Brainless Sameness: The Demise of One-Size-Fits-All Instruction and the Rise of Competency Based Learning

Brainless Sameness: The Demise of One-Size-Fits-All Instruction and the Rise of Competency Based Learning

Are you ready for a new book which will challenge the basic design for instruction we use in most of our schools?  In August/September Brainless Sameness will be published.  Take a sneak peak at the Introduction. 


Four decades of school reform initiatives have drained our optimism.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me repeatedly with A Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Standardized Assessment Systems on Steroids, 21st Century Schools, scientifically research based programming, evidence based programming, charter school options, privatization, and the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the shame becomes amorphous as we disengage from the belief that any government led “reform initiative” will produce meaningful results.

Politicians pontificate, fads and educational buzzwords come and go, and islands of educational success fail to move to scale.  The pressure on teachers to perform continues to increase, and in turn the pressure on our children increases.  Many schools have become joyless places in which there is a constant race to “cover” content and test students.  Play, beauty, nature, social relationships, self-regulation, character, classroom culture, art, and music suffer the indignity of being marginalized or eliminated from the curriculum.

Poor, minority, brain diverse, and other vulnerable students are exposed to the damage of a system that treats all kids as if they should be ready for one-size-fits-all high-pressure instruction.  One-size-fits-all instruction eats neurodiverse and other vulnerable students for lunch.

Without a clear vision for the schools we want for our children there can be no clear plan of action.  The shouting begins.  Loud voices compete, and thoughtful planning is neglected.  The interests of politics, the power of bureaucracies, and the lobbying of the educational industrial complex prevail.  School districts cycle through reading and math programs without great success.  National Assessment of Educational Progress outcomes are stagnant, and we continue to fall further behind the educational outcomes of other nations.

The general public has become disillusioned and disengaged.  It’s better not to think about problems over which you have no control.  More than 10 million children, about 17 percent of all school-age kids, have left traditional public schools for private schools, charter schools or homeschooling.  In some communities a majority of affluent families have moved away or found alternatives to the public schools.  As of 2014, 35 states were spending less on education than before the 2008 recession.  We’ve lost confidence in our public schools.

And therefore it is time to choose.  Will it be continued disillusionment or fundamental change?

Asking adults to change their thinking and their patterns of behavior can be a fearful thing and much resisted.   Opponents of reform contend that poverty is the real problem, rather than what we do in our schools.  They argue that using student test results to assess teacher quality is unfair, and that school choice has taken the more motivated students out of traditional public schools.  Opponents of fundamental change argue that our schools are already doing the best we can under the circumstances that we are given.  They argue (without conviction) that covering a slightly different set of content standards, or devising a new and different testing structure, or altering the evaluation system we use for teachers, or purchasing a new math series, or using a more aggressive pacing guide will somehow lead us to better outcomes.

Fortunately there are a growing number of educators and community leaders who see this as a time of enormous opportunity to build a system designed to meet the needs of individual learners.  Rather than blaming the students, the parents, and the teachers for our inadequate results, they see an opportunity to design a system that is built upon a different framework.

“We covered it and tested it” is simply no longer a sufficient premise for a learning system that works in the 21st century.  To radically improve learning outcomes for all students, and to ensure that all students have a chance to succeed, we are poised to develop personalized competency based learning systems that are designed to deliver the outcomes we need in the age of information and learning.

  • In creating a model for instruction that better meets the needs of modern learners, we must create a systems architecture that can consistently produce far more students who love to learn and continue to learn for life.
  • This new systems design must be attentive to the development of the whole person, including social-emotional skills, problem-solving skills, and positive character.
  • The system must be designed in keeping with everything we know about human learning, and more than lip service must be payed to instructional match, intrinsic motivation, deep understand and application, differentiated instruction, the importance of safe and connected classroom culture, and the importance of art, music, movement, nature, and beauty.
  • This new systems architecture must value meeting the learning needs of individual students, rather than giving top priority to covering the content standards du jour.
  • The architecture of our new system must abandon “test and sort” in favor of assessment for learning. Assessment is most valuable when educators can use that information to thoughtfully design learning for each student, rather than ascribe grades and move on to the next chapter without allowing students to deeply understand and enjoy what they are learning.
  • To serve the needs of our children, this systems design must take a radically different view of how to deliver “school”, so that all children, not just a fortunate few, receive the instruction and practice time to build every essential skill along a pathway to higher level skills, at their own instructional level, for as long as it takes.

This book offers a careful look at how we came to have our traditional education system, and how it met the needs of a different time.  By looking back at the past we can take on the task of change without casting blame, but with understanding.  We will consider the systems design of the curriculum driven one-size-fits-all educational model, why it no longer meets our needs, and how to devise a system which can deliver a better future for our children and for ourselves as educators.

The most exciting point of this book is that personalized competency based learning systems are blossoming in every corner of our nation, and in most countries around the world.  This is it!  The time of greatest innovation, change, learning, collaborating, and constantly improving our schools has begun.  There could be no more exciting time to be an educator.  The time for rethinking and recreating our learning systems is now.

Bob Sornson, 2018