Education doesn’t need any more Nip Tuck: Our Normal Approach is Useless Here

Education isn’t about achievement, and yet, somewhere along the way that is exactly what its purpose became.  Somewhere along the line our perspectives shifted and we began to believe the lie.

The lie that the purpose of education is a number.

A grade.

We put so much emphasis on the notion that achievement is everything, that students began to believe that the number actually meant something.

That the number was everything.

If achievement is everything, education is surely at the pinnacle of its demise.  It can’t just be about the numbers. It has to be about more. It has to be about something more tangible, more real.  Right now we are in a cycle of implant syndrome (can’t claim this idea, came from my friend @matthewquigley who calls it “fake boobs”- stay with me here). We want our schools to look good on the outside, we want them to look perfect (like implants), but at the end of the day, what they represent isn’t real. There isn’t a whole lot of substance to them because substance isn’t the point. Looking good is the point. Getting noticed is the point.  This is the problem I have with focus on achievement and scores. The point isn’t substance, the point is to look like we have students who are performing at what we have deemed is an appropriate level.  When you get right down to it, isn’t there beauty in the imperfection?  Isn’t there beauty in natural learning process?  I love the opening scene of The Social Network movie where we see Mark Zuckerberg going on and on about scores and what else he can do to get in and get noticed. He says something to the effect of: If everyone gets a 1600 (perfect score on the SAT) what differentiates them?

Right now the education system puts the focus on what students don’t know.  We make students feel ashamed of what they don’t know and try to use that shame (of a poor grade) to make them work harder.  What if instead of focusing on what a kid doesn’t know, we help them realize what they do know?  What if we started capitalizing on what they know and used it to help them make connections in their learning?  What if we minimized the focus on achievement?

There are incredible teachers who have refused to sell students the lie that achievement is everything. There are incredible teachers who every day work to capitalize on what students do know and value students for more than the number.  My plea for education reform: minimize the focus on achievement and shift to a focus on learning.

Today as I was going through my overflowing Google Reader, I read this from Seth’s Blog:

“Our Normal Approach is Useless Here

Perhaps this can be our new rallying cry.

If it’s a new problem, perhaps it demands a new approach. If it’s an old problem, it certainly does.”

The direction of education is an old problem, our normal approach is useless here. It is time for education reform to be education re-imagine. Our normal approach is useless here.



  1. Outstanding! I agree, there is so much emphasis put on achieving a grade when actually what is it? You don’t have a career based on a grade but on your thoughts and ideas. Workers and at-home workers use their brains to analyze problems, find solutions, create and LIVE!

  2. Kelly,
    One terrific post! Loved what you had to say and the comparisons used. As an administrator, I now see a major responsibility of my job as keeping the teachers and students focused on the excitement of learning. Technology has become my best ally at connecting with kids and sharing the joys of what the world has to offer. I’ve been in education for a number of years and have seen most ideas and program cycle through the system. It is way past time in the cyclical process for testing to take a back seat to the wonderful discovery approach to learning. This Thanksgiving I count my blessing for the many educators like you that are touching to lives of our youth and making a difference in education! I salute you and all like you!

  3. Hi Kelly,
    You’ve hit the nail on the head there. Grades are not the goals we should be aiming at. And we teachers, should be convinced of that, if we want our students to stop paying so much attention to them. However, we all know it is extremely difficult to do this, when we have a lot of pressure from outside. Learning should be measurable apparently, so that everybody feels relieved that it is taking place in our classrooms ( by everybody, of course I mean, parents, heads, supervisors, etc.) They seem to feel quite assured by numbers, but do they really believe that learning can be measured in that way? Or they are just trying not to see? If they acknowledge that things can be done in another way, they would have to start working in order to try to change things. Sometimes it is easier not to see.

  4. Hi Kelly,

    It’s so great to be discovering so many instructors and education critics (mostly through blogs) that are making such positive changes in the classroom such as yourself. Helping a learner discover their natural talents and help them learn a multitude of disciplines through their talents must be as fulfilling to you as it is for them. You’re building confidence.

    I recently wrote a paper about Michel Foucault and wanted to quote a blogger about such an issue. Your post came up and so, here you are:

    Your thoughts are most welcome.

  5. There is hope. We’re making a really painful, really valuable change this year to a model that is standards based and student centered. We’re looking at how we can make schedules flexible so we can do leveling and give kids the time they need (and teachers the interventions they need) so ALL students can work to their best potential. It’s painful because as teachers we have to toss all that we knew about how traditional learning happens and most of our traditional practices and try some WAY new things. I’m not that good at it yet but I know when I’m heading in the right direction because I see engagement from otherwise disenfranchised students and excitement overall. And the best part is that it’s all happening in a public school. Of all the bazillion initiatives I’ve lived through, this just might be the one to turn school into a place where kids learn.

  6. I was lucky enough to come across your blog after a colleague posted a link on our edmodo site. I have been scrolling through and devouring as many posts as possible. I feel validated and not quite so insignificant. In the world of public education, being a trailblazer is not easy. It is not easy to stand up for what is right instead of what looks good and will meet what the state deems as “Exemplary” Hah!

    Something really interesting happened in my classroom last week. I work at a school where mediocrity is the standard. I speak out and am the lone “crazy”. I want what is best for kids and will push them, and challenge them and expose them to the bigger world and actually expect them to think…Silly me!

    Your post about the number is so true. Record number of students in my school don’t do ANY work…and it is ok. (Not with me…but with the powers that be.) We are constantly giving the opportunity to redo/retest, make up late work etc.

    I got so tired of doing the paperwork that ensued because of apathy on the students behalf…I did something radical. I took the “number” out of the equation. I had the students come up with the requirements for next semester. They set the work/assignment parameters and something really amazing happened…I saw smiles, I heard sighs of relief…most importantly, in the following days, I saw engaged, motivated students. They also set the bar pretty high for themselves. They want to be challenged. They want what some of us have to offer. They are yearning for it, actually. As you referenced, attaching the number to achievement has squelched out of the box thinking, productivity and learning. Because of the possibility of failing, students simply give up. So many are accustomed to being told “You don’t measure up.” I’m done with that. When I made it clear to them that they will measure their own success and achievement, they became different people. At least for 45 minutes a day, that is.

    I am a Reading teacher in Texas and I want my students lives to be changed as a result of spending time in my classroom. We actually read in ELA…a novel approach, I know. (pardon the pun) Critical thinking, analyzing, self discovery, finding your place in the world..these are the objectives in my room. Not passing the TAKS test. That will come.

    I look forward to next semester with my reading classes and what will result from them setting their own standard. We all know that giving students’ ownership in setting rules, etc…encourages buy in. Why not let each class determine their requirements? That is individualized and is a step in the right direction, I hope.

    I also look forward to following your daily posts. It’s nice to know there are more of US out there.

    1. Gwynne, it is so nice to “meet” you and I am glad that you stumbled on my blog. It is always nice to find like-minded educators who are willing to step outside of “normal” and try something new and important for students. I love your story and it sounds as though your students appreciate all the effort you are putting in. Thank you so much for sharing it here, it gives us all hope that a classroom at a time we can change education!

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