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Is Focusing On Student ‘Improvement’ The Wrong Approach?


Is Focusing On Student ‘Improvement’ The Wrong Approach?

by Terry Heick

One of the central criticisms of public education should ideally be the effect of public education.

Somehow, most discussions around ed reform revolve around the bits and pieces of education rather than the purpose and effect of education, which is like evaluating the quality of a diet or gym workout by looking at the movements of the exercises in the workout rather than the goals and results of the workout.

This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the difficulty of evaluating the quality of a thing without being clear what the thing should be doing.

Is Focusing On Student ‘Improvement’ The Wrong Approach?

In a recent post on GQ, psychologist Svend Brinkmann takes a look at the concept of ‘self-improvement’ and has some criticisms that also fit our approach to teaching and learning in most systems of public education. In a recent article (based around an interview about a book) ‘Why Self-Help Might Actually Be Making You Less Happy,’ Brinkmann outlines his argument–one reminiscent of Buddhist principles–that what you think about is, to a degree, what you become.

We’ve become so obsessed with looking inward and trying to achieve our ideals, he says, that it’s actually made us less equipped to be a human on the outside (you know, the type that’s actually connected to other people). Oh, and on top of that, we’re supposed to be happy all the time, which, turns out, is a hard thing to do when you’re constantly being told you can do and be better, and more positive, and more productive.

In a classroom, this would manifest as ‘goal setting,’ ‘progress monitoring,’ assessment and achievement results, and other tenets of today’s schools. The problem? It places all of the emphasis on what the student can and might or might not become–usually in the distance future–rather than who they are, where they are, and what they might do there. And further, it also makes it very clear that the way the student is, at the moment, isn’t good enough.

This message is fine for highly-motivated students with a healthy self-image. For others? It could damage not only their confidence but skew the whole idea and purpose of school and learning to begin with.

What is one possible long-term result of this kind of ceaseless pursuit of becoming ‘better’?

The main thought of a depressed person is, “I’m not good enough, I can never be good enough, it’s my own fault why I’m not good enough.” The frightening fact is [that] the depressed person is actually right. He or she is actually interpreting society’s message to the individual correctly. We’re never allowed to be happy and satisfied, both what we are and what we do.

This, of course, is exactly the approach most K-12 formal learning systems in North America take, if not the majority of those global as well. Brinkmann continues,

It’s a process without end. You can never say, “Now I’ve realized my full potential. Now I am actually the best version of myself.” Of course, it’s part of the human condition that we strive for things. [But] if we’re only okay as long as we are striving, moving, developing, then we’re never okay. Then we can never really say to ourselves, “Well, I do something valuable. I lead a meaningful life. I don’t have to strive to become someone else over time.” I think that is quite dangerous.


While the context for the article is adult self-improvement rather than how education views student achievement and growth, the central thesis remains. Framed as a question, it could be stated as, “How does focusing on ‘improvement’ (as TeachThought does, admittedly, by focusing on ‘growing’ teachers) lead or not lead to education achieving its goals?

Put more succinctly, ‘How do the things we do serve or not serve us?’

In summary…


…it is the goal of public education to help students improve their mastery of academic content


…the best way to achieve that improvement is to constantly focus on that improvement


…it seems like the above approach works.

But what if those one or both of the conditional statements aren’t true?

You can read the full article on GQ.

Is Focusing On Student ‘Improvement’ The Wrong Approach?

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