The problem of goals

The knowledge and skills taught to students in our schools originate from an age-old struggle between four competing conceptions of what students should know and understand when they leave grade twelve. Two conceptions of schooling —the civic (Dewey, 1916/1966) and vocational (Bobbitt, 1915)—view schools as the “principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment” (Brown vs. Board of Education). The other two conceptions of schooling—the “cultivation of humanity” (Nussbaum, 1997) and creation of an authentic self (Greene, 2000; Morris, 1966) view schooling as a place where young people learn “how to be a human being capable of love and imagination” (Nussbaum, 1997) and how to accept “personal responsibility for the authorship of one’s own values” (Morris, 1996).  In the ideal republic the community would support a way of life —the civic and instrumental goals—that would give full expression to an individual’s search for meaning and a greater understanding of the world around them —the goals of cultivating humanity and the authentic self.

      Underlying the struggle for the American curriculum are two views of knowledge that support the pursuit of each aim of education. Those who view schooling as a process of socialization perceive knowledge as the acquisition of power to control the environment, society, and one’s self (Knowledge as Power). Those who view schooling as a process of cultivating humanity and an authentic self-perceive knowledge as a process of interpretation (Knowledge as Interpretation) that equips young people with methods of inquiry and systems of theories and ideas, that lead to better understanding of the self and the “particular struggles over identity, citizenship, politics, and power” (Giroux, 2000).

      Thrown into the traditional struggles over what sort of student the public wants schools to graduate are the administrative goals of schooling and a myriad of legislative mandates requiring schools to fix the latest social ill. The easiest solution to the problem of goals is to pursue the outcomes most favored by the public and policy makers—in today’s society that would be vocational goals of schooling (college bound curricular belong is this category). A more difficult option, but one which is still attractive to most school administrators, is pursuing a “shopping mall” (Powell, A. G., Farrar, E., & Cohen, D. K., 1985) curricular where different goals are found in different parts of a school building. Within limits, which are becoming more constrained by the day, students are free to pick from a goal her and goal there.

      The final option, and the most complex one to apply, is viewing the goals of schooling as mutually enforcing rather than mutually exclusive. This is the view Dewey adopted in his writings and one which is lost in facile understandings of curriculum and instruction. For Dewey, and other contemporary curricular theorists (e.g. Eisner, Katz, Meier, Noddings) the optimum curricular configuration is one in which a child’s personal ways of developing meaning find expression and full realization in vocational and civic undertakings. The “meaning of life” in such a curriculum is employing private interests and talents in public ways of making a living and contributing to the common good.

            Strong Instructional Leaders recognize the struggle over different perceptions of what it means to be “educated” dominates the politics, pedagogy, and curriculum of schooling. They have inherited schools where past school leaders favored one perception over another or tried to achieve peace between the perceptions by allocating different ratios of time, space, and credits to each perception. He knows from first-hand experience that institutionalizing one school goal over all others disenfranchises the interests, talents, and abilities of large groups of students. He also knows that creating a shopping mall curriculum, while satisfying most faculty, violates the first law of curriculum and instruction which states that deep understanding of subject matter is wholly dependent on “instructional program coherence” where course sequences and instructional programs are “guided by a common framework for curriculum, instructional, assessment, … and are pursued over a sustained period” (Newman,, 2001). A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is devoted to formulating administrative goals, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations which dissolve the perceived differences between personal ways of knowing the world and public ways of expressing them.

The problem of pedagogy

Schools, as institutions, require administrators and teachers to design instructional programs that are efficient—efficiency is defined as transmitting large quantities of information, to large groups of students, with the minimum expenditure of time, money, and effort. Studies of the social context of schooling (Eckert, 1989; Jackson, 1990; Rosenholtz, 1991; Wexler, 1992; Bourdieu, 1993; Lortie, 2002; Pope, 2003;) describe how institutional approaches to schooling influence how teachers think about pedagogy and how those beliefs become realities in the classroom. The dominant pedagogy of the day is the expectation that teachers in the classroom will be covering objects of knowledge (knowledge as “immobile solid” (Dewey, 1902/1990) so students can possess the knowledge for final transfer from one context to another.

The opposing pedagogy to the “assign and assess” model of instruction is John Dewey’s portrayal of a pedagogy in which a teacher creates situations requiring students to interact with their environments to discover possible solutions to problematic situations that arise in a society with scarce resources, with elites and masses, with different moralities, and with different identities.

Educators and state legislative bodies have largely dismissed the other problems of schooling (e.g. institutions, goals, the self, and experience) in favor of turning research agendas and policy initiatives over to researchers who use quantitative methodologies to establish causal relationships between teacher traits, dispositions, and behaviors and student achievement (Nuthall, 2004). For educators, quantitative studies of the relationship between classroom teaching and student learning provide a distinct body of knowledge that secures their status as a profession.

Legislative bodies find the relationship between the studies of teaching and student achievement attractive because it provides legislators with a rationale for holding teachers and school administrators accountable for the effective implementation of “scientific approaches” to teaching and learning. The scientific turn in education has displaced the philosophical inquiries that historically guided discussions of what it means to be educated (Egan, 1983) and has transformed the complex practice of teaching into the mere implementation of techniques and scripted lesson plans.

The Table below represents the two traditions of pedagogy that clashed in schools for the last century. The organizational structure of institutional schooling, public perceptions of what schools should look like, and accountability mandates favor the employment of mimetic tradition of pedagogy in our nation’s schools. There have been brief periods in the history of American schooling where transformative traditions of pedagogy (Eight Year Study) bubbled to the surface in particular schools. These experiments in progressive pedagogy were quickly silenced, however, by managers of virtue, who viewed progressive teaching, as too costly and too idiosyncratic for the efficient operation of schools.

Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are designed to support a pedagogy suited for imposing order and accountability are large groups of students. A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations that support theories, ideas, and practices that reconnect the child with their school’s curriculum.

How should children Learn?ImitateDiscover
What knowledge is of most worth?Facts
Big Ideas
How should subject matter be organized?Textbook
How should we assess what students understand?Forced choice testsAuthentic Assessments


The history of schooling in America is the story of the transformation of the one-room schoolhouse into the comprehensive high school. The steady march towards more efficiency and greater capacity has gradually eroded the discussion of the goals of schooling from “what is an educated person” to the institutional functions of certification, preparation, and custodial care. The pedagogy of schools dominated by the” mechanics of school organization and administration” (Dewey, 1906/1966) reduces classroom teaching to an “assign and assess” (Tharp, 1993) delivery model of instruction — the premise of which is that knowledge is acquired through some of form of correspondence between facts in textbooks with what is in (Plato) or not in a child’s mind (Locke). The “machinery of school-work” (Dewey, 1906/1969) places teachers in schools where the goals of schooling —jobs, high test scores, and admission to college —and the means of schooling — large class sizes, standardized curriculum, and large amounts of testing —are antithetical to a practice that requires creativity, flexibility, and sensitivity to uniqueness. Children find themselves in classrooms where the goals of schooling—promotion, good grades, and following rules—and the routines of schooling—sitting quietly, listening, waiting to be called on, completing worksheets—are hostile to the social need to be known, the emotional need to be interested, and the intellectual need to make sense out of their experiences.

 Dewey largely blamed the failure of schools to educate on the bureaucratic organization of schools more concerned with rules, procedures, and documentation than with creating environments where children could explore individual interests in socially constructive ways. Studies which have documented the sameness of classroom teaching (Goodlad, 1984; Lortie, 1975; Jackson, 1990) confirm Dewey’s belief that institutional requirements of efficiency and conformity to rules induce school administrators to pay more attention to daily diversions of schooling rather than what is happening in classrooms and teachers paying more attention to routines and techniques than the interest and curiosity of the children seated in front of them.

The table below summarizes the characteristics of Bureaucratic Organizations and Knowledge Organizations. Contemporary organizational theorists (e.g. Deming, Senge,) and business leaders (e.g. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett) look for employees who are better at breaking the rules than following rules. Flexibility, creativity, and innovativeness are essential attributes of organizations that will prosper in a “flat world” (Friedman) of no borders, no rules, and no life-long careers. The call-in school mission statements for “life-long learners,” “critical-thinkers,” and “knowledge workers for the 21st century” become mockeries in schools designed for taking orders and recalling information. Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are preparing students for the 19th century, not the 21st century. A strong component of their philosophy of education would be devoted to developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations promoting the goals and methods of knowledge organizations.

TABLE:     Bureaucratic Organizations versus Knowledge Organizations

  GOAL: Efficiency, Certainty, & Conformity  

Hierarchy: Top-Down Decision-Making  
  GOAL: Creativity, Innovation, Flexibility  

Flat Structure & Egalitarian Culture
Based on placement in the hierarchy and prescribed responsibilities for specific functions (Job Descriptions)  
Based on expertise and particular requirements to complete a task (Task Specifications)  
ORGANIZATIONAL ENVIRONMENT Impersonal environment based on role, status, communication up and down the chain of command    ORGANIZATIONAL ENVIRONMENT
Interpersonal environment based on professionalism, autonomy, and discourse communities focused on projects.

Performance on prescribed criteria listed in job descriptions
Performance based on completion of tasks and contribution to furthering knowledge in particular sector of an industry  
Codification of rules, procedures, and institutional decision making      
Should not get in the way of innovation: “ We should probably write-down what we invented.”  
Data Analysis; Sanctions for Non-Compliance, Benchmarks; Alignment with Rules & Procedures, Achievement on Standardized Measure of Achievement)  
Observations of intentional states (Beliefs, Desires, Goals, Satisfactions, Feelings, Judgment, Thoughts) and performance on real world tasks


Adrift at sea

The most significant question which can be asked, accordingly, about any situation or experience proposed to induce learning is what quality of problem it involves.

           — John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 154)

Each person—the butcher, the parent, the child—occupies a different position in the world, which leads to a unique set of experiences, assumptions, and expectations about the situations and objects she or he encounters. From integrated sets of assumptions, expectations, and experience, individuals construct a worldview, or frame of reference, that shapes their interpretations of objects and experiences. Everything is perceived, chosen, or reject on the basis of this framework.

—Diane Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision; Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA.

      One theme that has been pursued in my blog postings is, what I have termed. the dilemma of institutional schooling: the divergence between the institutional goals of order and conformity and the educational goals of individuality and autonomy. School administrators escape this dilemma by occupying themselves with resolving the daily managerial diversions listed in their daily calendars.

      While the diversions of school administration keep the occupants of main offices busy and will garner accolades from the community, the schools they lead are adrift morally and intellectually. Without an instructional anchor a sea of legislative mandates, board initiatives, model programs, and the demands of special interest groups batter their schools. Doing diversions well will keep a school afloat, but it will fail to navigate the school in any particular direction.

      School administrators, who sense that their school is adrift at sea, could look for those educational values and goals in their school’s mission statement or in their academic coursework. What they will find in both sources are text awash in waves of educational platitudes and rafts of techniques. After being tossed around in the hurricane of visions and recipes, the occupants of main offices,return each day to the school helm, where at least they can keep the school afloat. As they right the school vessel, however, they know they have not disturbed the calm at the bottom of the sea—the beliefs, the goals, the values, and the organization of institutional schooling. 

      Missing from their quest for instructional anchors is a philosophy of education restoring value to what teachers do in classrooms and methods of inquiry that examine the consequences of school practices fundamentally opposed to the valued outcomes of schooling. John Dewey, among a number of other philosophers of education, proposed a philosophy of education focusing on methods of inquiry that required children and their teachers to step-out of the confines of their culture and personal-self-interest to resolve the real social, economic, and political problems confronting their communities. Dewey’s philosophy went on to describe in great detail the kind of pedagogy and curricular that grows a child from the purposeful resolution of personal needs and desires to the purposeful resolution of public needs and desires— the movement from being stuck in custom and circumstance to “the kind of life we ought to live and what sort of world we should call into existence” (Garrison, 1997).

      Philosophies of education, whether it be Dewey or some other philosopher educator, offer schools administrators a blueprint for WHY of schooling—the “ends in view” that will interpenetrate the practices of schooling. School administrators and teachers who work in school cultures woven together with a common philosophy of education not only know what values they are teaching each day, but also know when the fabric of their school is unraveling.

      Even with a well thought out philosophy of education, however, school administrators and teachers still work in a “machinery of schooling” which prizes conformity over creativity; passivity over engagement; credentialing over understanding A philosophy of education strong enough to resolve the separation of school from society and the child from curriculum must first find pathways between the theories and ideas that inform teaching, learning, and organizational behavior and the practical world of classroom teaching. Secondly, that philosophy must be comprehensive enough to understand and address in purposeful way the five problems of schooling that cut instructional anchors from schools and sink most reform initiatives.

      The six blogs that follow will describe the six problems of schooling and the educational stance a school administrator should assume to author a strong instructional worldview.

“Nothing but the Facts”

 “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon the Facts: nothing ever will be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!”

(Thomas Grandgrid,From Hard Times by Charles Dickens)

     The entire infrastructure of schooling is the belief that knowledge is stable. The design of school organizations, the certification of teachers, the materials used in classrooms, the organization of the curriculum, the assessment of student progress, the awarding of credits are all based on the assumption that knowledge—facts, concepts, procedures—can be defined, categorized, and quantified. Bloom’s taxonomy best exemplifies this belief in action with lesson plans filled with lesson objectives asking students to “define,” to “identify,” to “label,” to “name.” Although actual lessons in schools rarely advance beyond knowledge and comprehension verbs, Bloom does include behavioral terms requiring students to demonstrate their ability to apply all the facts, concepts, and procedures they have memorized to higher level cognitive functions— to analyze, to synthesize, to evaluate.

     Even in instances when lesson plans include a higher-level cognitive function, that function, in the words of John Dewey, amounts to a contrived school problem that follows a taught formulaic response. The five-paragraph essay best illustrates how a valued educational goal is reduced to a routine procedure that can be evaluated within the parameters of an institutional metric.

     The fundamental flaw with institutional conceptions of knowledge, is not recognizing that all knowledge is relational. All real-world experiences, whether they be intellectual or social or sensorial or personal, are holistic encounters with our natural or social world. In other words, our encounters with the world outside of school are composed of all eight parts of speech, just not a verb and not just a noun. Life gets interesting and often perplexing when you mix in adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and conjunctions.

     Most teachers reading this would agree on the relational nature of knowledge, but, being a prisoner of an institutional mindset, would assert that before students can perform any of the higher cognitive functions listed by Bloom, they first must learn, actually memorize, a whole host of definitions, facts, procedures, formulas. The institutional narrative continues with students being told that at some point in the future—the future always remaining vague, they will be asked to put all this information to use.

     The last part of the institutional narrative is claiming that without knowing the meaning or function of a piece of information, you will face a dismal personal and occupation future. What most of us find out in the occupations we end up in is employers care little about our factual knowledge; they care a whole lot about our ability to apply that knowledge to problems or assigned tasks. There is no set menu of facts, concepts, or procedures that apply to real world problems, dilemmas, or encounters. Rather we are all thrown into occupations, into relationships, into situations where we encounter a buffet of facts, concepts, and procedures laid out on a real world serving table with the directive to select out a mix of these facts, concepts, and procedures that have the best possibility of solving a problem or completing a task.

     As you become more experienced, you turn your attention away from how you are filling up your problem-solving plate, and instead, study what is on other plates around you. Those that excel in their occupational fields acquire the ability to pick the right plate or combination of plates to solve an organizational problem or spark an innovative turn. The point being, the best preparation for being successful in a twenty-first century global economy, is the habit of thinking relationally—how do fact, concepts, procedures fit together. Thinking discretely will serve you well on institutional assessments—filling in bubbles—but prepares you poorly for what bubbles matter most and how to arrange those bubbles in ways that solve real world problems or complete real world tasks.