Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

This article includes information from the following articles, which you may wish to read first.

The Historical Purpose of American Public Education

The Myth of the Average Man

Standards and Assessment: Part 1

Standards and Assessment: Part 2

Individuality and Equal Access

Equal Fit and Opportunity

"Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity. ~Hippocrates
Placeholder Picture


haracteristic of many governmental policy statements, the mission statement of the U. S. Department of Education is filled with glittering generalities whose definitions are left to the imagination of the reader. What, specifically, is meant by student achievement? What specific preparation does one need for global competitiveness? What, specifically, is meant by educational excellence? And what, specifically, is meant by equal access? To better understand how the DOE uses these terms, let's look at the current policies that they implement and encourage.

Student Achievement and Educational Excellence

The dictionary defines achievement as "a thing done successfully, typically by effort, courage, or skill." Not much help there. What, specifically, is the "thing" that students are expected to "do successfully"?

In his book, Creative Schools, Sir Ken Robinson describes the story—the myth—that much of our society has been brainwashed into accepting. In this story, children go to school to learn (be given) the standardized knowledge and skills that adults have decided "all children must know and be able to do." If they "learn" (retain) these "essential" things (as measured on standardized tests) during the first 12 years, they will be accepted into a "good" university and graduate with a "good" degree. This, in turn, insures that they can get a well-paid job. Voila!—SUCCESS! But as Robinson suggests, "This is…[the] story that many people believe about education, even though it's not real and never really was." [emphasis added]

"In this story, real intelligence is what you use in academic studies: children are born with different amounts of this intelligence, and so naturally some do well at school and some don't. The ones who are really intelligent go on to good universities with other academically bright students. Those graduate with a good university degree are guaranteed a well-paid professional job with their own office. Students who are less intelligent naturally do less well at school. Some may fail or drop out. Some finish high school may not go any further in education and look for a lower income job instead. Some will go on to college but take less academic, vocational courses and get a decent service or manual job, with their own toolkit."(1)

Based on the prevailing structure of one-size-fits-all public schools, as well as what many parents say they want for their children, this story—this myth—remains largely unquestioned. "They really believe that the current systems of education are basically sound; they're just not working as well as they should because standards have fallen. Consequently, most efforts are focused on raising standards through more competition and accountability."

We must then infer that student achievement—the "thing done successfully"—as well as educational excellence, are pretty much limited to getting high scores on tests of academic ability.

But wait? According to the prevailing myth, only those children lucky enough to be born with "real intelligence"—the "academically bright"—have an opportunity to attain that achievement or excellence. If that is true, then isn't it hypocrisy to insist that schools and teachers are "failing" because all children aren't reaching these same extremely limited and prejudicial goals?

The question that parents and the public rarely, if ever, ask is, "Are these definitions of student achievement and educational excellence appropriate?" When did people start believing that academic intelligence is the only measure of "success"? How, in a time when "growth mindset" is touted as a major factor in educational success, do we fail to recognize the fixed mindset that lies at the heart of the myth? Why, when Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences has been widely accepted by the educational establishment, does education continue to focus almost solely on "academic intelligence"?

The Myth of the Average Man and The Reigning Paradigm in Public Education: Part 1 explain how flawed conclusions and elitist beliefs established the current Academic Achievement paradigm before and during the Industrial Age. The only experience most people have with schooling comes from their own education. Because that system has remained largely unchanged for over 100 years, many have come to believe that this is what education is, and must always be. And that is simply not true!

Equal Access


hat about the equal access included in the DOE mission statement? Does this mean that schools will provide all children with the tools they need to "achieve" their self-defined goals—their own definition of success? Of course not! The traditional structure of schools is focused on "giving" students the knowledge and skills that adults have decided all children must "know and be able to do." The goal (unachievable from the start because of unequal funding), was that all learners would get "equal access" to the SAME instruction, delivered in the SAME way, at the SAME time (based on their age.) The mission statement implies that this insures equal opportunity for all, which is patently false even if it could have been accomplished!

In the first place, the term "equal opportunity" is an oxymoron. Opportunity is defined as "a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something." Clearly, a child born to a wealthy family will experience different circumstances than a child born in poverty. Schools can't provide "equal" opportunity. At issue is whether they are providing individual learners with the kinds of opportunity they need to develop their unique potential.

multiple intelligences

The diagram is one way to understand "multiple intelligences." Which of these intelligences are your strengths? In which might you be considered "less intelligent?" Each individual has a "jagged profile." Each of us has physical, mental, emotional, and psychological strengths and weaknesses. Even people who are "academically bright" are stronger in some subjects than others—if only because of their interest.

Now consider the types of intelligence prized by education. Only two of those intelligences are represented in the vast majority of educational experiences—logical/mathematical and verbal/linguistic. Is that equal access? What opportunity does a child whose strength is musical or bodily-kinesthetic have to 1.) learn the mandated material; and 2.) demonstrate their learning? Is the "failure" in the students—or in the system?

A child's strengths are the keys that can unlock that child's potential. Each key is different because of the jagged profiles of individuals. But only those children whose keys are a close match to the "lock" of academic achievement receive the opportunity to move forward. Not only are children with strengths in other intelligences locked out, but they are made to believe that they are failures because they don't have the correct key!

Equal Fit

"Almost everything in traditional educational systems remains designed to ensure students receive the same exact standardized experience. Textbooks are…targeted toward the average student of a given age. Many assessments…are based around the average student of that age or grade. We continue to enforce a curriculum that defines not only what students learn, but also how, when, at what pace, and in what order they learn it. In other words, whatever else we may say, traditional public education systems violate the principles of individuality."(2)

Those who began driving before the 1960s may remember a time when the driver's seat in a car was similar to an economy airline seat. Designed for the "average" driver, the seat's height, distance from the steering wheel and pedals, as well as the angle of the back were fixed. While almost every driver found one or more of these dimensions uncomfortable—a poor fit to their bodies—the "standard" seat was all you could get. It's a wonder that there weren't a lot more accidents when people with short legs who could barely reach the pedals with their toes suddenly had to jam on the brakes! Or when heavier people couldn't turn the wheel fast enough because there was so little clearance between their body and the wheel!

Today's seats and steering wheels are adjustable in many different dimensions, so that each driver can select the exact fit they need to drive comfortably and safely. In The End of Average(3), Dr. Todd Rose relates a number of fascinating stories about how making airplane cockpits adjustable to the widest possible range of pilots has increased not only the safety factor, but opportunities for those who are anything but "average" pilots.

Ridiculous? Absolutely! So why is it appropriate to offer every child a narrow range of educational experience based on the perceived needs and abilities of a hypothetical (and non-existent) "average" student of a given age? And why is it appropriate to measure (and label) every child's ability based on this extremely limited dimension of ability?



henever anyone suggests that education needs to be "individualized," many teachers immediately say that it can't be done. And they are correct as long as they continue to perceive their role as "giving" all students the same body of information. Learners are not identical empty vessels that can be filled with the same knowledge and skills. Abundant research supports the idea that learning is "internally generated"—arising from the interaction of the individual with the environment and the feedback that the learner gets from that interaction. How then, can we possibly make education "adjustable" enough for equal fit?

The key—and perhaps the most difficult stumbling block for traditional educators—is letting go of the belief that learning requires teaching, and that teaching always leads to learning. Children are born wanting to learn. During the first years of life—before they are forced to sit in desks and "pay attention"—they learn what are arguably the most important skills in life—how to walk and how to communicate. And they do it on their own, largely without direct instruction! If we truly want children to become "lifelong" learners, we must do everything in our power to support the continuation of that authentic type of learning rather than shutting it down at the age of 5 (or earlier, now that "early childhood" education is jumping on the readiness bandwagon.)

To achieve equal fit, learners must be provided with the richest possible learning environment—an environment that offers each learner 'access' to information and experience in whatever ways their unique combination of strengths and interests require. In addition, they must be given the opportunity to explore that environment at their own pace and in their own way, as well as to convey their learning in a variety of ways. The role of the teacher must change—from transmitter of information to curator of experiences, mentor, facilitator, and cheerleader.

These ideas aren't new. The article What is Authentic Learning? traces the history of these ideas from the 18th century to the present. For example, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau contended that:

"[Children] must be safeguarded from [society's] contaminating influence. The problem is the way in which social institutions, especially schools, distort children into their own image, forcing them all into the same mold, regardless of the fit."
"The development of the child is a natural unfolding, not a mechanical process that needs adult management and regulation at every turn. Children are born to learn, and, if given a nurturing, stimulating environment in which they are allowed to follow their own natural rhythms and mature at their own pace, they will largely educate themselves. …The aim of education should be the free and uninhibited development of the learner."(4)

Rousseau also disagreed with the authority-driven "teacher as teller" mode of teaching. He believed that true teaching was based, not on authority and control, but on a loving bond between teacher and student, within which the two could explore matters of interest together. For a description of how this plays out in today's learner-centered schools, you may wish to read this article.

Maria Montessori was another proponent of returning the responsibility for learning to the learner. She abhorred the educational method of traditional schools.

"In such a school the children, like butterflies mounted on pins, are fastened each to their places, the desks, spreading the useless wings of barren and meaningless knowledge that they have acquired.…The principle of slavery still pervades pedagogy, and therefore, the same principle pervades the school."(5)

Montessori's methods have become mainstream, and schools based on her philosophy are filled with students whose parents can afford the tuition. However, despite the widespread recognition that her methods, which are the antithesis of public education, succeed in doing what public education claims to want to do, there has been little or no movement by policy makers to adopt those methods in public schools for "other people's children."

In fact, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sends his children to the University of Chicago Lab School, based on the progressive philosophy of John Dewey. Critics of Dewey's progressive schools worried that children would not acquire basic academic knowledge and skills. They were bothered by differences between progressive schools and traditional schools because children called their teachers by their first names, spent too much time walking around outdoors, and worse, "The children can't wait to get to school. There must be something wrong!"(6)

Is this really such a surprise when the children are freed to learn what, when, and how they want? And if students aren't acquiring basic academic knowledge or skills, why do the wealthy send their own children there?

Mission Statements Tell the Story


nlike the mission statement of the DOE, mission statements of schools founded on the beliefs and principles of learner-centered education reflect the fundamental differences between public education and education that provides equal fit to learning opportunities. These schools focus on the unique potential of each individual and the education of the whole child rather than on "producing" compliant, standardized worker bees for the economy, which has been the goal of U.S. education since the Industrial Age.

For example, here is the mission statement of the Rainbow Community School in Asheville, TN. 

"To develop accomplished, creative and confident learners who are prepared to be leaders in building a compassionate, environmentally sustainable world."

While there is no mention of academic achievement or competitiveness, wouldn't students educated in this way contribute to the economy? Wouldn't they be productive citizens?

Ken Robinson states that:

"The revolution I'm advocating is based on different principles from those of the standards movement. If 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 citizens."(7)

Robinson's statement is a perfect example of the disconnect between what humanistic educators believe about the purpose of education and "the way it is" in much of public education. His use of the word "revolution" rather than "reform" is significant. Many who are critical of the current state of public education try to convince legislators to change the system. But Robinson cautions that:

"…revolutions don't wait for legislation. They emerge from what people do at the ground level. Education…is what goes on between learners and teachers in actual schools. If you're a teacher, for your students you are the system. If you're a school principal, for your community you are the system. If you're a policymaker, for the schools you control you are the system."
"…Like most revolutions, this one has been brewing for a long time, and in many places it is already well under way. It is not coming from the top down; it is coming, as it must do, from the ground up."(8)

We keep hearing about school choice! But the only "answers" we are given are charter schools and vouchers, both of which pull money away from already underfunded public schools. Do children and their parents deserve choice in their education? Absoutely. So why hasn't the Department of Education implements...or even allowed that choice within public education? Why do they continue to mandate "one-size-fits-all" standardized education that is totally inconsistent with research on individual differences?

Parents and citizens have an equally important role in this revolution. Begin by asking questions. Demand answers that are more than "glittering generalities." Insist that policy makers explain why public education defines success so narrowly, ignoring the unique abilities of a large percentage of children. Ask public school students how they would create their "dream school." What would they include? What would they leave out? Once you free people from the "box" of traditional education, you will be amazed at the possibilities.

Each person concerned about the education of our children has the power to affect their future…to broaden the range of educational opportunities for previously disenfranchised learners…to work toward "equal fit." Enlightened teachers and administrators can spearhead the revolution. But it will take the committment and involvement of parents and concerned citizens to tip the scales. Begin now to change the face of education!

Einstein Quote

  1. Robinson, Ken. (2015) Creative Schools, Viking, NY, pp xx-xxii
  2. Rose, Todd (2015) The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, HarperCollins, NY. p. 188
  3. Ibid. pp 1-5, 183-185
  4. Mercogliano, Chris. (2006) How to Grow a School; Starting and Sustaining Schools That Work. The Oxford Village Press, Oxford, NY. p 22
  5. Montessori, Maria. (1965) The Montessori Method. Robert Bentley
  6. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/progressive-schools-children-deserve/
  7. Robinson, p xxiv
  8. Ibid, pp xxvii-xxviii

Share This

Do you like what you find here? Are you intrigued? Please take the opportunity to share this page on your favorite social media site. It helps raise awareness and starts or adds to dialogue. Take a moment to share this page.