How Overly Academic Learning Is Killing Education

How Overly Academic Learning Is Killing Education

by Terry Heick

The #occupywallstreet in the United States movement certainly got a lot of press, didn’t it?

For starters, it was (is?) symbolic of growing civic discontent over the economic chemistry of our nation. While America has long a blue-collar nation established through notions of rugged individualism and close-knit communities, issues of industrial gravitas were born during the industrial revolution in in the mid-1800s, and metamorphosized into wider-reaching corporate influence and greed which arrived in the public consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s, primarily through film (e.g., Wall Street featuring Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglass).

In this system, the vast majority of the power—political, influence, and financial—is controlled by a select few, where a symbolic “1%” have control, and others scramble for crumbs. While straight political discussions are mercifully beyond our interest, the issue can’t be ignored entirely, primarily because the systems of education—i.e., formal learning institutions–have inherited a parallel infrastructure stricken with a parallel imbalance–one that promotes a narrow vision of academic success that works well for the “1%” while clumsy and woefully inadequate for the rest.

Consumerism and Education
As consumers, Americans demand high levels of quality. Cell phone carriers strive for “zero dropped calls”, automotive manufacturers offer not 36,000 mile warranties but those that last 100,000 miles, and online purchasing is increasingly social, allowing for unprecedented roasting and yelping of any app, service, or product that doesn’t cater to every conceivable consumer whim.

But strangely, we don’t demand the same level of excellence in our formal learning systems. Movies like Waiting for Superman paint the average American family—very much “consumers” of our multi-billion dollar education system—as helpless.


While not quite passive, families stir and rant and flail, all the while hoping for district-sponsored lotteries to decide the fate of their children. In a nation full of grit and can-do spirit, this is curious.

Perhaps some of the reason is perception. In a society that has trouble evaluating the quality of a learning experience, it might make sense why more people aren’t upset. If students can read, are getting “good grades,” seem happy enough, and get into college then K-12 has done its job, yes?

Who can complain when there is only accountability for test results, and not the quality of learning experiences–precisely because the layperson cannot begin to evaluate the quality of those learning experiences beyond those test-based measures? has 800 word reviews on the exercise machines, but the best we can do to evaluate the quality of learning is to “hear” school X is “good,” or know a teacher that’s “good” at school Y, crude measures we would never accept in our food, electronics, or sports wear.

The Credibility of Academia
Recent ed/policy movement has focused on standards-based reform, which has increased with the recent adoption of a national set of academic standards—the Common Core–at all but a small handful of the nation’s 50 states. At the district and school levels, schools utilize various incarnations of “professional learning communities” and “data teams” to promote collaboration for teachers in pursuit of the ultimate goal: 100% “proficiency” of each of these highly academic standards, as measured on a state-administered test dominated by multiple choice and short-response questions. An example of these standards includes the following English-Language Arts High School standard for literature:

“Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.”

While it is difficult to argue the importance of close reading of a variety of digital and non-digital text, there is tremendous challenge in establishing whether or not a student “understands” how to do this—if they have “mastered” this standard.

To measure mastery, teachers give assessments—informal and formal, quizzes and tests—to provide a starting point. Then, after “research-based” instructional strategies are implemented, standard-mastery is measured again, and data is compiled, analyzed in said “data teams,” and instruction revised again accordingly. On paper, this all makes sense. If a track-and-field athlete can be considered as an analogy, you see how far the athlete can jump, train him to jump further, then measure how much further he’s gone.

The challenge here is that jumping distance is black and white, while notions of “understanding” are not.

And the highly academic nature of reading and writing standards—while full of “rigor”–only serve to further detach the learning from the reality of the learner. If the ultimate measure of understanding is the ability of a learner to “transfer” understanding from a highly scaffolded situation to one without scaffolding—and hopefully from the classroom to the “real world”—highly artificial and academic standards, instruction, and assessment “data” only serve to further obscure the learning process from those who matter most: the learners and their families.

In creating this highly academic world, we’ve moved the content, the instruction, and the notions of success beyond the grasp of learners, into institutionally-centered constructs that ultimately erode learner and social capacity.

The big idea behind PLC-driven reform of standards and outcomes-base instruction is to make more learners able to achieve “success” within this dated model of academic performance. But what if we revised how we measured proficiency? Or widened the scope of what we were measuring? Or, better yet, open-sourced ed reform by bringing in communities to make decisions on curriculum, assessment, and instruction—and not via a school-sponsored PTA meeting, but on equal ground, where the school’s role in the community—and the community’s role in the school—have been carefully reconsidered. Paraphrasing Ken Robinson, schools seem setup to make “little college professors,” instead of vibrant, creative, self-aware members of a healthy and interdependent community.

With modern digital and social media, and potentially innovative learning cycles available through project and problem-based learning, there are tools available to discontinue hurtful traditions that are primarily academic.The key will be to awaken that 99%–the families and communities–to the very serious issues at hand, and help increase our collective cultural capacity to spot, produce, and revise authentic learning forms for learners who have the universe at their fingertips.

This will require a humbling modesty on the part of educators to once and for all admit that they cannot possibly educate children alone–and to stop pointing at the success of the “1%” as proof that “school works.” While far more than 1% of the publicly-educated are “proficient,” this evaluation–and thus the product–is almost entirely academic.

And thus imbalanced in a decidedly non-academic world.

Image attribution flickr user mookio, jinx, eawb, and esparta


  • John Jensen Ph.D. says:

    The term “academic” is ambiguous. How about thinking of it as “mastering a body of knowledge that provides perspective on all the issues of life”? What we want from such learning, however it is labeled, is an understanding of what is currently invisible to us from our present experience. It’s in the “academic” that we understand the context of present experience–from history, anthropology, psychology, economics, and on and on. If we do not learn these things and bring them to bear on the current project, we are easily captured by false and limited assumptions based only on what we can see. For more on this, check out my 3-volume Practice Makes Permanent series being published by Rowman and Littlefield. The demands of life today are that we learn it all.

    • Terry Heick says:

      John–Love the idea of a academia offering a “body of work” that we need to not just survive, but become freed from old dogma and limitations. So true. Some of the criticism offered here though attacks exactly that body of work as being uneven and oftentimes irrelevant.

  • The existing educational system is alienating the student from what he needs to know to prepare him for the real life outside the classroom. The school seems just like a factory producing robots for the workforce.

  • dzeitz26 says:

    Jillian, good point. I think the current system is also based on the preservation of the status quo. It is easy to see why when our laws and polices were written, and are reinforced, by those who have found great success in that system.

  • Jim says:

    The issue is more complex, and perhaps driven by out particularly American need to “quantify” all things at all costs….to have winners and losers; to rank everyone and everything (for example we grade schools against state or national “averages”….well when you do that SOMEONE out of every 100 has to be below average and thus gains the distinction of being seen as a failure…). The issue is also simple- have standards that are understandable by the students themselves, their parents and the teachers. The one given in the article as an example is a PERFECT example of a standard written by a team of academics/PhD holders who themselves, if quizzed, would each describe the outcome to that standard differently. We should have standards, national ones, and the common core is a first step in the right direction. But the standards should be learner driven, and outcome based and should be decipherable by all.

  • Mandy Blumenthal says:

    To whoever wrote this article: please, learn to write properly.

  • Baffled says:

    This is unreadable. I am very interested in the subject and trying hard to understand this article, but cannot even get through a whole paragraph. It may be the idiosyncratic syntax and quite inventive use of some words that more commonly mean other things.

  • Frank Wilson says:

    The topic is really worth considering for both parents and especially for teachers to provide students with updated and innovative learning methods making them learn more and gain quality knowledge rather than only getting good marks.


  • Nora Adams says:

    This is only happening because our education system is getting extremely outdated. Pity to see education falling to such level.

  • Times have changed and so the educational system should. Better ways have been proposed, but not one was implemented.

  • There are so many different things that need to be changed about the educational system in the United States. You have a valid argument.

  • Eve Barnett says:

    This is far more complicated then it seems at first. Less people get real kind of education where you actually learn something.

  • Sadly, just like the article states, the education has become a matter of consumerism. I don’t have to say how awful that it. Just read the article, it’s amazing.

Leave a Reply