Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

My Talk on Problematizing Educational Standards

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Last Thursday, I was invited to give a talk at Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo. I hadn’t heard of them up until that point, but they have a really good location in Zamalek and a great cultural program.

I wasn’t sure who my audience would be so I always start by slides introducing different aspects of myself and ask the audience about themselves… and I kept my talk interactive. It was based around this article I had written for Al-Fanar recently critiquing standards, but I made it into a discussion. Here are the slides:


Problematizing Educational Standards – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

The intro activity of asking people to write with their LEFT hand was interesting. It made people really uncomfortable, which was what I wanted. Thanks Kevin Gannon (@thetattooedprof) for the idea of the activity. His initial idea was to ask people to use their non-dominant hand, but I intentionally chose JUST the left hand… so I had a couple of people in the audience who were left-handed or ambi-dexterous and I needed to build on that, and my own left-handedness, to show that any one standard set by the dominant person might be OK for some people but not for most others.

One of the challenging questions I asked that annoyed some people was the one about Harvard: would Harvard really do as well if they were less selective about their students? Would they be able to achieve high “outcomes” if they allowed for a diverse set of students from different backgrounds/abilities in a country going through political turmoil, etc. What saved me here was that one audience member raised her hand and said she was a graduate of Harvard and that, indeed, their strength was in their selection of students, not at all in them having a good pedagogy or educational system.

I loved that some audience members had experience of working with people in Egypt in rural areas for whom the educational system (which assumed city life) was not working. I loved that there were examples in Europe higher ed where things were not working because of standards… I would not be able to bring all these examples in myself, or at least not with as much authority as the audience members. I guess I learn every time I give a presentation like this. And I meet interesting people that I hope to stay in touch with later. Like that Harvard grad. And someone from an educational game design company (I’d met her colleague before, but not her). And someone who’s working on educational policy and research who was interested in having someone on board who had the pedagogical insight that policy-makers usually don’t. That was refreshing. I hope she stays in touch 🙂

Someone asked me at the end of the talk “but what you’re suggesting isn’t practical”. I know. Boy, do I know. I know that eschewing standards is difficult for a policy maker to imagine. But I also know that having standards, while making the policy maker happy, doesn’t actually improve learning on the ground – so what’s the point and what’s the way out of this mess?

My suggestion is to have participatory, contextualized standards – so the people who will be affected (teachers, parents) participate in setting (flexible) standards for their own context, and revise them periodically. So for example at a national level, you could want everyone to gain literacy and numeracy by age 10, but the pathways and timeline and methodologies for reaching this can be decided upon locally and shared to be adapted by others to their own context. Sure, decentralization is difficult and complicated, but centralization usually doesn’t help anyone anyway. I realize that financially this could get real complicated real fast. So let’s find a way to make it work. Instead of continuing with what we know doesn’t work just because it’s practical. What good is practical if it doesn’t achieve its purpose?

No one ever said praxis was practical. But it’s worth trying to make it work. Somehow. Now if I knew for sure that I could keep my ideals if I ever had more input into policy…

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