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Why Educators Think Every Kid Is The Same

I’ll start this article off by asking a simple question.

Why do educators in the US think that every child is identical?

Now, I bet an open ended, inflammatory question like that would be challenged by teachers. There would be a range of arguments presenting evidence to the contrary.

But my response? Without even hearing what they had to say, I would point out that it still takes 13 years to train each and every child in America. Whatever evidence they present is refuted by that one simple fact. It takes teachers the same amount of time to teach every single child. OK, I admit, there are exceptions. Some students drop out or spend an extra year or two at school, and others graduate early. But for the vast majority, they sit at a desk until around their 18th birthday. All exactly the same.  And they all earn exactly the same diploma.

So the question becomes, are we teaching children to a standard or is the standard the amount of time they have to spend in class? If we really believe that children are unique, and are important, and are the future, then why do we subject them to years and years of a mismatched pace of education? Think of a bell curve. The kids in the middle might need 13 years to learn what they need to know to thrive in society. But with a basic knowledge of statistics, you would recognize that there are a lot of kids on the tails that would need more or less time to meet that standard.

Since I’ve opened the statistical can of worms, I’ll admit that I don’t know the spread of students. Is 13 years right for 10% of kids? 30%? 50%? I don’t have the data to answer that question. But I sure know it is nowhere close to the 100% that go through at that pace right now. Is it any wonder that discipline can be a challenge at schools? Many students are either chronically bored, or struggling to keep up.

Far from being a complaint about teachers or other educators, I want to point to the works of Deming. We have a fundamentally broken system, but focus on how well the workers perform in that system. Until the system changes, teachers will be unfairly burdened with an uphill battle that is both logically and statistically impossible to win.

Interestingly, my daughter recently started taking Tae Kwon Do. The instructor just let her know that she is ready to test for the next belt. Of course, I have the typical parental pride when my child exceeds expectations. But it also made me think about how martial arts training differs from the public education model.

There is a high instructor to student ratio during class, but there is an expectation that a lot of learning comes from practice outside of the classroom. That means parental involvement. The requirements on the students are crystal clear. Once they are met, the student can move on. If they are not met, she doesn’t.

But most of all, there is a PDCA cycle that goes into martial arts training that is not as apparent in public education.

Martial Arts PDCA

  • Plan: Identify the gap between where the student is and where he or she needs to be to earn the next belt.
  • Do: Train the student to close that gap.
  • Check: Confirm that the student meets the requirements.
  • Act: Correct the shortcomings and repeat the cycle, or move the student to the next level of training and start over.

Public Education PDCA

  • Plan: Create a standard lesson plan based on age/grade.
  • Do: Teach the lesson plan to a large group with minimal individual attention.
  • Check: Confirm that the student meets the requirement.
  • Act: Leave the student in the same grade level regardless of progress.

There are several problems that jump out at me. First is that the cycle is far too long in public schools. Grading is done periodically, but there is no change in class composition except at the end of the school year. Even then, most students don’t get moved up or down, regardless of prowess or progress.

The second is that the configuration of the classroom with one teacher to 20-30 students prohibits the one-on-one attention that is essential to learning. Fast PDCA cycles require energy to keep them moving. There just isn’t the bandwidth with all the waste that comes from operating under a flawed system.

The check phase of the public schools is done primarily through testing. Teachers test their students, and there are occasional standardized tests. The problem here is not the testing itself. It is the fact that the testing in most cases doesn’t lead to action. Kids get scores, but the teachers don’t have time to act upon the results.

And that is the biggest problem. With all the testing that is done in schools every student has the same trajectory towards graduation. The results of the tests change nothing except the grade in the gradebook. A child will be back in the same seat regardless of how he or she performs.

It is time for a fundamental change in how we educate children.


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