critical thinking and creativity.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog. I agree with the statements about standardize testing. I believe that we as parents and teachers can sometimes place out children in a box. This box is what society and other people believe they should be doing with themselves. Now is the time to let the children create and be themselves and not carbon copies of there neighbors.

  3. Great post Joe! That #aari cohort I joined spoke a lot about the dangers of relying on standardized testing...especially to overall literacy. Interesting, Alberta Ed. was the host. Times are a changing in Alberta.


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