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Learning at its Best

Why One-Size-Fits-All Could Save Public Education

One-size-fits-all is vanilla ice cream.  It’s plain white athletic socks.  It’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with a recorder.  One-size-fits-all is an assembly line and a Model-T Ford and a straight line of school children marching to their class.   It’s industrial.  It’s lock-step.  It’s mechanistic.

And it just might save public education.

Sometimes I use one-size-fits-all synonymously with standardization, when, in fact, they are entirely different. One-size-fits-all is boring and industrial, but it only becomes standardized when it cannot be modified.  Permit a little freedom to one-size-fits-all and it becomes unique.  It becomes the palate for creativity.

See, I hate vanilla ice cream only when I’m not allowed to add peanut butter and chocolate chips and crushed-up pretzels.  I hate tube socks until the day when my wife says, “Let’s tie-dye these bad boys.” I imagine a Model-T might have felt unique if my ancestors had discovered flame jobs and hydraulics.

I understand the desire to burn down the factory altogether, but I’m not sure it’s the answer.  If it’s an absolute rejection of all things industrial, it quickly becomes a new dogma.  We fall into the same mentality that led people to bulldoze the one-room school house and cover a democratic institution with thick industrial concrete.

What if we began with common standards?  Truly common.  Not imposed-by-politician standards.  But something loose.  Something vague enough that we could allow students and teachers and parents to customize and personalize the learning.   What if we asked “what do all children need” and begin with that as the basis of education?  Could we at least agree that kids need creativity, autonomy, unconditional love and critical thinking? Could those be our common core standards?

Could we agree on certain content and strategies as well?  Could we hold a common standard that students need to know how numbers work?  Could we share a sense that all students need some level of phonemic awareness along with a holistic view of language?  Could we decide on some larger guiding principals and build bridges rather than barbed-wire fences?

I want change.  I want reform.  But if it’s simply a new system based upon new ideas built with the intention of reaching a new generation, then the novelty will wear off.  But if we start with common, if we begin with a true, inclusive sense of one-size-fits-all, we can let grow organically.  We can repurpose what’s already there.  We can recover the beauty that we’ve already lost.

We can give students the freedom to tie-dye tube socks and crush up pretzels.

Ultimately, that’s the cheapest and the most costly reform: freedom to learn.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


16 thoughts on “Why One-Size-Fits-All Could Save Public Education

  1. Someone on Twitter wrote, “nice sentiment but any ‘common core’ grows out of control.” I’d like to post my response to that notion here (rather than elsewhere).

    I believe there are universals. I believe there are things we can share in common. Control? Not necessarily. If it’s grassroots, democratic and all-inclusive, it’s not control. If it’s loose enough to be a guiding principal rather than a standardized ultimatum, it can be about freedom rather than control.

    I expect my own children to learn to read, write, think critically and gain a decent number sense. I expect them to have a shot at scientific inquiry. I expect them to learn about democracy, not just as a concept, but as something they experience in school. Those are my standards. I don’t think those are based upon control.

    Posted by johntspencer | August 17, 2011, 10:42 pm
  2. I think I understand what your saying and it is something I posed in my piece, Fair Trade Education… I think it is a standard without standardization… I don’t agree that it can be agreed upon as common standard…. as in a national standard…maybe a Education bill of rights… which is being worked on by many people… one group which I hope will be blog here soon…

    I am not for Content standards…because I don’t think we know first what should be learned… we hope we know… nor do I think one generation has the right to decide for another what is the standard…cause if we learned anything…it is that adults make mistakes…

    So I’m all for rights and ideas around which we can rally….but they should always be living documents… and flexible….at a personal level to a community level…

    Either way I think it is a great conversation to have and would love to hear what your students have to say?

    but the next question I might pose also is how do we assess these standards? Because someone is going to want to assess them… and if we don’t assess them then why have them?

    lots to think about here!


    Posted by dloitz | August 18, 2011, 12:01 am
  3. I like what you are saying a great deal. Vanilla sounds fun and exciting when looked at that way. It makes me think of the “key learning experiences” that our school created. We are creating scope and sequences within 4 Key Learning Experiences for children, K-8. They are Nourishing, Exploring, Designing & Relating.

    We decided that there were certain key learning experiences (kle’s) that every child should have at our school. Since we are a public charter school and have to address the core curriculum standards, they are addressed through these key learning experiences, rather than separate subject areas.

    The class groups from k-8 are always exploring these KLE’s through a different lens, using different enduring understandings and essential questions. They will always be gardening in some manner for example, but exploring it through a different lens each year. So while the gardening is common, the pretzel crushing and tie-dying comes in how they will explore gardening through their lens and how they will use gardening to address their enduring understandings and essential questions. It gives each class group some amount of freedom each year for emergent curriculum and direction for learning from students.

    Thank you for your insights, I always look forward to your posts. -Kasey

    Posted by Kasey Errico | August 18, 2011, 8:15 am
  4. I think the description of what children should be learning in school needs to be much more specific and identified. We could take one step back from what you propose and say, “Let’s all gather in a room together as students of the world and learn from each other through the experiences we create together.” It’s too wishy-washy and not clearly enough defined for students today. People in different sections of this country have vastly different ideas of what education means and what they want their children to know in order to become good citizens. Without a set of guidelines that at least lay out a strong foundation, the pretzels and tie dyed experiences in Texas and Kansas will be so different from those of Maryland and California that the supposed common knowledge of our country’s citizens will be more disconnected than the debates on the senate floor. I don’t propose that we all know the same thing and learn it through the same methods, but the scientific facts learned in schools in one state should be similar to those taught in neighboring states. I think teachers need more guidance than vanilla, as that can be interepreted in so many ways by so many minds that it’s not useful. The idea works well for white middle class schools with parent support and great funding, where teachers are competent and happy and well paid.

    Posted by Casey | August 18, 2011, 11:08 am
    • I see your point in going specific, but regional differences matter. I don’t want a unified, centralized set of standards guiding our nation’s public schools. Do we need to agree upon some specifics? Yes. Teaching 7-day creationism in science is simply bad science. However, the issue isn’t one of being vague or specific. The issue is ideological.

      Do we need to respect what research has said? You bet. The national math standards set by the National Council of the Teachers of Mathematics is a great example of loose, yet specific, standards. So are the six traits in writing.

      However, the minute that we reject parochialism outright and treat the local community as less important than what is agreed upon nationally is the minute that we’ve lost the local politic altogether. Democracy should be democratic. Get too big and it loses its lower-case letter.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 18, 2011, 11:41 am
  5. why couldn’t the standard be a process of learning. ..that’s it.
    wouldn’t that produce self-directed, life-long learners..

    Posted by monika hardy | August 18, 2011, 10:41 pm
  6. Be honest and specific in the work you value.

    I could live and teach with that and let the rest come from conversation, negotiation, and co-learning with kids.

    Common-sense, civic, communicative, and critical skills would indeed be awesome, John – we certainly know of countries that employ useful national standards. However, I would be okay with clearing the slate of schooling before adopting new standards. It’s not just the “what” of teaching and learning, it’s the “how” and “why” that need revitalization – as I’m sure we’d agree.

    I was talking with a parent last night about the differences between our schedule (not too far out of the box) and the schedule at her child’s base school (confusingly cut and pasted to fit inside the box). So long as we stick with the trappings of staffing and scheduling that we have now, we’ll be looking for that stifling guidance that leads to semester-long classes with hundreds of content standards stuffed into pacing guides that prove the adults have covered it all. I don’t think you’re for any of that, and that’s not what I read in your post; I’m just-sayin’.

    So, I’m for a new system. I wouldn’t mind an aggressive program of change for adults if it led to organic learning in classrooms of wherever.

    So, let’s say we create some kind of ad-hoc school system of Coöp teachers (an idea bandied about previously with others as the “rebel education alliance” on Twitter). Let’s say we have our common, common-sense standards. What would you change next about school, John?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 19, 2011, 9:20 am
    • I think the next step is negotiation. It’s freedom.

      I would bring students into the conversation. However, here are a few things that I would dream of . . .

      A few things would look really different:
      Fluid movement between classrooms (or semi-open spaces altogether – walls can be a good thing)
      Community gardens
      Multi-age learning (at least to some degree)
      Service learning on a weekly basis

      A few things that I’ve already had a chance to do:
      A chance to create. Really create. A chance to design things, to solve problems, etc.
      Do away with separate subjects and teach them all as interconnected
      Debates and discussions
      Switch grades to standards-based with feedback as the bottom line
      A one-to-one ratio, with a heavy dose of tech criticism (and a chance to use Linux)
      Independent projects
      Customized learning

      That last one is critical. It’s at the heart of constructivism. I want the students to have the freedom to create.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | August 19, 2011, 9:29 am
      • Wow, I feel like I just time-warped back to my high school experience with open classrooms and mini-courses and every thing was elective and we could choose whatever we wanted to take (so long as we ended our senior year with enough of the appropriate Carnegie units). Tie-died, long-haired hippy freedom. And it was horrible. The history teacher in the “group” area next to my “Love Shakespeare” class was loud and droning, while at the same time very confrontational to anyone that he perceived wasn’t paying attention. It was impossibly distracting and there was no clear direction to anything. My high school education amounted to–Attend class. Be a good boy. Get a grade. Education? What’s that? We can’t define it for you…I’m afraid you’ll have to create your own learning…and on and on it went. I graduated from high school so messed up thinking the “real world” operated that way. Then I got a job and found it that only in education do the employees have “freedom” to choose what they want to do, along with when, how or even if they want to do it. With no Standards is it really any wonder that I get Senior English students who read at 3rd grade level and can’t write a coherent sentence…and in fact, don’t have a means of knowing if their sentence is even a complete sentence or not because their English teachers had the freedom to NOT teach them.

        What is so wrong with Common Core Standards? Really… I’ve been where your going….IT DOESN’T WORK!

        Posted by John Knapp | August 21, 2011, 2:25 pm
        • I wonder John, was it the structure that didn’t work, the classes, the teachers, the culture,…. because the open school movement has both succeed and failed just like traditional school…one model has not succeed to produce results for everyone, which is the point.

          I have to argue with you about your idea of what the “real world” needs.or how it is set up… business is changing just like the world… we no longer live in the reality that you entered when you left school…businesses like Google, Apple and others have moved past the top down type, factory styles of work and move towards a more “free” use of time and productivity… as more people realize the power of collectives and cooperatives groupings of freelancers (which is happening) our modern idea of work will change.

          I see a movement towards project based living which would move away from the finite idea of career to a more flexible life style that allows people to use their skills in a more organic way around projects of meaning, for both income and the benefit of the larger world.

          At some point I will write a post about some of these types of businesses…. but also I would hope you would not burden your students with your own history in schooling… and also it might be useful to do a more holistic study of your own experience… Ron Millers “Free Schools, Free people ” is a good primer. He agrees that all Free/Open school did not succeed in either changing school or even in changing the results of schooling, but to discount all future “free” based types of schools on the failure of one generation is I think wrong.

          I would also love to know more about your community of learners in Kansas… how do you deal with creating a set of core or common standards, ideals, values in your district?

          Posted by dloitz | August 21, 2011, 3:10 pm
        • John, you’re right to cite how difficult it can be for high school students to adapt to a free-schooling environment. However, it’s just as hard for students to adapt to any school environment with harsh teachers and a lack of support. It sounds like you were left too much alone. I find contemporary free-schooling models in public schools, private schools, and homes-schooling coöps to be much more structured experiences than the one your describe having. Most successful free or student-directed schools I read about have a strong community that encompasses teachers and students who negotiate and co-create learning experiences and meaning.

          Did your elementary and middle schools prepare you for the lack of structure found in your high school? I do think that if we reinvented our school system so that all children experienced more choice and more choices as they aged, that most would be ready, willing, and able to tackled apprenticeships and inquiry projects by high school. Learning is natural; subservience to our school system is learned.

          I think we’d agree that harsh, droning teachers don’t inspire exceptional learning, but that exceptional teachers help us understand universal standards – like honesty, clarity, and specificity – that help us write – and communicate – better.

          I’m sorry your high school experience didn’t work for you. Here, we want to impact our systems of education so students are free to make learning choices that work for them and become confident in those choices.

          What I worry about the most regarding Common Core standards are the products, services, and assessments that will follow them and drive our next generation of teachers and students into schools that focus on tests and scores rather than people and learning. Standards in conjunction with high stakes testing have cornered our system of public education – the reformers with money are all trying to tweak and game that system while no one at the federal or philanthropic venture fund levels are talking about other ways to school. The Common Core debate keeps us in industrial schools and keeps us from figuring out how to build schools that help kids become independent learners invested in their communities.

          I hope you’ll read and comment further. The Coöp isn’t about “hippy freedom.” per se. It’s about changing public education so that all learners have a chance to learn in ways that matter to them. Right now, more privileged kids from affluent or wealthy backgrounds enjoy this kind of education than do poorer children who struggle to make sense of what they’re asked to do in struggling schools.


          Posted by Chad Sansing | August 22, 2011, 5:58 am
      • I’m with you on these suggestions, John.

        Posted by Chad Sansing | August 22, 2011, 5:59 am
  7. As an elementary teacher, I think these ideas look very different for little guys. I like the idea of an idealogical view of having agreed-upon common goals for our students, but if my little guys don’t know more than how to count to 10 and then state that they have ‘number sense’ then I have wronged them. However, I also agree that there is no need for every school in every district in every state create students with the same exact knowledge. We need to, as you suggest, honor the regional differences in our schools.

    I’m envisioning a school that has a self-created curriculum based on well-written, overarching standards (not specific to particular skills) alongside school-based values (as some have mentioned in the comments) that guide practices and to which all learning experiences are mapped.

    I have always been a proponent of schools writing their own curriculum because they know their students and teachers will have more ownership over what they are teaching. Unfortunately, more and more, schools are purchasing ‘curricula’ in the guise of reading series and math textbooks 😦

    Posted by marybethhertz | August 19, 2011, 10:10 am
    • I like the way you put it. I think what you’re describing is what many teachers would love to see. I think even at the younger grades, students can have a voice. This is especially true in things like choosing books, activities, etc. But I like the idea of a school developing a set of shared standards.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | August 19, 2011, 10:35 am
  8. Your post makes sense, and that is what politicians believe they are doing today. Their argument is that they are being fair to students, but only by giving everyone but students the chance for flexibility. Also, the flexibility of current reform is flexible on in so far as it leads to the economic outcomes that the DOE politicians/supporters are looking for. BUT – I do think that it is possible to get people to realize “standards” that don’t have strict method or outcome.

    It is very tempting to just break break away completely, or “burn” the current system, but more that realizing that it risks becoming the new dogma, it’s just the fact that we have to realize that this system will be here…perhaps to stay.

    Please visit this post if you get the chance. This is where I previously wrote about “standards” I would like to see in the system.

    Posted by teganor | August 19, 2011, 12:26 pm
  9. John, Can you post a picture of your tie dyed socks up here?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 21, 2011, 3:39 pm

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