Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Good vs. Uniform

There's an interesting and fairly well-balanced article in February's Forbes about Pearson, focusing on CEO John Fallon. "Everybody Hates Pearson" is worth a read, but I'm going to pull a pair of quotes from it today.

At one point, writer Jennifer Reingold says this about Fallon:

He emphasizes that the company’s goal is to help students succeed...

That's not entirely true. Part of Pearson's job as the international behemoth of education is to define what "succeed" means. Which is precisely why an international behemoth of education poses a danger to education. Earlier in the article, Reingold offers this quote:

“It doesn’t matter to us whether our customers are hundreds of thousands of individual students and their parents in China, or thousands of school districts in America,” says Fallon. “What we’re trying to do is the same thing—to help improve learning outcomes.”

There's your problem. If you're trying to do "the same thing," for a a student in the US and a student in China, and if "it doesn't matter" to you which is which, then something is wrong.

A Pearson fan is going to protest, "Well, not exactly the same thing. No, obviously not that." And I'm sure that Pearson makes sure to change the language of the test and adjust the price for the local currency. But if your focus is on a fundamental sameness, if you are looking to create a uniform approach to education that can be used all across the globe, then you're doing it wrong.

What we're talking about is uniformity, standardization-- and uniformity is the enemy of excellence.

Jack Teagarden, George Brunis, and J. J. Johnson were great jazz trombone players, and it takes me about two seconds of listening to a recording to know which one I'm hearing play, because they are completely different. All excellent. All different.

Now, I could say that they're all essentially doing the same thing-- playing jazz trombone. But as soon as I try to come up with an "objective" measure of good jazz trombone playing, one that would fit all three of them plus Miff Mole or Urbie Green or some guy in China that I don't even know about, I would choose one of two options.

A) Declare that one behavior is defined as success, in which case I could end up declaring that Teagarden is not a great jazz trombonist because he doesn't use Johnson's be-bop licks. Any system that calls Teagarden a failure as a jazz player is patently absurd.

B) Select a definition of success that includes only traits that all jazz trombonists share. Or to put it another way, come up with a definition of success that deliberately excludes all the traits that make particular jazz trombonists great. This is also deeply backwards.

Uniformity and standardization do not just fail to embrace excellence; they actively reject it. Excellence, difference, variation, individuality-- all must be marked as failure because all violate the standard of uniformity.

When a cook at a McFastfood McRestaurant cooks a stunning chicken cordon bleu, he doesn't get a commndation. He gets fired. When a flight attendant shows up for work in uniform clothing that she has torn up and resewn into a stylish gown, she doesn't get a special prize.

There's only one way to create an educational system that can be marketed all around the globe, only one way to create a system that doesn't care whether you're using it in Nanking or Omaha. The only way to create such a system is to define success as something uniform, bland, and mediocre. The only way to create such a system is to use a definition of success that rejects excellence or any other sort of difference.

You can have an educational system that is good, or one that is uniform. You can't have both.

1 comment:

  1. A "uniform" educational system; sounds like the dystopic society we have our students read about and analyze.
    We gave standardized tests last week and this week and topped it off with a district written final exam. No wonder students have stopped caring.