Why-oh-Why Do We Do What We Do?

Should the education process at work in private and public schools, be structured as if it is a race to see who learns the most, the fastest? Or, should it be a process in which we help all kids learn as much as they are able at their own best pace?

Should the education process be competition in which some students win and others lose, or should all students learn how to be successful and how to win?

Why is it that even though some students fail to master a lesson, we still move them on to the next lesson with the rest of their classmates?

When we enter a D or F in our gradebook at the end of a lesson module or chapter test, does that mean we are satisfied with that child’s performance? Does it mean that our job on that lesson with that child is completed?

Do we ever stop to consider that we are setting students up for failure on future lessons where success depends on their ability to apply what they have already learned?

If we let these children fall behind, lesson after lesson, how will they ever be able to catch up?

How important is the relationship between teachers and students in determining a student’s success? If we all believe, as I do, that that relationship between teachers and students is essential to a child’s success, why do we sever the relationships, every school year, just because the calendar turns to May and June?

We all know that some children are easier to love and befriend than others but how often do we remind ourselves that the child who is hardest to love is the one who needs it the most?

Almost all of us agree that the involvement of parents as partners in the education of their sons and daughters is important, if not critical, to the success of a student, but how many schools treat the solicitation and welcoming of parents as a high priority? How many make this an integral part of what they do?

Very often, having an adequate time is critical to the success of a student in many aspects of the education process. So, why do we not make time?

We mentioned, earlier in this post, that bonding with one’s teacher can make all the difference in the success of a child and that forming such bonds can take an entire school year for some kids. What they need is more time with the teachers with whom a student has bonded, so why do we make them start over with a new teacher in August or September; often, a teacher they may have never met?

Given that having sufficient time on lessons is critical to the child’s success, especially for children who must start from behind or who struggle, why is allowing sufficient time to learn from one’s mistakes not at the top of our priority list? Why do we not make giving students the time they need to learn an expectation of teachers, everywhere?

If most of us understand that our ability to learn from our mistakes is a critical component of the learning process, why do we not embrace mistakes as learning opportunities? Many teachers reading these words will insist that, “Oh but we do!” and they mean that, sincerely, but the evidence that they do not is compelling.

Mistakes are critical to the learning process but when we count the mistakes students make against them, what kind of message are we sending. Teachers use the number or percentage of mistakes a student makes as one of the factors that determine the grades they record in their grade books. How can students believe mistakes are nothing to be afraid of when the consequences of those mistakes are adverse? This is one of those occasions where there’s an obvious disconnect between the words policy makers and administrators say and the things they require teachers to do.

Why do we focus on failure rather than success? In everything we do, the level of enthusiasm for that activity is a function of how successful we are. The more we win, the more we want to play, and the activities at which we win most consistently are the activities we enjoy the most. Winning is a form of success, however transitory, and successful people are almost always winners.

Losing, on the other hand, is a form of failure. When we lose repeatedly—when we rarely experience success—how long before we stop believing success to be attainable? How long before we give up and become unwilling to participate? How long before we lose interest and stop trying? If all we ever do is lose (fail) how do we not think of ourselves as a loser and a failure?

Why-oh-why would we ever want to teach children to view themselves as a failure and as a loser?

There is no question that many student excel in public schools in spite of the flaws in the education process. For kids who begin with a disadvantage—who start from behind—however, there are few success stories. Most disadvantaged students leave school with very few choices about what to do with their lives in order to find happiness and meaning. Far too many end up on the schoolhouse to jailhouse express.

The question we might want to ask ourselves is, how much more would our exceptional students accomplish, academically, if they were not asked to slow down and wait for classmates; if they were free from the distractions caused by students who have given up on themselves and have stopped trying? Even our most accomplished students must endure the adverse impact of a system that is flawed in so many ways.

Why-oh-why do we do what we do? Is it because this is the best we can do? Or, is it because we do not challenge our assumptions; because we do not stop, routinely, to make sure that what we do serves our mission and purpose? Is it because this is the way we have always done it?

Whatever the reason, how can we ever justify the failure of so many our nation’s precious children? How can we atone for the opportunity cost to society of huge population of children who will never reach their potential; who will never make the contributions to society that we should have been able to expect? How do we even calculate the value lost as a result of this opportunity cost to a nation that so desperately needs the very best of every single American man, woman, and child?


What do we want and need from our systems of public education?

Let’s think about the challenge of reinventing education as if we were creating the system from scratch. To begin with we want to remember that the possibilities are as great as our imagination and that the only limits to our imaginations are those that we, ourselves, create.

Let us also remember that there are neither perfect systems nor perfect solutions, and there is no perfect time.  If we wait around for the perfect idea, time, and place we will wait forever. The best time to act is almost always now. A good system will not be able to anticipate every single exception to the rule but it will accommodate both the unexpected and the peculiar.

We must understand that an effective system must be viewed as an integral whole. It is not a hodgepodge of ad hoc pieces thrown together rather it is a coordinated system in which each component is interdependent and often symbiotic. Each component has its job to do, a job on which each of the other components depend. For such a system to work effectively it must always be in a state of relative equilibrium. Anytime we make even subtle changes to individual components we must recognize that those changes will reverberate across the entire surface, placing the entire system in a disequilibrium. As a result, all changes must be made within the context of the whole.

Systems in a state of unresolved disequilibrium quickly become dysfunctional and our current systems of public education and the educational process that works within the system are prime examples of this phenomenon.

We want our system of public education to be as closely aligned to reality as possible. That means that it addresses the real challenges facing us in the world but it also means that it is based upon the reality with respect to the way children grow, learn, and develop. All systems must be focused on the customer. In the case of a system as complex as education, the customer is not only our students but it is also the community that will someday depend upon those students. As such, we must acknowledge that we have a responsibility to both our students and to the community as a whole.

What do we want from our educational system and process?

  • We want the intimate participation of parents as partners, working and supporting the work that classroom teachers and students do, together;
  • We want every child to be on a unique academic path, tailored to their unique abilities and requirements;
  • We every child to have a special relationship with their teacher(s) like many of us remember when we think back to our favorite teacher(s).
  • We want every child to learn that success is a process that can be mastered by anyone and a process that they will carry with them throughout the balance of their lives;
  • We want every child to feel like a winner and we want them to experience the joy of celebratory victory because we know that winning is contagious and something of which human beings can never have enough;
  • We want every child to learn as much as they are able as quickly as they can, independent of their classmates. Never do we want a child to feel the pressure of having to keep up with classmates nor do we want them to be asked to wait for a classmate to catch up with them;
  • We want every child to learn that mistakes are opportunities, not failures, and we want them to know how to optimize the benefits of the mistakes they make;
  • We want children to experience neither failure, which we define as giving up before knowledge is acquired or a skill mastered, nor do we want them to experience humiliation, which we define as asking a child to perform with inadequate preparation;
  • We want to focus on accomplishment which we will define as demonstrable subject mastery;
  • We believe children thrive on positive attention and will do almost anything to get it and that it is only when they think themselves unable to get positive attention that they settle for the negative attention, which is better than no attention at all;
  • We want learning to be fun, an adventure of exploration;
  • We want children to learn how to respond to adversity in a positive way;
  • We want a child to develop a strong self-esteem which comes from, among other things, having a level of control over the outcomes in one’s life that only a quality education can provide.


We must create a system that is engineered to support our classroom teachers and other professional educators as they strive to achieve these objectives. The components of any such system are the people who work within the system, either individually or collectively. The roles of each individual must be clearly defined in terms of the purpose for which they exist to serve and how what they do contributes to the whole. No one in effective organizations or systems works independent of the whole.

In our next post we will take a look at the key players who must work together, as a unified team, to transform public education in America. They are parents, our teachers, teachers’ unions and associations, our school corporations, all levels of government, and our communities. The commitment of each of these players is essential and must be solicited as aggressively as necessary. No one can be permitted to be exempt.