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What Are We Even Looking For?

I just finished reading Ken Robinson’s The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson is a great story-teller, with his own story being quite remarkable. However, as I have said before, he isn’t deep or penetrating enough for me, but that isn’t the point of this post.

In his closing thoughts on page 250, Robinson briefly touches on alternative means of assessment in education. He uses restaurants for his comparative metaphor, particularly the difference between standardized chain restaurants and high-end restaurants evaluated by the Michelin guide. The guide he writes, “establishes specific criteria for excellence, but they do not say how the particular restaurants should meet these criteria…The guides simply establish criteria, and it is up to every restaurant to meet them in whatever way they see best.”

Now, one could argue that many of the new standards are seen to be Michelin guides, I think the Common Core Standards supporters would. They are wrong. And here’s why:

They [restaurants] are then judged not to some impersonal standard, but by the assessments of experts who know what they are looking for and what a great restaurant is actually like. (Robinson, 2009. p. 250)

Many of us don’t know what a great student or learner or beautiful developing human being is like. We are conditioned to look for external marks such as wealth or achievement (awards, medals, grades) in order to identify excellence. However true excellence is a quality that integrates an entire person, it is not only outward deeds but also inward attitudes. And those outward deeds are often ones that we are conditioned not to value–caring for the vulnerable, innovation for greater good (as compared to the greater profit), maintaining integrity and gracefully dealing with conflict–these are true accomplishments of human character. Inward attitudes include: compassion, orientation towards hope and growth, and an ability to learn from even difficult situations. Lastly, learning is not merely an ability to put together the lincoln logs of our standards-based curriculum, but rather the ability to penetrate experiences and concepts for deeper patterns, the ability to cultivate ever greater awareness of one’s self, the world beyond one’s own skin, and one’s effects on that world.

Current offers of standards do not exemplify this. They simply are a linear series of concepts, ideas, knowledge. They say nothing about the character of a student, how s/he approaches learning, helping others, caring for him self and the world around her.

Current standards are still rooted in the banking system of education, where every student is thought of as a receptacle and schools’ jobs are to fill them up. Now instead of saying it must be this very specific garbage students are filled with, now we’ll only say that the garbage must contain these particular traits.

I believe it is our challenge to come to recognize what beautiful humanity looks like and exalt it rather than test scores or even beautiful presentations, projects, or portfolios. I am most interested in the character of the student and I am pretty sure that the fate of the planet is too.

In peace,



About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


6 thoughts on “What Are We Even Looking For?

  1. I agree that Robinson’s metaphor is problematic – for several reasons, it seems to me. Teachers should be co-learners in the “kitchen” of learning, not critics apart from it. Moreover, we shouldn’t be executive chefs, either. We should be sous-chefs working to help executive students create new plates, rather than teaching them how to make ours. We often complain as a professional body that students aren’t motivated to learn; well, when do we really offer them the chance or support them in it?

    Regardless, you’re right. Schools have been blinkered. Teachers, however, are not horses and can take off the blinkers whenever they so choose. If teachers don’t take a broader view of the purpose of public education, then it will be up to students to suffer the blinkers themselves or resist schooling and risk being labeled a failure or problem for not playing along with a broken system of authoritarian relationships between people, teaching, and learning.

    I’ll push a bit for excellent work – we’re going to need excellent from our students work to solve the problems with which we leave them. Helping them cultivate their patience and work through iterations that make it better and better suited to the challenges they want to tackle will help – I hope – produce more elegant, simple, and sustainable solutions to real-problem-based-learning. While I don’t think every kid needs to make a shiny poster, certainly learning to communicate the merits of an excellent thought in many ways is desirable. Care for one another and for community should show in student work, in whatever form it takes. What do you think?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 28, 2010, 10:21 am
  2. This is a really interesting post, and for me is especially fresh coming off of the Alternative Educator’s conference in Albany this weekend. One of the things that stands out so impressively when you are with UNSCHOOLED people, many folks who have never gone to conventional school at all, and are in some cases the second or third generation of kids who have been unschooled, is what dynamic, intense, fresh, open learners unschooled folks are. Got an interesting question? Cool! Let’s talk about that for a good long time. Want to get together and form an informal breakout session on something we’re all passionate about? great, meet ya in the lobby in 15. Post up a sign and 10 other people will be there too. Far from having that drugged, hostile, judgmental quality–that quality of wariness that so many schoolish people have (hey, me too, I can get into that very easily), these folks are really woken up to how pleasurable learning is. They are unafraid, and they don’t care all that much who’s authority matters, or who said what when. They’re attitude is, if something is worth knowing about, we can figure it out. It’s amazingly different from a modal public school crowd.

    So Adam, in your view, what would a beautiful mind look like? Feel like? Act like?

    Posted by Kirsten | June 28, 2010, 11:35 am
    • I have to try out this model in class next year. How much scaffolding would be too much? How much assessment or accountability? Maybe start by giving kids time to self-select groups and then run through a 3-minute screen-cast capture of group members on camera or a voice recorder and on a web browser following their questions?

      Fun to imagine –

      Posted by Chad Sansing | June 28, 2010, 1:26 pm
  3. Adam – have you seen Shirkey’s latest Ted?

    he talks of cognitive surplus as the new design resource.
    he says cognitive surplus has two parts…
    1) world’s free time and talents
    2) we like to create and we like to share
    he says our shared source is design for generosity.
    goals are not just to make life better for participants – but for everyone in society.
    civic value is not just a side effect of opening up to human motivation.
    there are a trillion hours a year of participatory value up for grabs…
    he says organizations designed around a culture of generosity can achieve incredible effects without a grand amount of overhead –

    sounds like beautiful humanity to me.
    sounds like what we’re seeking in edreform.

    Posted by monika hardy | July 2, 2010, 12:06 am


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