Students Are Like Plants, Not Widgets

This article was originally published by Eric Haas of the Rockridge Institute on January 13, 2008.

To re-frame education we begin with our values.

We recently received these questions on education:

What is the progressive view of education? What are the most important education issues? How should they be framed? What values are most important to education issues?

These are important questions. With No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the conservative mode of thought is at work. NCLB is built on decades of rhetoric from politicians, such as Bill Bennett and Rod Paige, and think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, who have been pushing conservative frames in education for decades. As a result, NCLB made sense to many people—even those like Sen. Ted Kennedy who consider themselves progressives, because they were thinking about education with a conservative frame. So, NCLB continues even though it goes against the overwhelming evidence of sound teaching practices from teachers in the classroom and education research. It continues even though it is creating a two-tiered educational system in the U.S.—a very un-American idea indeed—where students in under-funded urban schools get more and more drill and kill worksheet activities that temporarily bump up test scores, while students in better-funded suburban schools get computer and science labs where they do exploratory activities that promote the critical thinking skills used by managers, entrepreneurs and other professionals. We can do much better.

At the Rockridge Institute, we believe progressives can begin to enact more effective laws in education (and other areas) once they add a cognitive dimension to their policymaking. That is, any policymaking process must have two goals: (1) the intended policy results themselves and (2) ensuring that the policy itself makes sense to people. To make sense, the policy must connect with and promote the right long-term values in the minds of citizens. It is only logical to support them; indeed, we are nearly compelled to do so. Then, the policy will garner the widespread support needed for it to stand the test of time. Progressives have ignored the cognitive dimension of policymaking for too long.

Here is a description of the frame we see for progressive education.

Education is part of the government’s purpose to empower its citizens: we become fuller, stronger people by making more informed choices in our lives, by more fully experiencing art and literature, by being more productive workers, and by giving back to society. People are motivated to work harder when they have enough support to grow and be successful. As more people get a high quality education, kindergarten through college (and even beyond), the better they will be and the better society will be. Education is an investment in people and our government should make it possible for every young person to have a high quality education.

There are several key elements to understanding and effectively communicating this frame.

I. The progressive frame is built on the values of empathy and the responsibility to act on that empathy. It is an empowerment frame. In other words, progressives understand the power of community. Community means two-way accountability. (For more on social accountability and personal accountability, see George Lakoff and Glenn W. Smith’s piece Making Accountability Accountable [insert link]). The initial responsibility is from the community through the actions of the government to the individual. For education, this means that through the agency of our government we must provide inviting, stimulating and safe learning environments for all our children. Each community, as well as our nation as a whole, must be held accountable if it does not provide the books, computers, teachers, lab equipment, etc. for students to have an effective and rigorous learning experience. Once society has met this burden, then, if needed, we can hold individual students and their families accountable for poor academic performance.

This is the opposite of the conservative view of accountability, which focuses on the individual. Regardless of the circumstances, if a student does not succeed, it is their own fault or their family’s for not working hard enough to produce their learning. (I wrote more on the conservative frames on education in The Framing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).)

II. We must be more conscious about the metaphors we use in thinking and talking about education. The progressive empowerment frame for education is built on metaphors. For example: schools are gardens, minds (and sometimes classrooms) are soil, ideas (and sometimes students) are plants, teaching is gardening, and learning is growth.

Thinking with the empowerment frame, teaching and learning are cooperative activities between the teacher and student. Learning takes place as the student (or anyone) internalizes and reshapes information and experiences into new understandings. This happens automatically, unconsciously; however, learning cannot be mandated or completely controlled. It can, however, be invited and enhanced. Thus, teaching involves nurturing or empowering students—understanding their needs as individuals and providing a rich environment in which each student can grapple with and eventually internalize a new, more sophisticated understanding of what he or she is studying. Like a plant, a student’s understanding will thrive when each individual gets attention that addresses his or her individual needs, gifts, and interests.

The proof and the power of these metaphors expressed through the progressive empowerment frame is in the programs and activities that come from them. In The Framing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I described some general activities that come from thinking in the empowerment frame:

It makes more sense to assess learning holistically, using projects and real-life activities and through descriptions of progress (intellectual “growth”), as much as possible. Further, assessment is integrated into each student’s learning activities, rather than being done as an external process, by and for others. What the teacher does or says is not expected to be absorbed directly by the students. Rather, like the air, soil, and water that a plant converts into its green structure, students construct their knowledge from the resources and experiences provided to them by the teacher and student understandings will look and be different than exactly what the teacher taught. Thus, the teacher and students must continuously assess and communicate about lesson goals and student progress.

In conservative production frame, knowledge is thought of as discrete objects that are delivered by the teacher and absorbed directly by the student. This is why standardized tests make sense in the factory metaphors of the conservative production frame, but not in the gardening metaphors of the progressive empowerment frame. Measuring corn more often doesn’t make it grow faster or taste sweeter.

III. Research continually shows that education activities that come from the empowerment frame are the most effective. Research shows that knowledge is constructed by individuals and effective education supports that. While facts without a frame are not usually convincing, they can bolster one’s framing of the issue. There are many resources for discussion education. One of my favorites is Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve (1999).

To re-frame education we begin with our values. These are empathy and responsibility, with the result that government has the twin purposes to protect and empower its citizens. Education is a clear aspect of empowerment. Substantive fixes to our public school systems are more likely when progressives include a cognitive dimension in their policymaking process.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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