Yet Another Look at the Standard Model of Education

Stop reading this sentence and imagine a school. In your mind, enter a classroom where students and teacher are present, and class is in session. Look around. See the teacher in the room, see the students, and see what they are doing. If you didn’t play along with the preceding sentence, recall a movie or television program in which a classroom, teaching, and learning was portrayed.  

It doesn’t matter the age of the students you imagined; I predict there were certain elements that came to your mind. First, the teachers were likely to have been lecturing or leading other activities that they had selected and planned. If you imagined any individual in the classroom speaking, it was almost certainly the teacher. This seems reasonable. Teachers are experts in their field (or sufficiently expert to have fooled whoever hired them); they are responsible for looking at the curriculum, deciding how best to teach it, carrying out their plans, having the students demonstrate they learned what they were taught, and reporting the level to which students learned. 

Second, there were indications of the curriculum. Perhaps students were reading textbooks, perhaps they were solving problems, but there was some content they were expected to learn. That curriculum was created by someone or some group charged with deciding what those students should learn in that particular classroom. The teacher may have exerted some freedom in deciding how to enact the curriculum, but the curriculum is likely to have been guided by others. Third, the students were probably going to be tested on what they were studying. Performance on those tests (which are mistakenly assumed to be objective) is thought to the correlated with learning; those who perform better learned better. Those performances become the basis for the reports that teachers make of students’ learning.  

These elements are so customary to our concept of education that I refer to it as the “Standard Model of Education.” For many who enter the field of education, this is how they expect to organize their classrooms and their interactions with students. While it is widely accepted, the Standard Model of Education is misguided in several ways, and those who adhere to it (and who redouble their efforts, applying it in a louder and slower voice and who admonish students for not preparing for the tests when it failed) are more likely to report “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it” than faculty whose teaching follows the Standard Model when it is appropriate (which it is—sometimes), but that included other models in which students interact with each other, reflect, and actively build connections to the curriculum.