Why Standards-Based Education Often Fails Students

With its focus on a narrow, one dimensional performance, standards-based education not only misses the point, it compounds the mistakes of traditional education by discouraging and repelling those students who can’t relate. One explanation for this is that in its drive to be efficient, standards-based education often approaches students as if they all learn in the same way. This is true for both in-school and after school.

This creates a sort of psychological profiling and prejudice that can put students at risk because it doesn’t allow them to learn in the way that is natural for them. As a result, they’re denied the positive experiences they need to build their self-esteem. When we deny them the experience of what is positive within them, we diminish and even disable them: they have nowhere to go but to the negative.

Information Silos?

Standards-based education also puts students at risk by teaching them what to learn instead of how to learn, treating them more as silos for information than as dynamic organisms designed to be creative and to learn on their own. Suffocating this healthy dynamic and substituting information for knowledge deflates the creative process and disallows the opportunity for students to put the world together in a way that is meaningful and sensible to them. Instead, these students become anesthetized from verbosity and develop a narration-induced glaze.

A focus on imposed knowledge greatly minimizes students’ chances to develop into whole human beings. Imposed knowledge never becomes real knowledge; that can only come from within a person. By teaching primarily information, education can break the spirits of students who learn differently or have learning disabilities. To illustrate this, I would like to relate an experience I had early in my teaching career when presenting two very different students with a new piece of piano music.

Comparing Strengths-Based to Standards-Based

One of my after school music students was what we traditionally identify as a quick learner. As I gave him the parts to a song, he systematically put them together in good order and quickly accomplished the learning of the piece. The second student was not as quick to put the pieces together and would pause and sometimes seem to be out in space. He couldn’t make the connections as quickly and seemed to approach the piece with trial and error, initially content to explore it and not particularly concerned about playing it back perfectly.

This continued for a few lessons until I began to wonder if he was ever going to get it, but he then completely surprised me and taught me a most important lesson which has become an underpinning of my approach. Not only did he come to his lesson and play the entire piece of music with a depth that was very surprising, he played the piece more fully and creatively than the other student had. There was richness in the way his hands produced the sound, he was all there and hearing everything he was playing, and he could play variations that included louds, softs, and inflections that were not in what one might call the “better” student’s playing.

Spaciness … or Deep Listening?

I came to realize that the second student’s spaciness was not spaciness at all. He was listening at a deep level, allowing himself to give in to what he was hearing and then processing this information in his own way. He taught me how important it is to give students the ground to do this on their own and not impose upon them a uniform way of learning or expect that things should be learned in any one particular way. I also began to develop into a far more effective teacher as I learned to approach my students from the perspective of understanding the often subtle nuances of the ways they learned.

After school programs have more latitude in the ways they approach their students than schools do. They’re a great place to implement strengths-based teaching and mentoring to empower students to develop their talents so they can start to relate to their schooling and learn better during the day.