Changing the Arc of the History of Education
altering the perspective of what it means to be educated


Revolutions in behavior start with an idea.

This is an important point because sometimes people believe that a revolution starts with an action, but I don’t think so. I think what follows is the pattern of how revolutions happen. People reflect on the ways things are and they start to see something they want changed. Usually these reflections are not something formal or scheduled. People are just going through their day-to-day activities, and it occurs to them that something seems wrong to them. That something begins as a bunch of loosely disconnected thoughts that eventually merge into an idea. This big idea is clearly communicated by a leader or a small group of leaders who emerge from the group of people who are thinking that something needs to be changed. Then people start to talk about the idea and those conversations gain momentum. Eventually all this talking turns into a single action and then several actions and finally into a new way of doing things.

Study any revolution and I believe you will find this same pattern repeated over and over.


Now I want to talk about education.

According to, education means:

  1. The act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.
  2. The act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills, as for a profession.
  3. A degree, level, or kind of schooling: a university education.

  4. The result produced by instruction, training, or study.

Merriam-Webster defines education as:

  1. The action or process of teaching someone especially in a school, college, or university.
  2. The knowledge, skill, and understanding that you get from attending a school, college, or university.

  3. A field of study that deals with the methods and problems of teaching.

Here’s one more way to look at the definition of education. Educate comes from the Latin word “educo” meaning to draw out or lead out. Using this explanation, the word education means to draw out from within another person.


Having looked at the definition of the word education, it seems to me there are two main ways to look at what it means to be educated.

The Assessment Perspective

The first way is to look at it from an assessment point of view, which include things like grade point averages, SAT/ACT scores, other standardized test scores, two-year degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, PhD degrees, certificates, and licenses. These all are about a group of people evaluating an individual’s performance and declaring his or her level of knowledge and/or ability on various topics. To further muddy the waters, you could include the name of the organization that did the assessment. For example, you might say, “She has a bachelor’s degree from ABC University with a 3.2 GPA.” This could be meant to imply that this is very different from a bachelor’s degree from XYZ University with a 3.9 GPA. Finally, you can compare the evaluation scores of one group of students with another group of students from various countries. My point is the evaluation you received is one way of saying you have been educated to a certain level on a certain topic.

Assessments are valuable for a variety of reasons. First, it gives the individual something tangible to strive for, to learn, and to improve at. Second, it gives other people a general idea of the individual’s competency on those topics as compared to other people. And, of course, assessments impact opportunities. Generally speaking, better scores create better opportunities. A high school senior with a 4.0 GPA will get into more colleges than a senior with a 3.0. A student with a high ACT score will earn bigger academic scholarships than one with a low ACT score because he or she has demonstrated a greater academic capacity. Finally, assessments are important because they will play a big role throughout your career. A sales person who sells 30% more than a colleague will usually get a much bigger raise or bonus. A manager who delivers 30% more profit to an organization generally gets a bigger raise than his peer. It’s a good thing to get used to being assessed earlier in life rather than later.

However, just as a baseball hitter can’t bring his batting average to the plate but only his ability, you can’t bring your assessment score into a work situation once the clock starts ticking. You only get to bring your abilities. There is certainly nothing wrong with getting a good assessment. It’s a worthy thing to receive. But in the end it is still just an assessment. In and of itself, it is not an education. It’s an assessment.

In the book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, the three authors, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson, explain the reasons why grades can be very misleading as indicators of a person’s ability. They point out that every person has four factors that affect their ability to learn something: their intelligences, learning styles, pace of learning, and starting points. When they use the word intelligences, they are referring to Howard Gardner’s description of the eight types of intelligences that people have: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. Gardner points out that most people are only really strong in two or three of these intelligences. They are different for each person, but one individual usually is only really good at two or three of them.

Generally speaking, the students who do the best in a school with standardized teaching approaches are the ones whose strong areas of these intelligences, learning styles, pace of learning, and starting points match up most effectively with what is being taught, how it’s being taught, the pace at which it is taught, and the point of the material where the teacher chooses to start.

The Development of Abilities Perspective

I would argue that there’s another even more important way to look at what it means to be educated. This refers to the person’s abilities. Here are some abilities people can develop:

  • Ability to influence other people and how they think at different age levels and different stages of life.
  • Ability to organize people and resources toward achieving a certain result.
  • Ability to be kind and compassionate toward another person.
  • Ability to take things that already exist and create something new that moves people emotionally.
  • Ability to understand the personality and emotional needs of different people and meet those needs in effective ways.
  • Ability to persevere even in the face of repeated failures.
  • Ability to strengthen your abilities through repeated practice and effort.
  • Ability to understand the problems you’re facing and develop and execute a plan for resolving those problems.
  • Ability to listen for understanding of a person, a group of people, or a situation.
  • Ability to connect colors and patterns and fabrics together in a way that intrigues people.
  • Ability to create music that moves people.
  • Ability to write in a way that resonates with people.
  • Ability to learn from the past in order to improve the future.
  • Ability to learn insights from one group of people that can be of value to other groups of people.
  • Ability to learn what hurts and helps our planet.
  • Ability to understand and improve electronic technology.
  • Ability to understand what causes people to be healthy or unhealthy and to intervene in effective ways that help people to become healthier.
  • Ability to understand what people need to achieve a desired result and to create a product or service that meets that need.

I could keep going here, but I think you get the idea.

A lot of the formal assessments occur only in a classroom and end when a person finishes his or her formal education, but the development of abilities can happen inside and outside of the classroom from the beginning of a person’s life and can continue for the rest of the person’s life. The person who keeps honing his or her abilities as opposed to focusing primarily on assessment scores is the person, I believe, who can make the greater contribution to an organization, a community, and society in general.

In his book, Einstein, Walter Isaacson told the story about when Albert Einstein was asked by the New York State Education Department what he felt schools should emphasize. Einstein said, “In teaching history there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefitted mankind through independence of character and judgment. Critical comments by students should be taken in a friendly spirit. Accumulation of material should not stifle the student’s independence.” Isaacson added these words: “A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.”


For all the complaining I hear about schools and teachers, I’m just not buying it. Between my own experiences and the many I’ve heard about and read about, I believe teachers are doing a very, very good job of trying to educate young people across the country. Do I have my gripes from time to time? Of course I do. I’m human. I also will sometimes gripe about some part of a new movie or television show that I enjoy watching. Griping and complaining is, unfortunately, a way of life, and teachers and educators get more than their fair share of those complaints.

All in all, schools try to craft curriculums that prepare students for a variety of futures. They provide a variety of ways for these students to develop their abilities and to prepare to do as well as they can on a variety of assessments.

I don’t think the key to changing history is to completely revamp the educational system in the United States. Every year there are educators around the world who are trying to improve the content and delivery of what is taught in the classrooms or in on-line courses. They certainly know more than I do about the nuances of formal education.

So what’s the problem? What is the big idea for improving education?


What is the goal of education?

Such a simple question, but the answer has massive implications.

If the goal of a high school education is to get a high grade point average or a high standardized test score in order to go to a “good” college to get a high grade point average in order to get a high-paying job right out of college, you may very well run into a variety of problems.

First, the high-paying job might not materialize, at least not right away.

Second, if it does or does not materialize, the person’s education might come to a halt when the formal grading stops.

Third, the opportunities that a person could receive later in life might not be attainable without further development of his or her abilities.

Fourth, people sometimes attach their sense of self-worth and self-esteem to their assessment scores. They start to see themselves as a collection of assessments rather than as a person who can develop their abilities. This can cause them to obsess over the score whether it’s perceived as good or bad and reduce their focus on improving their abilities.

Fifth, in a world where organizations collapse and new ones start every day and people jump from job to job to job, the formal assessments that the individual piled up earlier in life will not be nearly as meaningful as the abilities they’ve developed over the years.

Rather than seeing education as a formal assessment, I encourage you to look at it as the process of continually developing your abilities in a variety of areas.

That simple sentence has very big ramifications. It can change the way people look at their middle school, high school, and higher educational experiences. And it can very much change their lives after they leave formal education. If the goal of education becomes to draw out the best in yourself and in other people and if that goal remains a constant from birth to death, then education becomes a life-long pursuit of excellence, of constantly finding ways to improve our abilities in order to perform better in the future. Instead of education being about constant comparison with winners and losers, what if it was about constantly improving our abilities so that we could make our greatest contribution to society? There would still be winning and losing in the marketplace and work place, but each player/performer/person would be striving to improve his or her abilities as opposed to just attaining a certain evaluation.

This may sound subtle and altruistic and idealistic and ridiculous, but play along with me for just a moment.

What slows down learning? What gets in the way? When have you been turned off on a topic that you might otherwise have pursued? I think it usually happens because of emotional baggage and lack of passion. Something in you has been negatively turned off and you’ve lost your interest in getting better at that topic.

When have you craved learning a certain topic? What stimulated you? What turned you on when you might otherwise have stopped? I think it usually comes down to great teaching, individual attention, emotional support, and really enjoying the process of doing whatever it is you’re doing.

Great teachers, in formal classrooms and in the workplace and at home and in life in general, explain, challenge, support, and encourage. Isn’t this when abilities get developed? Combine that with a person’s strengths and passions and you have the makings for a person to really flourish and enhance their abilities in ways that can really make an impact in the world.


Every revolution begins with the flipping of a mental switch.

People see things one way, and then they see things another way.

There was a time when people thought the best form of government was to have a monarchy. That idea shifted to a democracy.

In the United States, people used to think that people of color and all women were incapable of voting and thinking for themselves and doing anything more than being told what to do. That one got proved wrong as well.

Legal marriage in the U.S. used to be open to only heterosexuals and now the tide is beginning to shift. Many people are flipping the mental switch to say if two people love each other and want to commit their lives to each other that it doesn’t matter what their genders are.

Regarding education, I suggest we will benefit greatly when we flip the mental switch from thinking the assessment score matters most in education to thinking the development of abilities matters the most in education. They both will continue to co-exist, but which one will be the driver of a person’s efforts? Will it be to get the score or to further develop a particular ability? The former is a short-term result while the latter can have a long-term application that can improve many different results in the future.

Rather than emphasizing a person’s scores (GPA, ACT/SAT, etc.), what if we emphasized developing their abilities? I realize there is a gray area here with a lot of overlap. A person with a high GPA may very well have developed their abilities in a variety of areas. That’s not the problem. The problem is when we obsess over the assessments instead of focusing on developing abilities. This can lead to burnout where people stop trying to learn. When that moment occurs, the education process has come to a dead end.

Assessments are indicators of how a person is doing in the development of certain abilities. These indicators can be really helpful in terms of understanding what the person is doing well and what he or she needs to further improve upon. However, the critical factor is for the person to keep developing his or her abilities, and not to get to a point where he or she wants to stop trying. If the pendulum swings too far to emphasizing assessments as the reason for learning, the fallout could be a diminished desire to improve.


One of the best pieces of advice that my mom ever gave me, and she gave it to me many times in many different situations, was, “Go try it. It will be a good learning experience.” When you look at education as the process of developing your abilities, your classes and your non-classroom activities all become part of your growth as a person. I encourage my kids and any other kids who want my advice to dive into different learning experiences at every age level. Even if you only do it one time, it can be a valuable learning experience. Over the long term, the development of abilities is what a person will take with him or her into the wider world.


I’ll offer four titles that I think made some powerful points about education. They are:

  • Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson
  • How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
  • by Andy Rosen
  • To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite


If the purpose of education is to develop our abilities, then life becomes an on-going educational experience and every experience in life has the potential to help us develop our abilities. If the purpose of education is to get a certain score, then we might never develop our abilities to the extent we are capable of doing, especially when the scoring stops. When that happens, we lose out on an individual, organizational and societal basis.

If history continues on the way it’s going, I think the world will lose out on a lot of ability that people have the potential to develop. Those abilities could make the world a much better place. What needs to be changed? I think it’s the way we look at what it means to be educated. I think education should be seen as the life-long process of developing our abilities. No person can become highly capable in every area of ability. That’s not my point. But I do think every person can continually develop his or her ability in the few chosen areas that he or she wants to concentrate on. In that way, each person can continually contribute at a higher level. To me, that’s the goal of education.

Notice this shift in attitude toward education from focusing primarily on assessment scores to focusing primarily on developing one’s abilities requires no government intervention or school policy change. The shift is an internal one, but it can have a lifelong impact on the individual’s ability to contribute value in whatever he or she does for a career, in a community, and for society.

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