It's exam season, so naturally I've been thinking about testing again. And, having thought about that, I quickly move on to thinking about standards in education. Our current testing model is so bad that I think I can do away with it in one paragraph and then move on. Ready?
There are facts and skills that students need to know. To prove it, you need to apply some sort of test. The best way to do this is through constant, low-stress evaluations on each concept, providing instant feedback, and letting students work through concepts until they master them. Once mastered, student A should be able to move on, even if student B is still struggling. In a paper classroom with a 30:1 teacher ratio this is beyond impossible, so we do large, infrequent, all-or-nothing tests. If a student fails, there's little time to do any meaningful remedial work. Fortunately, we now have the technology to implement the best solution rather than be stuck with the old one. There are no good reasons to do things the old way anymore.
Okay, that's done. On to standards. Should some things be standardized in education? Sure. There are some basic elements around language and math literacy, as well as a common moral and legal framework that can and probably should be standardized, at least at the state or provincial level. Some skills and facts are basically non-negotiable if you want to produce a functioning member of society. But as we can easily demonstrate by showing a quadratic equation to your average wealthy adult, the bar here is really pretty low. You could probably teach all the really core facts to a class of teenagers in a few months. So what do we do with the remaining 12.5 years of K-12?
Given the half-life of most facts and skills in today's world, it seems like wasted effort to spend too much time on the micro level. People need to know how to learn for themselves, because they're going to need to keep doing it for their entire lives, long after they've left the classroom for good. What's more, the amount of information out there, even today, is vastly more than anyone could cram into their heads. Teaching facts for the sake of it is a mug's game, and will only become more so as we move along. Every adult should know that learning is their responsibility, one of the most important and rewarding responsibilities they will have in their lives, and that they can master the tools necessary to do it. If we could give that to a generation of young people, it would be one of the biggest wins in history.
So, in order to learn how to learn, you need to apply the techniques by learning something - some practical fact or skill, be it useful, necessary or just interesting. If I'm learning how to research and verify information on the Internet, what should I look up? Who cares? Something you're interested in. Something exciting. Maybe one student researches the origins of Jazz and another the end of the Roman Empire. There's no need for the subject to be uniform, and no one is going to learn even a fraction of what's out there, so why not let the student's interests be the guide?
I think I could write a complete list of learning objectives for K-12 in far fewer words than this article uses. The list of stuff you need to learn before you enter the world is remarkably short, and the skills can be described in a small number of words. The great thing about our current educational structure is how much time we have to put those skills into practice in a safe environment. When we created public education, we inadvertently did something really great - we set aside a huge chunk of human life and said, "Your job is to learn, and dream, and see what your mind can do." Now it's time to make good on that promise. I think we need fewer standards, better standards, and more time to master them.