Educational Reform, Philosophy
Comments 3

Changing the Paradigm by Jennifer Spencer

One of the first things that grabbed my attention at the beginning of my doctoral studies is the idea that society has a collective image of what “real” school is. This image is rooted in our experiences across generations as students. “Real” schools go from 8:00-3:00 for 180 days. They have bells. The day is divided into 50-minute periods for isolated subjects. There is a hierarchy for these subjects, with language arts, math, and science/technology being the most important and the arts being least important. Students are grouped together according to their ages and, when they get older, according to their ability. Grades are necessary to motivate students. Rewards and punishments help keep children in line—or in lines, which, of course, should be straight and quiet.

This collective construct is so strong that it has persisted for more than a century through various reform efforts. In short, it has become the paradigm—a set of assumptions that is so much a part of the collective consciousness that most people do not even think about them anymore. When someone proposes an idea that does not fit this image of what “real” school should be, people can be made very uncomfortable. Teachers can feel affronted and defensive of their practices. Parents can feel confused or alienated by “experts” who go on about ideas they may not understand. Politicians squirm when these two large groups of their constituencies question changes. Even students can feel uneasy when there are changes made in how they are taught and assessed. Mason stood courageously against the status quo of her day by engaging people in conversation on paradigmatic issues. Thankfully, there are also modern reformers whose apparent “common grace insights” (to borrow from Jack Beckman) have them carrying on the fight.

One area of research that is challenging the current paradigm is motivational theory. This field is primarily concerned with how to increase productivity in the business sector, but I think it has some interesting implications for education, as well. In his book, Drive, Dan Pink dispels the myth that people are motivated primarily by rewards. He cites study after study in which performance on a task was actually impaired when significant monetary rewards were on the line. The larger the reward, the more performance diminished. (You can listen to Dan Pink talk about this phenomenon in this eleven-minute video: Pink’s conclusion was that carrots and sticks do not motivate people, but there are three things that do: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In other words, people want choice and self-direction, they want to get better at something because that in itself is satisfying, and they want to contribute to something larger than themselves.  Students of Mason might recognize this as respect for personhood.

Last summer, I had the privilege of listening to the education superintendent for North Carolina talk about this book. She suggested that what Pink’s findings mean for schools is that we need to let go of the assumption that grades and even scholarships are sufficient motivators for our students. She timidly brought up the idea of getting rid of grades altogether, apparently treading softly in an effort to avoid a hue and cry against something that can be seen as heresy to that collective notion of “real” school. As I listened, I wondered, “What if she could succeed in getting rid of grades? Would that significantly change anything?” Of course, any answer is purely speculative, but I tend to think not, because any change is only cosmetic if it does not address the paradigm. And to address the paradigm, one cannot simply exchange one bolt for another; instead, all of the pieces have to be dumped out, assessed, perhaps replaced with better parts, and the new structure rebuilt according to a different design.

Sir Ken Robinson is one modern researcher and author who is willing to address the paradigm. (You can view a twelve-minute video of Robinson speaking about changing educational paradigms at, or you can see an entire 90-minute lecture at  Robinson challenges the idea that education should be designed along the industrial model and recommends an agricultural model instead. A factory makes a product according to pre-specified quality standards. A farmer, however, cannot make a strawberry plant. All that can be done is to provide the conditions under which the strawberry plant can thrive. The plant takes care of the rest. Robinson suggests asking which conditions allow persons to flourish and which ones keep them from flourishing and making decisions accordingly. Students of Mason might recognize this as atmosphere. Roberts also echoes Mason in arguing that no one subject is more important than any other; in fact, he does not even like the word “subject” because knowledge is interrelated. That sounds a bit like the “science of relations”.

My point here is not to argue about there being nothing new under the sun or that Mason said these things first. I am just happy that they are being said. I am exhilarated when current research bears out Mason’s ideas—not because I need empirical evidence that they are correct, but because it forces conversations in the mainstream that could ultimately lead to the tipping point that could change the paradigm.

© Jennifer Spencer 2011

This entry was posted in: Educational Reform, Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Within the paradigm shift we seek, there lies an insidious, immoveable concept called the SAT. Now that my kids are older, I really struggle with the whole “will they do well on the SAT?” thing. Do I have to teach to the test, force them to perform utilitarian tasks despite their clear artistic giftedness? It’s interesting that Furman University refused to allow my daughter to audition for their music program because they didn’t have her SAT scores yet, while a more prestigious music school in Boston jumped at the chance. I don’t think they EVER asked for her SAT scores. They were impressed that she knew solfege. Tiny baby steps at one university, but I was tickled at that.

  2. Willow says

    Thank you for addressing this important subject. It’s fascinating to see a reexamination of the dominant educational model. I think it’s also worth examining the style of Finnish education, which includes a later starting age, students taught by the same teacher for several years, and a decentralization of administrative decisions – and yields high educational success on international tests.

    You can
    and see a short video at
    in which the more relaxed atmosphere is immediately obvious.

    (One thing you might want to correct is that it’s (Sir) Ken Robinson, not Roberts.)

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