Variation–It Belongs in Schools

The last generation of educators have been focused on standards. We fuss and fret over what it is students are supposed to know and we obsess over the dubious data we are given to indicate the degree to which students are or are not learning it.

Standards were originally proposed as a strategy for ensuring a high quality education for all—remember when we were going to leave no child behind?—I expect many educators would concur with my assessment that standard-based education has come to mean “the same for all” rather than “high quality.” Whether that was the original intent of the politicians who devised this brand of education and those who have continued it in the decades since will likely never be known, but it is time to recognize it is contrary to what students and society needs.

My original field of study was biology—at least in part as I wanted to be a science teacher—and one inescapable lesson that one learns form studying biology is that life varies. We look at a field of wildflowers and we see each species is different from the others, but that even within the individuals of a species, there is variation. Essentialism is the philosophical approach is which one tries to identify the “essence” of phenomena; this comprises the irreducible characters that remain when the variation of individual cases is removed. Stephen Jay Gould, the late evolutionary biologist, observed “variation itself is nature’s only irreducible essence.” For Gould, when one tries to remove the variation form the living things, they, they are removing the essence of what they study.

I am convinced after seeing the standardization of teaching for two decades that when we take the variety out of the classroom, we have removed the essence of cognition. Consider these aspects what we do:

  • There is no single type of activity that we can call learning. When we “learn” we become more capable of doing many things; sometimes those capabilities emerge from processes inside our brains, sometimes from our bodies, often from both brains and bodies, and often they are different depending on the other brains around us. There is no “essence” of learning except in the variety of changes in what we do and the meaning we make.
  • There is no single type of activity that we call teaching. Educative experiences—those that result in students learning—depend on many aspects of the students, the teacher, and the curriculum. Depending on what we intend students to learn, we will vary what we do. Any teacher who adopts w single approach to every lesson is likely developing a single type of knowledge; in my experience, those teachers are teaching “about” the subject and the students will be unable to make any use of the curriculum elsewhere.
  • There is no single type of student. They all arrive with different individual and cultural experiences (which matter in how they will learn), motivations and interests, and other factors that affect attention, perception, memory, and other aspects of learning. While we like to think of “grade level” as the essence of the students we teach, they students are removed in that reduction.
  • There is no essential curriculum. Human knowledge is variable, especially when we realize the silos into which we divide school curriculum are imposed for our convenience and do not actually reflect how problems are instantiated in the real world.

It is tempting to think we can look to what happens in “nature” to decide what we should do and how we should do it. When we consider social phenomena such as teaching, it is tempting to look to primitive cultures to see how they “teach.” Indeed, that is a rich research area and the findings are worth our attention. I am currently finishing Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday which explores a number of societal themes. The one thing that comes through clearly in Diamond’s book is that how societies deal with (for example) children varies.