Posted by: lsinrc | March 16, 2009

When Content Standards Go Bad

When discussing barriers to technology integration and 21st Century Skills, educators can offer a long list. Typical responses include time, money, and lack of training. Yet one item arguably the most difficult barrier to true integration is what I believe to be the most overlooked: curriculum standards.

How can education’s darling of accountability and consistency be a barrier? For years I have had discussions with educators about this issue, but I have never felt that I articulated the problem as well as I would like. Then last week the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge group released a new study:

When Goal Setting Goes Bad and
Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting

It begs the question–how can goal setting be bad? Isn’t goal setting always better than the alternative–no goals? The paper describes predictable ways in which goal setting harms organizations; they go on to argue that, in many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits. The similarities to curriculum standards are very strong. Then again, when you really get down to their core essence, curriculum standards are a form of goal setting. Let’s examine how the points in the research on goal setting are directly applicable to content standards. Reader note: when reading these quotes from the report below, mentally replace the word goal with standard.

Narrow Goals
–the HBS paper describes how goals can focus attention so narrowly that people overlook other important features–they develop inattentional blindness. “Goal setting may cause people to ignore important dimensions of performance that are not specified by the goal setting system…The very presence of goals may lead employees to focus myopically on short-term gains and to lose sight of the potential devastating long-term effects on the organization.”

Many states/schools refer to their standards as content standards. Unfortunately, too much of our content is based on factual knowledge. A large contributor to this problem is our assessment, particularly testing (more about this in a later blog). By focusing narrowly on on knowledge level standards, educators can neglect important higher order thinking skills.

I cannot count how many times I have presented teachers a lesson that demonstrates a melding of 21st Century Skills, the new Bloom’s taxonomy, and web 2.0 tools, only to have them walk away saying it doesn’t fit their specific curriculum standards. How did we as educators allow ourselves to slip to a position where low-level/knowledge-based/easily-tested content reigns so powerfully that it vetoes all else we deem important in education?

Often our most powerful tools to best facilitate 21st Century Skills are banned/blocked/filtered in schools because students might be able to use them to “cheat” on narrow knowledge-based content. To illustrate this point, I show teachers how to use their cell phones to text ChaCha (242242) with any open-ended factual content question from their class. Many are amazed to see they can get answers to much of their content without even needing a smartphone! I then ask how many do not allow cell phones in their classrooms because they may be used for cheating (typically most hands go up).

But the question I have to be ask is this–if much of our classroom content can be answered that easily, are we really asking the right questions? It is a glaring sign that our content is too narrow.

Too Many Goals–“Related research suggests that some types of goals are more likely to be ignored than others…When quantity and quality goals were both
difficult, participants sacrificed quality to meet the quantity goals.
Goals that are easier to achieve and measure (such as quantity) may be
given more attention than other goals (such as quality) in a multi-goal

Our content standards are a mile-wide and an inch deep, and this presents a large barrier to integrating 21st Century Skills. When presented with tools and techniques to venture deeper with authentic intellectually-challenging types of learning, teachers invariably respond that they do not have the time to pursue it. But when quizzed further about this issue, it turns out to be less an issue of time than an issue of priority–they have too much content that must be covered before the end of the semester. To pursue depth with any portion of the curriculum would require they not cover other areas of their curriculum. In essence, we sacrifice depth & challenge (quality) for volume & surface-knowledge (quantity).

Inappropriate Time Horizons–“Goals that emphasize immediate
performance (e.g., this quarter’s profits) prompt managers to engage in
myopic, short-term behavior that harms the organization in the long
run…The time horizon problem is related to the notion that goals can
lead people to perceive their goals as ceilings rather than floors for

While the HSB report focuses on this as a time issue, in education the ceilings/floors problem is just as much an issue of settling for lower-levels of knowledge. Rather than viewing proficiency of content standards as the first stage (floor), it is too often viewed as the final goal (ceiling). Proficiency in knowledge-level content is not enough.

Many have criticized NCLB for turning attention away from gifted and high-performing students. But what we are learning from 21st Century Skills development is that all students need to be exposed to authentic intellectually-challenging learning experiences. It cannot be relegated to a select few anymore.

More on content standards as barriers to 21st Century Skills in the next blog…



  1. […] have already commented on some of the inherent weaknesses with content standards (When Content Standards Go Bad ), and others as well (Koehn’s Case Against “Tougher Standards” or Warlick’s closing […]

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