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.