Sunday, December 19, 2010

Taking on the standards line

A fantastic friend of mine tells the most convoluted stories one can imagine. Her tangential references are so frequent, it sometimes seems I'm locked in a stream of her consciousness. Endless qualifying phrases, parentheses within parentheses and frequent interjections of superfluous comment confound her narratives.

While she would likely get a failing grade were she to submit an English essay structured after the way she speaks, her narrative style is both engaging and illuminating.

Of her trip to Texas she might say: We lived on a hill (a large constructed hill; I'm not sure when it was built. Could it have been like an outpost, a lookout?) looking out over the harbour — you could see the oil rigs; this was before the BP spill, but I don't think, no, we weren't close to that, but it was in the same general area. The couple who owned the place — lovely: he was a veteran, she such a darling: she always looked after us when we there: in the evenings we would get together; it was so easy — they bought it just, I dunno, maybe 10 years ago. We met so many Vietnam vets down there; their stories you can only imagine; they just all of them made you feel so at home ....

And so it might go. But you get the point. There's a sort of poetry in the disjointed narrative. It evokes something of the Dickensian. My friend's style evokes, though it's sometimes difficult to follow precisely. It's that fluidity, however, that gives her narratives their punch.

We all communicate differently. I think that's overlooked when we apply standards to success, particularly in school. Purists will disagree. Purists (though that, in the purist sense, may be a misnomer) believe that, in education and in life, we all must conform to the standards of the day. They also believe that standardized tests should be used in school to assess a student's progress. After all, we all have to be able to communicate the basic concepts of our current moment ... therefore we will need the same skills.

It becomes a matter of measuring people to ensure they measure up. Taken to its extreme, as the fictional purists I have invented as a sounding-board would do, we would be left with an anaemic blob: a standardized person without backbone, personality or spirit.

Rather we should be saying that, yes, people need a basket of skills just to get by in an increasingly complex world. We should ensure they have that. But we should not be so stringent in our move to standardization that we straitjacket people — and their brains.

Automatons may meet all the objective standards we may prescribe-proscribe. But they'll boast not a scintilla of creativity nor be able to match the work of our greatest artists and thinkers. (Not to suggest artists and thinkers are separate. But that's another story.)

Just a few months ago, I was sure I did not like rap music. I never gave rap a chance until a friend wanted to play some songs on YouTube. I watched Eminem's Not Afraid for the first time. It is poetry writ large. I now listen to rap and watch rap videos without my standard assumption that 'I don't like it.'

We are not the same; we are not widgets, those abstract bits famous in business and economics textbooks. Our approach to things should recognize that we are, each of us, unique — whether it's in education, the workplace, family or when among friends.

The push to standardized testing in education is part of a growing conservatism. The right embraces the simplicity of being able to measure people; it's good for business, after all.

Standardized expectations become the norm within this conservative regimen. If someone steps outside the 'standard' in her-his behaviour, there must be penalties. Some people, in this approach, are simply bad because they do not conform to the standards of behaviour. When this approach is taken to extreme, we are forced to build more prisons to house the malcontents and ne'er-do-wells who choose to misbehave.

We needn't be wearing rose-coloured glasses to assert that when we begin imprisoning our youth with math standards and English standards and all the others, those who cannot touch the bar may one day become outcasts from the standard-controlled world. But that's OK. We'll have a prison cell for them.

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