10 Ways that Schools Risk Becoming Anti-Educational

Aren’t schools, by their very nature, pro-education? That makes intuitive sense given that they are supposed to be places created to promote learning. However, there are a number of well-intentioned practices that, while implemented to improve education, also have a way of subtly shifting the culture of the school toward one that is anti-educational.

1. Standardized Tests – These are often used to more accurately measure student progress and/or performance. However, once the tests are implemented, it sometimes occurs that teachers and schools are measured by the numbers on the test. Over time, what happens in some schools is that they carry out strategies to improve test scores. Notice the subtle change. The focus is on improving test scores, not more broadly improving the overall education. Test scores may well increase while creating a culture that is more concerned with test performance than student learning and the traits that nurture young people who are curious, disciplined, and increasingly self-directed learners.

2. Honor Roll – I’m not necessarily suggesting that honor roll is fundamentally anti-educational, but here is my concern. In many schools, honor roll is mainly about honoring students with a 3.5 GPA or above. It becomes a goal for some students. The only challenge is that it can place the emphasis upon attainment of a grade-point average instead of something like being deeply engaged in learning. While the person with the 3.5 GPA may be the same person as the deep learner, I’ve seen no sign that this is the case. Instead, for some learners, a practice like honor roll becomes about learning to play the school game, choosing the right classes, playing it safe, and keeping your GPA as high as possible. As I’ve illustrated elsewhere, grades (and thus GPAs) are not simply a measure of what students have or have not learned.

3. Diplomas – “I’m just here to get that piece of paper so that I can get the job I want.” Have you heard something like that before? That is a mindset that is focused upon school as a hoop that one must jump through instead of a place for growth, learning, and maybe even some transformational experiences. It can be about seeing the diploma as a ticket that provides entrance into the desired workplace, instead of a symbol of one’s learning.

4. Letter Grades – I’ve written a bit about this elsewhere, but the basic idea is that, if we are not careful, we create a culture of earning grades instead of a culture of learning new things. This happens quickly when we try to use grades as carrot and stick motivational tools. When we do that, we diminish the notion that school is primarily about learning.

5. Seat Time, Hours and Days – Whenever we try to reduce our concept of quality education to measuring the number of hours that students are in classes or the number of days that schools is in session, we are starting to play a dangerous game of schooling. We are losing sight of our first calling which is student learning, and we all know that learning happens at different rates for different people. So, a 180-day school year may be great for one student but not for another. There is no magic number of hours or days in school that is ideal for all students.

6. Key Performance Indicators – This is business language for measures that we are tracking well, that we are on the way to reach certain school goals or critical targets. There is nothing inherently anti-educational about this. In fact, it can be quite helpful. Yet, we often come up with things to measure that are easy and accessible, but that do not really get at the heart of what we are about. I give one such example here.

7. Keeping Up With the Technological Jonses – This is when we track and adopt the latest educational technology trends because they are trendy, or because the school down the road is doing it. The problem is that we are not thinking about the educational benefit. How will it help or hinder our educational goals? How will it amplify or mute or core values and mission? Who will be the educational winners and losers? What do we gain and give up with it? These are the sorts of questions that we want to ask if we want to maintain a pro-educational school amid technological innovation.

8. Dismiss Reading and Writing as Outdated – I’m one of the first to champion things like project-based learning, inquiry-based learning and game-based learning. Yet, reading and writing remain fundamental parts of cultivating a disciplined mind. Show me a school that minimizes these and you almost always see a school that is dabbling in anti-educational sentiment.

9. Design By Teacher Preference and Comfort – I’ve seen many University faculty and K-12 educators argue for something in the name of academic rigor, when it actually comes down to personal comfort and preference. There is nothing more academic about such a mindset. Making something harder is not the same as keeping high academic standards, nor is being less flexible or accessible. Pro-educational schools keep such claims in check by demanding that the conversation come back to what best supports student learning. There is still plenty of room for disagreement, but at least the debates are keeping first things first.

10. Dismiss Educational Research and Theory – Yes, this happens. I’ve seen it in K-12 schools as well as higher education institutions. They treat the study of education as having little true value, instead arguing that experience and personal opinions about good practices are adequate. There are tons of great teachers with no formal training in education, as they have discovered and applied solid teaching and learning principles. However, not every teacher gets there. In such instances, we can greatly enhance their teaching effectiveness and student learning if we embrace what educational theory and research has to say about good and promising practices.

There are plenty of other practices that could also lead to an anti-educational culture in a school, but these are some of the ones that appear to be more common. Some of them are actually good or promising practices. It is just that they can be used for ill as well. So, how do we create a pro-educational school culture? Simply put, that comes from persistently and relentlessly making student learning the top priority and using that value as a funnel through which we sift everything else.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).