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Revisiting the One Size Fits All Education System

I bought a sweater once that was "one-size-fits-all," but I quickly discovered that "one-size-fits-all" is a bold-faced lie. When it comes to clothing, one size most definitely does not fit all. I am a size four, and the sweater practically swallowed me whole. It was supposed to be one of those items that stretched and retracted to accommodate its wearer, but instead it was bunchy and bulky and unflattering. It quickly moved to the back of my closet, only to be donated to Goodwill for some other gullible shopper to get suckered into buying.

One-size-fits-all is a lie when it comes to clothing. And, I am coming to learn, it is a lie in pretty much everything else. When the IAM staff first got our iPhones, mine felt clunky and large in my smallish hands, while my coworkers who are men with much larger hands did not find it awkward at all. When I go somewhere, I slide easily into my Nissan Sentra, but when I recently gave my friend Allen a ride, his height and girth made my small car a bit of a challenge. For him, a truck or larger sedan would fit much better. The more I think about it, one size does not really "fit" all. Rather, "all" adjust or accommodate or simply get used to using something that doesn't fit all that well. The more I think about it, life depends on "all" adjusting to the "one-size." I suppose, in some backward way, that is how manufacturers can get away with saying that "one size fits all."

I subscribe to Books and Culture, the bi-monthly book review publication, but because of the profusion of reading material that fills my days (not to mention my desk, bedside table, coffee table, and dining table), each issue usually gets shuffled around from living room to bathroom to briefcase to Staten Island Ferry, and back again before I finally get to read it. That's why it took me until January 13 to read Rebecca Ward Lindsay's very helpful review in the November/December issue.

In "School Daze," Lindsay touches on three books that address the broken educational system in America. She rightly points out that, "No country can boast as many spectacular universities as the United States. And yet, our primary and secondary schools lag behind dozens of other nations." The three authors mentioned in this piece have differing opinions on the cause of our educational woes, and they each offer contrasting solutions to the troubles facing children in the public school systems as they are presently operating. Yet all seem to be unified on one thing: the system is in need of repair.

At International Arts Movement, we are not only interested in addressing issues facing artists and creative catalysts. Our interest as a movement is in the broken systems in all spheres of culture. And one system that is undeniably broken is our education system, from the current proliferation of standardized testing that has alienated and marginalized not only many students, but also teachers, to an imbalanced emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving divorced from the creative arts. As the daughter of a retired public school music teacher, I witnessed the evolution that seemed to begin in the late '90's and early '00's, when Standards of Learning (SOL's) became the obsession of the public school system. Teachers, who had cultivated their programs through spending years in the classroom, had to suddenly become like drill sergeants, hammering information potentially covered by SOL test questions into their students so that they could keep their jobs and their students could be promoted to the next level.

As I was reflecting on this today, I called my mom, who is now retired from teaching but serves as a substitute teacher in the system in which she taught for years. In fact, she happened to be subbing today, and she called me back during her short lunch break. After we discussed her experiences as a public school teacher, she said, "There are cycles in education," she said. "What they're doing now is not what they will be doing later. We (teachers) just have to wait and adapt to those changes."

I remembered hearing about changes that my mom's programs experienced as the pressure mounted to pass SOL tests each spring. Mom used to produce school musicals that gave all of the children in a given grade level a chance to learn about performing, stage craft, dance, story-telling and other cultures. Occasionally, during the weeks of rehearsal, she would pull soloists or groups of dancers out of class for additional rehearsals. The teachers were very supportive and accommodating of this. However, as SOL pressure grew, the teachers no longer allowed students out of class for those short rehearsals. Instead, Mom was expected to mount school musicals with only two 30-minute rehearsals during her classes each week.

As a result, Mom had to "dumb down" her programs. Whereas in the past, she would invite a professional Spanish dancer to come in and teach one group of gifted movers some more challenging choreography, she could no longer do that with the limited time she had. She had to use simpler music, simpler movement and simplified dialogue. However, Mom pointed out optimistically that "a creative person can find ways to both accommodate the SOL requirements and keep it engaging for the kids." In fact, she adapted a musical for her school that incorporated lessons in Virginia history, which were part of the SOL prep, and the musical was so popular with the kids and effective as a teaching tool that other schools in her system requested the materials for their schools too, proving that, once again, necessity is a wonderful creative catalyst. She also used "Schoolhouse Rock" material liberally throughout the year, which "the kids loved."

In his excellent TED lecture, delivered in February 2006, creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson bluntly proposes that education, as we currently approach it, kills creativity. Challenging the way we're educating our children, Sir Ken champions "a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence."

The "one-size-fits-all" educational system that presently marks our nation simply doesn't work for everyone. But, as with every other broken system, most people adjust. (I almost said "simply adjust," but the adjustment is far from simple. Rather, the adjustment often requires a team of paraprofessionals, administrators, counselors, advocates and teachers working together to help certain students fit in to the one-size-fits-all system in whose margins they spend a third of their days.)

One of the questions that will be addressed at IAM's upcoming Encounter 10 will deal with this issue of how the one-size-fits-all education system is broken. We want to push people to wrestle deeply with the questions surrounding this issue and to cultivate creative, alternative approaches to a system that leaves so many floundering on the sidelines. While the actual question is still evolving a bit, we plan to ask something to the effect of, "Are we teaching art - and everything else - all wrong?"

Meanwhile, we would love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with Sir Ken Robinson's assessment:

What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. If you're not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. And we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this. He said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it. So why is this?

Are you an educator or parent who would like to connect with others who are displeased with the one-size-fits-all system currently being proliferated by our schools? Do you want to participate in this discussion?

Please send me your thoughts at christy (at), and please consider joining us for Encounter 10, March 4-6 in lower Manhattan. Details can be found at


To alter the pull quote slightly "Human intelligence is richer and more dynamic than we have been led to believe by..." just about every aspect in our modern culture. Also check out Mae Jemison's TED Talks (while you are there) where she illustrates a correlation between the creative capacity of a culture and their scientific and technological innovation.

Although I believe the issue is less systemic and more one of what we value as important as a culture (where currently art is viewed as ideally superfluous or a luxury), the next question is, which is no easier, what is a "correct" system?

Just some thoughts,...

Right on, Joe. Rather than looking for one correct system, I would say that we should be working toward a system that recognizes that there are many unique ways that humans learn, and offer programs that address those. In some ways, I think things like the vocational schools, which my school looked down on, are actually the way to go. i.e. "Shop Class as Soul Craft." I wish Home Economics had not been such a looked-down-upon class at my high school... I wish that homemaking as a craft had been valued more. I would love to take a home ec course now.

Excellent....I agree fully. Standardized testing was nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to sliding standards in American education. The powers that be saw that we were falling behind and figured that a one size fits all standard will force people to do better. Not so. It's unfortunate and makes me a supporter of growing private options, expensive though they may be now.

The more I listen to my friends talk about their experiences, especially those with children who have special educational needs, the more I think home education coops are the way to go, at least for those kids who do not thrive or flourish in the current system. Which is a shame, because many who need help do not have the option of home educating, or the parents are not called to be teachers of all subjects.

Love it. I have a few (likely connected) thoughts. 1.) There is a tragic aversion to risk in our educational system that stifles creativity. The traditional 4-year College is set up as an idol that seems to drive SOL. 2.) One consequence of this is that students graduate high school with a lot of information/data, but are just about clueless on ... See Morehow to innovate, create, problem-solve or learn on their own. 3.) A rarely spoken about problem of the one-size-fits-all system we have is the devastating neglect concerning how genders learn. The steady reduction of recess/physical activity is disastrous for young boys who can't sit still in class to learn. The system is not set up for kinetic learning at all, and this favors developing girls at the expense of boys.

THANK YOU for pointing out the gender issue. There has been a lot of research on the difference in how genders learn (with exceptions, of course... some boys do perfectly well in a traditional classroom, and some girls struggle and need to run around more). But in general, this is pretty much accepted as fact now, and yet the current typical model is geared more toward how girls learn.

btw, I hadn't stumbled on Conversant Life until now... this place is pretty incredible...

Welcome to Conversant Life! Glad you're here!! And I agree, it is pretty great. I'm proud to be part of this community!

Well developed thoughts. Thanks for sharing this. I spoke to a group of retired educators a few days ago about my creative process and personal development. Many of those teachers were my mentors while I was growing up. Education was less about "one size" when I was in school and I beleive my creativity flourished because of it.

Thanks Squire! And for those of you interested, Squire taught a workshop at last year's Encounter, and it will "eventually" be available from our web site... Til then, people are welcome to request the session from me and I can send it to you. Squire is a very gifted teacher! Thanks for reading, friend!

I was talking with a friend yesterday about Waldorf, Montessori, etc. and how it seems like the kids that would benefit most (and who those methods served in the beginning) are the poor and disadvantaged, and instead it's the wealthy who can benefit from them, whereas the people who often do best on tests (a la public school) are often the wealthy ... See Morewho can afford tutoring and test prep, etc. In our opinions, it should be totally flipped on its head.

That being said, I really flourished in my NYC public school education, esp at LaGuardia HS where i could delve fully into my artmaking with all the other misfits from the 5 boroughs.

So true, Vesper...

And I think you point out something important: for those kids who are accepted to the "good" public schools, like LaGuardia, their experiences are awesome (and LGAHS is especially arts-focused - a rare gift). But what about those who did not get in to a school like LGAHS and had to go to the place they were zoned for? I have a friend who graduated from a NYC public high school who could not write an essay. She tried college and had to take pre-college classes just to learn how to write college-level essays. And she is a very intelligent person - there is no reason in the world why she shouldn't have learned those skills in HS... somehow, she slipped through the cracks. I fear many, many promising young people have similar experiences and similar results.

Christy, I enjoyed your piece about education. There is a really meaty article in this month's Atlantic by Amanda Ripley called What Makes a Great Teacher? For the first time, Teach for America is making publically available their rich library of astonishing discoveries that have come out of their decades of research. One fundamental question they... See More have been asking for instance is why two students with everything equal except who teaches them, within one year, can be separated by years of difference in skill. Over a few years, the student with one kind of teacher will be so far behind that they will never catch up with the other student. No matter how weathy. Surely North America has the capacity and will to make good use of the many well-tested propositions that come out of this type of research. I surely hope so.

Hi, Christy,
I'm the one in Dallas, TX who offered for you to stay with me in January...remember? :)

I teach middle and upper school art in Dallas at Trinity Christian Academy, an affluent, private, Christian, college prep school. Our MS Headmaster is interested in this topic but especially about the homework issue. We're reading a book currently, that explains how homework has changed since the 1930's for example. I'm sorry that I don't have the name of the book as I type this. :( Nonetheless, I appreciate your questions and comments-everyone. All the best....

Hi Anita! Thanks again for your offer for a bed - I'm sorry I didn't have time to meet you there. If you remember the book title, please pass it on - I'm interested in learning more!

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A New Yorker for nearly ten years, Christy Tennant rides the Staten Island Ferry several times a week. She never tires of the boats in the harbor, watching seagulls in flight, the Statue of Liberty, and the Manhattan skyline.