On Academic Hoop Jumpers & the Fate of Education

Sometimes it seems like the education system is designed to reward academic hoop jumping. Academic hoop jumpers care as much about grades and accolades as they do about learning. They are sometimes more interested in titles and awards than tangible accomplishments and demonstrable progress. It is about compliance and doing what you are told more than imagination, creativity and learning to think for yourself. Test scores are evidence of their worth and a way of setting them apart from others.

The more successful they are at academic hoop jumping, the more passionate they become about fighting for the value of hoop making and rewarding the next generation of academic hoop jumpers. Sometimes they like to make the hoops smaller and higher, perhaps not consciously, but essentially assuring the prestige and value of their own past hoop jumping accomplishments. As parents, they strive and pray for their kids to become Olympic-grade academic hoop jumpers. They boast of their successful jumping as evidence that they are indeed exceptional. They love competition as long as it sets them and their loved ones apart from the rest. Rules are opportunities to set themselves apart from others.

Too often, these academic hoop jumpers will work like crazy for a letter grade, striving to learn or do whatever they have to do get that “A” in a class. Once the class is finished, they rarely or never crack a book on that subject again. The content or ideas were not as important as the skilled hoop jumping that they just demonstrated. Or, they only crack the books when they read some critique like this, wanting to win yet another competition and put critics like me in their place. The greatest disappointment for me is that trying to have a deep, lasting and substantive conversation about ideas and important issues are often minimized, that is unless there is some new promotion, rank or accolade to reward their “work.”

When they find themselves in “the real world”, they are quick to work hard at building a hoop jumping culture beyond schools, quite often appealing to “fairness” as the motive for such efforts. Or, they gravitate toward those roles and organizations that already align well with the hoop jumping approach. It is to be expected that we can find plenty of hoop jumpers in education roles, although some reject it because it lacks the prestige and big rewards of other career choices.

The enterprise of academic hoop jumping is the demise of a great K-12 or higher education system. It turns school into a game instead of a learning community. It forces school into a role of producing winners and losers, and producing (or restricting) at least a percentage of losers becomes parts of its role in society.

If you are an academic hoop jumper, by now many of you have likely stopped reading. If you are a hooper jumper and you are still reading, you are probably feeling a bit defensive, finding some solid critiques of me…probably not even my ideas. It is likely more about me, thinking that I must be one of those bitter losers in the system who never refined his own skill in academic hoop jumping. You would be right and wrong. I’ve certainly done my share of academic hoop jumping. In fact, this critique is focused on me as much or more than anyone else. I am an academic hoop jumper sometimes. Worse yet, I am sometimes even a hoop maker.

Life has hoops. We are not going to create a world without them. However, whenever possible, we can do something about it.

  • We can fight for hoops with deep meaning and relevance.
  • We can work hard to make sure that the attention is not placed on the hoops, but that our schools and classrooms are instead focused upon a greater and more noble goal that just happens to include jumping through some hoops along the way.
  • We can create spaces for learning apart from hoop jumping.
  • We can recognize and reward those who choose hoop-less routes to noble pursuits.
  • We can resist the temptation to equate worth and value with hoop jumping prowess.
  • We can stand apart as champions for making the passion and pursuit of learning and growth the main focus in education.
  • We can reject the drive to replace authentic assessment and evidence of learning with abstractions like grades, test scores and ranks.
  • We can find more interest in considering what we and others have learned compared to what we have earned.

Hoops will remain, but by doing these things we can tame the hoops in our schools.

Posted in blog, education, education policy, education reform | Tagged ,

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.

7 Replies to “On Academic Hoop Jumpers & the Fate of Education”

  1. Robert Columbia

    Your article is right on the ball in a lot of ways. A big part of the problem is that life itself has become dependent on hoop jumping just to survive. My mother practically forced me to go to college despite the fact that I was happy being a lifelong learner with an thirst for exotic knowledge. Nowadays, it’s a lot easier to get a job with a ‘hoop’ degree than it is to get a job with college level or even Master’s level skills, but no degree. That means that we have to play the hoop game whether we like its learning model or not.

    We can talk about this all day, but how do we fix it? Remember Reagan and his ‘supply side’ economics? Maybe we need some ‘Employer Side Education Reform’ where employers can establish or facilitate more authentic ‘career pathways’. If we don’t, we run the risk of having a world of literate, articulate, well educated thinkers lining up at the soup kitchen to receive charity handouts from rich people who did the bare minimum necessary to get their formal credentials. Actually, I think we’re closer to that world than we ever have been.

    • Robert Columbia

      Also, it was not that many generations ago that a smart person could become a self – taught or nontraditionally – taught lawyer, engineer, or even physician. In some cases, there was an ‘open’ exam to pass, but in other cases, a person’s professional credentials were their very skills and abilities as assessed via the trials of everyday life. If you could heal patients, you were a doctor. If you couldn’t, you weren’t. Want to be an engineer? Build a few bridges. If they don’t fall down, congratulations, you made it and artfully demonstrated your competencies for all to see.

      Most of these paths were quite artfully dismantled during the rampaging ‘progress’ of the 20th century and the corresponding fad for more and more hoops. Could the old way come back? How? What are your thoughts? Are there practical things we can do right now to start the process of dismantling unnecessary hoops?

    • Bernard Bull Post author

      Well said. I have an essay that I am working on as part of a forthcoming book called Badges, Credentials and the Future of Learning. It gives a brief historical view of credentials and reputations. In terms of solutions, we are seeing developments in some fields more than others. Computer programming, for example, is an obvious instance. The bootcamp and related approach to training is also moving the needle. I’m not sure there is a single answer…just a critical mass of micro-solutions that will eventually begin to change people’s perspective.

      • Robert Columbia

        Thank you.

        It is very tempting to heed the calls of those who say that university degrees are dead and that the professional of the future will be judged directly on his skills and abilities as demonstrated by testing and/or his portfolio, but we are a long ways off from that.

        I recently started a new job where after the interview, they wanted to see a copy of my degree, demonstrating their implicit belief that the entire interview and assessment process was insufficient to establish my qualifications unless I could also provide proof of jumping the hoop. I was tempted to respond by requesting a direct assessment of my Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities against a college – graduate benchmark, but I had a pretty good idea that such a proposal would not be well received.

        Without such an independent benchmark, we are not going to make much progress in removing the hoops without employer side concessions or reforms. Educators are thus left with the options of providing more ways to jump the hoop (what CBE is doing) or improving methods of teaching hoop – jumping skills.

  2. Dr. Jodi Rust

    There is even the realm of hoop jumping for career pursuits. Today, if you aren’t “jumping” every few years you are not advancing your career. One was frowned upon for “job hopping”, but now that is an acceptable way to advance your career. Perhaps we’ve all lived in the hoops too long.

    • Robert Columbia

      One problem that may be contributing to job – hopping is the lack of clear internal career pathways in many organizations. When I ask employers to help me understand their career pathways and what I must accomplish or master to qualify for a promotion, I am told to shut up and get back to work.

      Workforce development organizations tell me that if I “skill up”, I will be irresistible to employers and the corner office will come, and that right soon. Writers like Jonathan Kosol say that executives are going home crying because they can’t promote anyone because workers today can’t read, write, or do basic math. I can. How do I get on that career pathway where literate workers move up and illiterates report to them? I’m proud of the above – average skills that came to me through patient practice and perseverance, but I’m trapped in perpetual entry – level employment. Where are the employers who need my advanced skills? I’m not convinced that there is a way to convince them that I do have those skills that they will accept.

  3. Doug H.

    The hoop-jumping has become just as prevalent for the teachers, as well, which is probably part of the problem. I spend more time filling out paperwork which will go in a box in the principal’s closet and which nobody will *ever* read, than many more critical tasks, like lesson planning and quality grading. However, state and federal law, and administrators, require this ‘documentation’ in order to justify or fulfill funding schemes.

    Further, we hire administrators to check that teachers are doing a good job, but rather than go sit in classrooms to see what is going on, they simply come up with more paperwork for teachers to fill out to prove that they are teaching well, except that it takes away from the time needed to teach well. This is called “progress”.

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