“Standard” is a tricky word. It has its origins in the military banners carried during the Middle Ages by assorted armies tramping round Europe killing each other. I’m not going to draw any modern day conclusions from that: I find that whole “did you know that x actually means…” academic point-scoring thing a bit annoying, but it’s an interesting little nugget of information, no? But for the sake of the post we do need an actual definition, so I’m going to go for “a set of (formally) accepted practices within a given area of knowledge.”
I encounter standards in a number of aspects of my work. In a subject specialist sense there is the debate about language standards, which I blogged about before, and by and large, boils down to whether or not the writer is an old (small- or capital-c) conservative with confused ideas about right and wrong, or whether they are a sane human being who recognises that language is a complex and continually changing system. But for now, I’m not going back there.
No, the standards with which I am concerned here are the standards of teaching and learning which I encounter when I am developing both myself and others as teachers, and as a teacher trainer.
Now, it’s been a year or so, but let me return, to bread making. You may or may not have heard of the Chorleywood process. In a nutshell, it’s a mass production method which makes bread to a particular standard using ingredients that would otherwise not create bread to that standard. (There’s some science stuff here about protein and things, but that’s not really the point.) It’s the process which ensures that flour and bread producers get more bang for their buck in spite of variations of quality of flour and so on and that you and I can buy a sliced loaf and be sure that it will taste and feel the same as the loaf next to it.
This is no bad thing. No-one wants to spend their hard-earned cash on a loaf of bread which gets thrown in the bin because it tastes bad, do they?
So let’s return this to teaching and learning. I teach trainees on the CELTA course – a fine course which, with its Trinity College London sister, has birthed many great teachers and trainers, including this one. Without it the world would be a poorer place. This course has a pretty straight set of standards, and the nature of the course (full time intensive, part time balanced with “life”) means that in the 120 hours or so of course time, you don’t get a lot of time for anything other than “standard”. So you get an awful lot of Chorleywood lessons – lessons which meet the criteria, because, simply, they contain the correct ingredients put together in the appropriate way. I don’t mean this dismissively to trainees either, it’s a pretty full-on learning curve, and to hit those standards is one hell of an achievement. I was definitely (indeed barely) a Chorleywood teacher when I first started. Standards on any teacher training course have much the same effect – include the correct standard elements in the correct order, know what you are talking about, and hey presto, Chorleywood teaching and learning. Indeed, if we are talking teaching standards, then we need only raise the spectre of an inspectorate to wonder if there are parallel issues there.
The thing is, when I first came up with the analogy of the Chorleywood process I was being critical. After all, people place more value on handmade artisan breads, are willing to pay more, for something which, given the processes involved, has a higher risk of being a bit pants. Why? Because we trust the baker, we trust that they have the knowledge and the experience and the skills to put together a loaf of bread using a sourdough starter which has been going for 120 years (apparently not unknown). We value it because is likely to be tastier, more complex and interesting than the cheap white plastic wrapped pap that you can buy for less than a quid. So it goes with teaching, I wanted to argue. Do we want standardised, strictly quality controlled plastic-wrapped safe pap delivered by a barely trained teenager in our lessons, or do we want bespoke, handcrafted teaching and learning which has been carefully put together by a professional?
Except, thinking about it, this struck me as a bit of unfair distinction. Surely the white bread and the £10 sourdough loaf both do the same job equally well – your stomach is equally full after a cheese sandwich made with either type of bread. In that sense, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a loaf of Tesco Value bread. Indeed, there is something special about white bread when making chip butties or a hangover-killing bacon sandwich. In many situations (especially the hangover) the last thing you want to do is bake a loaf of bread for the rather prosiac purposes of holding together several rashers of bacon and ketchup/brown sauce. Certainly a £10 organic sourdough rye bread isn’t going to improve that feeling. So sometimes, flat, tasteless standardised stuff is great. As much as I love my home-made loaves, there are times I couldn’t care too much either.
Does the same hold for teaching and learning? Well, yes, sort of. To stretch the metaphor, the smartprice-value-brand white fluff is your average lesson. Yes, you (the learner) get something from it, it does what it was meant to do. It’ll do. Sometimes, it’s actually what you want. As a learner I have had day a, indeed, quite a few days, where all I want is for someone to talk at me for two hours, and I don’t want to or care to engage with the active learning, thanks, I don’t want to answer your carefully planned questions, and I’m all reflected out (hangovers may also be involved here, as well). I am, by and large, a nice, well behaved and usually positive learner, but sometimes you, the teacher, could be astonishingly engaging and funny and creative and have all sorts of fun stuff going on, and all I am going to do is clock watch. Sometimes there is nothing in the world which will get me out of that frame of mind. So give me white bread, why not?
Then there is your slightly less pappy, sliced wholemeal lesson. Again, it does the job, but does it better. The learner engages with the lesson because it’s got depth and complexity, there’s a bit of challenge, some mental “hooks” on which to hang their learning. Neither of these, of course, compare to the handcrafted glory of the sourdough rye bread lesson, not so much crafted as organically grown. Every moment, every minute is engaging and interesting and makes you want more of it. This is the lesson to aspire to, to long for, but if the learner has got a hangover, well…
Switching focus back to the teacher now, sometimes, when aiming to get sourdough starter, you get a nasty acidic yuk which needs to be thrown away. Or you bake a loaf and for some mysterious, random reason, it comes out more like a pancake than the light fluffy loaf you set out to make. Put simply, there are variables in both bread making and teaching & learning which can’t always be controlled. Sometimes you teach a lesson which is elegant and perfect in every way, yet you would struggle to recreate that lesson ever again, because of the huge number of variables (also known as “students”) in the class. Sometimes an activity works beautifully on Monday morning but flops on Tuesday. Standards, like the Chorleywood process, are there to minimise this risk, but with the imposition of standards comes the risk of fluffy homogeneity. Yes, the learners are getting the same, but, that is also the problem: they are just getting the same. Sameness isn’t always equivalent to quality.
Standards, then, are a bit of a double-edged sword. Yes, they promote lots and lots of good things, and without them lots of things would be bloody awful. Standards are fantastic for industrialised processes and products. Standardised bicycle parts and engine components: Standard widths for domestic pipes. Standardised plug sockets. USB. Apple users with non-Apple using family members will understand this every time they open the drawer where the chargers are kept. (Douglas Adams summed this up rather neatly here.) Bread would fluctuate wildly and be much more expensive for the most part, and lessons would be taught by people doing it all sorts of different ways, with varying degrees of success. Instead we have reliable bread and a fairly reliable set of teachers doing things in a fairly reliable, predictable manner, which ensures that children, young people and adults get a particular quality of teaching and learning. One assumes.
However, what if the standards only represent one way of doing things, rather than the best way of doing things? Standards, like the language standards I talked about at the top, represent not necessarily the best practice, but rather a possible best practice. Is a standardised, quality assured lesson simply an arbitrary, socially and politically preferred version of teaching in the same way that Standard English is an arbitrary, socially and politically preferred version of speaking English? Is a standardised lesson simply a lesson which is more generally acceptable, and less likely to go wrong?
I don’t think it’s an easy question to answer, and I don’t think I even set out to answer it. But it’s a good question to ask.