The Underlying Barrier to Education Reform

The last few weeks Dave Cormier has been on a roll addressing some of the bigger issues in education (the system of education, as opposed to “learning” that is always happening because of life). When Cormier writes about the need for learners to care about learning, this idea is at the core of why I support heutagogy (learning how to learn) so much. One of the foundations of learning how to learn is to care about learning. But then Cormier asks some questions that I think highlight a glaring problem that is hindering education reform today:

How do we make a minister of education happy about that idea? How do we convince parents that the way a kid feels about learning is more important than what they learned? How would we teach learning? Oh my gosh… how would we assess it? How, inevitably, do we bureaucratize it?

Do you see the big fear-driven problem glaring at us all from behind these questions? Let me take a look at this from another angle then. Often we hear education critics say that “students make it out of a degree without learning anything” or that we have to “prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet.” But when I hear these statements, I feel they show that we are still not fully understanding what is happening with education right now. What we really mean by these statements is that students graduate without being able to score the same passing scores on tests that they scored while in school, or that we did not fill their heads with the factoids that will only exist in the future once new job titles are created. We really have no idea if they learned or were prepared or not – we just know they don’t test as well as we want them to.

In other words, we’re still critiquing education based on the problem of education in 1870 that Cormier explains in his post linked above… but not based on where the world is today. We say that our schools are not modern, but then we say that our educational systems are failing because “students can’t regurgitate factoids on a test or in a paper.”

I still remember when I fired up my first blog and the first blog post rolled out with ease. And then another, and another. No one taught me how to write a blog post, and I certainly don’t remember ever being tested on this kind of writing… so where did it come from? Then I remembered a high school English teacher that had us write hundreds of words daily on each chapter we read in each book we read. Then I got it – that tedious lesson was not about those books, but practicing how to write freely about whatever came to mind. I was never tested on that skill…. so I never counted it as “learning” since it was never on the test or final paper.

Then there was the first time I tried PHP. I cruised through the basic and intermediate lessons with ease, realizing that all that time digging into Algebra problems solving for X was not about finding a number, but digging through problems mathematically to figure out what was missing. They just had to give me the Algebra tests to prove that I had that skill because they needed numbers to prove it.

However, I could also give you pages worth of educational activities that did not work well at all for me – I don’t want to pretend like there are no problems or that our systems are mostly okay. The point I am getting at here is that learning may or may not occurring in formal education… but we would never really know either way because our extreme focus on standardized testing is making us lose focus on what is really happening. What is driving this extreme focus?

I would submit that one major factor is fear of failure. “Failure is not an option!” Well, actually its a part of life, and a great learning experience on top of that. But we are decades into a system that breeds a fear of failure at all levels.

This fear starts with the classroom level, where good lessons on self reflection are just side activities to build writing skills (in order reach a level of passing a standardized test on parts of language, of course) rather than solid activities in and of themselves. Because we so fear failure as a culture, we have to let all learners know how they measure up against the norm. We have to grade everything. And we rarely stop to ask if these grades really mean anything. Of course, why a 70 is passing and a 69 is failing is as much a mystery as anything else. I would like to say standard deviations and all of that, but seeing that we try to get all learners to cross that passing line – so much for that.

Let’s not even go into how one child scoring a 95 on one test might actually not know the content as well as one scoring an 89. They could have just gotten lucky that day.

But here’s where it gets worse: we have to prove that a failing student is really failing to the student, the student’s parents, and the school system in general. We are so afraid of failure that we have to get who passes and who fails right… so more standardization. Not only that, we identify the quality of teachers based on pass/fail scores. Oh, and we also compare school to school, state to state, and country to country with these numbers… all because we are so afraid of failing that we have to have good enough numbers to prove that we aren’t.

So, back to Cormier’s questions: how do we get the system on board with true education reform? We have to end this fear of failure and the ensuing drive that creates a system where everything is compared against a standard of failure. At some point I would love to see a system of personalized learning that embraces failures as just another learning opportunity (and only considers failures based on personal learning goals and not the ability to get a certain score on an assignment). But this fear of failure that creates the need to set up a system that unfairly pushes all learners into the same mold (or one of six variations on this mold that we currently label “personalization”) is going to be a significant barrier. How do we undo decades and centuries worth of ingrained “grades” and “failures” and “top ten percents” and all of that kind of stuff that our systems are built on? There’s an inherent power structure there that favors the quick and early bloomers… who might not want to give up the power that this system affords them.

I have no answers there, but I do foresee some messy fights as the old system erodes and the new one raises. I don’t believe in disruption of systems as much as I believe in evolution, so here is hoping that the new system that evolves is not a regurgitated 1870s system that we got back when the system of the 1980s started evolving in the late 1990s.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

One thought on “The Underlying Barrier to Education Reform

  1. Great post! “The path to success is rarely straight.” Some companies, such as Eli Lilly, are throwing “failure parties” to encourage workers to think more broadly and take risks. Failure means you are on the brink of success. How many inventors or writers have had complete flops, only to land a major success down the line. I am glad that Edison didn’t give up on his experiments or else we would be communicating in the dark. I agree that we put too much pressure on students having the “right answer” – which restricts innovative thinking and lowers confidence.

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