Standardized Costs & Unstandardized Benefits

Every educational organization falls in love with developing standards for processes or products 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. Standardization is a reductionist approach to the craft of education at the core.

The push always comes with the best of intentions; the good intentions tends to block out examination of the costs of standardized learning. The common arguments against standardizing education 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 in our students 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. Another example, from Sam Pickering (2007): If a student wanted 120 credit hours of mathematics instead of General Education, what’s the harm?

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.

Besides losing unique student experiences, we may lose what is most special about teaching as a craft: our own inventiveness. In a time of limited resources, strict homogeny in our approach means what we have is tied to upholding standards. We need to be adapting what resources we have creatively, using those unique talents and abilities no one else can perfectly recreate.

Our country needs plenty of adaptability and diversity, and a reliance on programmatic outcomes may cost us the variability in depth and specialization that students need to be ready for whatever their future holds.

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