Education is a complex, multifaceted endeavor. We each have our own insights into what constitutes a good education. We realize that a good education comes from home, acquaintances, church, neighborhood, community, schools, online courses, the media, aids to entertainment, and so on.

We each have our own stories to tell about our own education and the education of people we know. We each know people whose quality of life is relatively independent of how well they did in school. For the great majority of people, how well they scored on the “high stakes” state and national tests turns out to be of modest consequence in their lives.

A Prairie Home Companion

I enjoy Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion stories. I particularly like his description of Lake Wobegon:

"…where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

But, what does it mean for all of the children to be above average? When we look at our own children, we recognize good and not so good traits—perhaps dozens of them if we look carefully. We do not consider our children to be a few scores on a state or national test. We like to believe that as individuals, each of our children is above average in some important ways.

Individualization—Each of Us Is Unique

So, why are the people in our country being told over and over again that the measure of a student (and a student’s teachers, school, school district, and state) is how well the student/students do on state and national tests? Why are we repeatedly told our country is falling behind (indeed, is sort of a failure) because students in a number of other countries score higher on a few international tests? It seems to me that we are facing a major brainwashing effort designed to convince us that the goal of education is to prepare students to score well on certain specified tests.

To put it bluntly, I believe that this over-simplification of education and this emphasis on doing well on a amall number of summative evaluation tests is a bunch of hokum.

Just for the fun of it, consider a store that measures its success by the number of customers who enter the store or log onto their site. This number is easy to count, and it is easy to compare the results day-to-day, week-to-week, and so on. But the number of customers or page views is not a good measure of how well a store is doing. Some customers spend more than others. Some customers are more satisfied than others. The more satisfied ones are apt to be repeat customers, to buy more, and also to help advertise the store or online site.

Now, suppose that store employees in a retail outlet store begin to recognize individual customers and work to create a friendly, enjoyable ambience in the store. They work to make shopping an enjoyable, social activity. For an online store, this activity can also include a personalized welcome message that includes statements such as:

Last week you bought xxx. Customers who bought xxx also enjoyed yyy and zzz. Click here for a special discount on yyy and zzz. Click here if you would like to tell other customers about the product xxx that you purchased.

This type of individualization has long been the hallmark of “mom and pop” stores and larger retail outlets. Computer technology has made some individualization possible in online stores, and they are getting better at it.

Individualization in Education

Each type of informal and formal education has certain aspects of individualization and personalization. A teacher working with an individual student or a small group of students can provide a type of personalization that is not possible when working with a large class.

We have substantial research that testifies to the value of having individual tutors. As an “amusing” aside, consider the fact that in the United States there are approximately 70 million precollege and higher education students. If individual tutors provided all of the instruction for these students, this would certainly solve the unemployment situation in this country!

Over thousands of years, schools have worked to develop and implement cost effective schooling. We found that students could be taught reasonably well in  classroom of perhaps 25 or so students. We found that students could help to teach each other. We found that teaching students to read and then having them (individually) read to learn is a cost-effective way of providing a certain level of individualization. We found that broadcast and recorded audio and video media was a helpful aid to education and could provide some individualization.

 For about 60 years we have been developing and steadily improving computer-assisted learning systems, online information storage and retrieval systems, and interactive computer games. Moreover, our electronic communication systems have moved from the early telegraph and telephone to computer-based smart phones and social networking on the Internet. These technologies have greatly contributed to the individualization and to the social aspects of education today.

Final Remarks

State and national tests are based on assumptions such as:

I like to think about what are the types of things that every student should learn and good ways to measure this learning. Should every student memorize the multiplication facts up through 10 x 10 and have perfect, fast recall of these facts during their adult lives? Should every student be perfect in spelling the words they use in written  communication?

Make up some examples for yourself. As you make up examples, think about whether failure to have lifelong mastery of the topics you name leads to not having a good quality of life, not being a responsible adult citizen, not being a good parent, not being a good employee, not being a lifelong learner, and so on.

In recent months when I am having a conversation, the conversation often leads to questions that we cannot answer off the top of our heads. This leads to an immediate use of a search engine to retrieve the desired information.

So, a person needs to know how to frame the search, how to decide among the various hits that are provided by the search engine, and how to read and understand the information that has been retrieved. Informal and formal education that helps one develop skill in this endeavor is certainly an important part of a modern education. I am not aware of this skill being tested in state and national exams.

Also, I am not aware of required state and national tests that measure the inter personal (human) skills of students. Now, and for many years to come, these "people skills" are an exceeding valuable component of a person's informal and formal education. 

I believe we are at a major turning point in informal and formal education. We have the technology to simultaneously improve the social and the content aspects of curriculum content, instructional delivery, formative assessment, and summative assessment. We can now analyze our overall informal and formal education systems in terms of how well they meet individual needs of students as well as needs of family, neighborhood, community, state, nation, and the world.

Of course, this is a momentous task. I enjoy participating in this task and watching its progress. I hope that the same holds for you.

What You Can Do

Examine your current views of informal and formal education in terms of how well our system meets both the individual needs of students of all ages, and the needs of various major stakeholder groups. From your personal point of view, are we doing better than we did ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years ago? Think of something that you, personally, can do to hasten the improvement of informal and formal education. Then, do it.

Readings from IAE Publications

Moursund, D. (11/14/2014). What makes a great teacher? IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/23/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/what-makes-a-great-teacher.html.

Moursund, D. (10/27/2014). Can I go play now? IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/23/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/can-i-go-play-now.html.

Moursund, D. (9/18/2014). Disruptive innovations in education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 11/23/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/disruptive-innovations-in-education.html.

Moursund, D. (2014). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/23/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/Empowering_Learners_and_Teachers.

Moursund, D. (2014). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 11/23/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/What_the_Future_is_Bringing_Us.