Break Free of the Box

We are being sold a lie in society that school equals learning.  Schools and learning are discussed by parents, community members, and government officials as if they are interchangeable.  So when the community hears “our schools are failing” what they equate that to is: our kids aren’t learning.  What is school? What has it become?  For me, school is represented by the image below:

School is curriculum (mandated by the school, district, or state), standards (again dictated by the state or nation), high-stakes testing, and the data that comes as a result.  Now, I know that much more happens within schools, but these are what define what a school is today.  The problem with this, is that many assume that because the school is defined by this neat and tidy box, that learning is happening as a result.  This model of schooling feels efficient because it concludes that we get a known, replicable product at the end.  That feels predictable.  If we have this sort of structure it is assumed that no matter what goes in, a recognizable product will be the result.  Just like a factory.  If you are inside the box, you are learning, if you start straying outside the box to further explore, discover, or create, and it doesn’t reflect on a test, you are failing.  Unfortunately for this model, the world is no longer safe or predictable.  It doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box.  An education that cranks out a service, does it with measurable output, and works to reduce costs is not going to produce results we want to live with.  The supposition to this model is that there will be no surprises, students will filter through the system and at the end we will have productive, literate adults who can join the workforce.  Unfortunately, life isn’t so neat and tidy.  You see, in a factory you are working with similar materials that are used to make identical products.  But we aren’t working with similar materials.  We are working with unique individuals, we are working with children.  Children who have different genetic make-up, backgrounds, home lives, hopes, dreams, gifts, and plans.  A school model that is so rigid simply cannot work.  Schools will always be failing using this model, because they are trying to fit every single child through the same mold.  Sure, you can force them to contort and conform to the mold, but the end product still won’t be the same.  It still won’t be neat and tidy.

This is the way I view learning:

This model isn’t so rigid, it offers many paths to learning.  No matter which direction(s) a child approaches, learning is the end result.  This model offers students flexibility to their learning, it isn’t a “you’re in or you’re out” model.  Everyone of us is on our own unique path of learning.  Those circles around learning show that even within an approach to learning, children will still travel toward the learning at their own pace as they are developmentally ready.  Each unique individual is allowed to approach learning in the ways that make sense to them.  I would argue that the rigid school model above does more to hinder learning than to help it.  It cuts students off from the learning that could happen and sells the lie that standards and curriculum and tests are all there is to learning.

It is time that we break free of the box.  School does not equal learning.  Following a curriculum so that you can pass a test is not learning.  Let’s build our school model around what learning really looks like.  Let’s allow our students the freedom to be the unique individuals they are.  Let’s build a school that knows that a test can never be a truly accurate measure of all that a student knows.  Let’s help parents, community members, and politicians see why the box is a failing model.  We can’t keep waiting around for this change to happen on its own, or for policy makers to come to these conclusions.  There is an urgency in education.  Children are going through the box school model every day, they don’t have the luxury of time for the adults to get it right.  We have to do better and we have to do it now.


  1. Manyteachersand administrators would agree with you, but money owes no loyalty and no common sense. Education has become big business to non educators. Their voices are the ones chosen to be heard and heeded much to the chagrin of the ignored majority. Education has to be taken out of the hands of the politically elite and industry. (eg. Finland) Only then can we get out of the “Box”, and bring it back to the source of educating the one among many with whatever it takes.

    1. That is exactly right Greg, education has become big business and that is how politicians are trying to fix it. The problem is we aren’t dealing with big business, we are dealing with children. We need to make our voices louder. We need to be intentional about changing the system.

  2. Kelly,

    Your last paragraph hits the point so well. As educators IN schools, we need to get out there and lead the way. Do you think politicians tell doctors how they need to operate? It is the dilemma that because everyone has went to school, most believe that they know how school should run.

    Part of this though is communication. We really try to push the envelope in my school and I know if we do this, we have to really communicate with stakeholders on WHY we are doing this. Every parent should be able to ask questions and be in on the conversation when we are working with their children. All I ask though is that they listen and are open to new ideas. If we have these conversations, we can really push best practices!

    Great post Kelly!

    1. I so agree George. Communication is key. We have to be specific and intentional about how we are communicating with stakeholders on WHY we are making the decisions we are. I think so many parents just go with the flow because that is how they remember school. They don’t know to question what is happening.
      Thanks for the great comment!

  3. Great post, Kelly!

    I wonder also… how many people really understand the data behind test scores? For instance, if a child moves into my school district on Tuesday, and the test is given Wednesday, that child’s scores count for our school. I wrote in one of my posts that a test score is a microscopic view of a child’s performance on THAT day and THAT specific time. What if he was sick? What if she had just learned her grandparent had a heart attack that morning (happened to a child I know)? Sure, we could say that one or two kids can’t “throw” the test scores for an entire school… but can’t they?

    Learning isn’t about memorizing a limited set of facts or knowing what other people want you to know. I really like your diagrams above and how they really drive that point home. Thanks for such a well-written post!!

    1. Michelle, I don’t think that the average community member really understands the data behind the test scores. I doubt that anyone thinks about it being a ONE day snapshot out of the year. I think what testing more accurately portrays is what was going on in a child’s day when the test happened. Life keeps happening regardless of test day which means kids who are sitting through the test hungry, upset over an argument with a sibling, excited about their birthday, not feeling well, just moved into the neighborhood, a harsh word from a parent, and a million other little things that affect the way we perform.
      Thank you for the comment Michelle!

  4. Kelly, I could not agree with you more. It will take the polictical decision makers years to make changes in the box model. There is something educators in the classroom can do TODAY. Change their (our) thinking. Make students aware, promote, acknowledge, and value learning outside the box. In the classroom, have student lead discussions about what they have learned outside the classroom. Get excited about learning and celebrate learning now matter where it takes place.
    Wishing you a beautiful fall in the wonderful state of Colorado!

    1. Thank you Rich, the fall has been beautiful so far!
      Yes, it has to start in the classroom today. I love your specific ideas of how the changes can begin to take place.

  5. “There are many paths to learning” – You said it AND you illustrated it here. Thank you! I love how you are clarifying what learning really is. It’s not being fed facts and spitting them back out. It’s a lifelong journey and our job is to create people who want to and love to learn.

    Great post!

  6. Wow! I love your learning model. Tasks such as ‘create’, ‘design’, ‘construct’ means that different learning styles are catered for as well. You are soo amazing! When is your book on pedagogy coming out???!!

  7. I believe Will Richardson said (and I apologize if it’s not verbatim), “Let’s quit talking about changing schools, and let’s start talking about changing learning.”

    This was powerful for me. Just like you said Kelly, parents don’t know to question what is happening. Too many of the mentality of, “Well it worked fine for me, it will work fine for my kid.” Sadly, we see educators and admins stuck in that rut as well.

    Fantastic post!

  8. Very true! Another way to get out of that box is to collaborate with your school librarian. I am a K-3 library media specialist and see the great rewards when teachers co-teach with me in the biggest classroom of all, the school library. Two heads are better than one and the students surely benefit.

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