Don't raise standards — raise a standard

I often hear discussions about education reform be conducted on the principle of the "well let's at least get them to x" principle. 

"Maybe some kids will be Einsteins," the discussion seems to be assuming, "and that'd be great. But right now, we at least want to ensure that all our students will have the basic skills." 

This position tries to be loving and caring and kind. It recognizes that, without a basic grasp of math, reading, cultural knowledge, and so on, kids struggle. 

But it's wrong.

This approach rests on the assumption that it's easier to do something easy than to do something hard. But, intriguingly, that's not always the case. 

To do anything (large or small), a human being needs to be motivated. They need to want to do it. As John Taylor Gatto has written,

Common sense should tell you it isn't "difficult" to teach children who don't want to learn. It's impossible.

What we need to do (as a school, as a society) is define stirring goals for students to quest toward. 

Want penmanship? Hook kids up with calligraphy.
Want multiplication facts? Set kids on learning the secrets of mental math.
Want literacy? Cultivate voracious readers.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Which is to say: We have to aim higher. Aim greater. Aim bolder. 

To start with, we should wipe from our cultural vocabulary that horrible phrase "raise standards". It connotes bureaucracy, a dehumanized environment in which children are viewed as the sum of their test scores.

Replace it with the image of "raising a standard" — lifting a flag on a battlefield for soldiers to fight towards. 

A friend challenged me last year to define what we mean by "mastery". He was, I think, concerned that we were buying into the mainstream "LET'S RAISE STANDARDIZED TEST SCORES OH YEAH!" ethos.

Well, rest assured, we aren't.

But I've found it challenging to elucidate precisely what it is that we mean when we say "mastery". It's so big — it's our image of the educated man or woman. "Renaissance man" comes close to it, as does "maker", as does "creator". I'll continue to work on that. 

For the moment, I'll say this: that sometimes, it's easier to aim for the hard things. 

My thanks to for the Gondor standard image above!

Why value-free education is impossible


In How to Raise a Wild Child, Scott D. Sampson writes:

beauty, truth, and goodness are all essential aspects of learning and education. Value-free education is impossible.

It's occurred to me recently that I haven't done a good job explaining that what we're trying to do with our network of schools isn't just to teach kids more things. It's not just to make them smarter and more skilled, better prepared for the needs of the 21st century.

Our goal, rather, is to cultivate a certain kind of person

Though he comes from a very different tradition, the Protestant theologian James K. A. Smith (in his jaw-dropping book Desiring the Kingdom) writes something intriguingly similar:

I’ve been suggesting that education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information;

rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people.

How do we "shape a certain kind of people"? By helping them think more wisely about the good life — and helping them experience pieces of the good life while they're at our schools. James K. A. Smith again:

What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire — what they envision as “the good life” or the ideal picture of human flourishing.

So, to bring together this insight with our core values:

Our schools aren't merely trying to teach kids better. We're striving to cultivate a certain sort of people — Renaissance men and women, who find all aspects of the world fascinating, relish developing mastery in all manner of fields, and work to construct lives of purpose and meaning.

End this educational war!


In a previous post, I sketched out what may be the biggest brawl in education: the century-old Traditionalist/Progressivist war. I then promised that our schools will fix this.

How ridiculous of me!

But I'll stick to my guns, and show part of how our new kind of school can end this divide.

First, I'd like to distill everything I wrote before into two sentences:

Traditionalist education values getting old ideas into heads. Progressivist education values getting new ideas out of heads.

(Please forgive my oversimplification.)

Now, I've heard both Traditionalists and Progressivists deny that the other side has any legitimacy. I've heard partisans of each side argue that, don't worry, our way of doing school will accomplish both of these.

I've heard Traditionalists boast that students who stock up on knowledge will be capable of doing new things later in life. And I've heard Progressivists boast that students who get hands-on experience will become interested in old ideas later in life.

May I suggest that we be skeptical of all such boasts, and look at the real-world results?

If I were unafraid of being rude, I'd perhaps point out that some people educated in the Traditionalist manner end up being, well, bores! Bores well-stocked with trivia, perhaps, but not the sort of people who is able to take on exciting new projects, think critically, and help mend a world riven by complex, changing problems.

And if I were, well, drunk, I'd perhaps point out that some people educated in the Progressivist manner end up being fools! Fools who have a strong sense of self, perhaps, but not the sort of person able to take on exciting new projects, think critically, and help mend a world riven by complex, changing problems.

This isn't to say that Traditionalist and Progressivist education doesn't work — just that it doesn't always work, and that its proponents (quite understandably) don't seem willing to point this out.

But if we're going to forge a path beyond the Traditionalist/Progressivist wars, and give kids the sort of education that can help mend the world, then I think we need to look squarely at what's really going on.

So, having cast a plague on both these houses, how do I think our schools can move forward, and heal this divide?

How can we bring together the best of Traditionalist and Progressivist education?

One way: closely align receiving and doing. Join "taking in old ideas" and "pushing out new ideas" snugly together.

I'll write more about how we're already doing this in an upcoming post — and ask how we can do it better!

Why I'm in love with both a werewolf and a vampire (or: "Beyond the Traditionalist–Progressivist Divide")


Like Twilight’s Bella Swan, I am desperately in love with a werewolf and a vampire. Well, metaphorically. Less metaphorically, I’m desperately in love with two totally opposing visions of schooling.

I’ve found this to be a problem, as:

  1. the people who champion each vision more or less hate each other, and
  2. when people try to combine these visions, everything explodes.

Let me explain.

A word of warning: It’s always hazardous to split a messy reality into two neat categories.

Hazardous: but irresistible!

I won’t make any hard-and-fast claims that the division I’m about to make perfectly describes reality. It does describe, however, how I’ve experienced school reform movements.


‘Nuff said.

There are two basic visions for schooling.

On the one hand, there’s the traditionalist vision. Traditionalist-minded schools strive to get students to re-think the amazing things other people have thought before. These schools tend to focus on the liberal arts: students devour literature, memorize poetry, debate philosophy, and recap scientific discoveries.

On the other hand, there’s the progressive vision. Progressively-minded schools strive for something quite different: to help students have their own thoughts, ideas that no one has ever had before!

Let me illustrate!

On the wall of an traditionalist school, you might see a famous quote by the English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold. In person, Arnold was widely described as a frivolous and foppish, but his writings were full of icy seriousness. Arnold wrote that to mend society, schools must instruct students in:

the best which has been thought and said.

Walking into a progressive school, on the other hand, you might see a famous quote by the Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget. Piaget wrote that to mend society, schools must unchain students from the past, and help them discover new things:

the principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.

(Thanks to Bob Hagin for reminding me of this quote at his blog!)

Examples, you say?

If you’ve seen The Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Club, or the Harry Potter films, you’ve seen Hollywood images of traditionalist schools.

And, come to think of it, if you’ve seen Dead Poet’s Society, you’ve also seen an image of the opposite: a progressively-minded classroom. (I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that the conflict of educational visions fuels the plot.)

Curiously, I couldn’t find any examples of full-on progressive schools in film — if you know of any, point me toward them, and I’ll update this post!

But of course this divide isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon. In real life, classical schools (especially, I find, of the Christian variety) and great books colleges go to the nth degree to achieve the traditionalist vision. In a less extreme manner, the Common Core Standards and E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum attempt to achieve the traditionalist vision.

On the other hand, the current anti-testing movement is animated by a progressive ideal. And at the extremes of the progressive ideal are free schools (such as Sudbury schools) and the unschooling movement.

These visions don’t play well together.

I’ve found that advocates of both visions tend to react to the other vision with horror and disgust. They’re befuddled that anyone would want to “do that” to children, and they malign each other:

“Traditionalist schools are just drill-and-kill.”

“Those hippie-dippie progressive schools don’t really teach anything.”

Now, there really are problems in each type of schooling. Sometimes traditionalist-minded schools really just amount to drill-and-kill! Sometimes progressively-minded teachers really don’t teach much of anything!

Well, you might be thinking, the solution is obvious: just combine the two. Let each bring its own genius to bear!

Take the best of both worlds!

Easier said than done.

At the end of the day, we’ve got to make choices as to what to put in a school day. Will we allocate time and resources to helping kids master old knowledge, or into helping them make new knowledge?

Kieran Egan has argued (in the second chapter of his thrilling The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up) that these two ideals, in fact, pull against each other: that an attempt to pursue both tends to torpedo both.

His approach to schools — Imaginative Education — is an attempt to reframe the task of teaching so as to make this traditionalist–progressive war obsolete.

Our schools are attempting to do the same thing.

How are we pulling it off?

Stay tuned.

Love before mastery


I've recently realized — or maybe re-realized — how useful it can be to put love before mastery.

You'll remember that the three über-values of our schools are love, mastery, and meaning. The order of those three is important: love (i.e. interest, passion, desire) comes before mastery, and supports it.

Want your child to become really, really good at something? Help them fall in love with it first. At least a little.

Kristin and I had forgotten this, I think, a little while ago, when we signed our five-year-old up for a swimming lesson. It didn't take: he was terrified to put his face in the water, and didn't trust the instructor.

Now, a half-year later, our son is clamoring for lessons. The difference? He's spent more fun time in the water. He's come to love the water, and wants to learn how to do more in it. 

Goodness: now, in baths, he borrows my goggles, and sticks his head in the water.

Love comes before mastery.

Now, it's more complicated than that: mastery builds love, too. As educational psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote:

We become interested in what we become good at.

So we shouldn't become simpletons with this! But a helpful, general rule seems obvious:

When we want kids to become great at something, we need to first help them fall in love with it.

Books, computers, and pancake people


David Brooks has a thoughtful column on the different mental skills that are constructed by online learning and by book learning. I appreciate the column because it avoids the typical frame of this discussion: which is better? Is Google making us stupid? What he points out (quite reasonably, I think) is that books and online browsing are different, and we should be quite clear about how. I highly recommend everyone give it a peek.

At the end of the article, he refers to a quote by the playwright Richard Foreman. He doesn't, however, actually give the quote. It's one of my favorites (I've committed it to memory).

I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense, and cathedral-like structure of the highly educated and articulate human personality — a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally-constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.

But today I see within us all the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self — evolving under the pressures of information overload and the technology of the "instantly available". A self that needs to contain less and less of a repertory of dense cultural inheritance — as we all become "pancake people", spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

Though I'd expand "the entire West" into "the entire world", I think this quote really gets at part of what I'm trying to accomplish with our schools — Lee, feel free to demur!

(The photo above is of Foreman, who is not a pancake person.)