Issue 58

October 18, 2018

Donella H. Meadows

We can't impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

Dear Fellow Learner-Centered Leaders,

What is it going to take to make learner-centered education available to all young people? Nothing short of demonstrating to the country that learner-centered education can do what the current education system cannot: enable each and every learner to achieve their unique potential.

The current system has two fatal design features that make this outcome nearly impossible. The system is fundamentally designed to 1) rank and sort young people and 2) deliver the same education to all children. This month, I want to explore principle number one.

Before I knew anything about learner-centered education, I thought the accusation that the system was designed for sorting and sifting kids was mean-spirited and imbued the designers with bad intentions. I have since come to see it not as an accusation but as a recognition of the fundamental design principles used at the turn of the 20th-century.

These principles were based on assumptions about human beings and what they saw our economy and society needed at the time. They saw a nationwide trend toward maximizing efficiency and believed a formalized education system should match the trends. I imagine their line of thinking could be summarized in this way: “How can we identify the most efficient and productive children? Let’s introduce grades and instruct the adults (teachers) to rank their children from top to bottom.”

This school-centered logic has created odd interpretations of teacher performance, amongst other things. When all students do well, the teacher is seen as either “easy” or the class as not “rigorous.” When all students do poorly, the teacher is seen as “unreasonable” or “misguided.” We demand a spread in performance.

For proof, look no further than the SAT and ACT, which are designed to have a statistical bell curve. If lots of children do well on the test, they adjust the scores to have the results fall back along a bell curve. The original goal was to send the top third performers to college—the gold standard—while others would head to less celebrated careers.

As Todd Rose reveals in The End of Average, the standards by which young people are measured, ranked, and sorted are fictional creations. They are not based on a child’s gifts, aspirations, culture, or community. In fact, they are what a handful of people decided was important over a century ago.

As we look to transform the system with young learners at the center, what outcomes would you see as fitting for an unpredictable, fast-moving future? Explore this topic and more in this month’s special issue of Pioneering: School’s Out.



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