Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

An Alternate Paradigm for Education: Part 2


n his book The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice, author Thomas Armstrong suggests that an alternative to the Academic Achievement paradigm is to "…view the purpose of education primarily in terms of supporting, encouraging, and facilitating a student's growth as a whole human being, including his or her cognitive, emotional, social, ethical, creative, and spiritual unfolding."(1)

(For those who are concerned about the use of the word "spiritual" in the context of public education, keep in mind that that the word as it is used here refers to self-knowledge and reflective thinking…NOT to any religious context.)

The Human Development paradigm stands in sharp contrast to the current Academic Achievement story. Its assumptions include the following:

Assumption #1: Becoming a whole human being is the most important aspect of learning.

Assumption #2: Evaluating the growth of the whole human being is a meaningful, ongoing, and qualitative process that itself involves human growth.

Assumption #3: The human development paradigm favors a curriculum that is flexible, that is individualized, and that gives students meaningful choices.

(Some who read this will immediately say, "It's not possible to individualize or differentiate learning…we don't have time." Keep in mind that this thinking arises from the Academic Achievement paradigm, in which the role of teachers is to "give" all students the knowledge and skills that adults have decided they need. If we retain that paradigm, then no, this isn't possible. The whole point here is that the Human Development paradigm casts both the learner and the teacher in entirely different roles. More on that later.)

Assumption #4: The human development paradigm is interested in the past, present, and future of every student.

Assumption #5: The human development paradigm focuses on the growth of each individual as opposed to how a student compares to others.

Assumption #6: The human development paradigm bases its claims for validity on the richness of human experience.

Assumption #7: The human development paradigm generally takes place as part of a grassroots effort on the part of practitioners inspired by individual creative thinkers in education and psychology.

Assumption #8: The ultimate goal in the human development paradigm is the development of wisdom, integrity, creativity, self-actualization, character, responsibility, open-mindedness, generosity, individuality, spirituality, and more.

In Armstrong's words, "Some might refer to this state as happiness—not a temporary state, but a profound sense of well-being that does not depend on what we have, but on who we are. Contrast this with the ultimate goal of the current Academic Achievement story—money for the individual and winning the global economy competition for the country."(2)

Changing the Rhetoric


n the Human Development paradigm, conversations are focused around terms such as authentic learning, authentic assessment, creativity, curiosity, developmentally appropriate, empathy, social and emotional growth, self-directed learning, self-expression, uniqueness, facilitating learning, lifelong learning and holistic education.(3)

As a reminder, the key terms in the Academic Achievement paradigm include academic achievement, accountability, alignment to standards, high-stakes testing, "achievement gap," high-stakes testing, mandates, grit, readiness, rigor, standards, and standardized testing.

Keep in mind that the Academic Achievement and Human Development paradigms and goals are not mutually exclusive. The Human Development paradigm doesn't ignore academic learning, but it does tailor that learning to individual growth and development. Rather than one-size-fits-all standards selected by adults far removed from the educational process, learning environments shaped around human development build on the eagerness to learn with which all normal children are born.

But what about jobs…making money…improving the economy? Once again, I ask how likely it is that a person who leaves school with wisdom, integrity, creativity, self-actualization, character, responsibility, open-mindedness, generosity, individuality, self-awareness, and a love of learning in addition to academic knowledge would NOT be an asset to the community, the world of work, and the global economy?

Positive Consequences of the Human Development Paradigm


n discussing the Academic Achievement paradigm, we examined the negative consequences of this approach. In The Best Schools, Thomas Armstrong contrasts those negative consequences with these positive consequences of the Human Development paradigm."(4)

Positive Consequence #1: Learning activities and coursework based on the Human Development model better prepare students to function in the real world. The Academic Achievement model insists that students study hard, get good grades, and do well on tests in order to prepare them for the future. Yet the real world involves getting along with others, solving common sense problems, becoming part of the community, and developing competence in a profession that is just as likely to involve music, art, theater, mechanics, carpentry, or other academic pursuits that rely on much more than knowledge of academic subjects.

Positive Consequence #2: The Human Development paradigm enables all students to shine in their areas of strength. In the Academic Achievement paradigm, students who are school smart are the only ones who "succeed" (AKA get good grades and high test scores). A school based on active learning in which all learners have extensive choice in how learning takes place and how it can be demonstrated provides many more opportunities for all kids to succeed as learners.

Positive Consequence #3: A school based on the Human Development model has little need to classify students as learning-disabled, ADHD, academically underachieving, or other negative labels. When a school focuses on the development of the strengths of individual students rather than on comparing and ranking student achievement against some mythical standard, labels that focus on what students can't do, or have difficulty doing, are no longer necessary. By perceiving each child moment to moment as an individual, teachers are free to ask, "Is what we are doing in the best interest of THIS child at THIS point in time?"

Positive Consequence #4: Because the Human Development model focuses on educating the whole person, more attention is paid to the development of emotional and social learning, as well as empathy for others. These characteristics aren't "taught"—they are an integral part of the school culture. The mission statements of many learner-centered schools emphasize the development of individuals who care about the world around them, recognize their ability to create change, and who will ultimately give back to the community and to the culture.

Positive Consequence #5: Schools that focus on Human Development tend to create programs that support the mental health needs of students so that destructive behaviors found in so many public schools are less likely to emerge. Rather than a set of rigid rules with corresponding punishments, adults work with individual students to uncover the reasons behind negative behaviors and help students become self-regulating.

Positive Consequence #6: The Human Development model helps students understand themselves, and to identify and develop talents and abilities beyond any externally imposed "standards".

Positive Consequence #7: The Human Development model gives students more control over their learning environment. Autonomy is an important aspect of human development that is particularly honored in this model. The more students take responsibility for their own learning, the more likely they are to become lifelong learners—a trait that is particularly important as traditional jobs are rapidly replaced by jobs that don't even exist today.

Positive Consequence #8: The Human Development model results in fewer discipline problems in schools. When learners are actively engaged in activities and concepts that they have chosen, and in which they are interested, they are much less likely to rebel against authority. The human development model helps educators and students understand the underlying emotional, social, or cognitive reasons why these behaviors exist. Those reasons often include boredom, anxiety, depression, confusion, and anger that are more likely to occur when learners have little or no control over their actions, and feel pressured to live up to the expectations of others.

Positive Consequence #9: The Human Development model values uniqueness and qualities such as creativity, individuality, and innovation. It provides a climate within which teachers and students can engage in open-ended discussions, individualized projects, serendipitous learning, and innovative approaches that show promise in developing a student's social, cognitive, emotional, moral, or creative abilities in addition to intellectual growth.

Positive Consequence #10: With its focus on the natural development of each individual, the Human Development model promotes the establishment of developmentally appropriate practices and discourages the use of developmentally inappropriate practices in schools.

Comparison of the Academic Achievement and Human Development Paradigms

Here is a table comparing some of the main characteristics of the Academic Achievment Paradigm and the Human Development Paradigm. The table is adapted from The Best Schools by Thomas Armstrong.(5)


Academic Achievement

Human Development




Temporal Orientation



Primary Research Methods



Primary Assessment Method

standardized testing

naturalistic observation, documentation, and learner-generated portfolios/projects

Most Important “subject”

academic content and skills

how to live as a whole human being

Learning Process

Passive: memorization of facts and practicing skills

Active: questioning, planning, creating, doing, reflecting, communicating, collaborating

Most valued aspect of learning

end product (test, diploma, job)

the learning process from beginning to end

Most Important Role of Teachers

to meet institutional mandates

to inspire in students a passion for learning

Educational decision making


individual learners

Ultimate goal

High test scores, jobs, money

maturity, happiness, fulfillment

Negative Consequences?


re there any negative consequences to the Human Development paradigm? People who sincerely believe that Academic Achievement should be the primary purpose of schools may assume that the human development model can't accomplish that goal. But given the scores on the existing tests, it doesn't appear that the present system is doing a very good job either.

People who value big data over the ongoing qualitative assessement of the growth of individual human beings will certainly find fault. A program founded on human development respects and fosters individual differences, so there are no big standardized tests whose only purpose is to compare and rank children against some mythical "norm." Some learner-centered schools have their students take the "big standardized tests" just for fun. Despite the fact that these schools don't "teach the standards," the students typically exceed grade level expectations by several grades. This certainly suggests the value of deeper, more holistic thinking over the memorization of facts.

Others may cringe at the thought of using ongoing formative assessment or other authentic assessment, such as portfolios and performance assessments, instead of the efficiency of sitting everyone down with the same bubble test and then feeding the answer sheets through a machine to generate a number. I would ask why we would settle for a single number that purports to measure a child's "learning" when authentic assessments generate a much more detailed and complete picture of each learner's growth over time.

You can find a more in-depth discussion of authentic assessments here..

To read more about how learner-centered schools—schools built on the principles of human development—differ from traditional public education, see this article..

The idea of schools built around Human Development is not new. Such schools have existed for hundreds of years. Their effectiveness is confirmed by the fact that many wealthy and powerful families, including the former U.S. Secretary of Education, send their own children to these schools. This article provides a brief history of the Human Development paradigm of education.

  1. Armstrong, Thomas (2006) The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice, ASCD, p. 39
  2. Ibid. pp 39-47
  3. Ibid. pp 66-67
  4. Ibid. pp. 56-65
  5. Ibid. p 38

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