Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

An Alternate Paradigm for Education: Part 1


n The Reigning Paradigm in Public Education, we explored the assumptions of the "Academic Achievement" paradigm that forms the foundation of contemporary public education in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. We also identified a number of negative consequences that arise from strict adherence to that paradigm.

In his book, Creative Schools, Dr. Ken Robinson points out that, throughout history, an important mode of learning has been through stories, myths, and fairy tales. For example, Aesop's Fables contained a moral or message hidden within the behavior of the characters. When we read a fable, we willingly suspend disbelief and take on a different set of beliefs that we know are not possible in the real world, such as animals that talk and behave like humans. But Robinson cautions that, when a story is something that we have heard over and over—whether it is true or not—the distinction between facts and beliefs can easily become blurred. For example, the story we have been told about the Academic Achievement paradigm goes something like this:

"Young children go to elementary school mainly to learn the basic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics. These skills are essential so they can do well academically in high school. If they go on to higher education and graduate with a good degree, they'll find a well-paid job and the country will prosper too."(1)
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Every sentence in this story is stated as a fact "even though it's not real and never really was."(2) The story is a collection of beliefs, not facts, that have become a widely accepted, and extremely dangerous, myth. Politicians and others who believe this myth view with alarm the rising number of dropouts, low test scores, increased stress among students and teachers, complaints from employers that students (even those with college degrees) are unprepared for work, and the "school to prison pipeline." Because they never question the story itself, they reason that standards must be too low, teachers are incompetent, or that schools are failing and must be punished or turned over to for-profit companies.

However, just the opposite is true! If you design a system to do a specific task, it will do it! The current educational system was designed to create standardization and conformity. Developing individuality, imagination, and creativity, or facilitating the development of the unique potential of individuals were never the goals of industrial age public education. Mass production and assembly lines worked well in industry, so the assumption was that they would work equally well in public education.

"The dominant metaphor for today's education is the Newtonian Machine: The school is a more or less well-oiled machine that processes (educates?) children. In this sense, the education system (school) comes complete with production goals (desired end states); objectives (precise intermediate end states); raw material (children); a physical plant (school building); a 13-stage assembly line (grades K-12); directives for each stage (curriculum guides); processes for each stage (instruction): managers for each stage (teachers); plant supervisors (principals); … quality control mechanisms (discipline, rules, lock-step progress through stages, conformity; interchangeability of parts (teacher-proof curriculum, 25 students per processing unit, equality of treatment); uniform criteria for all (standardized testing interpreted on the normal curve); and basic product available in several lines of trim (academic, vocational, business, general)."(3)

It's distressing to realize that these words were written in 1985…and not only has the factory metaphor not changed, but the "quality control mechanisms" and "uniform criteria" have grown more and more oppressive. Yet unwilling to give up the myth, policy makers double down. It's much easier to blame everyone else for the failure of their own policies than to admit that they might have been wrong!

Those who adhere to this factory model fail to recognize the inherent flaws in their logic! The raw materials that go into manufacturing automobiles, or computers, or pots and pans are inanimate! Those materials have no personal wants, needs, goals, or interests, so creating standards that define the composition of the materials, or specifications for the items manufactured using those materials is relatively easy. The same does not apply to human beings!

Some argue that we are more alike than different. That may be physically true. It may even be true in terms of basic cognitive processes. But beyond that, the billions of neuronal connections in the brain that change throughout our lives in response to experience produce an almost infinite variety of combinations. No two people are, or should be expected to be, the same. A standard individual is a contradiction of terms!

What assembly line can work effectively when each bit of raw material is different, not to mention constantly changing in response to individual experience? It is not only illogical, but essentially impossible, to insist that human minds conform to such limited and limiting standards. And that doesn't even take into account developmental differences…the NORMAL range of ages at which individuals develop the mental processes needed to "meet the standards."

In this assembly line organization of schools, what happens to students who can't keep up? Is it their fault? The teacher's fault? The school's fault? Or does the problem reside in the assembly line model itself? In fact, is the end goal of the Academic Achievement assembly line inherent in this myth what we want for our children and our future?

Some point with pride at the people for whom public education appears to succeed…those who exemplify "the story." The hidden assumption is that, if others just tried harder, they could also succeed. But once again, this assumes that everyone defines success in the same way.

"Numerous people have succeeded in the system and done well by it. It would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But far too many have not benefited as they should from the long years of public education. The success of those who do well in the system comes at a high price for the many who do not. As the standards movement gathers pace, even more students are paying the price of failure. Too often, those who are succeeding are doing so in spite of the dominant culture of education, not because of it."(4) (Emphasis added)

Changing the Story

What are the alternatives to assembly-line education, the same standards for all, and the Academic Achievement paradigm? It's clear that we have to begin by rethinking the purpose of education. Sir Ken Robinson advocates an education revolution based on very different principles from the standards movement.

"It is based on a belief in the value of the individual, the right to self-determination, our potential to evolve and live a fulfilled life, and the importance of civic responsibility and respect for others.…As I see it, the aims of education are to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizen."(5)

I can hear the outrage already. "But what about the economy? It's all very nice to help individuals become 'fulfilled individuals,' but where will the workers come from? Kids need to know and be able to do what employers want and need so they can get a good job!"

This type of "either/or" thinking demonstrates how firmly the academic achievment paradigm controls people's thinking. It is a major reason why transforming education is so difficult. There is NO suggestion in Robinson's vision that literacy, numeracy, and other academic content will be thrown out the window in favor of holding hands and singing Kumbaya! He's saying that we need to "broaden" the purpose of education beyond the current goals to serve BOTH the needs of society AND the goals of each individual. He's saying that education should address ALL types of multiple intelligences, not just the verbal, logical intelligence needed for "academic achievement." 

There are schools in the U.S. today whose mission is to educate the "whole child"—not just the mental, but the physical, emotional, psychological, creative, natural, and spiritual (knowledge of self). The ironic thing is that when these "whole learners" take a standardized test (just for fun), they typically score several grade levels higher than their public school counterparts of the same age!

I would only ask those who experience a negative reaction to the idea of educating the whole child one question. IF each individual were given the opportunity to develop his/her unique talents and abilities…to learn literacy and numeracy in the context of thinking deeply about, and solving, real world problem, and to recognize their own ability to create change, would that be BAD for the economy? Would it be BAD for that individual's future potential in the economic world? Or would it broaden the talent pool we so badly need as "factory" jobs disappear and issues become more complex?

In this article, we've introduced the foundations for a new educational paradigm. In Part 2, we'll compare the assumptions, rhetoric, and consequences of this new paradigm with those of the current Academic Achievement paradigm.

  1. Robinson, Ken (2015) Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education, Viking Press, NY, p xxi
  2. Ibid.
  3. Sawada, D. & Caley, M. T. (1985). Dissipative Structures: New Metaphors for Becoming in Education. Educational Researcher, Vol. 14, No. 3, 15.
  4. Robinson., p. xxiii
  5. Ibid., p. xxiv

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