Why “One Size Fits All” is Absurd in Education


I would argue that in any new learning situation that the starting point for learning is different for each of us and that adopting a common approach is limiting. Do we ignore this when we operate education systems and if so what are the implications?

Sometimes to see the foolishness of an action or decision we need to look at it from a different perspective. Let’s explore the idea of a common starting point and activities, a one size fits all approach, in a different context and see if it makes sense.

In exploring our education systems I would need an example where a group of people are brought together in a controlled form for a common purpose but possibly with different needs and expectations.

Imagine 520 tourists getting off an A380 arriving in, say Singapore, for the very first time. No one has been here before; they are all new to this island country in Southeast Asia. This gives us the cohort, different needs and expectations but a common starting point.

It is highly unlikely they will want to travel as a group whilst in Singapore but that is not possible where we have controlled or timetabled activities. In normal circumstances they would not have the same intentions or interests, visit the same places at the same time, meet the same people, and have the same interactive experience with the country.

If we made them get off the plane as a group and manage them as a group (one size fits all) as we do in schools then this way of doing things would probably be unfulfilling for many of the tourists. Why? Well as they are organised and taken off to experience something they have no control over what happens. They may be made to see something they are not interested in at all and possibly miss out on something they were fascinated by and looking forward to doing or seeing, there would be disappointment and disengagement. Some would want more time in one area over another and possibly get frustrated by this. Some may want to explore on their own and others happy to be directed or guided here and there and some may be happy to dip in and out again depending on what was on offer and their interests.

Now image those 520 tourists getting on the same plane at the end of their  “group”  visit and the feedback they may present to the tour operator having this “one size fits all” type of holiday. Imagine many are unhappy and vow never to travel with the same operator again.

In an effort to make the next trip more successful the tour operator decides it is a case of needing to promote the idea of travelling in this way and not the idea itself that is in need of change. An obvious solution is to use the normally wasted flight time to prepare the passengers for their visit. He is sure that if the passengers understood why he did it the way he did that they would be more agreeable. He sets about having history and geography as well as language “classes” on the flight out with the expectation they will get more out of their visit and be more agreeable. There is a lot to cover and so a timetable is devised with short breaks in order to get it all in and flight attendants deliver the programme.

It still does not go as he had hoped and the feedback is not as good as he would like. He sees the need to find ways to further improve the service.

As the passengers fly back he decides to quiz them to see if they have taken it all in and to see where improvements can be made. Papers are issued and questions asked and short essays written about what they have seen and experienced. Flight attendants issue the papers, mark, and return them to the passengers having entered the data into a database for review later. Small rewards are given to those who have done well in an effort to encourage them to use the same tour operator next time. It is hoped that when others see the rewards they will try harder next time.

He finds some have had a great time and will fly with him again, others speak of being bored having no interest in the things they have been made to see. Others complain about the lack of personal choice or freedom to explore on their own. Many say they feel the service is too impersonal and they do not like being treated as if they were just a number. The “quizzes” did not go down too well with some either. Flight attendants complain about the additional workload and de-motivated passengers.

A review of the data suggests 55% of people had what could be referred to as a “good time.” 10% had a “great time” and 5% a “fantastic time.” They decide that the aim for next year will be at least 60% of passengers will have had a good time and the flight attendants have been instructed to achieve this target. A series of inspections are planned to check that the on-board classes are delivered according to set guidelines and that they are good or better.

I hope you can see where I am going with this analogy. I have not even started talking about the cabin crew (SLT), passengers in first or business class (G&T), or economy (At risk)  or longer flight times, selection processes or  “free airlines” run by chains of tour operators who promise better satisfaction rates . At some point what was thought of as a good idea just becomes absurd. What follows is also absurd as we find ways of justifying what we are doing, often in the face of common sense.  Here is an example taken from the Sabre Tooth Curriculum [i]

“Don’t be foolish,” said the wise old men, smiling most kindly smiles.

“We don’t teach fish‐rabbing to grab fish; we teach it to develop a generalized agility which can never be developed by mere training.

What also results is that people start to take sides. Those that support what we have  and those that propose something different.  For example Sir Ken Robinson [ii] is seen as a speaker of truth by some and a misguided snake oil salesman by others. Here is a quote from Pragmatic Education blog “Sir Ken’s ideas are incredibly seductive, but they are wrong, spectacularly and gloriously wrong.”[iii]

My point is that what starts off as a good idea can quickly get into trouble if we do not step back now and then and see where we are going in trying to improve what we are doing. It is easy to get drawn into the “make it better” or “try harder” rather than “change it” syndrome. We certainly need to stop treating all learners as the same because of their age and we need to stop doing all things for learners all of the time, and we need to stop expecting them all to reach the same stage at the same time too. In fact there is a lot we should stop doing in order to just improve our education systems.  We need to think outside of the box and this is where I am with my concept of Learning Intelligence.

Other posts on this theme:

The Need for Learning Intelligence as a Concept (http://wp.me/p2LphS-gY)

Knowing and Learning  – What is the Difference (http://wp.me/p2LphS-ba)

[i] http://www.nassauboces.org/cms/lib5/NY18000988/Centricity/Domain/57/TheSaberToothCurriculumshort.pdf

[ii] http://www.ted.com/speakers/sir_ken_robinson

[iii] http://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2013/10/12/what-sir-ken-got-wrong/


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About AcEd

"4c3d" (AcEd) is the abbreviation for Advocating Creativity in education, a company I set up to challenge how we think about and deliver education. The blog champions my concept of Learning intelligence, how we manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs as well as detailing those needs: Power Belonging, Choice and Fun - PBCF. Kevin Hewitson 2019

2 responses to “Why “One Size Fits All” is Absurd in Education”

  1. Robert says :

    Nice one Kevin! Of course a lot of the ‘passengers’ will enjoy the trip only for the fact of getting to know and having fun with who they sit next to! For many kids, school is great only because they get to socialise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • AcEd says :

      I am just revisiting this post Robert and it is still relevant sadly, as is your comment. Post Covid many children said what they missed the most about not going to school was the social aspect. Schools however appear structured to limit this aspect. Mmm.


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