Salvaging Standardized Education 
Mass Producing the Right Stuff

Standardized education is not the bogeyman it is often made out to be. 

As we eliminate the toxic bathwater of industrial factory model schooling, we need to make sure that we do not throw out the baby of children and their teachers with it. 

My name is Don Berg and I want to share with you my thoughts as I reconsider the potential for for standardized education using a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling children.

Workshop handout link: Click Here!

I want to be clear that there is a fundamental problem with using standardized academic tests for high stakes accountability for teachers and/or schools within State bureaucracies. 

That fundamental problem is with the disconnect between the deeper learning that is required in today’s society and the measures being taken to hold teachers and schools “accountable.” 

Neither standardized academic testing nor bureaucratic accountability for test results would be good on their own and the combination is worse. 

Those means of managing the school system suck at educating children.

The fundamental purpose of schools is to educate children, right? 

Let’s start by clarifying whet we mean by that.

Education is about ensuring that people have a productive relationship to reality. 

An educated person is someone who perceives accurately, thinks clearly, and acts effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations that are appropriate to their situation as they non-consciously maintain their mental maps of reality and how it works. 

Academics are a useful tool for relating to reality, but they are one of many tools we have available and they are not quite as important as they are usually made out to be.

Academic tests, especially when they have been standardized and are being used for high stakes bureaucratic decision making, do not have much meaningful relationship to the possibility that the test taker is educated in this sense.

Standardized education in THIS form does NOT work.

But, does that automatically mean that standardized education can’t work in any form?

Consider the possibility that this is a baby and bathwater type of situation and we need to be careful to throw out the waste water, not our most beloved. 

Lamenting the effects of standardized education on children who have been subjected to industrialized factory model schools is a trope of many education critics on both sides of the political aisle. 

They complain that one-size-does-NOT-fit-all therefore standardizing education in our school system is really bad.

But are they correct that standardization, in itself, is bad?

Or is it possible that if we standardize something other than academics we could get better results from the school system.

Standardized Education- A Necessary Psychological Insight

Though many people don’t seem to realize it, we can make useful assessments that do have a meaningful relationship to education in the sense I defined a moment ago. 

The key assessments are for motivation and engagement. 

It turns out that when a student’s motivations are more internal and engagement is more agentic then that student participates more successfully in whatever activities they have available, academic or otherwise.

The scientific community that has been examining motivation and engagement since the nineteen seventies calls their framework Self-Determination Theory, or SDT.

They did not set out to study learning per se, but it turned out that they gained some crucial insights.

One of their most central insights is that we humans all have primary psychological needs that were not previously recognized for the role that they play in motivation, engagement, and most important for our purpose right now, learning. 

You are probably familiar with your needs for air, water, food, and shelter. 

Those four needs are physiological because if you don’t get them satisfied then you die. 

One psychological need is familiar: the need for sleep.

It is psychological because it causes psychological distresses like anxiety and depression, but there is no credible evidence that the lack of sleep, in itself, can kill you.

But before I talk about our other three psychological needs, I want to circle back to our need for air. 

There are some nuances in reference to that need that will help us appreciate how our psychological needs contribute to the effectiveness of schools and open up the possibility for an effective one-size-fits-all standardized education. 

Building An Analogy

So, let’s imagine you want to see a spectacular shipwreck and the fish that now live in it.

The wreck is about thirty feet underwater and a brief glimpse is not enough.

Do you just hold your breath and go for it?

The standard medical line on brains deprived of oxygen is that brain damage can start within five minutes and brain death after ten.

Since you don’t feel like killing yourself and you want to avoid brain damage, taking along a tank of compressed air seems like a good idea.

The next question is, Amazon delivers it, how much oxygen should you put in the tank?

If the tank is all oxygen then you should be able to stay down for the longest possible time, right?


Too much oxygen is poisonous. 

Based on a quick Google search you find that the regular air we normally breath is about eighty percent neutral gasses. 

Mostly nitrogen with a smattering of argon, water vapor, and other stuff.

So you guesstimate the ratio and throw it together figuring that as long as you test it out beforehand your suffocation response would alert you if you have too little oxygen in the mix.

Oxygen is such a central survival imperative that Nature surely created our suffocation alarm system to detect a lack of oxygen, right? 

Well, wrong, again.

Instead, she provides us with an alarm that detects when there is too much carbon dioxide in our air. 

She has attuned us to the waste product of our breathing process.

We know this because of tragic incidents at fruit warehouses where the oxygen is removed to keep the fruit fresh while it awaits delivery to the market. 

Workers have occasionally entered the room not realizing it was full of nitrogen, argon or whatever neutral gas they were using. 

The security footage shows that instead of gasping and becoming alarmed, they appear completely calm as they get sleepy, gently lie down on the floor, and die. 

Human suffocation responses are wired to detect too much carbon dioxide, NOT the lack of oxygen.

Making these kinds of mistakes is why my little scenario of DIY gas blending with the help of Google and Amazon is a terrible idea.

And it turns out that there is a one-size-fits-all recipe for breathable air that is a combination of both active and neutral ingredients. 

Healthy air consists of:

Less than one percent carbon dioxide, an active ingredient,

Nineteen to twenty-three percent oxygen also an active ingredient, and 

Seventy-six to eighty percent of the neutral gasses such as nitrogen, argon, water vapor, etc. 

Applying The Analogy

Now that we understand the one-size-fits-all recipe for breathable air, I want to turn our attention to schooling.

We start with two key constraints.

The first constraint is that all or nothing doesn’t make sense, it’s not a thing.

We may like the idea of zero carbon dioxide in our air, but we produce that gas with every exhalation, so zero is not a reasonable goal.

Second constraint is that we need to understand the difference between active ingredients and neutral ingredients. 

Oxygen and carbon dioxide are both active ingredients; they matter the most even though by proportion they appear to be minor components. 

Water vapor, nitrogen, argon, etc. are all neutral; they don’t matter as much, except that they are a majority of the air we breath. 

The question we have to ask is, what are the active ingredients in school?

Most people’s intuitions scream out, “academics.” 

But that intuition is wrong. 

The active nutritive ingredients are those three primary psychological needs I alluded to previously. 

Those needs are for relatedness, autonomy, and competence.

For now, the active “needs” ingredients are lumped together into the term agency. 

This works because when all three of these primary psychological needs are satisfied, then motivations are more internal. 

And when motivations are more internal then engagement is more likely to be agentic, not merely behavioral. 

My claim is that agentic engagement is the most important ingredient in deeper learning, and therefore the most important ingredient in schooling. 

So, I’m saying that agentic engagement, or just agency, is the active ingredient, the equivalent of oxygen in the analogy to gas blending.  

I will also note that in addition to the primary psychological needs which apply to all humans there are also needs that are unique to an individual, situation, or culture. 

I call these “particular” needs to distinguish them from the primary needs studied by SDT. 

And they are included under the term “agency.”

The toxic equivalent to carbon dioxide in this analogy is the demands from others that tend to thwart the primary psychological needs. 

There are societal demands, organizational demands, and more directly there are demands from authority figures who may have been appointed rather arbitrarily to work with the students in that particular school or classroom. 

I will remind you that all or nothing are not even plausible possibilities. 

So what I am talking about is having those demands not exceed some threshold point that transforms them from being merely a proportionally tiny factor in the overall system into being an urgent toxic hazard that could damage the learning process. 

I am going to designate all of these demands as “imposed authority.”

I am choosing this phrase because I want to be clear that authority per se is not the toxin.

One of the things that SDT has revealed is that when a child has a particularly good relationship to an authority figure it is possible that the child can feel almost as autonomous about a choice made by that authority figure as if the child had made that choice themselves. 

This means that champions of a no nonsense in the classroom, teacher-centric approach are correct to assume that under the right conditions “my way or the highway” is a perfectly reasonable demand by a trusted instructor. 

Notice I said “trusted.”

On the other hand, those who champion a learner-centric approach to operating K-12 schools, when they are responding to schools in which children had no say in the classes they are made to attend, also have an important and valid point.

There are negative motivational and learning consequences to being forced to attend lessons without meaningful recourse to resolving the inherent conflict that arises from that imposition.

When the instructor is not a trusted authority, then there is potential for their demands to be psychologically and educationally toxic.

So, I am clear that some degree of imposed authority is inescapably necessary and I am also clear that too much imposed authority creates inescapably negative learning consequences. 

The final ingredient that we need is the combination of neutral elements that do not matter as much, but are still present and make up a major component in the overall system. 

In particular I will note that academics, science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, etc. are all neutral tools that can help folks understand and more productively engage with reality. 

In and of themselves, despite rhetorical flourishes to the contrary, they are not the be all and end all of education. 

They are important ingredients, but they are NOT the active ingredients.

Using this analogy then it is clear that most schools tend to have too much of the toxin of imposed authority and too little of the active ingredients that make up agency.

Plus, the neutral ingredients of academic tools are treated as if they are an active ingredient, which is a mistake. 

Catalytic Pedagogy Components

Psychologically Standardized Education

Correcting the systematic mistakes embedded in our school system is going to mean that we have to pull on the levers of change.

We need to create a healthier blend of agency, authority, and the tools we need to engage productively with reality.

I have created a few tools that are designed to help.

First, few schools collect the right data to be sure that their classroom and school climates are manageable. 

To address that problem I created the Instant Climate Formative Assessment Tool.

Second, most school boards do not understand the role that primary psychological needs play in deeper learning, so I created the Deeper Learning Resolution to embed the psychology of learning in policy so that policy stops undermining learning. 

Our challenge is to ensure we have the levers we need to monitor and manage the proportions of agency and imposed authority in schools. 

For mainstream schools it is mostly about increasing agency and decreasing imposed authority. 

Holistic schools have a long history of being flashes in the pan and not being able to prove that they are providing superior value over mainstream schools.

I challenge holistic school folks to participate in collecting the kind of data that can prove their superiority.

Doing so will also have the added advantage of helping them manage the culture and climate of their school with more precision.  

Schools that succeed at the balancing act between agency and authority have what I call a Catalytic Pedagogy. 

You can learn more about Catalytic Pedagogy on my site HolisticEquity DOT org. 

Thanks for watching.

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