Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Meaning and Standards

I tweeted this a few days ago and @jppastor RT it.  Perhaps you (re)read it and/or recalled it from something else you read at another time. At each of those possible moments, meaning was made.

Meaning is not stable and this often makes us uneasy. Anyone with a teenager knows this to be true.  We tell our child to do or not to X and something else emerges.

Did you not hear me?
Yeah I heard you.  You said, blah blah blah.
Right, so what happened?

The semantic spaces between our words and intentions and the understanding composed by a reader/viewer/listener can be enormous. As Heraclitus said: You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.

And still we build expensive methods to test public education systems based on a gross miscalculation: the USDOE and State governments believe we can step into the same river twice and they can make us do so.  Just watch us, they say.  On many, nuance is lost.

Meaning has never been a fixed affair regardless of what we might desire. Surely,Web 2.0 makes that instability feel so much truer*.

Meaning doesn't travel with set intention.

Meaning is overpopulated with intentions of others (Bakhtin, 1984).

Meaning X can be prescribed and it does not contain or limit how X is understood.

Meaning cannot be preserved, nor handed down.

Meaning cannot be 'delivered'.

I've been thinking  a lot about the standards movement. In Pashi Sahlberg's (2011) Finnish Lessons he compares The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) with The Finnish Way (p. 103).

GERM                                                                     The Finnish Way
Standardizing teaching & learning                        Customizing teaching & learning
Focus on literacy & numeracy                                Focus on creative learning
Teaching prescribed curriculum                              Encouraging risk taking
Borrowing market-oriented reform ideas                Learning from the past and owning innovations
Test-based accountability and control                     Shared responsibility and trust

The differences are acute, one might even say stunning. 

*Often wonder if the drama concerning handhelds and smartphones at school isn't an attempt to try to contain/control instability.


  1. "What we seem to be doing in the reified curricular world we have created since the enactment of NCLB is fixing both the ends (through our standards) and the means (through tightly monitored curricula), allowing nothing to vary. It is students and their teachers who must accommodate to the curriculum in this model, not the other way around." -P.David Pearson
    It's such a shame that so much learning is lost in an effort to meet arbitrary standards and follow the "one-road" approach. What's even more frustrating is that in many cases (for students who 'meet' standard AND those who do not) the results are often hardly reflective of anyone's capability, potential, or growth. Isolated and disconnected tasks (esp. in reading) can be highly deceptive in their outcomes, rendering them meaningless.

  2. Sam, sharp quote by Pearson. Where is it from? Think you second point is really important. We have had standards from more than a decade. Do we know if they have caused 'improved' learner outcomes?

  3. It's from "An Endangered Species Act for Literacy Education" (2007).
    It's interesting b/c right before that he writes, "In the oldest equation...we fixed the means of instruction and allowed the
    ends to vary. In the...pre-NCLB version of the standards based approach, we fixed the ends and allowed the means to vary." And now, too often, we fix both the means and ends and allow nothing to vary. Can't help but wonder what it would look like if neither the means nor the ends were fixed. Would love to try it out and see. ~Sam

  4. Meant to say thanks Sam. Sorry for the dealt. I donwloaded the article.