All Articles Education We're No. 1

We’re No. 1

3 min read


I hear it frequently: “The ‘A’ students in my school do not like student-directed learning! They’ll say, ‘Please don’t make us be creative today.’ ”

They’re good students.

They know how to play the game.

They pay attention, study (depending on their facility for memorization) and they apply themselves to learning what their teachers want to see and delivering it. They get good grades, good GPAs, go to good colleges, graduate and then start their lives.

For me, I want to see the data that shows that this path, traveled by these successful and celebrated students, is the way to the innovative, risk-taking, critical thinkers we claim to need for a rapidly changing and increasingly global world. Or might there be an alternative deserving of respect and support?

Formal education is a system that is comfortably predictable, shaped by institutional rules and easily gamed by people who like predictability and the security of rules. Sadly, as success in this world depends increasingly on inventive resourcefulness and a lifestyle of active continual learning, formal education has become more reliant on rigid standards-based instruction and a punitive reward system.

It’s a game that’s based on a contrived organization of competition, within the context of boundary defining rules, and depending on the unambiguous demonstration of knowledge and skills, selected for their suitability for easy measurement.

It’s a game, where our team clamors to “Race to the Top” and “be No. 1.”

To be sure, life is a game. The competition is largely between the least and the best that each of us can be. If there are referees, then they are a well camouflaged part of the landscape. The rules are discovered along the way, they can change and sometimes be changed, and they’re designed to be used, not followed.

Releasing our children from the school-as-usual game board and saying, “Game On” to authentic world-relevant learning, requires a new discussion that is completely and irrevocably separated from elected politicians and their ridiculous campaigns. It’s a discussion that is part of the greater conversations of living, loving and working people.

We are all engaged in education. We learn every day and we learn effectively from the experiences of accomplishment, from the mistakes we make, and the relationships we discover and cultivate. We leave formal education behind because it wasn’t real. We need to switch off the virtual realities of overbearing standards, constraining curricula and high-stakes one-answer tests, and reinvent classrooms and learning experiences in the image of the world we’re preparing our children to own.

David Warlick (@dwarlick) is a 35-year educator. He has been a classroom teacher, a district administrator and a staff consultant with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. For the past 15 years, Warlick has operated The Landmark Project, a consulting and innovations firm in Raleigh, N.C.