Why I cry at night

Those of you who are looking for upbeat lesson ideas should immediately go look at this If Hollywood taught science class link. Lots of fun things to think about with that one. Lots of applications in any subject and it requires students to think about what is really true in order to make fun of the Hollywood stuff. It’s like reverse psychology.

Now stop. If you want to read why I cry at night continue below.


Three fairly different “Internet objects”1 have come together to crystallize some ideas for me2.

  1. This Ted Talk on Motivation by Pink
  2. This book review mentioning the false gods of NCLB
  3. This Netflix Culture Presentation

So all this stuff has come together over the last little while and it all gets at why teachers and students, especially in k12, are having such a dismal time3.


Education is designed around grades for motivation when dealing with students4 and now we have standardized testing scores for teacher/admin motivation. The bigger players at the divisions are driven by aggregate scores, numbers of AP tests taken and other garbage indicators.

Pink’s whole talk is focused on how research shows over and over again that extrinsic motivators (rewards/punishments) for “21st century tasks” (really, anything that requires sophisticated thought) has been proven to either not work or to actually do harm. The extrinsic motivator works really well for simple problems and easy tasks with clear destinations. Rewards narrow focus and “concentrate” the mind. But for real problems, difficult problems, you don’t want narrow minds restricting possibilities.

Is it any wonder that students have trouble with critical thinking and problem solving in school settings (but not in video games etc.)- they’ve been brought up in k12 doing nothing but simple tasks with clear rules and obvious goals and they’re being focused on them through the narrowing lens of grades and/or shame.

We’re also asking teachers and administrators to solve incredibly complex issues, to fix our educational system, to meet all these standards5. But the whole time, it’s while under threat. It’s no wonder the solutions are things like extending the school day, cutting electives and studying during lunch. Narrowed minds clouded by fear don’t come up with good ideas. Even charter schools like KIPP come up with “innovative” ideas like keeping kids in school for 10 hours, working on weekends, 2 hrs of homework nightly . . . .

Pink’s suggested approach has three pieces – autonomy (self-direction), mastery (getting better at something that matters), and purpose (doing things as part of something larger than the self). That’s pretty much the opposite of the direction public school is headed both for students and for teachers.

The False Gods of NCLB

That brings us to Zhao’s review of Touching Hearts, Educating Minds.

In his book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, the late cultural critic and New York University professor Neil Postman points out the importance of purpose and refers to it as “god,” not the “God,” but the reason for existence, the purpose for parents to send their children to school, the reason for children to stay in the classroom, and the reason for societies to have schools. As Postman says, “for schools to make sense, the young, the parents, and their teachers must have a god to serve, or even better, several gods. If they have none, school is pointless.” (Postman, 1996, p. 4).

Recent education reforms exemplified by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) have identified test scores and memorization of a standardized set of information as the god that schools should serve. As a result, school leaders, teachers, and the children are all forced to sacrifice themselves for this god. But this god is imposed by a few outsiders, the government, businesses, and the uninformed public. This god is not the god for the teachers and students. The imposition of an external purpose not shared by the children and their teachers, who are the souls of education, essentially drove intrinsic purpose of education out of schools.

(emphasis mine)

Seems pretty dead on to me.


Finally, and oddly enough, there’s Netflix. These ideas make me want to work at Netflix but, shamefully, I can’t really believe a place works like that. The whole thing is worth going through6 but I really like this point.

Normally, good companies start out with lots of high quality people but the company is small. Then it grows to a certain size and things become too complex to be run on the available talent, lower quality people are hired, structures are needed to compensate so the company starts to focus on implementing processes and rules. That leads to some stability but it also drives out high performing individuals (thus driving the need for even more focus on process/rules).
Picture 21

That’s were we seem to be at in education. The focus on standards, centralized pacing guides, etc. They’re all about process. We’re focusing more and more on process and rules while driving more and more high quality teachers out of education.

How’s that for some pessimism?

I’ve been reading a lot of people lately- Alfie Kohn for one and Peter Gray as well. The combination is enough to depress anyone involved with education, especially k12. The birthers, the “YOU LIE!” guy, the sheer lack of critical thinking going on.

There are ways to solve these problems but it seems as a society and through our government we’re moving farther away from the solutions.

1 Not sure what else to collectively call a Slideshare presentation, a video and a blog post. You’ve got to love the Internet for making such a varied combination possible in one place.

2 Oh, and some Hydracodone for a recently root canaled tooth probably helped.

3 Or it at least explains my irritation with education.

4 and shame is another major player, according to this post which is really making way too much sense to me

5 No comment on the worthiness of these standards.

6 Think how your co-workers might fare in The Keeper Test (slide 29).

Comments on this post

  1. Greg said on September 12, 2009 at 9:23 am

    This sums up pretty much how I’ve come to see things over the past year. I had taught in elementary/middles schools for nearly 10 year and saw it as becoming a more repressing/depressing sort of place over that time. You can see a dramatic change in kids between grade 3 and 6 as well. By middle school school seems irrelevant for most except as places to socialize.

    I left k-12 to pursue a PhD in Ed Psych/Ed Tech to study motivation/engagement in games and learning at MSU hoping naively to find ways to help k12 schools but the more I see the more I realize the education institution is moving in the opposite direction of what students need: choices; opportunities to play, explore and fail; purpose/meaning.

    Perhaps there is hope but it seems a herculean task.

  2. Angela Stockman said on September 12, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    I agree with much of what you are saying here. Questions that I’m rolling around though:

    Are there ways in which standards and processes can ensure high quality/high performance….even if that’s not what you feel we are seeing right now?

    I just find myself kicking this around more and more lately, because in my experience, some pretty highly productive people and some pretty motivating and engaging educators rely on standards, processes, and protocols to hook kids, ensure equity, and teach in passion-based ways. I’m not sure it’s an either/or proposition?? Just thinking….

  3. Tom said on September 12, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Greg- I’ve left k12 twice now out of pure frustration with the system. If there is a third time I don’t think I’ll be back. I hope your path leads to good things. I agree with the herculean descriptor.


    I think that’s part of the point. Standards and processes are put in place to try to force people to meet certain levels of achievement. If you employ really quality people you don’t have to force things upon them. They create their own personal standards which are higher and more demanding. They make create their own processes- they aren’t made for them, nor are they forced on them. And they certainly aren’t one size fits all.

    I’d much rather see teachers treated like professors once were (that’s fading now- rather rapidly it seems). You’re the expert. You decide what is taught in your classroom, with these students, this year. If you couldn’t make those decisions we wouldn’t have hired you.

  4. Angela Stockman said on September 13, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Is it possible though, for quality teachers to be empowered and for these same people to articulate what it is they are teaching, so that others may follow in their footsteps within a district or even a state? And can the same folks work together to articulate their local expectations and standards (which may actually be far more robust and even more rigorous than state standards)? In the work that I do and as a mom, I get to know a great many quality teachers. I wouldn’t want them to stop doing what they do in the way that they do it. BUT when they are doing their own thing, regardless of how well that might serve kids or inspire others, kids who follow a path through a system may need their teachers to scaffold instruction for them a bit, so that there aren’t gaping holes or bits of redundancy. Collaborating to define what they really value (and including kids in that work) is a powerful thing. This is a form of standards-setting, and I’ve seen it serve teachers and kids well.

    I’m all for hiring the best and calling on their expertise to define standards. This is clarifying work. It also ensures equity. Maybe it isn’t the fact that we have standards that is a problem, but the ways in which people feel they must teach (or not teach) in the name of standards? A standard is just a baseline expectation to ensure equity, in my understanding. I don’t know how teachers come to see them as rules or regulations or tools that impose limits on their creative or professional genius.

    I also know many admins who long to hire the sort of folks that you describe in this piece. We need more of them in the field, and all sorts of work needs to be done to make that happen. In the mean time though, I’ve been a learner and a teacher in a world without standards, and I have to say (ducking my head) I know many teachers who would not be doing quality work without standards and the expectation that they meet them. Perhaps standards aren’t the answer….I know there is more that we should be doing and the problem is far more complex….I just don’t see them as the enemy that we often make them out to be.

  5. Tom said on September 13, 2009 at 3:55 pm


    I’ll admit here to being fairly unrealistic in my expectations, at least in our current system. I want a really radical shift.

    I think our idea of equity is skewed. I’d rather see a in-depth analysis of each child and some real work to differentiate in a much more complex way. I have no use for grades or subjects. If our teachers really are of high quality we don’t have the need to ensure equity through standards or other means.

    No doubt there are admins looking to hire really good people. No doubt there aren’t many around. We pretty much do the opposite of everything you’d do to encourage really good people to work for you. Who wants poor pay, disrespect, and lot of process/rules that strip away creativity and individual initiative?

    I also have no doubt standards help some people. No need to duck, at least from me. My point is they don’t help the higher level people. Process does help when you have people who aren’t top quality. They do help with relatively simple tasks. I just don’t think education is in that place anymore. Standards are certainly a tool that have been used as leverage to allow all sorts of really offensive things to happen in education. I kind of see standards like genetic profiling. It’s not evil per se, but I believe it has been used, and will be used, in really offensive and inappropriate ways.