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Learning at its Best

One Size Fits Some

It doesn’t have to be either/or

Far too often, people shift from “that doesn’t work for some students” to “this shouldn’t be used with any students.” In the process of reminding people that “one size doesn’t fit all,” people forget that one size does fit some.

I’ve met home-schoolers who were deeply wounded by their home-schooling, because an overbearing parent became a tyrant or because a laidback parent was simply unavailable to ever provide structure. I’ve met unschoolers who are bitter that they didn’t get aspects of education that they would have gotten in another model. I’ve met people who went to charter schools that were essentially business rackets duping low-income communities. I’ve met public-schoolers who were deeply wounded by the stifling of creativity (I’m one of them). I know of people who had a horrible experience in parochial schools, traditional schools, evangelical schools, Muslim schools, New Agey hippie schools, Montessori schools and Waldorf schools.

I’ve also met people who thrived in every one of the models described above. I’ve met home-schoolers who found it to be a safe haven and unschoolers who loved the freedom they had and public schoolers who found the safety and structure of school to be a refuge.

It’s true that one size does not fit all. But it is equally true that the solution you found for your family, your context or your community do not necessarily fit all children. As a teacher, I am limited in what I can do (though not as limited as one might think). However, as a father, my goal is to listen to my kids, to know my kids and to help them figure out which type of a model will work best for them.

Ultimately, the solution has to be relational. It has to involve children being known. It has to be humble. It has to be bound by context. It has to be humane. Anything else is simply another stifling model, a fancier version of a factory and a new set of ideology that is just as flawed as the rest.

About John Spencer

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


15 thoughts on “One Size Fits Some

  1. Thank you for this post. I don’t think I could of said it better. I think to education transformation is not a model, but the very action of listening to children and helping them find the place that fits best for them and their goals, needs and passions.


    Posted by dloitz | December 30, 2011, 4:52 pm
  2. John … I agree. As a parent and teacher, we often feel our choices are limited. In my home, however, we have 2 children who attend public school (taking a course here and there in a virtual school) and 1 child who is homeschooled via my husband and a science/social studies co-op. Each child is different – I find myself an advocate of learning – no matter the mode, I want my children (and students) to be learners for life.

    Thanks for your eloquent posts.


    Posted by Sylvia | December 30, 2011, 5:01 pm
  3. nice and I agree..
    to me, unschooling means exactly what you are advocating–listening to children and helping them find what works best for them individually.
    most often, decisions about education has more to do with parental schedules/needs and financial limitations rather than what is best for each particular child.
    sadly, the tradition of a one size fits all model of public school is under serving most children. it’s us lucky ones that have choices. hopefully that can change soon.


    Posted by amanda enclade | December 30, 2011, 6:40 pm
    • I like that you define unschooling as something that can happen in all systems. And I like the fact that you don’t demonize teachers and that you are honest about the deeper social realities that unschooling isn’t possible in every context.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | December 31, 2011, 9:40 am
  4. While I agree that the buzzwords you cite, most of which refer to the administrative organization of schooling rather than to positions on the philosophy of education, do not work for all, there is a simple statement about education that does come close to a universal: student-centered learning. That’s the core of the Norwegian model–take the time to get to know each student and provide each of them with what they need. I still find it infuriating that “charter schools” are cited as an educational reform option. There is no there there. Charter simply means “not controlled directly by the previous public school administrators.” All the rest varies so widely as to be meaningless…

    Posted by Fred Mindlin (@fmindlin) | December 30, 2011, 7:55 pm
  5. Thanks, John – I’d suggest that school choice doesn’t have to be given to a community either; a community can crate the learning space it needs, though it’s difficult to do so.

    I’v been thinking a lot about what I am willing to continue to accept of myself, so this post knocks loose a bunch of questions from my head.

    Because something innocuous works for a student, does that make it okay?

    I’m thinking of the school successful student – one who passes the tests. When we say school works for her – that we found her solution – do we mean that she has good grades? That she behaves well? That she is happy at school? That she has gotten into college? That she will probably wind up middle class? That she has started her own business? That she has identified and helped solve a community problem?

    Are those outcomes equally desirable?

    Specifically, are any of her hypothetical good grades, scores, and/or behavior worth the cost to struggling students (because our successful student’s performance is being used to justify a requirement that those struggling students become her – because her own performance is being used to justify an expectation of her compliance)?

    And let’s note that there are many morally good ways to behave that don’t equate to compliance; there are many ways to learn and many achievements that are cheapened by grades.

    Early in my career I knew the kids most like me; I related to them; I assigned some okay work – some of it was interesting, if not authentic. I expected other students to be like them and reacted judgmentally when other students did not meet my expectation. Was that enough because what I did worked for some students? Is it enough whenever I fall into that trap now, however less frequently?

    What’s the bottom line? When does something seemingly innocuous – but insipid – that works – become something we need to stand against? Or does it ever?

    What is the problem our many possible solutions solve? The problem of instruction? Curriculum? Assessment? Purpose?

    I think there’s a belief system at work in our profession – find what works to get the kid through school – that interferes with our work to critically examine school itself. I’m not sure what to do, but the questions come easily.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 30, 2011, 8:33 pm
    • It’s hard to answer this comment, because there are so many questions. I suppose what I mean is that quality education works within different systems. We can agree that certain practices are bad for kids, period. Compliance, behaviorist discipline, etc. The tricky part is when people argue that their model works best. I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that some of what I’ve done in my class under a traditional public schools system worked, because I had the freedom to develop my own curriculum, use strategies that worked, go out into the community often, etc. I had a relationship with the students and their families. I understood the context.

      It gets tricky as you think about individual needs. My brother will tell you that he needed structure. Not heavy-handed discipline, but specific guidelines of what can and cannot be done. This allowed him to thrive. I didn’t need structure, but I needed a place to be quiet enough for learning. I couldn’t take a loud learning space. To me, those are issues of preferences. They are essentially neutral.

      There are practices which are essentially wrong. They marginalize students. They dehumanize. They label, sort and judge. I’m thinking tests, grades, behaviorist discipline and other practices fit into this.

      There are things that are good for all children. I think inquiry and discovery fits into this. Independent learning. Student autonomy. These are the types of things we can say, “this works in education at all levels.” It doesn’t have to be a system and it doesn’t have to be a codified list of best practices, but it has to be an approach based upon something larger.

      My point is that what is needed is a philosophy of learning, an approach. It has to be authentic. It has to include parodox and humility. It has to be relational. It has to meet the needs of students. But it can happen in any system (even while teachers in each system work to transform that system). On the flip side, there are some really awful practices that go on in every system (including home school and unschool – where I often see the most self-righteous claims that their non-system, which really is a system, would work for all children)

      I think if we act humbly and we have the right philosophy, we can work within the context we are in to transform it. But we’re in a dangerous place when we claim that the system we’ve created or the context that we’re in can be applied across the board to all learning spaces.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | December 31, 2011, 9:37 am
      • First, I think we should be mindful of how we characterize one another here. Self-righteousness certainly isn’t exclusive to homeschoolers or unschoolers, nor is it an accurate descriptor or defining characteristic of either movement.

        I completely support philosophies of education that let families, schools, and communities find local solutions to the problem of building learning spaces that foster inquiry, independence, autonomy, and community, and I really enjoy reading about the solutions you find in your context.

        I guess what I struggle with (broadly, throughout several different conversations lately) is this:

        As you and I and we do this work in which we believe, is it our responsibility also to draw the line in some larger way – for the kids we’ll never meet face to face – against schooling for control? Can there be an agenda above the local one? If so, what would its best self be?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | December 31, 2011, 5:25 pm
        • “Self-righteousness certainly isn’t exclusive to homeschoolers or unschoolers, nor is it an accurate descriptor or defining characteristic of either movement.”

          True, indeed.

          I have seen self-righteousness in all systems and I have been guilty of it myself.

          In terms of your question, I don’t have an answer beyond the local. I belong in the local. I act in the local. It’s my context and my place.

          I have a few ideas that I think might be universal both in particular and in a broad sense. But that’s honestly a part of why I’m pulling away from blogging this upcoming year. I’ve been making bold statements for awhile now and I’m growing less convinced of so much beyond what I know around me – my students, my kids, my friends, etc.

          Posted by John T. Spencer | January 1, 2012, 11:46 pm
        • But . . . and I will say this boldly . . . it is a very self-righteous assertion that your system is the only system that will work for all children. I’ve seen public school teachers demonize home-schoolers and un-schoolers and charter schoolers. But I’ve also watched public school teachers being smeared by the corporate KIPP-style reformers on one hand (because apparently we don’t have high enough standards) and the homeschool/unschool communities on the opposite end.

          I know it isn’t the heart of many who choose those systems for their own children. However, those are some very loud voices who manage to make their way into the blogs I read. And if that becomes the voice of a movement (even a very positive movement) it will not be surprising to see people react with a bit of anger and resentment as a result of being labeled, stereotyped and demonized.

          Posted by John T. Spencer | January 1, 2012, 11:51 pm
      • Thanks for this, John. (I had the same brother — and the same need for quiet as a child.)

        I agree that the crucial point here is to make the distinction between valid alternatives for learning — i.e., should it take place in a group or independently? Should there be agreed-on goals and schedules, or should it be allowed to unfold spontaneously? Should there be a teacher who leads the process, a facilitator who supports it, or should it be entirely child-directed? — and practices which are morally wrong, including grading. (For an “A” student to say that school “works” for her when her “A” rests on another child’s “C” is like a white person saying that Jim Crow works for her. If your privileges and honors ride on another person’s degradation, then there’s a problem with the system.)

        I’ve raised two unschooled kids now and watched numerous other unschooled and homeschooled kids pass in and out of public and private schools, and there’s a lot of food for thought in looking at the ways in which different situations mesh with different children’s temperaments and inclinations at different points in the life cycle. One thing that’s clear to me is that one of the great variables — completely normal variables — in human temperament is the degree to which a person wants and needs a social structure for learning and the degree to which she wants and needs control over her own learning. People who are highly creative in the arts and sciences often — not always! — but often want this control to a point where they will become depressed or self-destructive if they don’t get it. People whose nature is more social, who may be successful in various forms of adult business or government organization, often want and need a clear social framework of expectations in order to structure their time, energy, and motivation. There’s a wide spectrum of normal here, and if you valorize self-directed learning to an excessive degree, you will penalize the child who craves the social framework. If you impose the social framework, you will drive the independent child completely around the bend.

        So we need options. A lot more options.

        In my experience, the vast majority of unschooling parents support the right of their children to choose to go to school, to work from an online curriculum, to attend community college, etc. if they feel that this environment would work best for them. My younger daughter chose to go to high school for her junior and senior years, and she’s had interesting conversations with her wonderful teachers about what it means that she is there voluntarily. We have loved the contact, ideas, and support that her teachers have given to her and to our family, and they have loved having a student who is in their classes of her own free will. This, to us, is consistent with our unschooling philosophy.

        All parents influence their children to some degree according to their own values, and there are of course dogmatic and domineering individuals of every stripe, but trust me — there is no “system” of unschooling. There is no rulebook. There is no organization. There are no policies or procedures or assessments. There is not even an agreed-on definition of the term. There are only individual people who are feeling their way into the unknown, each according to their own imperfect temperaments and inclinations.

        I think it’s an important distinction.

        Posted by Carol Black | December 31, 2011, 5:58 pm
  6. helpful perhaps.. to not only think of the individuals we seek to help eclectic within themselves.. living (assuming we want them living) days -moments- of perpetual beta. messy. wild. quiet. loud.

    freeing up more spaces of permission for these people.. and for the people listening to them.. without an agenda. perhaps that’s how we get at equity. which is quite often the farthest thing from equality… no?

    Posted by monika hardy | December 31, 2011, 6:54 pm
  7. Great post John. We absolutely need to consider the child when making decisions about how they can learn best.

    My issue is that for parents who choose public schools there really is very little choice when funds are tethered to tests that we all know are often harmful to children and don’t measure the important qualities students will need for success. This problem is becoming worse and worse as the joy of teaching and learning is being sucked from staff and students in the culture of data driven decisions & accountability. This is why in the past two years I have taken a sharp turn in my beliefs and advice to parents when it comes to their children’s learning.

    Students are being hurt in the current one-size-fits-all government schooling environment. It is for this reason that I
    1) Urge parents to consider alternative learning options for their children.
    2) Urge parents, students, teachers, and others to fight against schools that don’t have children’s best interests at heart.

    Until public schools prioritize students as children rather than data points for their various agendas, this option will be the last resort for many families.

    Posted by Lisa Velmer Nielsen | January 1, 2012, 2:18 pm
    • I support you in suggesting both of your two points, but here’s my pushback:

      1. Sometimes a public school choice works well for a child. It wouldn’t hurt to include that perspective every once in awhile. It doesn’t hurt to show some nuance.
      2. If people guest-post on your blog, be careful about how you are using language. I just apologized for calling segments of the unschooling movement self-righteous. An apology is sometimes necessary. You’ve had writers who called teachers child abusers, prison guards, thieves, etc. There are better metaphors. Yes, kids have been hurt in schools. But kids have also been healed. True, some schools have been prisons. Others have been refuges. Metaphors matter.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | January 1, 2012, 11:56 pm

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