Learning supremacy: How standardizing education fuels inequity

William Rankin
Jul 13, 2020 · 10 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Adapted from an image of beheaded statues at the confederate memorial in Portsmouth, VA. Original photo by Kristen Zeis, The Virginian-Pilot.

If you want to build a diverse, just, and equitable society, you cannot do it with the current educational system.

That may sound harsh, but there’s no use pretending otherwise.

Consider for a moment not what happens on the surface of most schooling — not the math, history, chemistry, or civics…. Consider instead what’s happening beneath these, about the structural armature over which all the diverse disciplinary practices and activities have been stretched. Think about what happens in most classrooms, regardless of the learners’ ages, the subjects their teachers are addressing, or the country or city in which they’re located…

It starts with good intentions.

Working to do their best, teachers demonstrate a principle, concept, or skill. Then they ask learners to complete an exercise designed to implement and solidify this lesson. Most teachers would love to try a different, more creative, more student-centered approach, but they just don’t have time. They’re overwhelmed with too many students and too much bureaucratic paperwork. So they ask all students to complete the same assignment. It’s sheer, handy pragmatics. This way, teachers can compare one learner’s performance with another’s to see ‘who’s getting it and who isn’t.’ It makes grading easier, maybe even automatic. It’s objective, scientific, clear.

It’s the way most teachers were trained to teach.

And it’s the way modern textbooks, study materials, and exams have been designed, too — all owned and produced by the same publisher, intent on exploiting their copyrights to the fullest (#verticalintegration). So it’s also the easiest way to teach.

Modern publishers supply not only a series of pre-built assignments designed to support and conform to standard curricula, but a whole host of other materials designed to lock schools into their product lines. They provide at least some assignment answers in the back of the book or on a website so learners can check their own progress (#empowerment). Maybe they’ve posted sample lesson plans, teacher scripts, additional supports, and resources to the web, designed to make using and completing these assignments more efficient, more standardized … easier. They’ve developed the tests that assess how well teachers have delivered the content — and stuck to the script (#scalingeducation). Maybe they’ve even developed an AI to take over much of the assessment, ‘saving teachers time’ — until it saves schools their salaries (#digitallearning).

Publishers know educational consumers are more likely to buy if there’s a whole package of prebuilt content, market-tested to ‘fit’ the maximum number of school uses and the broadest range of prospective customers. One curriculum to rule them all

State and governmental standards tread a similar path for similar reasons: to ensure measurability and comparability across every school in the jurisdiction. As though measurement equals significance. As though sameness equals equity.

That’s modern education in a nutshell: introduce a principle, concept, or skill; give a standardized assignment; assess the assignment to make sure everybody’s on the same page. Lather, rinse, repeat…

For all such assignments, replication and repetition are the key for learners. Their task is to replicate what teachers have demonstrated, and they’ll be asked to repeat this replication enough times to show they’re able to perform it precisely and without variation whenever they’re called to do so.…

Like on the test at the end of the unit.

Those who master the concept — and even more importantly, those who master the ability to replicate without deviation — will thrive and be rewarded. Those who don’t.…


Things won’t go so smoothly for them.

Most of us who successfully finished school know what it was like to perform this kind of repetition successfully. We know what it means to be part of the in-group, the cohort that got it. We know what it was like to reap the tangible and intangible benefits of meeting expectations: a certain kind of status, a certain kind of community, a certain kind of identity. A grade, to be sure, but we also got belonging.

Image for post
Image for post

However, precariousness lurks just under that surface. One embarrassing performance could change everything. One missed or misunderstood assignment could lead to a collapse from which it might be difficult or impossible to recover. One moment of over-enthusiasm could lead to being branded a ‘nerd’ — and the whole host of pressures and dangers accompanying that….

Better to keep your head down, to blend in, to follow the herd.

One of the least risky ways to prove belonging is to point out and ridicule those who don’t belong — keep everyone’s disdain focused on them: the screw-ups, the trouble-makers, the laggards, the divergent. Laugh when they get it wrong. Roll your eyes and cast sideways glances when they do it differently, or when they don’t understand, or when they ask too many questions.… Cover over fear and precariousness by constructing them as other.

And in too many classrooms, the teacher joins in. Maybe even initiates these behaviors. It’s a way of making shared identity and punishing difference: We’re in the majority. We have status. We have the authority. We, not them.

The academic focus on standardized repetition dictates a very particular set of behaviors and expectations in the classroom — a culture — all revolving around the performance, identity, and position of a self-reinforcing authority. Those able to manifest and mirror this culture are rewarded — not just by receiving good grades but by enfranchisement. Those unable or unwilling to do so are disenfranchised, and not by some abstract ‘system’: by their neighbors — by their fellow learners. And too often, by their teachers.

The lesson this system teaches kids who are different is that there’s no place for them here: these aren’t my people; this isn’t my place; I don’t belong

The outliers and outcasts learn important lessons, too. Chiefly, they learn to hide or to flee. They might hide in ways you’d expect: keeping quiet, pretending to be in the ‘in-group’ and praying never to have their counterfeit discovered, maybe matching the in-group’s behavior, language, or even clothing and equipment to whatever extent they can. Or they might hide in less obvious ways: clowning, dismissing, being belligerent, pretending they don’t care. Yet either way, all of them eventually learn flight. It’s the only way to survive. The lesson this system teaches kids who are different is that there’s no place for them here: these aren’t my people; this isn’t my place; I don’t belong.

Isolating the other is the first practical lesson of supremacy. Force those who are different to hide, to flee, to get out of the ‘game’ — even to isolate themselves — and supremacy wins a double-victory: We no longer have to deal with them, and more importantly, we can also critique them for whatever evasion they choose.

Their departure naturalizes and justifies the view of their deficiency: they didn’t have the grit or stamina or resources to cut it. And that means they are naturally inferior. We don’t have to question ourselves because we gave them a ‘fair’ shot and they didn’t measure up. ‘Those people’ are just not invested in learning, are unwilling to work, are not as capable, are complainers and whiners looking for an unfair handout…. It’s only right to exclude them.

This lesson, persistently taught and agonizingly learned, is a key corollary of Ivan Illich’s piercing observation that, “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”

We’ll never have more than ‘society as it is’ with an educational system built on replication, repetition, and conformity.

Replication, repetition, and conformity are why school seems to work so well for those who match the prevailing culture while those who are ‘different’ are so often driven away. It’s not a bug; it’s a feature of the system. The sad truth ‘those people’ learn with startling clarity is the chief lesson this educational approach teaches: if you’re different, you don’t belong. And even if there’s some gesture toward accommodation, it’s still too often designed to mark you as deficient.

If you’re a different race, if you come from a different cultural or economic or class context, if you have a different gender or gender expression, if your sexuality is different, if you’re neurodiverse … then none of this is really for you. And the even sadder truth is that membership in the dominant group can be exchanged for ability to perform in this educational model. In fact, sometimes people tweak the model’s design specifically to reinforce one group’s dominance. Cases of such deck-stacking are too numerous to count

So at first glance, repetition may seem like a perfectly acceptable educational approach and a good way to help learners master new concepts. After all, “practice makes perfect.” Or as Zig Ziglarians would seem enthusiastic to remind us, “Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.” It’s awfully hard to argue with an entity that’s a mother, a father, and an architect all at the same time — though some of Zig’s connections would seem particularly uneasy with that kind of identity fluidity.

However, if repetition is the architect of learning, herein is the blueprint for an inequitable, fragmented, unjust society. If it is the mother and father of learning, herein is the dysfunctional family that makes so much of our broader culture toxic. If you want to find the place where children first learn to dominate, subjugate, and dehumanize those who are different, you need look no further than this kind of educational praxis. It only seems okay because most of us are a product of it — because most of us successfully navigated its broken system. “The air is the air…” But take a deeper look, and the cracks reveal themselves to be chasms.

… in an equation designed to maximize markets and profits, the ‘diverse’ are weeded out in favor of the ‘majority’

As the diversity of educational offerings shrinks, the ‘supremacy’ effect intensifies — even as education’s ongoing ability to benefit and meaningfully transform people’s lives diminishes.

Industrialized standardization necessarily ignores the reasons repetition is successful for some learners but not for others. It simply ‘can’t afford’ to waste resources on ‘outliers.’ After all, it’s a business. Perhaps a particular approach doesn’t make contextual sense for some learners; perhaps it reflects social, economic, or cultural biases that won’t resonate with them; perhaps it demarcates certain stereotypes that interfere destructively; perhaps it’s the fact that doing homework simply won’t be feasible for certain learners. None of it matters. Such factors simply aren’t considered in an equation designed to maximize markets and profits. The ‘diverse’ are weeded out in favor of the ‘majority’ — the profitable.

Despite the fact that repeated studies show no correlation between completing homework and success on exams — or even final grades — the successful completion of repetitive homework is the foundational data point publishers feed a hungry bureaucracy. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer…. Often literally.

The most tragic truth of all is that none of this is actually necessary for learning.

Of course, most teachers don’t set out with nefarious political purposes or a desire to oppress anyone. In fact, most of us in education wish and work for the exact opposite (though there are notable exceptions). But if we want the exact opposite, we’ll have to move radically away from replication and conformity in our classes. We’ll have to move to a system where difference makes a meaningful difference — where diversity becomes as essential for success in the classroom as it is in the world.

Diversity, justice, and equity cannot be created or nurtured by the current system because at its core, the system is based on authoritarian uniformity. Good characteristics certainly spring up — and many teachers and learners work to nurture them — but it’s time to recognize and acknowledge that the current educational system is working against them.

If we want to create a world where humanity survives, we’ll have to work inside and outside our classrooms to abandon the destructive informational monoculture that throws away human lives in all of their rich, powerful, beautiful diversity

And that must change.

If we want to create a world where humanity survives, we’ll have to work inside and outside our classrooms to abandon the destructive informational monoculture that throws away human lives in all of their rich, powerful, beautiful diversity. If we want to engender justice, wisdom, and human thriving, we’ll have to restore the natural, diverse ecosystems that connect us profoundly to our local communities and local contexts — and one another. And we’ll have to stop looking for some prefab veneer to stretch over the existing structure — no unit of study, trip to the museum, or even local service project will be enough to fix what’s broken.

If we believe that black lives matter, we’ll have to fight the negation of the stories and perspectives integral to those lives and their shackling to a structure of uniformity that offers no space to breathe. If we believe that queer lives matter, we’ll have to create a safe space where those lives can offer their wisdom without being overwritten by a structure of uniformity that sees them as irrelevant or deviant. If we believe women’s lives matter, we’ll have to support and celebrate those perspectives without locking them into the narrow roles that uniformity says are appropriate. If we believe the lives of those with differing cognitions matter, we’ll have to recognize the insights and value they offer without allowing uniformity to lock them away as defective.

Sometimes, structures can be left standing: sometimes they can be adapted, sometimes transformed.

But sometimes, you have to tear them down.


learning innovations for the regenerative economy

William Rankin

Written by

Former university professor; learning designer who works to improve access, humanity & agency, replacing the Taylorite education factory… www.unfoldlearning.net


regenerative.global is a transformative learning consultancy based in London & New York founded by Graham Brown-Martin and William Rankin

William Rankin

Written by

Former university professor; learning designer who works to improve access, humanity & agency, replacing the Taylorite education factory… www.unfoldlearning.net


regenerative.global is a transformative learning consultancy based in London & New York founded by Graham Brown-Martin and William Rankin

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store