Monday, September 7, 2015

Mindless Learning Through Standardization

Standardization is the buzz word in the current education system. The curriculum which is taught to the students is standardized, the way that curriculum is taught to them is standardized, the tests given to the students are standardized, and the remedial actions taken when the students do not do well on the standardized tests are standardized. While this standardization is clearly visible in K-12 where students are required to take a standardized test at the end of each grade level, the higher education is also not untouched by standardization. College courses are designed around learning outcomes which the students are expected to achieve by end of the semester. These learning outcomes are then measured through tests and assignments through the semester. These tests and assignments are standardized in that they are the same for all the students in the class.

Any kind of standardization ignores the fact that each student in a classroom is unique and different from another student. Each of the students has different aspirations and comes from a different social and cultural background. Each student has a different way of leaning and a unique way of demonstrating their learning. A standardized way of teaching and evaluating students’ learning might not be relevant to each student. As a result, some students might not find what they are learning in class to be useful. This, in turn, kills their curiosity to learn by engaging with the course material. They instead become passive receivers of knowledge and find the process of learning boring and disengaging.

As a result of this, the only motivating factor which students see in a course is the grade which they get at the end of the semester. Hence, they turn all their attention to getting a better grade instead of critically engaging with the learning material. This is where they start mindlessly engaging in the process of learning. Mindless learning is characterized by low attention to the context of learning, lack of alertness to distinctions, and ignorance of multiple perspectives. Paying low attention to learning contexts might lead to a non-understanding of the context, which in turn hinders the process of transfer of learning from classroom to the real world. A lack of alertness to nuances might lead to misconceptions in the minds of the learner. Misconceptions further hinder students’ learning. Ignorance of multiple perspective prevents a well-rounded development of a student.

To realize the full potential of education, standardized learning environments should be replaced with customized ones which cater to the needs of each student and help them engage in mindful learning.


  1. I agree with you that the customized learning is better than the standard one. But there are many limitations for customizing, especially regarding evaluation. I attended the College Entrance Exam with almost 1 million high school graduates from the same province in China in 2010. How can we expect any exam other than the standardized one? It will be crazy to evaluate 1 million personal statements and CVs stilling holding the same standard. So the standard exam is the most fair way for all the teenagers who are eager for college in this situation. Only students with higher exam scores can get into college.

    1. Sihui, I agree with you that it is easy to conduct and grade a standardized test, but are those tests really fair? I do not think so. In a classroom, students come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and had diverse educational experiences during their childhood. In such a case, the ways in which they construct their understanding and demonstrate their learning are different. A standardized test usually does not address all those differences and favors some students over others. For example, a standardized test that evaluates students' learning through writing assignment in English cannot accurately measure the learning of those students who are weak at writing or whose native language is not English. Hence, such a standardized test is not fair to some students.

  2. Public education. According to the National Center for Education, there are 50.1 million students enrolled in public schools in the United States this year.
    How do you individualize education for 50.1 million students?
    How do you propose to establish a fleet of teachers large enough to give each and every student in public education meaningful, individualized, personalized attention?
    How do you ensure students in northern Wyoming are being taught the same caliber and quality of math as students in southern Florida?
    How do you ensure students are not being taught false information? Indoctrination instead of science? Militarization instead of mathematics?
    How do you do that without standardization and oversight?
    I'm not asking these questions for no reason, I really don't know. I do not have the knowledge to provide a meaningful answer at this time. Any takers?

    1. Aaron, as Ken Robinson mentioned, the US is already spending more money on education per child than most countries in the world. the only problem is that the money is going in an inappropriate direction. Maybe we need to train more teachers to adopt inclusive and individualized pedagogy on classrooms. Students in Wyoming and Florida do not necessarily need to have the same caliber, they need to have appropriate caliber required of them according to their needs. And this can only be achieved through personalized attention to each student.

      And to ensure that there is no militarization and indoctrination, teachers need to be trained and formative assessments should be put in place to ensure that students are learning what they should be learning.

      I hope it answers your questions to some extent.

  3. Thank you. I enjoyed your blog. You've nailed the problem. It was standardized testing that always pushed me aways from caring about the courses that were taught in this way. The only courses I remember, were the courses where the professors were obviously very engaged with the students. I spent a semester in England last fall. While I was over there, I was working on a university campus with a research group. This group consisted of professors, PhD researchers and PhD students. The system of education in the UK was simple, when a person works in education they have to choose 1 of 2 options. Either they teach or they manage research, NOT both. This ensures that students are not being taught by half attentive professors that deliver mindless lectures that just spit out line after line of random facts with no explanation of their importance. More time should be devoted to lectures, after all this is what the students are paying for.

    1. This is interesting. I was not aware that in the UK faculty has to choose between teaching and research. I am teaching an entire class this semester (two lectures and a lab per week) and I am finding it extremely difficult to keep up with my research due to the amount of time I have to devote to preapring for the class. So I see the point in making faculty choose. However, your research can give you some solid ground to stand on for your teaching as well. It all really pulls from the same thread. But I do think that in those faculty positions where there is a 50-50 teaching-research appointment, either of the two eventually gets left behind. With this big recent push towards research and publications in land grant research universities, we need to be vigilant with the teaching part of the system.