The Problem with Tracking


You could fill libraries with the research on the negative impact of tracking on students, especially those placed in the lower tracks. The definitive study on those negative affects was written by Jeannie Oakes ( Oakes argument is tracking is an institutional means of resegregating populations within schools—relegating students—mostly minorities—into lower track classes where students are buried in worksheets that are procedurally based with no opportunities to learn the conceptually understandings of subject matter.

The more tracks you have in a school speaks to the socio-economic status of the school. The higher the socio-economic status of the school the more tracks, which has nothing to with finer distinctions in ability grouping or treatment of subject matter, but everything to do with bragging rights at social gatherings: “oh, Jane is in honors…., Bob, is in advanced honors,…I consulted at a school that had eight tracks for Algebra—no subject or young person can be so finely categorized. But, as the principal said to me, it was all about bragging rights.


As a curriculum specialist, this is my problem with tracking and with the entire high school curriculum. I will not go into the history of struggle over the American Curriculum, but essentially we have a curriculum designed around artificial constructs we call subjects—which bear no resemblance to the source of these subjects—which were real world problems that were solved employing a variety of real world disciplinary tools—mathematics, science—which, when schools got their hands on them, were then reduced to doing all the odd and even problems at the end of the textbook.
Study after study has documented the overwhelming boredom expressed by adolescents with their schooling experience. The source of this boredom is a curriculum designed to award credits, certify teachers, and organize schools. From an educational standpoint, however, the all-important connection between knowledge and meaning is ignored: all knowledge is relational–>experience precedes pattern–>meaning is socially constructed by particular people for particular purposes—A subject matter curriculum violates all of these fundamental principles of learning. Ask any student why they are taking a particular subject (or for that matter, ask any teacher) and you will always receive an institutional answer: “this is a required subject,” “you need this subject to get a well-paying job,” “you need this subject to get into college,” “this subject is a prerequisite for…” on and on and on. Rarely do you get an answer that expresses the educational goals and values expressed in school mission statements.

Even the subject centered curriculum is organized in ways that defy the natural organization of the discipline: ask any scientists how the discipline of science works and they will tell you: Physics–>Chemistry–>Biology. Then why do high schools do the opposite. Not to belabor the history of bureaucratic schooling—but, how would a bureaucrat organize subjects? Would they look at the substance of the subject or might they look at how to organize them in a course catalogue–> think alphabetically.


There are three types of “readiness:” college readiness, career readiness, civic readiness. Our academic subject readiness model, which dominates our high school curriculum, prepares you for a narrow band of academic skills (e.g. textual analysis, writing research papers, supporting claims, developing a hypothesis). These skills are valuable if you are planning to remain in an academic job, but, have little or nothing to do with career or civic readiness. I believe all of us reading this piece were told along the way that if we didn’t take Algebra, or didn’t do well in physics, I’ll lives would be in ruin—and then find out, that in our real-world careers none of these academic subjects has little or no value at all. To truly prepare young people for the real-world career readiness would include: priority setting, inventory management, teamwork, recognize many solutions—Civic readiness would include: negotiation, compromise, participating in a dialogue, formulating good arguments, recognizing bad arguments, challenging accepted rules, policies, procedures (this last one could get you suspended).


OK, then would be the ideal high school curriculum. Again, entire libraries could be devoted to this answer but briefly put: problem/project based—>interdisciplinary–>performance outcomes (not grades, but real-world products). Taking a page from John Dewey, there would be no subjects, but merely big questions to be answered/big ideas to be questioned/themes running through literature/history, etc. Instead of departments, you would have broad areas of study: “World of Physical Nature,” “The consequences of human values,” Great forces molding contemporary civilization,” Natural, social, and technological forces shaping the world.” You must admit these areas of study sound much more intellectually engaging then Biology, Chemistry, Physics…


If learning and curriculum theory do not support the subject centered curriculum, why is it the dominant model of schooling? The simple answer is it is a curriculum designed for the efficient implementation of institutional functions: credentialing, accreditation, standardization, regulation, accounting. While these institutional functions effectively control student behavior and student outcomes, they are poorly suited for developing the diverse talents, abilities, and interests of students. The more complicated answer is the set of institutional norms that have been governing our schools since the turn of the century have become the norm for how most school communities believe schooling should be conducted. Seven period days, starting school at 8 in the morning, classrooms, grades, credits, teachers standing in front the room, the test on Friday, and yes, homecoming –all of which the educational research would dispute—are how parents believe school should be conducted. As I have found out in my personal career, deviating from this factory model of schooling, is not looked upon favorably by any school community. In fact, in the real world of schooling, when you enhance the factory model of schooling —e.g. tracking—the school community applauds your “visionary thinking.”

The Lifeworld of Schooling

For over a century two instructional worldviews have dominated the managerial systems governing school systems. The dominant instructional worldview lodged in main offices throughout the country is what Sergiovanni has termed systemsworld thinking. The appeal of this mode of thinking is a set of beliefs about teaching and learning that fit perfectly into what Tyack & Cuban (1995) called the basic grammar of schooling: the way schools divide time and space, classify students, splinter knowledge into subjects and award grades and credits as evidence of learning. Listed below are instructional beliefs embedded in systemsworld thinking.

1. Children are deficient and schools should fix them.
2. Learning takes place in the head, not in our body.
3. Everyone learns, or should learn, in the same way.
4. Everyone should learn the same subject matter.
5. Learning takes place in the classroom, not in the world.
6. There are smart kids and dumb kids.
7. Specialists who must maintain control should run schools.
8. Knowledge is inherently fragmented.
9. Schools communicate the truth.
10. Learning is primarily individualistic
11. Competition accelerates learning.

While systemsworld thinking provide school administrators with the managerial tools to control the movement and document the progress of diverse student populations, they promote a set of instructional beliefs that are in direct opposition to how children learn—the “lifeworld of schooling.” A school designed to optimize the learning opportunities of children and adolescents would craft organizational structures and pedagogical strategies around the following “lifeworld” beliefs:


Adolescents will not learn well in schools with a “one size fits all” mentality. The present organizational structure and instructional delivery systems of the American High School were designed to sort and sift students. It was not designed to accommodate the individual physiological and cognitive needs of adolescents. Optimum learning environments for adolescents must provide teenagers with realistic options in the following FIXED characteristics of the American High School: a) school schedule —when school begins and ends; b) the length of the school day; c) the teacher; d) course of study; e) movement during the school day f) type of learning environments; g) how outcomes will be accomplished and evaluated

Adolescents, as well as adults, do not perform well in an environment dominated by the belief that “if you do not do what we tell you, we will hurt you.” Most schools have accepted the erroneous belief that the proper mixture of rewards and punishments will move the obstinate, dispirited, lazy, and recalcitrant student to try harder in school or to attend school more regularly or to behave in school. There are three corollaries to this belief. First, the greater the reward offered (or the more noxious the penalties associated with not complying) the harder students will try to behave and to learn. Second, all students (e.g. poor, middle class, and minority groups) perceive rewards and punishments in essentially the same way. And third, student effort is maximized when rewards are distributed on a competitive basis.
Educational and industrial psychologists have documented for years that rewards or punishments do not motivate individuals. Rather, all human beings, including adolescents, will develop strategies and plans to accomplish goals THAT MAKE SENSE TO THEM, THAT CAN REASONABLY BE EXPECTED TO LEAD TO BENEFITS, AND IS WITHIN ONE’S CAPABILITY TO ATTAIN THE GOAL.


The most noticeable truth about learning is the wide range of abilities, talents, and interests that enter classrooms each day. An essential goal of any form of schooling should be the optimization of those diverse talents, not the marginalizing of talents that do not fit well into the grammar of schooling. The goal of any institution of learning is to foster settings, relationships, and activities that provide students with another point of view, another way of seeing the world, another way of representing the world.


In an advanced industrial society, educational systems replace the family and community as the primary means of helping young people develop their talents, decide what should be valued (what is true, beautiful and good), how to behave towards each other and the search for meaning and purpose in life. Together these “functions” of education address the inner need of human beings to make sense out of their environment and ultimately, to find one’s role in constructing a culture that is able to approach its circumstances with care and attention to the common good.

Systemsworld thinking, however, departs radically from what teachers have believed to be the intrinsic purpose and value of education —- respect for others’ values, treating others decently, open-mindedness to different opinions, creating a discriminating mind, to reason in a deliberate way, to understand divergent points of view, to develop a curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, and the drawing out of one’s genius, nature, and heart.

Today, contemporary society perceives “education” as a means to something other than education itself. The goal of most schools is to teach skills which prepare students for the next level of schooling and ultimately, to gain the necessary qualifications or certification to get a good job. The need to prepare students for instrumental ends has transformed curriculum and instruction from developing a distinctive way of thinking about contemporary culture to a more or less monotonous diet of disjointed facts.
It is no wonder that young people have no desire to sustain a state of deep involvement in schools where they are barraged by inert bodies of knowledge and pressured to memorize information for the next step on the ladder. Researchers have long documented the finding that the threat of not getting a good job, or not graduating, or not scoring high on a standardized test is NOT meaningful to most adolescents. What is meaningful to young people are activities and relationships that begin with the interests of the young person and culminate in understandings and performances that


Human beings learn best in communion with other individuals, particularly individuals who they care about and who care about them. Taking notes, listening to a teacher, and completing worksheets at a desk for six hours a day will result in binders filled with papers but little understanding of what was presented in the classroom. Deep understanding of concepts and ideas and the acquisition of complex skills require “instructional conversations.” The language that accompanies joint productive activity is the major vehicle for the development of intersubjectivity, the internalization of concepts, the development of discourse meaning, and the development of higher cognitive processes.


Human beings learn best in environments that are comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, and contain ready access to a variety of resources which could be used to demonstrate an understanding of a discipline. modern corporate training center, and that is what a school should look like.” Unfortunately, most schools resemble turn of the century factories with egg crate configurations that pay little or no attention to aesthetics or comfort.


All learning involves two basic instructional moves: First, there is the delivery of information—definitions, facts, procedures; Second, what is the learner supposed to do with the information. Systemsworld schooling consumes hour upon hour of classroom time on the delivery of information and little or no time on what students are supposed to do with that information. There is always comes a time in the course of a year when a student will raise their hand and ask their teacher: “ So, Mr. Jones, what are we supposed to do with this information.” Actually, in the real world of schooling, the question goes something like this: “Mr. Jones, this class is so boring, who cares about the ___________, or, ___________, or __________. Confined within systemsworld schooling, teachers respond with systemsworld answers: “It will be on Friday’s test;” “this a required class;” “this class is a prerequisite for _____; “ All of these systemsworld responses ignore the principle rule of learning: ALL KNOWLEDGE IS RELATIONAL. Unless a learner sees a real world purpose to all the facts, definitions, and processes, then all of this information will fly out of the mind with minutes of completing Friday’s test.

High School Doesn’t Have to Be Boring

Let me share with you quotes from a recent op-ed piece in the NYT titled: Why High School Doesn’t have to be Boring



When you ask American teenagers to pick a single word to describe how they feel in school, the most common choice is “bored.”


We traveled from coast to coast to visit 30 public high schools that had been recommended by leaders in the field. What we saw, however, was disheartening. Boredom was pervasive. Students filled out worksheets, answered factual questions, constructed formulaic paragraphs, followed algorithms and conducted “experiments” for which the results were already known. Covering content almost always won out over deeper inquiry — the Crusades got a week; the Cold War, two days. In lower-level courses, students were often largely disengaged; in honors courses, students scrambled for grades at the expense of intellectual curiosity. Across the different class types, when we asked students to explain the purpose of what they were doing, their most common responses were “I dunno” and “I guess it’ll help me in college.”
As we spent more time in schools, however, we noticed that powerful learning was happening most often at the periphery — in electives, clubs and extracurriculars. As different as these spaces were, we found they shared some essential qualities. Instead of feeling like training grounds or holding pens, they felt like design studios or research laboratories: lively, productive places where teachers and students engaged together in consequential work.
  • STUDENTS WERE PRODUCING SOMETHING OF REAL VALUE:  Students were no longer vessels to be filled with knowledge, but rather people trying to produce something of real value.
  • COACHING REPLACED “PROFESSING.“Coaching replaced “professing” as the dominant mode of teaching. Authority rested not with teachers or students but with what the play demanded (Drama Program)
  • STUDENTS FOUND THEIR OWN VOICE:  Debate gave students a chance to speak in their own voices on issues that mattered to them. (Debate Team)


Logic #1: Before the Final Bell

Before the final bell, we treat students as passive recipients of knowledge whose interests and identities matter little.

Logic #2: After the Final Bell

After the final bell — in newspaper, debate, theater, athletics and more — we treat students as people who learn by doing, people who can teach as well as learn, and people whose passions and ideas are worth cultivating. It should come as no surprise that when we asked students to reflect on their high school experiences, it was most often experiences like theater and debate that they cited as having influenced them in profound ways.


Rather than touring students through the textbook, teachers invited students to participate in the authentic work of the field. For example, a skillful science teacher in a high-poverty-district high school offered a course in which her students designed, researched, carried out and wrote up original experiments. 


Why are classrooms like that one so rare? It’s not the teachers’ fault. The default mode of the classrooms we observed reflects the mold in which public high schools were cast a century ago. Students are batch-processed, sorted into tracks based on perceived ability and awarded credits based on seat time rather than actual learning. Making matters worse are college admissions pressures, state testing, curriculum frameworks that emphasize breadth over depth, simplistic systems of teacher evaluation, large classes, large teacher loads and short class periods. The result is that it often feels as though teachers and students have been conscripted into a game that nobody wants to be playing.


  1. REAL WORLD LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES: Schools need to become much more deeply attached to the world beyond their walls. Extracurriculars gain much of their power from their connections to their associated professional domains. School subjects, in comparison, feel devoid of context
  2. TEACHERS NEED MORE FREEDOM: Teachers need both more freedom and more support.
  3. TEACHERS NEED IMPROVED WORK SPACES: They need longer class periods, opportunities for collaboration and teaching loads small enough to allow them to form real relationships with students.
  4. DEPTH OVER BREADTH: They need expectations for topic coverage that permit more opportunities for depth.
  5. FOCUS ON INNOVATION INSTEAD OF COMPLIANCE: They need districts that focus less on compliance and more on helping teachers learn in rich ways that parallel how those teachers might teach their students.
  6. FOCUS ON EDUCATIONAL VALUES WRITTEN INTO SCHOOL MISSION STATEMENTS: Teachers need parents who ask, “What is my child curious about?” rather than “How did she do on the test?”
  7. STUDENTS NEED TO BE GRANTED MORE FREEDOM OF CHOICE: Most important of all, high school students need to be granted much more agency, responsibility and choice. 


More radically, what was powerful about extracurriculars is that students were supported in leading their learning. They were taking responsibility for teaching others and gradually becoming the ones who upheld the standards of the field. The more we can create similar opportunities in core subjects — giving students the freedom to define authentic and purposeful goals for their learning, creating opportunities for students to lead that learning, and helping them to refine their work until it meets high standards of quality — the deeper their learning and engagement will be.



The Illusion of Technique

A technique is a standard method that can be taught. It is a recipe that can be fully conveyed from one person to another. A recipe lays down a certain number of steps which, if followed to the letter, ought to lead invariably to the end desired.

—William Barrett

Education becomes emancipatory when it emphasizes communicative interaction and the force of a better idea in deciding the truth of things.

—Robert Bullough

The hallmark of a professional is their special ability to apply general rules to particular situations in ways that not only provide helpful courses of action, but new understandings of the relationship between the means and ends of a problematic situation —what the Greeks termed practical wisdom or phronesis. What made practical know-how special for the Greeks was judgment —the unique talent for solving a problem or explaining a phenomena without resorting to the application of an accepted technique or the application of a fixed principle. The end result of practical wisdom was always a transformation of customary ways of doing things—the how—and customary understandings of valued results—the what. From the Greek standpoint, all professionals were expected to possess the knowledge (epistme) and the skills (techne) to render competent service, but very few professionals possessed the practical wisdom to radically alter the relationship between routine performances and values outcomes.

The development of practical wisdom in a profession is composed of three types of understandings: (1) Knowing the theoretical and general principles that govern the explanatory discourses of a profession; (2) Having opportunities to apply theories and general principles to the particulars of a profession under the watchful eye of an experienced practitioner; (3) Mastering the techniques and tools that minimize the thought and effort devoted to tasks that must be performed repeatedly. Studies of professional expertise conclude that novices and advanced beginners always attempt to apply an accepted technique or rule to what they perceive is a like situation; experts, on the other hand, see no “like situations.” For experts, every situation is different and thus, at a minimum, may require the reinterpretation of accepted rules and techniques or may demand the creation of new rules and new techniques for truly new phenomena.

The problem of technique, or what some authors have come to identify as the illusion of technique (Barrett, 1978), comes about when a profession “detaches” (Raitz, 1993) techniques from traditions established to further the valued ends of a society. The sole function of a technique is to increase the decision-making capabilities of a professional by reducing the amount of time, thought, and effort spent on mechanical tasks. In a society that values the “cult of efficiency”, techniques are honored for efficiently dealing with the mundane tasks of life. The danger, however, is when a technique becomes divorced from the decision-making processes and moral purposes of a tradition which serves as its home. No technique is neutral (Raitz, 1993, p. 168)  — techniques are always woven into the moral purposes of a tradition. Without being firmly anchored in a tradition, a technique is capable of distorting moral purposes in the name of promptness or rationality or cost-benefit. When an organization or an individual adopts a technique merely to make life easier or to produce a product more efficiently, they may at the same time significantly change or lose sight of the valued ends of a company or social endeavors.

Unlike other professions, which possess a set of clear norms for defining acceptable practice, the profession of teaching historically lacks a “viable and reliable technology of instruction” (Labaree, 2004, p. 12). Without clear goals for instruction, clear ways of measuring learning, and a clear definition of the clientele served, the profession of teaching is particularly vulnerable to being colonized by techniques borrowed from other traditions —psychology, sociology, history, statistics, philosophy, and psychometrics. Faculties in schools of education willingly accepted these hostile takeovers by other traditions as a tactic for refuting the belief that the knowledge base for teaching is too “soft” and too “applied” to be considered a legitimate discipline within the academy (Labaree, 2004, p. 12). In the mind of educators, the adoption of positivistic techniques from other professions would elevate the status and exchange value of the profession of teaching.

Becoming a “data-driven” profession has not elevated the status of teaching, within or without the academy and, regrettably, has corrupted the moral purposes of the teaching profession—purposes designed to protect children from pure instrumentalism such as scripted lesson plans, managed curricula, norm referenced tests, abolition of recess, behavioral objectives, grade retention, time-on-task, the Carnegie Unit, and Tyler Rationale. What were the theories, ideas, and beliefs that formed the moral purposes of teaching? This subject of this blog posting does not permit a full elaboration on the ideas and beliefs that guided the tradition of teaching. In future blogs, I provide a brief outline of the core ideas and beliefs that serve as the foundation for the “tradition of teaching.”

Barrett, W. (1978). The illusion of technique: a search for meaning in a technological civilization. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.

Bullough, R. V. (2006). Developing interdisciplinary researchers: What ever happened to the humanities in education? Educational Researcher, (35) 8, 3 – 10.

Bullough, R. V., Goldstein, S. L., & Holt, L. (1984). Human interests in the curriculum: teaching and learning in a technological society. New York: Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Labaree, D. F. (2004). The trouble with ed schools. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Raitz, K. L. (1993). On the detachment of technique. Studies in philosophy and education. 12, 165 – 177.




He Likes to Dive

Recently I was involved in a conversation with friend who made the off-handed statement that his son “likes to dive.” That was it, “my son likes to dive.” Because of this love, the father and wife were taking their son to the pool each day so he could dive. I found the statement of my friend refreshing because it was not accompanied by what I term the “world class standards” conversation. We all have experienced such a conversation. It occurs anytime an adult is provided the opportunity to describe the gifts of a family member or some other relationship. The conversation typically begins with an activity that a child appears to enjoy at an early age. Parents or close relationships view the proclivities of their offspring as a sign of great things to come. Today a child likes to dive, likes to hit a ball, likes to run, likes to play chess, likes to sing; and tomorrow, parents will find themselves proudly sitting in stadiums with thousands of other people cheering the achievements of their son or daughter.

For parents, close relatives, and unfortunately those who should know better (i.e. educators and coaches) kids just aren’t encouraged to simply like to dive, or like to play baseball, or like to ski or like to read. In our contemporary “culture of excellence” kids are expected to transform a proclivity into a world-class skill. A skill that has the potential for adulation or cash value.

Even the most sensible parents seem to lose a sense of proportion if their son or daughter displays a spurt of giftedness somewhere in their youth. Such a display of talent is a call to action. Parents quickly respond to the “call” by seeking out the best camps and coaches that will provide the knowledge and skills necessary for their son or daughter to become world class athletes or scholars.

In addition to providing the best talent and environments to support their child, parents engage in intense political and social maneuverings to make sure that their son or daughter is “selected” for competitive venues (i.e. traveling teams) that will further develop and exhibit innate abilities.

One does not have to read the sports pages or, for that matter, the front pages of any newspaper to understand the “upsides” and “downsides” of this pursuit of excellence. The upsides for select individuals are apparent. Americans are willing to pay a lot of money and spent a great deal of time attending, watching, and talking about professional and collegial athletics. For the athlete who has attained world class status the financial and social rewards are enormous.

The “downsides” of pursuing excellence are as well known as the upsides — they are just in different sections of the newspaper. The most obvious dyfunctionality of such a pursuit is the single-mindedness required of the adults and young people who decide to journey down the road of excellence. To be truly world class demands a 24 – 7 commitment. There is no time in one’s schedule to pursue other interests or experiences. The narrowness can result in poor moral, financial, or social choices that ultimately end badly for the wunderkind. In addition to questionable life-style choices, the physical and mental toll of becoming world class can be literally “crippling.”

As a tragic as the personal toll of a narrow pursuit of excellence might be, the concern I have as an educator is how our society’s infatuation with athletics and to a lesser extent, academic excellence is distorting the values and goals of our institutions of learning. Principals as well as university presidents will tell you privately that they are spending far too much time on issues associated with athletics and far too little time with issues associated with teaching and learning. At the end of day, when you count up the number of athletes or scholars served by varsity or gifted programs, a very small percentage of the student population consumes a great deal of time and resources. What we all know in schools is that our “feeder” programs are founded on a pyramid concept of participation. Such a system encourages wide participation at an early age — the bottom of pyramid — and understands that only a few will remain at the end — the top of the pyramid. Every year, for example, thousands of young boys and girls participate in community baseball or softball leagues. By the junior year in high school there are only twenty boys and girls left who are playing varsity baseball or softball. Along the way a lot has happened to all the young people who “liked to dive.” This is how the system works; this is how the pursuit of excellence works.

As educators should we be satisfied with this outcome? After all alumni, board members, and those parent groups that have a voice in a community like to have winning teams and a gifted program for their son or daughter. From a school administrator’s viewpoint, to oppose the “pyramid” structure of athletics or academics appears to be un-American. After all that is how the real world works. But does it?

Societies that are dynamic or continue to grow have the ability to replace the pyramid picture of excellence with a concentric circle of personal best. The latter picture provides young people with many levels of participation in activities that they have an interest in and are allowed to develop — what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow experiences.” The concentric circles recognize that some young people will become more expert in an activity — they will gravitate to the center of the circle. Those of us, however, who are less talented, are still permitted to participate in the expanding circles of the activity rather than being given our walking papers at an early age.

In addition to supporting many levels of ideas and skills as source of new ideas and skills in a society, the concentric model of “meritocracy” is able to accommodate both the development of personal meaning as well as public displays of excellence. The personal self represents our privately held knowledge and skills. The public is what we are called upon to do at work or in some other public arena. When one goes public, there is a certain level of knowledge and skills which we must possess to perform our job or participate in civic functions. Our private self, however, is that realm of activities which provide all us with a means of addressing questions of personal meaning and expression. The most fortunate of us are those whose pursuit of personal meaning also provides us with a decent livelihood. Tiger Woods, for example, plays a game that is meaningful to him and also provides him with a very good living.

From an educator’s standpoint what significance do pyramids or concentric circles have to do with schooling? The beliefs, ideas, and practices associated with pyramids support our current emphasis on standards and excellence. A concentric circle also accommodates and encourages standards and excellence, but there is a significant difference. If you develop talent within a pyramid you narrow the levels of excellence and restrict the definition of standards. In a concentric approach, you accept many levels of excellence and expand the definition of standards. Instead of pursuing excellence or a standard, which is at the center of the circle, you are able to pursue many levels of excellence and definitions of standards in the outer rings of the concentric circle.

We all have had experiences participating in a variety of activities (i.e. golf, working out at the local health club, participating in book group, repairing our house) where we know what excellence is and what the standard would look like, but we neither possess the talent, the time, the money, the physiology, to reach that the level of excellence or the standard. Does that mean we stop playing golf, or working out, or reading? I would hope the answer is no —for those of us in schools the answer should be no.

If schools are to support a society that encourages the constant infusion of new ideas and ways to solve problems and at the same time the public and private pursuits of meaning, then we must think very differently about how we view talent in our classrooms. The present call for all students to achieve a standard or to realize excellence will marginalize ideas and approaches to problem solving that exist on the outer periphery of the concentric circle and alienate those who privately think and feel that the current public good is mistaken.

The other approach is to honor the many levels of talents and interests that lie outside the center of what is accepted as the standard of excellence. What would that look like in schools? First, the definition of extracurricular activities would have to be broadened to include all those activities that students have an interest in and would like to pursue at a more complex level. For most schools, this would mean a radical restructuring of budgets, coaching qualifications, and facilities — most schools, unfortunately, have built facilities and employed coaches that align with a pyramid approach to talent development.

Secondly, the definition of achievement must be broadened to include the many levels of growth that occur when individuals pursue something they find intriguing. The current practice of yelling at young people “to be the best” raises the bar so high that most give up or worse develop an antipathy for an activity that might provide an added dimension to their private world.

Increasing the breadth of activities and broadening the definition of achievement would create an inclusive school environment where the talents of all young people are respected and provided an environment to grow. Such an environment would also result in an increase in participation of young people instead of the rapid exclusion of students whose interests conflict with the current sports and activities profile which thrive on a pyramid approach to talent development.

The goal of schooling which is repeatedly announced by educators and parents is preparation for the real world. Of course, the real world for these educators and parents is a pyramid — a lot will try, but only the best will reach the top of pyramid. This is not what John Dewey meant by growth in education. Dewey had an expanded vision of schooling that required schools to grow talent and to grow ideas. For Dewey, just “liking to dive,” was a good beginning. The sacred obligation of schools, from Dewey’s perspective, was to continually work at growing what people like to do or find meaningful —to build on “a good beginning.”  Dewey would find the goals of schooling seriously distorted in schools and communities where “liking to dive” was viewed as a terminal activity for most.

Csikszentmihalyi, in his book, The Evolving Self, provides a portrait of what happens to societies that “provide room for growth,” and societies which establish a narrow pathway for young people to find personal meaning and public achievement. The “task of a good society,” according to Csikszentmihalyi “is not to enshrine the creative solutions of the past into permanent institutions; it is, rather to make possible for creativity to keep asserting itself.”