Walter Bitner

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There Are Two Kinds of Education

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I know that the title of this article sounds like a joke, but in fact, I’m serious. Of course: there are many different kinds of education; what I am referring to here are two fundamental approaches to educating our children. Understanding these two approaches and the differences between them can help facilitate understanding of why children are being taught what they are being taught, why schools are structured the way they are, and ultimately, why there are so many problems in schools – especially public schools – in the United States today.

The two approaches to education I am referring to are:

  • Developmentally Appropriate Education
  • Standardized Education

Apologists for Standardized Education will deny this and try to convince you that their approach is developmentally appropriate, but don’t believe them. By definition and practice, it cannot be, because Developmentally Appropriate Education seeks to meet each child “where she is at” in her development, while Standardized Education is directed at a statistical average.


Developmentally Appropriate Education

Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

Developmentally Appropriate Education, or DAE, is based on the commonly held idea that children pass through a number of stages as they grow from infancy to adulthood, and that the wisest approach to education is one that seeks to meet each child with curriculum, instruction, environment, activities, etc. best suited to each stage in this development.

There are many facets or aspects of a child’s development; generally these can be categorized as either physical, emotional, intellectual, or social. Any approach to education worthy of consideration attempts to address all of these aspects of the human being.

The last century has brought us a significant increase in understanding the developmental stages children progress through – a sea change really. Immense research has been to done to improve our understanding of child development, and familiarity with prominent theories developed from this research forms a part of a teacher’s formal education.

The foundation of this understanding of child development is largely built on the work of the brilliant Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980). It is hard to overestimate how influential Piaget’s work has been, or how important it remains today. He basically invented the field. Numerous educational theorists have contributed to the study of child development since, but much of this work enhances and elaborates upon Piaget’s fundamental observations – and does not contradict them.

Piaget is best known for his theory of cognitive development, which describes four stages through which all children progress as they mature:

  • Sensorimotor (birth to age 2)
  • Preoperational (ages 2 -7)
  • Concrete (ages 7 – 11)
  • Formal (adolescence)

Integral to Piaget’s theory are the ideas that every child must progress through each stage in order before moving onto the next, and that although all children go through the same stages of development, they each go through them at different individual rates. Just as important is the idea based on Piaget’s theory and research that efforts to “speed up” a child’s development and increase the rate of cognitive development are likely to be harmful to the child. In other words, the child’s readiness is a key factor in the success of her acquisition of skills and knowledge.


Standardized Education

Standardized Education (SE) is the practice of presenting the content and delivery of curriculum based on an assumption of the readiness of the statistical average of a chronological age group. This “readiness average” will of course vary according to age group, community, previous instruction, etc., but in any case the ideal segment of the student population in any given group targeted by a SE curriculum is practically 1%, more or less. Nearly half of the students in any group are developmentally more advanced than the readiness target, and the majority of the remaining students are developmentally not advanced enough to be ideally successful.


We have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of industrialization, and in the image of it… schools are still pretty much organized on factory lines: ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches…. we put them through the system by age group. Why do we do that?

Sir Ken Robinson


This remarkable 12 minute animation to a 2010 talk by renowned education and creativity advocate Sir Ken Robinson includes discussion of Standardized Education within a broad historical context.


What is clear is that Standardized Education is not designed primarily for the benefit of the students: SE exists because it is (theoretically) more efficient and less costly than DAE. Paying one teacher to deliver standardized content to a large group of students is far less expensive than paying one teacher to deliver DAE to each student in their care, even if it is also far less effective for each individual student.

While Piaget’s ideas and DAE as an approach began to be commonly accepted by educators about fifty years ago, SE has been around much longer, and the entire organization of our public schools is built on this “factory model”. With the dramatic increase in the use of standardized testing to determine how schools and teachers (and students) are assessed and evaluated, a massive education industry that consumes billions of dollars every year relies on the continuance and furtherance of this system. This industry is one of the biggest obstacles in the way of any significant change occurring to bring a more DAE to our children.


School Is A Compromise

Teachers are caught in the middle. Any teacher who stands in front of a class will tell you that no child in any given class has the same amount of formal preparation, level of cognitive development, emotional maturity, attention span, ability to concentrate, learning style, and social skills as any other child in that class. They are all different. It is the role of the teacher to artfully navigate all these individual differences among their students in an attempt to make the standardized curriculum accessible (and hopefully even meaningful) to each student. Currently this particular facet of teaching is called differentiated instruction by the education community, but teachers have been doing it since they began standing in front of classes – long before it became an industry buzzword. Ironically, the fact that this facet of the art of teaching has become part of contemporary education’s fad lexicon is tacit acknowledgment that SE is not DAE.

In the best circumstances, the school environment is a compromise in which deficiencies in the SE are compensated for by teacher efforts to differentiate instruction, reductions in costs, convenience, opportunities for students to navigate a social environment, and many other factors. Children are resilient and flexible within certain limits, and for many, school can provide a tolerable means of attaining an education. Increasingly however, the gap between SE and DAE has become intolerable for many children.

The extent to which the gulf between DAE and SE has widened is dramatic. Recent decades have brought an exponential increase in the number of standardized tests students are required to take, and the potential consequences of these test results have become more dire. The models upon which some experiments in public education are being tested include implementing standards for student achievement so much earlier in the child’s schooling than ever before that advocates for DAE are active in opposing them. (For an example, check out 6 reasons to reject Common Core K-3 standards — and 6 rules to guide policy by Valerie Strauss from The Washington Post, May 2, 2014.) Cases like this illustrate how SE in practice can not only fall short of DAE, but actually be in direct opposition to it.

The number of students that public school teachers are expected to teach has also risen tremendously – I have colleagues still in the public school system who are responsible for teaching more than 250 students each this year. Good teachers in adverse situations like this still do their best to try to “reach each student” (i.e. make up for the difference between SE and DAE), but with a workload like this it is inevitable that more students than ever will “fall through the cracks” –  or in other words, become alienated from an education for which either they are not ready, or which is not ready for them.

*       *       *

See also What Your Students Will Remember

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  1. Margie Way-Kiani says:

    Thank you for your wonderful insights, Walter.

  2. […] There Are Two Kinds of Education […]

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