Children having swimming lesson
Children having swimming lesson
Licensed from Adobe Stock

The Bottom Line Group-Based Learning: Swim Lesson Vs Swim Meet

Senior Fellow Don Nielsen of Discovery Institute writes in his book Every School “A parent needs to have only two children to know how totally different children can be.”  That is why the “one-size-fits-all” system is no longer advantageous during the information age.

ExcelinEd, a national non-profit organization focused on state education reform founded by former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, is pushing for more individualized learning. They propose “Next generation learning re-imagines learning for the 21st century by providing innovative educators flexibility and support to meet the needs of all students.”

It is important to understand why group-based learning is highly antiquated. To explain this, one must look at the design of the bell-shaped curve and what role that plays in our public schools. Don Nielsen states, “Within a classroom of 25 or so students, teachers were expected to grade students using a bell-shaped curve. In other words, within that classroom, there would be two or three “A” students, four or five “B” students, eight to ten “C” students, four or five “D” students and two or three “F” students.”

Statistically, 25 students is too small a sample size to be provided with a normal distribution of data. The current system also assumes that the measure of being educated is solely one’s intelligence, which is a harmful supposition that ignores other influences on the ability to learn, such as motivation, self-discipline, effort, and access.

So, how does ExcelinEd suggest we move away from this conventional system of education? In three steps: “Launch Innovation or Pilot Programs, Remove Unnecessary Policy Obstacles, [and] Join ExcelinEd’s Network of State Innovation Partners” with this they hope to embolden schools and “dismantle outdated seat-time requirements.”

This innovation-focused model could be the catalyst for removing group-based learning and measurements from public education. By promoting innovative ideas within schools and classrooms we would be able to rid ourselves of the bell-curve which permeates our educational system.

Nielsen provides an excellent analogy: “Our public schools were set up, and to a large degree still are set up today, like a swimming meet rather than a swimming lesson. In a swimming meet, the purpose is to determine who is the fastest swimmer. In public schools we spend a lot of time grading students on what they have learned and then ranking them, rather than ensuring that every child has learned. What we need, however, is a public school system that is organized like a swimming lesson. In a swimming lesson, the instructor’s goal is different. The goal is to make sure all students, even the slowest, learn how to swim. Swimming meets can be the result of swimming lessons, and grading can be a result of learning, but ranking students by ability should not be the primary goal of teachers or of the system as a whole.”

The effective education of every child requires moving the system from concentrating on groups to focusing on individual children. ExcelinEd’s proposal is a great start!

Bailey Takacs

Development Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs served as development program coordinator to Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education and Development team. Bailey has experiences which also include: campaign management and administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of the government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.
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