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Book Review-A Nation at Thought: Restoring Wisdom in America’s Schools

Who is the keeper of conventional wisdom?  Wouldn’t that be the educational establishment?  What would happen if conventional wisdom was wrong?  A Nation at Thought: Restoring Wisdom in America’s Schools is a reflection on what we’ve done to traditional primary education (K-12).  Most of what we’ve heard about how school should function – and what is happening – may not be exactly right.  Things that sound like good ideas may not be so good after all.

Grade Escalation

In my review of Range, I explained the Flynn Effect, which is the tendency for IQ to gradually creep higher over time.  It’s in this context that people try to explain the increasing propensities for As and Bs in the grading systems of schools.  However, evidence points to another cause.  The cause is a gradual shift towards scoring higher for lower levels of work.  In short, people don’t complain when they get better grades.  There’s no argument from a parent that their Johnny or Suzi should have received a B instead of an A, but the reverse is certainly true.  Teachers are under constant pressure from parents – and students – to increase their grades.  They believe they deserve better.

It’s no wonder that The Coddling of the American Mind is so frustrated with our “give everyone a participation trophy” approach to parenting and participating in the community.  It’s not what Robert Putnam had in mind when researching the outcomes of Our Kids.

Put Out the Fire

Public Debate and Citizen Making

Public education is an expensive proposition.  If you think about the massive number of resources dedicated to it, it becomes clear that there must be a reason to do it.  The reason is supposed to prepare citizens.  That is, it’s believed that public education raises the level of the populace and therefore prepares more people for the needs of a civilized society.

Primary among these needs of a civilized society is the possibility of public debate.  That is, learning how to disagree and make rational arguments for – or against – positions.  It’s taking perspective, listening, and empathizing.  If I had to pick only one dimension where our public school system has failed, I’d have to say we’ve failed to develop a populace capable of reasoned debate with compassionate understanding.  We’re failing, but the question is why?

Voucher Deficit

The best laid plans of mice and men do fools folly follow.  Some of the ideas that on the surface seem to be the best create the worst outcomes.  Using our capitalistic society, we created a system of competition for schools.  The concept is that we offer parents who could send their children to public schools a voucher that they can apply to an alternative school – a charter school or a private school.  In concept, the school districts are out no money, because this is money they would be spending on a child that is now going someplace else.

However, in actuality there are two problems.  First, they were getting the benefits before as parents shouldered the burden of getting their children to alternative schools.  Second, many things come with economies of scale.  If you reduce the number of students too far, the entire system falls apart.  For some, this is ideal.  Unravel what’s not working.  If the voucher programs showed better results for everyone, it would be reasonable.  However, it doesn’t seem to work in whole – and certainly doesn’t work for those who are economically challenged, because they’re least able to use the vouchers, which often don’t cover the entire cost of the other schools.

Economic Expectations of College

There’s also a built in assumption that going to college increases your earning potential.  It’s the core of Human Capital.  However, as The Years That Matter Most explains, there’s differences in earning potential based on the school you go to.  More than that, we have to account for the roughly 70% of people who enter community colleges that fail to finish.  Their earning potential isn’t increased, but they’re often saddled with additional debt.

The challenge of student debt was one of the reasons that the US government cracked down on for-profit schools that weren’t graduating students with the valuable skills they needed to get a higher earning job – and were often failing to help the students get placed in good jobs.

Custom Curriculum

What if we knew a best practice but we didn’t want to listen?  Teachers are taught to develop their own curriculum despite the awareness that curriculum development and teaching are radically different skills, and being good at one has little correlation to the other.  Teachers are doing what they’ve been taught.  They’re creating their own materials.  They’re assembling it for free – and some sites, like Teachers Pay Teachers, are where they can get low-cost materials.  The problem is the materials aren’t engaging – and they’re often not at grade-level requirements.

We know that paying for high-quality, instructionally-designed materials creates better outcomes, but it’s not as much fun, it doesn’t match the way teachers are taught, and, as a result, it’s rarely done.  The people who are helping us learn have failed to learn the fundamentals of their own discipline – because their instructors failed them.

The Seven Great Distractors

There are hot topics in education today.  If you want to be in the “cool” teacher club, you’re doing these things.  The problem is that many of these new focuses simply distract us from doing the core things well.

Critical Thinking

What could be wrong with critical thinking?  Why shouldn’t we wonder if something is true or find ways to test what we don’t know?  Of course we should.  However, the problem is that critical thinking is being “taught” in ways that are devoid of context.  The problem is that you can’t learn how to think critically until you have something to work with.  Critical thinking about art, music, literature, science, etc., is contextually driven.

There is definitely some irony in the fact that teachers aren’t thinking critically about whether their critical thinking work is effective.

Growth Mindset

I’m a fan of Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset.  The problem is that we’re teaching a growth mindset without understanding it.  Instead of recognizing and rewarding work, teachers are often praising students – with or without reason.  The hidden message becomes that it doesn’t matter how much effort is put in, which is the opposite of the core message.  It’s no wonder that many of the studies focused on growth mindset efficacy show results that are statistically similar to zero.


Grit, too, is about hard work and perseverance.  Both Grit and Mindset should find solace in the work of Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool in Peak, which explains that purposeful practice – over a long period – is how to become a high performer.  However, grit has also become overrun with people who are teaching it without understanding the underlying principles or themselves doing the hard work required to make it effective.  They’ve not looked at works like Antifragile that encourage us to find optimal bands of stress to increase growth rate.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

If there’s one of these distractors that I wish were working correctly, it would be SEL.  There’s such a great need for students to be able to better manage their emotions.  Daniel Goleman explains the basics in Emotional Intelligence.  David Richo explains many of the same skills in How to Be an Adult in Relationships.  Despite the need, it’s clear that SEL works only in schools where there’s a lack of safety.  Efficacy disappears in schools that have fewer disruption problems.  Amy Edmondson explains the power of psychological safety in The Fearless Organization, and it appears to show up when we’re looking at how to help schools work effectively.


Thinking about thinking is metacognition, and it sure sounds good.  However, it too quickly devolves into a pointless exercise in abstract thinking that yields nothing new.  The unflattering truth is that most teachers don’t do metacognition well themselves.  As a result, they can’t teach it.  Given no direct practicality, it makes it even harder to find value.

Of course, one of the major thrusts in public education is in the ability to teach students how to learn.  However, we’ve made them better at recall but not necessarily deep learning.  Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues took up the task of creating a taxonomy of educational objectives, and they completed the cognitive domain.  (See Schools Without Failure for more.)  What we teach rarely reaches above the bottom two levels of the model.

If you need proof, talk to a chemistry or physics teacher who must teach students for the first time to think beyond rote answers.  Thinking in Systems is rare – but powerful – and we’re not teaching it.

Twenty-First Century Skills

Is anyone really going to argue that we’ve never collaborated?  The Righteous Mind explains that our ability to work together and to have a theory of mind is what allowed us to become the dominant biomass on the planet.  (See also Mindreading.)  When people speak of the new skills that students need to learn for the 21st century, they speak of things that have been done for centuries.  Teams aren’t a new idea.  Sure, there’s some research on teams in the past century but it’s not new.  (See Collaborative Intelligence for more on teams.)

Obviously, we have new tools for collaboration and teamwork – but how much do we focus on the tool and how much do we focus on how to help people work more effectively?  There are lots of organizations that spend a lot of money on professional development companies to help here – and their results aren’t good.  Believing we can teach these skills to our K-12 students is optimistic.

Certainly, we need to integrate this into the curriculum – but where it serves other educational objectives.  Too often, we allow the tail to wag the dog.  (See Efficiency in Learning for more.)

Creative Thinking

I believe, as Creative Confidence says, that everyone is born creative.  I believe that, expressed in the language of business, creativity is innovation.  (See The Art of Innovation.)  But the best research about how you achieve innovation in organizations is largely a function of increasing the amount of experiences that are available.  Scott Page in The Difference achieves this by bringing people from different backgrounds, effectively creating a larger pool of options.  Works like The Innovator’s DNA, Unleashing Innovation, Unthink, Beyond Genius, and Competing Against Luck echo these ideas and occasionally add manipulating the constraints around the problem.

The net effect is that, while creative thinking is important to success, it may not be as much a teachable skill as it is the result of teaching large volumes of content and manipulating the constraints.

What the Author Means Isn’t Right

In the reductionist view of teaching, it’s about finding the right answer.  Even in the context of language arts, one can say that the work should mean whatever the author intended it to mean.  There’s one “right” way to interpret Hamlet – rather than accepting the way that it touched a student.  Instead of marking a student off for their creative interpretation, we should applaud them for the thinking they put into the process (growth mindset).  Instead of crushing their belief in themselves realizing they got it “wrong,” we should teach them other ways to view the situation (creative thinking).

How do we expect that students will remain engaged if we constantly criticize not just a minor mistake but a radically different view (grit)?  How do we demonstrate metacognition if we don’t wonder why the established answers for the interpretation of literature is “right?”  Ultimately, to be citizens, we need public debate.  We need to become A Nation at Thought.

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