Sunday, April 12, 2015

Standards v. Specifications

[Picture: Every standard has its shadow. (Smoot)]
A standard, originally meaning the flag that soldiers followed into battle, connotes a moral cause worth dying for. 

I used to count myself as one of those teachers upholding "standards," but now I draw a distinction between "standards" and mere "specifications,"

"Specs" are fine.  I want a car with hatchback.  I want a paper that cites its sources, or I want a personal essay that integrates a real-life experience with reflection on its meaning. In church, I prefer a service that connects present to past through music, ritual, and contextualizing of scripture.

But whenever we make a specification into a moral "standard," we should be aware that every front has its back, every standard casts its shadow -- in Karl Jung's sense of the word "shadow," meaning all the qualities we suppress when we choose to present ourselves a certain way.  These may be very good qualities suppressed for some social purpose -- the way girls learn not to be smarter than the boys, or a person in authority suppresses his impulse to use clever sarcasm with a subordinate.   

The danger of focusing on the teacher's standards lies in losing sight of a student's other strengths. I learned this the hard way, dismissing weeks of progress by a girl who in the end still didn't "get" the idea of a topic sentence; and forcing a talented boy's writing into a formula (read my blog article Assessing Students' Writing with Rubrics: First Do No Harm).

I got a sense of what this must feel like for the student when I once brought an essay to a fellow teacher who bemoaned the sliding of "standards."  I thought it was great work from a boy who hadn't put much effort into school so far:  He had conceived a distinctive metaphor to shape his essay, and he displayed deep understanding of a complicated subject.   She handed the paper back after reading the introduction, commenting only on two misspellings and an error of punctuation. 

What's important?  Is it creative thinking, engagement with the subject, a stretch in the right direction?  Or is it upholding certain specifications as moral "standards?"  Let's not confuse the two.

By the way, my first sentence ends with a preposition, a violation of grammatical standards that derive from a misapplication of Latin grammar rules to English.  As Winston Churchill wisely said, "That is something up with which we cannot put!"  

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