5 Priorities For Transformative Schools

5-priorities-transformative-schools5 Priorities For Transformative Schools

by Thom Markham

Imagine this scenario. All 50 states approve the Common Core State Standards and, in an unprecedented burst of transnational cooperation, 50 other countries adopt the same standards. Miraculously, the world now operates according to a single set of learning outcomes. The media reports an astounding development: A resolution co-sponsored by the U.S., China, and Finland has been introduced to amend the UN Charter by including the (newly named) Common Core International Standards as the learning goals for the 21st Century. Yay, the CCIS have triumphed!

What now?

I think that’s a pretty fair question to ask. But you wouldn’t know that by the obsessive conversation about standards that now preoccupies the nation. Lots of heat and little light, especially where it counts. The general line of thinking appears to be: If we can just write the right standards, using the right language, things will settle down in education. Every student will learn exactly what they need to know. The code has been broken, finally.

Here’s a hint, folks: Standards aren’t it. They won’t save education, or even serve as a good guide into the remaining 85% of the 21st century. Instead of trying to codify information from past centuries, we better be looking at how students will handle the incoming flow of traffic. Or how to stimulate creative design thinking. Or how to make them smart enough—meaning curious, resilient, persistent, empathetic, and open enough–to live and perform in today’s world.

Do students need to know stuff? Of course. But, frankly, if they aren’t taught about climate change in Wyoming or evolution in Indiana or South Carolina, the world will not fall apart (there’s something called the Internet). Also, I think we should focus on the obvious: Middle school and high school aren’t teaching grad school level rocket science.  All versions of the standards do a fine job of describing middle of the road information that students need to get as a base of knowledge. And, with about 100 years of teaching the same subjects, teachers pretty much know what people under the age of 18 need to know. Just put some guidelines and expectations in place, and get on with it.

Once that happens, the real conversation about redesigning education—the dialogue that will determine (and I mean this literally) whether our civilization stands or falls—can begin. That conversation should be furious, hot and heavy, and full of as much creative fire as we can muster.

You may recall the old bumper sticker: If you don’t like education, try ignorance. In my view, the current debate over standards is a sign of ignorance, not enlightenment. It consumes us, but offers empty calories, not sustenance for a deeper and longer journey. The real agenda items? I see at least five.

5 Priorities For Transformative Schools

1. Reconciling information & discovery

Standards focus on the input side of education–what should we, as teachers, deliver today?

But the real action today is on output. What do students do with all this stuff coming at them, both in formal learning in the classroom and the unstoppable, 24/7 digital flow? How do we help them make sense of their world, decide, problem solve, and think for themselves? Pure discovery doesn’t work – we know that.

What if we instead focused, laser-like, on redefining knowledge itself. It’s no longer a packet of facts and concepts; it’s some new blend of knowing and doing that takes account of the transformation in global society. The easy work is to rewrite information standards time and again; the harder work is to define the standards for good thinking and the psychological /brain/ relationship factors that yield optimal performance. That’s the future.

2. Clarifying a new “smart”

Our beliefs about intelligence are ridiculously out of date. The growth mindset results show that intelligence is malleable; neuroplasticity reveals that the brain changes minute by minute and is shaped by environment; the evidence from positive psychology informs us that emotions and relationships matter—directly and powerfully—to performance. Yet we cling to IQ, cognitive bias, and the 19th century model of the brain as full of wires and little boxes. Moving to a more holistic, whole child version of intelligence is not just a child-friendly act; it’s a matter of preparing youth for a world that values collaboration, initiative, perseverance, flexibility, empathy, and creativity. That’s a heart-brain endeavor, not just executive functioning.

3. New rules for teaching

Personalized, relationship-driven education is here to stay because it’s now a personalized world, with constant choice and a zillion paths to buying, living, and working. Education, with flipped classrooms, hybrids, online resources, mobile devices increasing exponentially, must respond by tailoring learning to the individual. Will there be a core of information that everyone learns? I would imagine there will be, but lockstep is over. As time moves on, the consensus over what a truly educated person should know and learn in school will be a front page debate, as well as when they should learn it.

The inevitable byproduct of the debate is the need for teachers who can effectively coach students. Relationship skills (think: listening) will be critical. So will the ability to act as a co-learner and establish close-knit intellectual partnerships. Getting teachers out from behind the podium is a start, but the real work begins by conceiving teachers as a new breed, one utterly different from the 1500’s model of the privileged scholar that still drives our thinking.

4. Adaptability

Standards’ and ‘classrooms’ generally occur in the same sentence; the next sentence often includes the term ‘curriculum.’ All connote the mental model of school, with its orderly environment, rows of desks, 50-minute periods, subjects, bells, pacing guides, seat time credits, graduation requirements, and learning objectives. It’s industrial, and it’s old.

Arguments over tenure, certification, teacher evaluation, and so forth spring from our clinging to this model like a life raft. In fact, the debates become a side show, like the arguments over standards, preventing us from putting our energy where it counts: With re-envisioning the system itself. As soon as that becomes the chief topic of conversation worldwide, there will be a surge of creativity, even joy, as learning gets aligned with the global age.

5. Curiosity

The disturbing truth is that too much emphasis on standards invites mediocrity, not excellence. In the industrial paradigm, more retention is better; in the new world, curiosity is better. Yes, in the hands of a good teacher, standards come alive. But standards mostly have become a laundry list, to be checked off via a high stakes test.

There are too many, with too much focus on discrete pieces of information with little value except to experts. The result: Untold damage has been done in the last ten years by the relentless focus on dispensing information to students like pills. That approach ignores the deep, magical relationship between purpose, curiosity, and intelligence—the mix that creates ‘openness’ to learning and makes engagement natural. More of the same won’t do anything but dumb us down.

Thom Markham, Ph.D., is a speaker, writer, psychologist, and internationally respected consultant in the critical areas of inquiry based education, project based learning, and creativity. Thom is the author of the best-selling Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for innovation and inquiry for K-12 educators, as well as the forthcoming Redefining Smart: Making the mindshift from academic rigor to a culture of inquiry (Corwin, fall 2014). Email thom@thommarkham.com or follow @thommarkham.


  • Hi Thom, thank you for your article.

    I certainly resonate with your five points, especially paragraph # 2, and look forward to your forthcoming book on “Redefining Smart: making the mind shift from academic rigor to a culture of inquiry” .

    Fostering curiosity in the learning process and “preparing youth for a world that values collaboration, initiative, perseverance, flexibility, empathy and creativity” should be at the core of any curriculum along with the use of all resources that promote discovery.

    However, I think that you may be redefining world values that youth do not see or experience . So I am delighted to see your attempts to penetrate the absence of the emotional competencies in the class room and a focus on project based learning.

    We have a long way to go to inspire the youth and teachers who are faced with old thinking and its rigid results to date. We indeed need to promote “thought”,. a culture of inquiry along with new science, world literature. geography, history and help youth to step into the future with bravado.

  • Question is whose education are we talking about. Are we talking about the students in the top third of schools with few poor which if only those schools were counted the US would be tied for the best schools in the world according to the PISA results, or are we talking about the bottom third where if only those schools were counted we would be on the level of a third world country?

    Are we talking about the students that are thinking about college and careers and are generally curious about the world or are we talking about the third that have trouble reading, have not yet developed any self-management habits and basically live from moment to moment with almost no thoughts about tomorrow?

    One could argue that the top priority in the US should be to ensure all students can read effectively and know what a fraction is, how to work with negative numbers, how to divide decimals, etc. Basically, we need to ensure all students are learning at grade level, but the reality is that half of US 4th graders are behind grade level in the core subjects of literacy and math and fewer than 20% of 4th graders in many cities are at grade level.

    In a world of disappearing jobs for lesser educated (that pay a living wage) and the beginning of a huge wave of baby-boomers that will be switching from contributing to the payments for our society to becoming those expecting to receive payments, we need EVERY young person to succeed in education and grow up to be highly productive and contributors to society rather than additional burdens on society that raise the majority of children that will also grow to be burdens on society rather than contributors (the number of states with more than 50% of children qualifying for subsidized lunch more than quadrupled from 4 to 17 in less than 11 years).

    Priority needs to go to ensuring the bottom half of our society learn the very basics. If standards do nothing more than contribute to that they will be a huge success. How does a teacher teach higher order thinking, etc., to students that have trouble reading, have a very limited vocabulary, don’t know the basics of arithmetic and are more likely to join in bullying students that strive to succeed in school than to strive themselves?

    Most teachers will tell you that the performance/achievement of a student in the immediate prior grades is the best indicator of the performance/achievement of the current grade. If we can get all students to be 100% successful (according to a common standard) by the end of the 4th grade, the likelihood is great that they will continue to be successful in subsequent grades. THEN we can begin to worry about creativity and the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    If you are thinking that it’s everyone for themselves and we need to focus on those that are motivated, etc., think of this, “It’s so sad, her parental success was killed (raped, mugged) by someone else’s parental failure.”

Leave a Reply