A Vanilla Education

The focus of schools today really isn’t learning. The focus is standardizing the student population.  What we are left with is an educational system that is vanilla.  Don’t get me wrong, vanilla has its place in the world.  Vanilla makes an excellent base, you can add almost anything to it and it is only enhanced.  But we aren’t really enhancing it with anything are we?  We are stopping at vanilla.  We are standardizing learning until each of our students is popped out the other end looking exactly the same.  This isn’t really what this global, connected society calls for, is it?  What it calls for is innovation and creativity, anything but vanilla.  Yet in our schools, we strip it all away and pass students through making sure that they reach certain standards and pass certain tests.  Where is the individualization, the flavor?

It seems to me, that in this world where everything else can be individualized, education should be individualized as well.  We have managed to customize our cars, our computers, our happy meals, how is it that we haven’t figured out that education needs customization as well?  A few weeks ago while we were driving, I asked my husband if he had a favorite teacher when he was in school.  He gave it some honest thought and couldn’t come up with even one name.  How sad.  He wasn’t a traditional learner.  Sitting and being lectured to and taking tests must have been torture for him.  He is a graphic artist.  He has always been naturally creative, innovative, and artistic.  He loves to know how things work, how they are put together. He sits and reads blogs and tinkers in our garage for hours.  He taught himself how to use Photoshop, he is a learner.  Not one teacher stands out in his mind as a favorite, someone he really clicked with and enjoyed learning from.  I find it hard to believe that there isn’t a teacher out there somewhere who could have been his favorite.  When we were in school, the connections that could be made today weren’t possible.  What if we started customizing education?  What if we connected learners with teachers around the world who really understood them as learners?  What if every teacher was a favorite teacher? With the collaboration tools today, this doesn’t seem a farfetched dream to me. If we had teachers who understood, recognized, and drew out the passions of students, maybe learning wouldn’t be so vanilla.

Standardizing is not the answer in education.  We don’t need a group of people who can do exactly the same thing, the same way.  We need a society that has many talents.  I am afraid that right now we are losing the great talent to standards.  Students don’t feel that they measure up, so they give up and drop out.  It isn’t that they aren’t brilliant and don’t measure up somewhere, they just don’t fit in the standardized school box.  These kids are still getting “Left Behind”.

With the tools we have available to us today, how could we begin to offer customized learning?



  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I think online learning will be a big part of the solution. As technology develops, students will have the freedom to be able to choose classes based on their interests and will be able to learn at their own pace and in their own way. I’m not sure the technology is 100% there yet, but I think it’s coming quickly.

    1. I agree, I think there will be bumps along the way as we sort out what works well and what causes problems…but without a doubt, we need to get started down the road and work out the bumps as we get to them!

  2. I wish we could have Ken help the government realize what they are doing to public education. I do agree that we need to change things in education and it’s hard when you are bound by rules from your administrators and government driving that. I had this conversation last week when we had a consultant come to talk to us about reading comprehension strategies and she was telling us how we need to do lots of modeling of strategies, lots of whole group, small group then partner activities to practice the strategies. I told her I really loved all she was saying but asked how do we manage this along with teaching the basal story and having to do a story a week as well as all the “skills” for that story. She said we need to go at the pace of our class and sometimes that means spending longer than a week on a strategy. I so agreed with her, but we have to do a story a week and skills with that story and we are creating a curriculum map so we can all teach the same thing on the same week and make sure we are covering everything. It’s impossible to do what she was suggesting the kind of teaching we know works best for kids because we have to follow the curriculum map.

  3. I was just having a conversation somewhat about this with people in our PLN on Twitter. The problem is people are trying to fit the wrong analogy, in my opinion, to education. We try to think of education as a business model when really it isn’t. Our students aren’t products that we are producing at a high quality. Products are objects, therefore, products can be standardized. Products can begin the same with the same quality and materials.

    However, students come to the classroom each with a different type of interest, set of strengths, set of weaknesses, and various learning styles. Each will look at tasks we give them and attach a different meaning and application. In fact, this is what a great teacher will help students do, apply their learning to their real world experiences. If we teach like this with students having choices and learning that there are millions of correct ways to apply new knowledge, then I say we are extremely successful. In this model we teach students that learning is continuous and malleable. Knowledge is meant to be built upon, expanded, explored, and applied to various situations. If each of us has different experiences, then each of us will use the knowledge at least a little bit differently. For this reason, I do not understand the standards system in education and I do not understand why we would want to standardized knowledge. If everyone thinks inside a box then how do we solve problems when the old solutions do not work? Who is to say that answer A is the ultimate answer. Why are we limited to 4 or 5 choices? This isn’t problem solving like we find in the real world or in life. We aren’t handed multiple choices and have to simply bubble one. Instead, we have to go through a process where we identify challenges, come up with solutions and think about the consequences.

    Also, I don’t understand why the system continues to punish teachers who help their students increase their skills by high percentages. In our current system if an educator has an 8th grader who reads at a 2nd grade level and the educator gets them to read at a 6th grade level in a few months, then the educator is still punished because the student didn’t pass the standardized test at the 8th grade level.

    So many problems that I hope that online learning becomes popularized. However, I believe instructional design for designing effective e-learning courses will be essential. If not, then students will still be taught to bubble.

  4. Standardization seems to have become the bane of our existence. We are creating government sponsored robots. Having kids think outside the box today is seen by too many at the top as being radical because it takes away from the mandated objectives or standards. Has anyone wondered why our society seems to become a litter dumber (I know that sounds harsh) with each generation. That’s because they have been feed and not allowed to think for themselves. There are many changes that need to be made in education. Two ideas I’ll add is that the policy makers need to realize that not everyone wants to or can go to college. What happened to technical schools? They need to make a comeback. Secondly, our students today are well versed in technology and there is a whole wide world out there for them. A blended learning environment would be a plus – some traditional classroom time along with independent VLE time. If any change is to happen, teachers need to become more vocal and not continue to allow the CO or BofE to make all the decisions. One more rant – on a upper/state level, decisions and policies should be made by certified and experienced educators and not by people who are in positions of power because they have an “interest in making education better.”

  5. Great post. My school was lucky enough to have Sir Ken Robinson come talk to us in 2006. It was eye opening. He is a very interesting speaker.
    I definitely think you are on to something here. I have thought for a while that customization will come to education. I am making a video for my masters class I will put up on my blog that will show what I think this customization will look like in the future. Check for it on Monday. 🙂

  6. My 10 Weeks No Tests has really opened my eyes to the individualized learning that can take place when I decide to let the kids explore and not force them to express themselves and be judged by oval bubbles. It will take more work, but more learning will occur. I think more teachers need to make the sacrifice of time to reach more students who need the individual learning.

  7. I agree that technology could assist with customizing education. A few barriers that I struggle with are:

    I don’t want a computer program that adjusts questions based on the student using the program to take over the role of the teacher and that seems to be the direction many people are moving when discussing customization because it would be the easiest to implement.

    I think it is a challenge to customize education when you have 25+ students in your classroom. It is an impossibility for a teacher to meet the needs of that number of students.

    I look forward to reading more thoughts about how to implement customization for large numbers of students.

  8. Yeah, there is a case for customization of education, but that need to happen at higher levels of learning. At the elementry school, the basic skills need to be imparted and that has to be standardized. It’s like putting up great buildings. However varied be the architecture of numerous structures, the foundation of all has to be of sturdy concrete, capable of holding the weight of the super-structure.


  9. We need to redefine smart for our students- and it starts with recognizing the limited value of scoring well on tests. I see kids demoralized because they can’t pass tests…yet they can rip apart a broken snowmobile, form a hypothesis about why it wont work, research the solution via local experts, apply the solution, then analyze the results and continue until they have solved the problem and driven away. Somehow we need to have kids understand that THIS kind of smart is a very valuable skill. Squeezing them through tests doesn’t even come close to evaluating what they know- or can learn.

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