Back to the Future

What’s lacking in today’s educational standards is an appreciation for teaching’s original mission.

The principles behind a classroom that works are fairly simple, but they each remind us of education’s core mission.


Focus. Schools should be for learning. Instead, they’ve become the catchall for solving society’s problems, improving the economy, resolving inequity, providing dawn-to-dusk childcare, indoctrinating good character and citizenship, and, of course, teaching fundamental skills. These are all worthy goals and legitimate needs, but we must stop asking teachers to solve every new problem that begs for an institutional solution. No industry with a product line as overdiversified and with a mission as unclear as a school’s could possibly succeed. Schools should narrow their mission to focus primarily on developing the mind, and they should let teachers concentrate on that work.

Collaboration. Teaching and learning take place best in a collaborative school culture. Just as old hierarchical structures are giving way to more collaborative processes in many industries, cognitive scientists and learning theorists are also touting the benefits of cooperative-learning models in which students teach and learn from one another. Generating educational policies from the top down is not the best way to effect healthy change. Schools need strong leadership and clear direction, but more learning occurs in schools in which students have a voice and choice in their own education, in which teams of teachers are given the flexibility and resources to identify and solve problems, and in which principals coordinate learning on-site, rather than implement directives from above.

Diversity. Different kinds of individuals need different kinds of instruction. The challenge for the future will be to honor the diversity that already exists while seeking to increase it. Differences among our students already abound: gender, race, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, learning style, and personality type, among them. Most school communities have always been diverse, but we’re only now beginning to understand how to respond to differences. Healthy schools are trying to broaden their diversity by including people and views that have traditionally been underrepresented or neglected. This initiative has enormous implications for curriculum, instruction, and staffing, since schools will need different ways of teaching different kinds of students.

Standards not standardization. We need to be clear about what we want schools to teach and students to learn, and what kinds of performance we consider successes. The most successful schools in the future will take stock of national or local standards and then set their own means for achieving those standards and for assessing what has been achieved. We need to move away from our current overemphasis on standardized tests because, by their very design, they are an arbitrary and inaccurate measure of student learning. Who would think to stick a thermometer on a window on February 23 and conclude that it had been a cold winter? That is what we do when we put so much weight on a single test. We are kidding ourselves into thinking that by teaching to tests, we will change the weather for an entire season.

Research into practice. Schools need to overcome the anti-intellectualism that guides current policy making, and they need to find ways for research to inform practice. If hospitals were schools, we would still be using leeches and bloodletting to cure disease. Why are legislators and policy makers — who are so enamored of computer technology that they think a laptop for every teacher will cure ignorance — so opposed to using hard research to understand the learning process better? Schools must stay abreast of research in other fields — from cognitive science to organizational management — and use it to inform, but not dictate, our instructional practices. Outsiders must respect the knowledge base in education and, rather than seek to close colleges of education, work to legitimize in education the types of research that have been used to discover breakthroughs in areas like science and medicine.

The Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning was profiled in Fast Company’s April 2000 issue.


For the past 19 years, Rob Stein ( has worked in schools in Colombia, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Colorado as a teacher and administrator. In addition to his current position as executive director at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning, he teaches courses in teacher education and educational leadership at Denver University and at the University of Colorado at Boulder.