General Discussions: Education Reform


I'd welcome discussion on any aspect of education reform, but my specific concern is curriculum. As I've stated (on the "We Have Problems" and "Why We're Getting Worse" pages), I see five major curriculum problems:

(1) Oversimplified learning theory

(2) Overwhelming, disorganized content

(3) Limited, limiting learning resources

(4) Fragmented knowledge

(5) Standardization (leading to stagnation)



Re: Request for dialogue

             Four factors—(1) time for thinking and writing afforded by our retirement, (2) more than a half-century of experience teaching and writing textbooks, professional books, manuals, guides, audio-visual materials and other instructional aids for states, foundations, professional organizations, commercial publishers and various industries, (3) witnessing decades of flat academic performance despite continuous education reform efforts, and (4) concern for our own and others’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren whose educations are being shaped by machine-scored high-stakes tests incapable of evaluating complex, original thought—prompt us to (a) suggest a reason for institutional stasis, (b) propose a remedy, and (c) request reaction to and dialogue about our proposal.

            We acknowledge the roles played by poverty, inadequate funding, early childhood deprivations, environmental conditions, anti-intellectualism, and other matters in determining academic performance, but want to draw attention to a problem currently being neither generally acknowledged nor addressed.

            To that end we’ve written a brief overview of what we believe to be the problem’s root, stated an aim, advanced a theory, suggested a minimally intrusive, cost-free, bureaucratically friendly intervention, and provided links to free instructional materials designed to address the problem.

            Again: We’re interested in dialogue—questions about our proposal, and thoughtful challenges to our contentions. We invite researchers to explore our claims, and invite teachers and administrators to use our materials and help us improve or replace them.

            We hope you’ll give thought to these matters, ask others whose judgment you respect to do the same, and get back to us at:   

            The column-length overview is below. Thank you for your attention.

Marion and Howard Brady


                                      Beyond the core curriculum                        

             No social institution has spawned more fads or endured more reform efforts than public schooling. Attempts to improve it have been continuous, particularly since adoption of the math-science-language arts-social studies “core curriculum” in the late 19th Century.

            Intellect is impossible to measure with precision, but it seems fair to say that although we’re a better informed society than we were a century ago, core-based schooling hasn’t produced performance gains comparable to those in other fields and professions. 

            An hypothesis: When the core curriculum was adopted in America in 1893, the education establishment lost sight of its mission. As the items on today’s standardized tests make clear, teaching the contents of the core subjects has become more important than helping the young actually do what study of those subjects is supposed to do—help them make more sense of experience—themselves, others, the wider world.   

            The situation: Modern schooling enables mind-boggling complexity. Specializations, and specializations within specializations, have combined to yield robotic surgery, self-driving cars, space exploration, painless dentistry, the Internet, longer life expectancy, smart phones, and much, much else.

            But specialized schooling comes with consequences—ozone holes, cybercrime, post-traumatic stress disorders, rising sea levels, death-dealing drones, deforestation, animal extinctions, life-shortening pollution, war-related destruction on a once-unimagined scale—just to begin a list. 

            Fact: Schooling is sending the best and brightest on their way as knowledgeable specialists but naïve citizens—citizens unable to see how particular ideas and actions interact with other ideas and actions in unexpected and often undesirable ways.

            Fact: Change—environmental, technological, demographic, cognitive—has a life of its own. If societies are to survive, their members must at a minimum understand themselves, those with whom they interact, and the dynamics and directions of change. The core subjects, not treated as parts of a coherent whole, can’t provide that understanding.

            Fact: Societies and other organized, multi-bonded groups—civilizations ethnic entities, cults, tribes, and so on—are systemically integrated. They’re the creators of arts, sciences, philosophies, laws, customs, institutions—life on Earth as we know it. Like all realities, multi-bonded groups are coherent, integrated wholes and must be studied as such to be understood.

            Fact: That’s not happening. The traditional separate-subject core curriculum (1) doesn’t single out human groups as a primary focus of study, (2) fragments their study by academic discipline, (3) ignores important fragments, (4) fails to explain how the fragments it studies fit together to form a whole, and, (5) fails to adequately model systemic relationships, complex causal sequences, and multivariable phenomena.

            “Human history,” said H.G. Wells, “is a race between education and catastrophe.” Because the core curriculum perpetuates a reality-fragmenting approach to sense-making, “reforms” that reinforce it, and the standardized testing that core curricula make possible, contribute to catastrophe’s commanding lead.

            A fix—systems theory: The education establishment—aware of the problem but boxed in by its assumption that core curricula encompass all important knowledge—tries to integrate knowledge via interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary study. Those organizers are productive, but don’t solve the problems with the core curriculum noted above. A “supra-disciplinary” knowledge organizer is necessary. Systems theory as it developed during World War II is that organizer.

            Obstacles to change: Change is difficult. Meaningful change in education is almost impossible. Inertia rules. Bureaucracies are impenetrable. Research is ignored. In America, education policy is made by non-educators in state legislatures and Congress. The richest sources of fresh thinking—learners and teachers—play no significant role in policymaking, indeed, they’re now being blamed for poor institutional performance and accused of lacking grit and resisting rigor. Rigid rules, with penalties for non-compliance and no provision for dialogue to explain and defend alternatives, par alyze the institution.

            A way ahead: No top-down, authority-imposed order to replace the core with systems thinking as the primary organizer of knowledge will succeed. The effort must start small, under a familiar course title, and expand based on user satisfaction.

            Early adolescence is the optimum age for introducing systems thinking as a precursor to the core. Calling a systems-based course “civics” (which radically improving sense-making ability certainly is), offering it in the 7th or 8th grade, and using simple, selected, sequenced content from the core subjects to teach it, should raise no major bureaucratic or scheduling obstacles.

            Support: To these ends, (a) a small explanatory book, versions of which have been published by the State University of New York Press, Books For Educators, and Information Age Publishing, (b) a ready-to-use course of study for adolescents introducing them to systems theory, and (c) follow-up American and world history courses that also make use of systems thinking to organize content, can be downloaded from the links below, free of cost, advertising, and obligation. 

            Again, we invite dialogue. Some of it is likely to be skeptical, even unfriendly. But if comment addresses message rather than messengers, it will be welcome and useful.

                     What’s Worth Learning? (E-book)


                        Introduction to Systems (Course of study)


                        Investigating American History (Course of study)


                        Investigating World History (Course of study)


                        Chat room:


             Note: The fact that all or portions of the three courses of study, although never advertised, are being downloaded at the rate of about 2,000 a month, and the rate is trending upward, suggests the instructional materials have sufficient merit for users to recommend them to others.

            That they’re also being downloaded to addresses outside the United States opens up important possibilities. If users communicate to adapt, refine, elaborate, supplement, replace, or otherwise improve the courses of study, control of what’s taught and tested can be taken back from commercial interests and returned to those most qualified to exercise it—working education professionals.

            The dialogue made possible by a widely shared “language of allusion,” and use of a single conceptual knowledge organizer rather than multiple ones, will enable the curricular evolution essential if the young are to cope with the accelerating rate of worldwide social change and the increasing complexity of societal interactions.

            International dialogue can do something else of even greater importance. It can lessen the ethnocentrism and tribalism that have brought humankind to a place where one miscalculation, or one well-intentioned act, could trigger a sequence of events that does us in.