National Standards and Neanderthals – “They will know what is required …” – Part III


When will we ever learn?
(Sisyphus shows the way)

In Part I of this post I outlined the historical context of our modern education system and argued that  National Standards were a continuation of the controlling and directive imperatives of that system.

In Part II I described the nature of National Standards, their justification and how they would be implemented.

In this final part, I address the most important question – What is wrong with National Standards?


Are National Standards up to standard?

It’s pretty clear from the documentation that National Standards ‘double down’ on the directing and controlling aspects of education that have been at the heart of modern schooling since its inception.

But there’s a subtler point to be made about what this rhetoric indicates about the actual – as opposed to claimed – role of National Standards.

The role is not, in fact, to enhance learning – or the capacity to learn (‘learning how to learn’). It is about directing learning to achieve a progression within a subject area.

This may come as a surprise to many people – including, perhaps, some people in the Ministry of Education – but the two processes are not the same.

Indeed, it is claimed in the pamphlet that explains National Standards to parents that the National Standards have been developed by the Ministry of Education and “subject experts” rather than ‘learning experts’. So it might not be that surprising that the learning process hardly rates a mention – all that matters are the ‘required next steps’ in subject progression.

There’s a further, related, point that serves as the essential justification for National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics for children at such young ages.

In the same pamphlet for parents, a claim is made that is deemed so important that it has a stand-out graphic to itself:

Image 22-04-13 at 9.23 PM

There’s a few points to be made about this claim.

First, which way does the causality actually run – in ‘real life’? From the point of view of ‘subject experts’ it may well seem that reading, writing and maths skills logically precede all those other subjects that are taught, for example, through reading, assessed through writing and, perhaps, involve numeracy to some degree.

But, of course, that isn’t the case. As logical as it sounds, it is as likely that a child learns aspects of reading, writing and maths via their (willing) explorations of other topics than that prior learning of the ‘Three Rs’ allows them to access other subjects.

It’s also worth remembering that the primary modes of learning for young children  are oral and social interaction. In the vast majority of cases, a child requires no formal instruction in these two modes.

Nevertheless, this is the educational justification for the early and urgent concern over what used to be called the ‘Three Rs’. It’s the idea that their lack holds up and delays progression in other subjects in the curriculum. What their lack actually holds up is the ability to assess and monitor progression in other subjects in the curriculum.

For many parents too, the apparent realities of this world make it self-evident that children must be educated right from the start in the ‘Three Rs’ for their own good. To many – far too many – people, these are the ‘building blocks’ of learning. Therefore, only through a (gently?) coercive approach will children ultimately gain what it takes to succeed in our world, so popular opinion has it.

And, in this view, National Standards are simply one way that parents can be assured that just this process is occurring – Michael Laws, for one, seems to see it this way.

But is it true that this process is a necessity? Is it the only way to ensure that children have a good chance in life? Peter Gray (2013, p. 42), again:

When we see that children today are required by law to go to school, that almost all schools are structured in the same way, and that our society goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to provide such schools, we naturally assume that there must be some good, logical reason for all of this. Perhaps if we didn’t force children to go to school, or if schools operated differently, children would grow up to be incompetent in our modern world. Perhaps educational experts have figured all this out, or perhaps alternative methods of allowing children to develop have been tested and have failed.

The reality, as I will show later, is that alternative ways have been tested and have succeeded. Children’s instincts for self-directed learning can work today as well as they ever did. When provided with freedom and opportunity, children can and do educate themselves marvellously for our modern world. The schools that we see around us are not products of science and logic; they are products of history.

And this leads to the second error with the claim of the educational priority of the ‘Three Rs’: The fundamental skills for all learning are not reading, writing and maths. The most fundamental are autonomy and motivation (the latter in the form of curiosity or fascination).

Learning is, in essence, a motivational rather than a cognitive process. Autonomy – allied with motivation – allows the expression of motivated exploration and the consequent acquisition of (deep) learning.

A lack of autonomy and control over behaviour reduces motivation (or increases avoidant or resistant behaviours). It’s a wonder such basic principles of behaviour and learning need to be reiterated. But they do.

Ever since our social and economic system moved away from the knowledge- and skill-intensive life of the hunter-gatherer it has had to do battle with children and their natural ways of learning.

The enemies of our education system, unsurprisingly, are therefore just those core aspects of human nature identified by Gray (2013) as being the essential and natural means of self-education – curiosityplayfulness; and, sociability. For modern education to work, all of these must be either minimised or managed lest they interfere with children learning what is required.

Here’s how the supposed efficacy of National Standards will side-step questions of autonomy and motivation.

According to the official explanation, National Standards will allow children – as well as teachers and parents – to know what next steps are required in their learning. That is, children will possess a cognition or belief about what is needed to progress. By tracking and monitoring “achievement” and “progress“, so the idea goes, children will understand (i.e., have cognitive clarity over) what they need to learn next and, hence, will continue to progress. As the Fact Sheet puts it,

Reporting against a standard will enable teachers, parents, and students themselves to see if a student is achieving at a level that enables them to engage in learning right now, as well as make the progress they need for success throughout schooling.

It’s a simple idea – feedback enables improvement. It’s simple and it’s rational (and, usefully, you don’t even have to mention motivation). But is it correct?

Well, there’s a lot of psychological research on this topic and the answer to the question is not straightforward – or, better, the result of monitoring and ‘feedback’ depends on the starting point of participants.

Peter Gray (2013, p. 132) describes a famous study by Michaels et al. (1982) (Full reference = Michaels, J.W., Blommel, J.M., Brocato, R.M., Linkous, R.A. and Rowe, J.S. (1982) Social facilitation and inhibition in a natural setting, Replications in Social Psychology, 2, 21-24). The researchers,

hung around a pool hall in a university student center and watched friendly games of eight ball. At first they observed unobtrusively and counted the percentage of successful shots that each player made, in order to categorize players as experts or novices. They then moved closer and began watching in a way that made it obvious to the players that they were evaluating their performances.

Here’s what they found: close observation caused the experts to perform better than they did without observation, but it had the opposite effect on the novices. All in all, the average success rate of the experts rose from 71 percent up to 80 percent under observation, while that for novices fell from 36 percent to 25 percent.

The findings have been replicated and generalised to a wide variety of other tasks. In particular,

When research subjects believe their performance is being observed and evaluated, those who are already skilled become better and those who are not so skilled become worse. The debilitating effects of being observed and evaluated have been found to be even greater for mental tasks, such as solving difficult math problems or generating good rebuttals to the views of classical philosophers.

[It’s not part of this post, proper, but there’s even an interesting confound between test motivation and IQ test scores.

As the linked study demonstrates, those of below-average baseline IQ – i.e., those who prior to the study scored low on IQ tests – under incentive conditions showed an improvement of 0.96 SD (standard deviations). That’s remarkable. Those of above average baseline IQ also showed improvement under incentive conditions but only of 0.26 SD. Prior to the study, performance on IQ scores were being disproportionately constrained by low test motivation for those who gained lower IQ scores than for those who gained higher IQ scores.

IQ score, as the article also makes clear, is not the same as the latent variable ‘intelligence’ – in case you were wondering. Here’s a short extract from the discussion:

Because children who tried harder on the low-stakes test earned higher IQ scores and also had more positive life outcomes, we tested for and found evidence that relying on IQ scores as a measure of intelligence may overestimate the predictive validity of intelligence. That is, non- intellective traits [ie., motivationally important traits] partially accounted for associations between IQ and outcomes. The seriousness of this confound was more profound (i.e., reductions in the proportion of variance explained by 68–84%) for the nonacademic outcomes of employment and crime than for the academic outcomes of school achievement in adolescence and years of education (i.e., reductions in the proportion of variance explained of 23–27%).

And, from the conclusion:

What do intelligence tests test? Both intelligence and test motivation. Why is this a problem? Because test motivation on low-stakes intelligence tests can partially confound IQ outcome associations.

Our conclusions may come as no surprise to psychologists who administer intelligence tests themselves (49). Where the problem lies, in our view, is in the interpretation of IQ scores by economists, sociologists, and research psychologists who have not witnessed variation in test motivation firsthand. These social scientists might erringly assume that a low IQ score invariably indicates low intelligence. As pioneers in intelligence testing pointed out long ago, this is not necessarily true.

I’ll let you consider what these results might mean for performance against National Standards.]

We might not expect young children to be”generating good rebuttals to the views of classical philosophers“, but National Standards certainly involve them being observed and evaluated when solving mathematics problems (and reading and writing).

And this monitoring process is not envisaged as a covert form of observation. Quite the reverse – as already discussed, the children are to be made well aware of their “progress” so that it can be made clear to them “what they need to learn next“.

Given that a good part of the justification for introducing National Standards is to do with the so-called ‘long tail’ of underachieving students, it is remarkable that those standards explicitly embody a monitoring and assessment strategy well known – from psychological research – to exacerbate initial inequalities in ‘expertise’, or ‘achievement’. ‘Novices’ will not do well under observation.

Once again, Gray (2013, p. 133) says it so much better:

with their incessant monitoring and evaluation of students’ performance, schools seem to be ideally designed to boost the performances of those who are already good and to interfere with learning. Those who have somehow already learned the school tasks, maybe at home, generally perform well in this setting, but those who haven’t tend to flounder. Evaluation drives a wedge between those who already know how and those who don’t, pushing the former up and the latter down.

It gets worse.

We are, today, almost incessantly told that creativity and innovation are the keys to success in the modern economy – whether as individuals or as nations. An interesting study of rates of creativity in succeeding generations of American children was recently reported  by Kyung Hee Kim (2011) – (see her own outline of the research here). Briefly, on all sub-measures of creativity, the evidence is that it is declining in the United States – supposedly the Western home of creativity and innovation.

There’s an interesting comment from James T. Weiner, a research colleague of Kim’s, in the comments section of that link:

I think we as Americans are lucky though.. we started in a much better place .. relatively high creativity .. so they [Asian and European societies] have a ways to go to catch up. I like the quote attributable one prominant [sic] creativity researcher: “All schools and organizations tend to crush creativity, here in the US we just tend to crush it less“. Of course that comment was made many years ago before KHK’s discovery of the declines in creativity in the US over the last 20 years.

That same point was pursued by Peter Gray in a blogpost on the website ‘Psychology Today‘:

According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT [Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking], for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984.  Yikes.

What about the TTCT? How important is it?

The best evidence that the Torrance Tests really do measure creative potential come from longitudinal research showing strong, statistically significant correlations between childhood scores on the TTCT and subsequent real-world achievements.[4]  As the authors of one article commenting on these results put it, high scorers “tallied more books, dances, radio shows, art exhibits, software programs, advertising campaigns, hardware innovations, music compositions, public policies (written or implemented), leadership positions, invited lectures, and buildings designed” than did those who scored lower.[5]

Gray’s explanation of the creativity decline? It’s a bit predictable:

Well, surprise, surprise.  For several decades we as a society have been suppressing children’s freedom to ever-greater extents, and now we find that their creativity is declining.

Creativity is nurtured by freedom and stifled by the continuous monitoring, evaluation, adult-direction, and pressure to conform that restrict children’s lives today.

Is it really true that “[c]reativity is nurtured by freedom“? Sadly, yes.

Theresa Amabile (along with often-times co-worker Beth Hennessy) is probably one of the most known names in creativity research. In 2010, for example, Hennessy and Amabile provided a review of creativity research for the pre-eminent psychological journal Annual Review of Psychology.

In a long career researching creativity, Amabile and her colleagues have demonstrated an unusual but vital fact: Any pressure to be creative, including provision of ‘incentives’, undermines creativity. As Gray (2013, p. 134), correctly, summarises her results:

In experiment after experiment, the most creative products were made by those who were in the non-incentive condition – the ones who worked under the impression that their products would not be evaluated or entered into contests and who were not offered any prizes.

As Hennessy and Amabile (2010, p. 599) concluded (as point 6 of their summary) in their review of creativity research,

6. People are most creative when they are motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself—i.e., by intrinsic motivation.

More fully – on page 581,

Intrinsic motivation, defined as the drive to do something for the sheer enjoyment, interest, and personal challenge of the task itself (rather than for some external goal), is conducive to creativity, whereas extrinsic motivation is generally detrimental. Probing further, experimentalists have deter- mined that a variety of extrinsic constraints and extrinsic motivators can undermine intrinsic motivation and creativity, including expected reward, expected evaluation, surveillance, competition, and restricted choice.

In short, people are more creative when they are simply ‘playing’. Being monitored and evaluated doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to creativity – and creativity predicts life success better than IQ.

(Perhaps that’s why this column recently appeared in Forbes magazine – In defense of skipping college and enrolling in the real world.)

I said ‘unusual’ because we are used to thinking that external ‘incentives’, in particular, improve performance (In fact, if you read the ‘aside’ above about intelligence testing, external incentives were just what improved IQ test performance – though performance on an IQ test is not necessarily ‘creative’.)

To be honest, there was a very heated debate in the literature over this point as to whether or not external incentives (rewards) reduced creativity. It’s a bit complicated, but revealing in relation to discussion of National Standards.

Eisenberger and Cameron (1996 in the journal American Psychologist) – two psychologists from the behaviourist tradition – claimed that rewards only undermine intrinsic motivation and creativity under very limited conditions – principally, when non-specific instructions as to ‘what is understood as creative’ by those asking for creativity are provided (i.e., ‘merely’ instructions to be creative or to ‘try your best’ without specifying just what you wanted).

This was then refuted by Hennessy and Amabile (1998) and, inevitably, Eisenberger and Cameron (1998) responded to that refutation – and those of others.

But, so far as understanding National Standards and their likely effect on creativity is concerned, here’s the ‘take-away’ from Eisenberger and Cameron (1998):

In our article (Eisenberger & Cameron, 1996), we suggested that the decremental effects of reward on creativity were due to cues indicating that conventional performance was desirable; moreover, we reported that an explicit contingency between reward and creative performance increased creativity.

Participants in studies reporting a decremental effect of reward on creativity are not typically given explicit information that conventional performance is desirable, leading Hennessey and Amabile (1998, this issue) to question how conventional performance is cued. According to learned industriousness theory (Eisenberger, 1992), individuals learn the type of performance for which they are rewarded (e.g., speed, accuracy, or novelty) and generalize such learning to new tasks. Because daily experience more frequently rewards various types of conventional performance than novel responding, people who are promised a reward for nonspecific performance may fail to respond creatively. Amabile (1982), for instance, asked children to construct a collage and told them that the best collages would receive a monetary award but did not specify what aspect of collage performance would be assessed. These children constructed collages judged less creative, though better planned and organized, and more representational than the collages produced by a control group that received no promise of reward. Importantly, in the past, the children may have been rewarded more frequently at school for the organization and graphic realism of their artwork than for originality. As a result, the promise of reward for unspecified performance in Amabile’s study may have elicited conventional performance rather than creativity.

If you followed that discussion, you’ll realise that Eisenberger and Cameron (1998) were basically saying that without telling people (e.g., ‘children’) that you want something novel they’ll default to what they’ve learnt people want (e.g., from school) – conventional performance. 

Further, their point is that there’s no such thing as spontaneous creativity. If you want it, you have to explicitly request it and ‘incentivise’ it. And you have to specify what it involves (e.g., ‘novelty’). Creativity on demand.

Well, maybe in our society, with our educational system, that’s true. But that pretty much means that creativity is generally squashed by the way we educate people and treat them generally – as Kyung Hee Kim found in the US.

If you want the – pretty much – final word on this then read pages 581-582 in Hennessy and Amabile (2010). It lays it all out neatly.

External incentives only work for relatively repetitive or clear, straightforward tasks (including the request to ‘be novel’) – when they work at all. Otherwise, they interfere with spontaneous, creative solutions.

As Hennessy and Amabile (1998) Reality, intrinsic motivation and creativity argued, just following instructions – ‘be novel’ – is not what we mean by creativity, in ‘Reality’.

Creativity can never be a requirement.

By contrast, creating conditions which induce a positive mood – largely by reducing the seriousness of a task setting – generally seems to improve creativity and insightful problem solving.

This was first established in a famous study by Alice Isen. The simple manipulation of showing one group of students a five minute humorous film, a second group a serious film about mathematics and a third group no film prior to presenting them with a classic problems in creative problem solving (including the famous ‘candle test’ by Duncker) produced stunning results: Seventy five percent of the first group successfully completed the task while only 23 and 17 percent in the second and third groups, respectively, were successful.

Overall, according to Hennessy and Amabile (2010, p. 574):

Most experimental studies of affect and creativity have shown that positive affect leads to higher levels of creativity. When negative affect has an influence, it is generally nega- tive.

Despite the good press for creativity and widespread belief that it is a ‘good thing’ in business and society as a whole, creativity in the classroom has hardly been studied, according to Hennessy and Amabile (2010):

Although creative performance may not be as central or universal a goal in schools as it is in the business world[Now there’s a revealing comment if ever there was one!] the development of student creativity is crucial for economic, scientific, social, and artistic/cultural advancement. It is essential that we come to a far deeper understanding of how teaching techniques, teacher behavior, and social relationships in schools affect the motivation and creativity of students. Sternberg (2008) offered a thoughtful paper arguing for the application of psychological theories to educational practice, yet a review of the recent educational literature reveals surprisingly few direct investigations of creativity in the classroom.

Let’s summarise.

National Standards are intended to be used to assess the progress and achievement of children so that teachers, parents and the children themselves can rationally decide what the best ‘next steps’ are to achieve the expectations – embedded in the standards – of what is required.

Adopting this approach – according to the literature – is likely to do almost the opposite of what is claimed for it.

National Standards seem to be based on the mistaken belief that reading, writing and mathematics are foundational to the curriculum – while autonomy and intrinsic motivation are not.

That’s understandable, since autonomy and intrinsic motivation are unmentionable in the context of a compulsory system of education whose requirements are tightened like whale-bone corsets through the use of National Standards.

Further, the degree of monitoring and evaluation that is part and parcel of National Standards is antithetical to intrinsic motivation and, hence, creativity. Without these two features, learning becomes a mere parody of itself – and the task of teachers becomes harder than the work of Sisyphus in Hades.

The monitoring and evaluation processes inherent in National Standards are also likely to increase inequalities in educational achievement (i.e., favour ‘experts’, punish ‘novices’) – one of the main justifications for introducing the standards in the first place.

So much for dealing to the ‘long tail’.

In many ways, National Standards are consistent with the entire history of the modern education system. But they are not just ‘more of the same’. They almost deliberately seemed designed to exacerbate its worst qualities – direction, control, conformity and compliance.

Many efforts have been made by teachers and educationalists – and not a few parents – to make education a more humane, enjoyable and effective experience for children. That’s largely because these people have a clear sense of what (young) human beings are – their nature as enthusiastic, almost unstoppable learners. Such people trust in that human nature, and trust in children’s passion to learn.

The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell said, in a series of interviews shortly before he died, that it wasn’t true that people, today, were seeking meaning. Instead, he claimed, they were seeking the experience of being alive.

That experience is the sense of child-like joy at the fascination of exploring this world, autonomously, freely and playfully.

National Standards have been draped like a gigantic sodden blanket over New Zealand schooling, designed, it seems, to extinguish just that kind of experience of being alive.

Perhaps National Standards are required to ensure that our children survive in our society, our world. But, if that’s the case then it says something immensely saddening about our world – not least that we have to treat our children in this way. That we have to monitor and evaluate them unceasingly from the earliest years.

Without play, without open-ended, self-directed exploration and the joy, creativity and innovation it brings, our world would not be fit for Homo sapiens.

Then again … for Neanderthals?

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One Response to National Standards and Neanderthals – “They will know what is required …” – Part III

  1. Ryan O'Shea says:

    This series of posts confirms alot of the thoughts I’ve been having lately about how people learn and thrive. What National standards doesn’t address is the fact that teaching is much more an art than a science, it appears to be rational and logical but it totally discounts the emotional aspect to human development and creativity. Anyone can force kids to remember letters, words and numbers but the best teachers get kids excited (intrinsic motivation) about the words and numbers as a means of expression and then refine and develop the skills by letting them play with them without any expectations.
    I’ve also seen the observational effect on performance through training people in professional settings, I found that often simply giving people autonomy but with close support worked much better than endless observation and feedback, in fact I would engineer situations for them to be left alone in a challenging situation not to test them but to give them confidence in their own abilities.
    I also think the elephant in the room behind all of this is the home life of some of these kids in low income families, I read somewhere that the single biggest determiner of a kids reading ability isn’t their schooling but the income level and amount of books a kids has at home, but National probably aren’t too keen on the radical idea that helping people out might give you a better result than people being forced to help themselves.

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