The (Overturned) Standard Model of Education

Words are powerful tools for human thought; once “something” is named it can be recognized and humans can both communicate about it and interact with the concept in a way they could not previously. When the named thing is not an object, but an action (or collection of actions), words can clarify communication and make it more efficient.

One difficulty I observe is educators discussing pedagogy is our inability to differentiate what we want teaching and learning to resemble. This is particularly problematic when we seek to convince teachers to change their existing practices. Consider two examples:

  • “21st Century Education” is supposed to be technology-rich and help students develop skills different from those required in the 20th century. Those who seek to maintain their existing practice argue, “reading is still reading regardless of the century.” While there does seem to be differences in how we understand text in print versus text on screens, that argument seems sound.
  • Student-Centered Education” is supposed to be grounded in an active role for the learner in defining the curriculum. Those who want to maintain their exiting practice argue, “I  am trying to get each student to learn, so my practice really is ‘student-centered.'”

The language used to define the activity of  education is not neutral in these cases. “21st century” implies progress, and that one who continues to use other methods are “stuck in the past.” Some value “old ways” while others reject them based on their beliefs about what they symbolize. “Student-centered” implies the teacher is “doing what is best for students” and this is a characteristic who hope to see in all educators.

In those two cases, we see how language influences how humans act; we expect educators to frame their work (whatever its nature) to reflect the expectations implicit in the value-ladened language we use to label it. My understanding of the growing literature in the learning sciences convinces me that a certain type of education needs to be overturned, but I have struggled to find language that captures this type of pedagogy in clear language that minimizes the values implied by the selection of words.

I have begun to use the term “the Standard Model of Education” to describe the approach to teaching and learning that has been overturned by the learning science and that is contrary both 21st century education and student-centered education. When teaching follows the Standard Model is is based in three assumptions:

  • The curriculum (what students should learn) is well-known and accurately reflects the skills and knowledge students need.
  • Educators know with certainty and clarity how to transfer the curriculum into students’ minds.
  • Tests are an accurate and reliable measure of what students have learned.

Teachers who reject the Standard Model tend to adopt certain practices compared to their peers who have not rejected it:

  • They include a more broad collection of skills and knowledge into the curriculum and “learning how to learn” becomes more important than “learning what you need to learn.”
  • They adopt many methods and adapt hose methods depending on their learners and the topic they are studying. There is no single teaching strategy that works for all purposes, thus students have diverse experiences in classrooms where teachers have rejected the Standard Model.
  • Students demonstrate learning in many ways, including authentic performances that are viewed as interesting and relevant outside the classroom.

As I continue my work to develop faculty whose classrooms reflect the needs of today’s students, I intend to use “the Standard Model” to capture the nature of classrooms in which invalid assumptions about learners, curriculum, and learning continue to be observed.