In my previous post I briefly referenced this transcript of a talk at Harvard by Alfie Kohn: The Deadly Effects of Tougher Standards. I’m a big fan of Kohn and thought this piece was superb a powerful counterblast to the sheer idiocy of the so-called “standards raising” that has been promulgated in the education sector. And I see the same toxic thinking undermining intelligent learning in corporates too.

Kohn kicks off by describing this experiment.

The teachers were divided into two groups. Those in the first were told, “You are going to be held accountable for raising standards; specifically, we expect that your students will be able to do well on a test on this material.” And the second group of teachers were told, “See if you can facilitate your kids’ understanding of this task.” The task was identical in both. All the teachers were then “set free” to teach the kids, and then all the kids were tested.

It was a fairly conventional task test. Nevertheless, the results showed markedly inferior performance for the kids who had been taught under the standards and accountability condition. On bottom line measures of quality, standards and accountability, as a framework in which to teach, led to learning that was not as effective. Why?

He goes on to explore a series of reasons: how standardised testing emasculates teachers, turning them into drill-sergeants; how it destroys the most powerful motivator for students; and how it binds students’ egos to performance instead of learning. Kohn suggests that falling standards in education are the result of the standards-raising bandwagon. The cure is worse than the disease!

He makes an elegant contrast between what he calls horizontal and vertical standards. Horizontal standards are about encouraging curiosity about, and engagement with (not obedience to!) leading edge thinking about the learning process. Vertical standards are basically command-and-control:

The notion of accountability, in theory, doesn’t disturb me. But these days, accountability has come to be a code word for more control over what happens in classrooms by people who are not in classrooms. And it has approximately the same effect on learning that a noose has on breathing. Not just because of the content of the reform, but the way it’s done. It’s based on a psychologically naive set of assumptions about human motivation and psychology, and the assumption that some combination of carrots and sticks, incentives and threats, will simply compel people to do what is right, despite the fact that an enormous collection of evidence suggests that people do not tend to respond well, especially on meaningful tasks, to threats and fear.

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