How to Tame Monsters

Standards are rife in education, and they form the bedrock upon which comparative assessment is built. Everywhere we look, we find attempts to overlay bumpy, contoured terrains with grids of mathematical smoothness and precision. Everywhere we see attempts to tame quirky, complex entities into standardised categories. Yet a close look shows that the projects of standardisation are seldom complete; non-standard ‘monsters’, complex and hybrid, continue to roam the planet, albeit sometimes subdued and disguised, defying classification and standardisation.

Encounters between the projects of standardisation and the deviant monsters that resist standardisation are fascinating to trace. The elaborate mobilisation of resources, the marshalling of expertise, the complex negotiations, the cajoling and the appeals to camaraderie and the greater good, the brinkmanship and the hustling involved in these projects make them heroic epics. But the telling of these tales is not a mere indulgence – standardisation is a deeply political project. It is through the making of standards that deviants become visible and come to be represented as monstrous. And it is through telling these tales that we might discover how to make a difference for the better.

Radhika Gorur, Mary Hamilton, Camilla Addey and Bryan Maddox have been engaged in empirically examining projects of standardisation, using the descriptive and disruptive sociology of actor-network theory. Taking standards to be technosocial hybrids of science and politics, we are seeking to elaborate how standards successfully become part of our world or disassemble and fade away.   Through empirical studies of such standardising projects as PISA, PIAAC, and LAMP, we are seeking to elaborate the processes of standardisation and the thorough intermingling of politics, nature, science and culture involved in such international assessments. We collectively ask: how might we respond to the growing confrontations between standardisation and the social and cultural diversity so valued in education? Together, we hope for a world which may learn to live with – and love – monsters.

As one of the first Laboratory events, we are presenting our work as a symposium on How to Tame Monsters: Encounters between Standards and Deviantsat the European Conference on Educational Research, Sept 1-6, 2014.

Drawing by Mauro Guglielminotti