Education: It Doesn’t Need to be One-Size-Fits-All

While watching my kid with his gymnastics teacher last weekend it occurred to me how much my child has learned from private education:  preschool, gymnastics, swimming lessons, soccer league, story time and reading programs at the local library (though technically public), youtube, wikipedia, internet games and even the Wii (which has helped learn how to play real games like bowling, golf and tennis).

All of these classes and activities were relatively inexpensive, yet valuable.  I could see that my kid learned things.

It made me think of how we’ve standardized one model of K-12 education throughout our country and I wonder if that really is such a good idea.  That model is based primarily on the preferences of a group of experts for college prep education that may or may not be good.

Realizing how much my kid has learned through private activities that exist on the periphery of public education makes me wonder what would emerge if the K-12 model wasn’t thrust upon us by the experts and their tight grip over how our property tax dollars are spent on education.

Before I go on, it’s important to understand my underlying belief.

I believe that much of the improvement in our lives result from innovations discovered from trial-and-error experimentation.  I also believe that many of the best innovations result from accidental and often failed experiments (that is they failed to do they thing they were intended to do, but someone discovered some other use for it).

I believe this is true for all areas of our lives.  The classic business example is the 3M Post-It Notes which resulted from a failed attempt to make a super strong adhesive, but the weak, non-residue-leaving adhesive was discovered to be quite useful for other things.

We all experiment nearly every day and sometimes find things that improve our lives, even when we didn’t expect it.  The experiment might be as simple as trying a new product or recipe. Sometimes we find things we like and we continue to use (success) and sometimes not (failure). Often those experiments occur by accident or at random.

We can all probably think of something we do or use that we discovered by accident.  I once had a hard time running. The pounding hurt my legs. I bought a pair a shoes for general use once that happened to be on sale and discovered that I could run in them without pain.  I’ve been running ever since using that same model (currently the Asics GT-2000 series).

Further, not every innovation works for everyone.  The Asics running shoe works for me, but it may not for others.  There’s no reason to limit all running shoes to the model I prefer. Yet, that’s what we’ve done with public education. We’ve basically said that we should have one model of running shoe, even if that doesn’t work for every one. Some might say that we have experimented with the education model a little and it is not one-size-fits-all.  To me, that’s like saying that we’ve made the one running shoe model available in different colors. The variations are cosmetic, not fundamental, because ultimately the educational experiments also have to adhere to the standards that have been pre-decided.

To sum up I think there are two key advantages to experimentation: innovation and evolution of variations that better serve our individual tastes and needs.

A key upside to providing universal education is everyone has access.

Downsides include that it’s more-or-less a one-size-fits all model with very limited experimentation to drive innovation and discovery of variations that might better meet everyone’s specific needs and preferences.  It’s no wonder to me that we haven’t seen significant innovations in the classroom for decades and we have groups of people who say public education doesn’t serve their needs.

I think we are seeing some experimentation with charter schools, but that’s very limited and contained to variations of the existing K-12 model since charters have to meet standards created by the same people who run public schools.

The result might be that we find better ways to manage the existing model, but that also limits us to that model and doesn’t allow for much experimentation of other models.  Which means that it will remain to be unseen what we’re missing.

As I was writing this blog post, I came across a related post on Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist blog which discusses one educational innovation.   The excerpt below demonstrates how embedded the one-size-fits-all model is in our thinking:

Everybody knows that the Internet will transform education, but nobody yet knows how. Most of the models sound like dull attempts to reproduce, at a distance, the medieval habit of schooling—one teacher telling a bunch of children what to think. Now, though, I think I have glimpsed a better idea: the self-organized learning environment (SOLE).

Perhaps SOLE is a better idea than our current model, or perhaps its a better idea for some people and not for others. Our problem with education is that as soon as we see promise in something like this, we want to scale it to everybody.  The iPhone, while a remarkably successful product, does not meet the needs and preferences of everybody. Other phones are selling fine for those who have different tastes.

If we want to improve education, I recommend that we remove barriers to experimentation and allow different variations to emerge to meet varying tastes rather than trying to find the next one-size-fits-all solution.

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8 thoughts on “Education: It Doesn’t Need to be One-Size-Fits-All

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  2. we could also abandon standard(ized) tests. for some reason ive always been a good test-taker. i think i can make good ‘guesstimations’. many tests test the ability to take tests, and not the ability to perform the skill that the test is designed to analyze. i think the reason for this you have described quite well – we are all different. i like the running shoe analogy, because if we tested folks on how quickly they could run a 100 yard dash, we shouldnt care what kind of shoes they are wearing. im not sure that we should even care about how quickly they can finish; maybe its more important that they can cross the finish line ‘eventually’.

    • Hi dave – I agree. Standardized tests are not a good way to measure educational outcomes. Tests are products of the centralized funding scheme in education. That’s how folks in the state capitols and DC feel like they’re adding value, by evaluating test scores and deciding how to allocate dollars.

      I disagree with a lot of Diane Ravitch wrote in her latest book on education, but I do agree with her on standardized tests.

      I know plenty of people who are doing well in life despite not testing well or earning bad grades. Likewise, I know others who tested well and struggle.

      We measure the wrong things in education. I wrote about that here.

      The best things to measure would be how many parents are enrolling their kids in a school if given a choice (which they should be given) and how many would recommend the school and teacher to a friend or family member. That’s the feedback system that keeps businesses going.

      The “experts” don’t like that because they don’t trust parents to make these decisions. They see that as the expert’s job. But, to me, that’s like giving a movie critic the power to choose which movies we’ll watch. Sometimes their reviews are helpful, but most everybody understands that critics often use criteria and have preferences and expectations that differ greatly from our own. I wouldn’t want them to reduce my movies choices under the mistaken belief that they know best.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. –Standardized tests are not a good way to measure educational outcomes.

    No, this is not generally true. The SAT is a very good way to measure outcomes. So are AP tests.

    What do these tests have in common? They are private, and the organization behind them cares about its respect and prestige and will not allow its credential to be made worthless.

    This is similar to the Bar exam or medical boards–private entities in professions that rely on maintaining a high standard in order to maintain their profession’s value found a way to create assessments that measure outputs very well.

    State assessments have other public choice theory problems at work. There is little incentive for a state to minimize the number of students credentialed by their own exam when those students go to their own schools.

    The problems with schooling are not as simple as we’d like to believe. While more “choice” may help, until the education school monopoly is removed, “choice” won’t help, as the supply of teachers come with the same poor preparation in liberal arts subjects, same distorted view of education, and same lack of openness to skills, content knowledge, efficiency in teaching, and subject mastery. Similarly, “choice” will crater property values, something that often causes people to rebel and choose their own short term interest. But worse, real choice would mean people using their own money for their kids’ education, not that money funneled through and taxed by the states and feds. The ultimate voucher is cash. Until we pay with our own money, it won’t be our money, and it won’t be our control.

    • Hi Allison – Thanks for the great comment! Tests like the SAT may be an adequate way to assess individual student proficiency on specific subjects, but I’m not convinced they tell us much about the teacher or school quality when you aggregate test scores.

      *By adequate, I mean better than nothing. I’ve had my bad and good test taking days.

      Re: Your last paragraph, I agree, the best range of experimentation would result if we paid directly. I would be interested to see what would emerge from that.

      But, that scares too many people(who seem to have little problem sending kids to horrific schools).

      However, I will advocate more choice over what we have now. If vouchers result in a few parents choosing an option they didn’t have before, that’s evidence that it made a difference.

  4. You may want to look for Math Circles in your area (http://www.mathcircles.org) particularly if you have or know school aged kids. They are a great example of Tocquevellian America at its best, as we we attempt to fill the gap in problem solving and critical thinking left by most schools.

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