April 4, 2022

This week I met over 100 educators in different events. I talked to everyone from a superintendent looking at his last few months on the job, to new teachers who are ready to change the world. It reflects the people I decide to hang out with, but all of them can be classified as "learner-centered." They care deeply about kids, are very leery about the overuse of standardized tests, and are driven by an inner motivation to do what is best for kids.

So here is my question...

Why do the "education reformers" famous in America not reflect these ideals?

Maybe they claim to believe in "learner-centered", but their policy recommendations do not reflect a learner-centered mindset.

Here is a quiz.

Do you agree with the following tenants for schooling?

*Freedom for children to develop naturally

*Interest as the motive of all work

*Teacher as guide, not taskmaster

*More attention to all that affects student physical development

*School and home cooperation to meet the child’s natural interests and activities

These seem to be ideas that the people I met last week can support.

Interestingly, these were the tenets put forward by the Progressive Education Association...IN 1919!

At the time there were two “progressive” schools of thought on how to run education. One group was more centered on student-centered instruction and was called “pedagogical progressives." The other group bought into "scientific management" and were called “administrative progressives.” As a matter of fact, they were happy to be called "education engineers." One side looked at the “whole child” and the other bought into the cult of efficiency and quantifying every aspect of school. 

Guess which side won the battle for how schools were organized?

I can’t help but think that the efficiency wing won the battle for education because society is convinced that everything worthwhile should be measured. During the early part of the 20th century, factories and the systems used to manage factories became the gold standard for how society should be organized. In every way possible, this is still the case in 2022. Business tycoons (or oligarchs, depending on your viewpoint), are held up as heroes and examples of greatness. Just look at the cult of personality that has grown around Steve Jobs. 

In order to fit into the business mantra of society, educators in the early 20th century embraced the tenants of industrialization. Think of how the structures undergirding a factory (workers, foreman, supervisors, managers, a board) reflect the structure of schools (teachers, principals, superintendents, school board). When education turned away from the idea of being "child-centered" and embraced "efficiency", it became inevitable that learners become nothing more than numbers on a statisticians worksheet. 

Child-centered has never completely gone away. Every so often (the 1030's, the 1960s, the present-day) there is a call to become more child (or learner) centered. 

Those of us who believe that creating learner-centered schools is important must show courage in how we continue with our beliefs or we will end up like all of the other reform movements that were child-centered.

Here are three things all of us must do to prevent learner-centered from being thrown on the trash heap of historical education "movements."

1. Know your personal beliefs about learning, teaching, education, and schooling. Your beliefs guide your actions. Know what they are. If you are interested, I can help you and/or your team create non-negotiable belief statements.

2. Call out stupid *&it when you see it. We cannot ignore the fact that quantifying learners is just a horrible idea...it has never worked. We all must be advocates against the testing-industrial complex.

3. Concentrate on learning experiences, not content. That is not to say content is not important, it is just not the most important aspect of school. I am going to observe a class this week where an english teacher and a chemistry teacher are creating a cross-curricular lesson. I am sure the content will be good, but the experience of those learners seeing that a science curriculum interacts with an english curriculum is simply outstanding.

I appreciate any thoughts, comments, or ideas you have as a result of this little rant of mine!  tom@poweringuped.com

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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