How to Directly Fix a Disabled Education System (Rather than Blame Teachers, Parents, or Students)

“Houston, we have disability problem.”  It’s not a learning disability problem. It’s not primarily a teaching disability problem.  It is an education disability problem. Our current way of understanding learning, its purposes and practices, no longer works.

Teachers themselves are not the main source of this problem.  The vast majority are smart, diligent, underpaid professionals doing some of the toughest, most important jobs in society.

Nor are students and parents primarily the problem.  Though it is trendy to knock younger learners and their parents for poor learning and lifestyle habits, even so-called trouble makers can be quite focused, smart, and motivated when engaged with meaningful work.

So where does the problem come from?  Why aren’t students learning, parents supporting, and teachers teaching as well as they could?

Education should engage change directly

Learning is fundamentally an adaptive ability, but somehow education systems have lost that notion. Because our current education is not adapting to emerging conditions fast and fully enough, it is becoming ineffective and irrelevant.

It is time to develop and apply learning that can effectively respond to change.  This starts with engaging real, emerging problems directly.

Let me give one positive, concrete example of what effective, enabled education might look like:

In communities across the United States you have a large aging population (the baby boomers), large numbers of young university graduates without jobs (many of whom have significant debt), and a food supply chain with 40% waste, much of it in grocery stores that overstock and simply dispose of food past an expiry date.

Why not have a “learning and service corps” for unemployed youth to study and meet community needs such as these.  If done right, I could see young people being compensated in saved food for service work with the elderly (in addition to non-material benefits like mentoring).  For that matter, youth and elderly could work together to can or freeze food about to be wasted.

Policy-wise, you could sweeten the pot by eliminating student loan debt for community service, and giving tax deductions to companies that participate.

You don’t have to look far to notice that the world is changing drastically, from technology to the environment to family and culture.  Yet we have an education system (including curriculum, research, and training) based upon reproduction of past skills not the transformation of learning to create new capacities and new organization to meet new conditions.

We are no longer in an engineered, industrial world where citizens can be treated like programmable machines, told what to do, and slotted into pre-determined roles. If we keep reproducing old ways, we will accelerate environmental degradation, economic debt, and social unrest.

We are in an improvisational world requiring dramatically increased awareness, literacy, collaboration, and ability to analyze, initiate, create, integrate, and apply beyond institutional walls and job descriptions.

Take economic literacy.  I had a pretty decent high school in the 1980’s, but I didn’t even see a checkbook until I opened my first bank account in college.  You can imagine my high school did not delve into financial math, the world of credit, how to start and run a business, or the more in-depth applications of economic literacy.

A generation later, schools haven’t changed much. They still offer abstract calculus purely to expand students’ minds and get them through the social hoops and gates for “upper-level” thought and career.  There may be merit to developing a “math mind”, but why do we insist on teaching everything in such a non-applied way?

Please, tell me (with a straight face) why it matters that a student can solve:  “Max has three balls, and Sally has four balls more than Max, and Suzie has one ball less than Sally.  How many balls do they have all together?” Why aren’t we applying math to real life issues in a sustained way that engages and develops the world outside the classroom?

Why aren’t we hitting financial decision-making hard?  Student loan debt has exceeded a trillion dollars in the U.S.  Credit card debt is in the trillions.  These are pressing, undeniable life and world issues.  Yet these are rarely addressed in schools.

Misguided notions of learning excellence and educational reform

To be blunt: I don’t care if you are a “blue ribbon school.”  I don’t ultimately care if you have the highest test scores in the nation. I don’t care how prestigious your school is or how much charge for that prestige.  If your education is failing the life and reality test for preparing learners effectively for the future, you are educationally disabled.

I’m convinced that the dramatic rise in “unschooling,” “de-schooling,” and “home-schooling” can be attributed to the scarcity of educational institutions that pass this simple life/reality test.

Let’s face it, schooling has rarely been about active citizenship and working directly on personal and social problems.  It has mostly been about authorizing individuals to climb stairs toward higher social status, money, and power.  Depending on how high they go, these individuals then “lead” other people in solving problems that they may have little or no direct practice in engaging.

Talk about the blind leading the blind!  When the main purpose of schooling is to promote yourself, you have less time or energy to learn competent public service, or, for that matter, to engage in sound, clear thinking.

This is why so many of the talking heads and “experts” we see on television strike us as idiots and liars. They’ve learned the glossy surface but not the gritty substance of their topics.  More and more people are rightfully concluding that phrases like “It’s too complicated,” and “Let the experts handle this,” are nothing more than flimflams and fig leafs for not knowing what you are doing.

This is also why we admire the examples of “uneducated” people who were able to do remarkable things or community activists who were able to accomplish what a slew of politicians and experts could not or would not.

What distinguishes these people (and effective education, by extension) is their directness and responsiveness.  They identified a possibility, analyzed it, and creatively organized their own and/or other people’s talents around that possibility to get something done.

It is no surprise to me that Apple-co founder, Steve Jobs, Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, and Facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg, all dropped out of their universities.  Universities need to be more accountable for creating current, applied knowledge.  A learner should be encouraged to create and build something remarkable while in school, not simply after, for education to be meaningful preparation for the world.  Grades are okay, but a successful community project would be much better.

The younger generation is picking up on this disconnect in value in higher education.  I know personally two smart, energetic young women from supportive families, who have taken alternative paths as a result.  One decided to forego college to start her own website and then work at a tech startup.  The other took a sabbatical from her college to work more directly on multicultural issues and support her family.

Even the gate keeping mechanisms to institutions of “higher learning” seem strangely disconnected.  Why would SATs (standardized entrance tests to college) devise an “analytical ability” section involving applying logic to a problem no one cares about and no one will use in any practical way.

And please do not tell me that is desirable to engage in “education reform” which is nothing more than an attempt to import urban kids to jobs and lifestyles that allow them consume and waste as much as their upper-middle class, suburban counterparts. How about an education that helps them transform their communities while being eco-friendly?

Wisdom from the margin

We live in an “app” world in more ways than one.  Especially with technological advances, people are identifying unmet needs, creating advances to meet those needs, and distributing solutions.  If something does not work, then something better must be created fill the gap.  We need an education that similarly facilitates that process of real-world identification, creation, testing, refinement, and solution.

So far education has done a poor job of identifying what does not work because its measurements of success are based on assumptions that no longer work.  So even if you succeed individually, you fail socially. You can do all the “right” things—get good grades, score high on tests, get into good schools, and get a high-paying job—and still harm the planet and other people more than you help.

This is the unsustainable “status quo” definition of success, and the status quo is sticking to it, despite the demonstrable harm it presents to future generations.  Creative, positive rebellion is therefore necessary.

From an early age I’ve spent thousands of hours working directly with young leaders; democracy, religious, health, and community activists; learning disabled students; multicultural, gender, and disability advocates; and cultural creatives, trying to develop effective “alternatives” to the business as usual.

Now I realize that these separate “marginal” groups actually share ascending central concerns and philosophies and should be integrated to develop a competing body of practice, replace industrial habits, and take hold in the center of society.

Kicking our industrial habits and developing a new frame of action

How do we create a new education to reflect a new world?  We can start by becoming aware of our present habits and committing to new frames of thought, habit, and action.

Old habits still pull on us psychologically even as they exacerbate unsustainable social practices.  Here are some things we will need to meet squarely in designing effective educational replacements:

  • Wealth and well-being– While being respectful and resourceful with money, let us not be duped into defining our worth by it.  Money is a tool.  Our worth rests in leaving a world richer in health and possibility through the contribution of our love, creativity, sacrifice, and good sense.
  • Security–  We are accustomed to guarantees, to being “taken” care of by a job, a pension, or by Social Security if we do what we are told in school, work, and society.  With increasing frequency these promises are no longer being kept, making mutual community support ever more important.
  • Meaning– This could be the motto of industrial era meaning: “I am what I do.  I am what I have.  I am what other people say about me”  (Henri Nouwen).  This self-absorption needs to switch more firmly toward service and participation if our schools are to responsibly prepare the next generations.
  • Order–  Old notions of order are based upon putting everything in the appropriate box (i.e. “learning disabled” or “gifted”) and attaching a label with a list of attributes.  In today’s world these habits are limiting effectiveness; it is more useful to customize learning by direct interaction rather than by juggling labels.
  • Authority– From bailing out irresponsible banks to No Child Left Behind education legislation, hierarchical “higher-ups” have been making unwise decisions and using the coercive power of their offices to enforce unwise decisions.  For the future, democratic authority must emanate primarily from proven, grass-roots action, not from individuals who simply exert power.
  • Success–  We tend to define success in terms of money, influence, and individual accomplishment.  Now we find there is not enough room for all these pedestals.  Instead of giving a trophy for every trivial achievement, why not move to mutual accomplishment requiring everyone’s deepest talents.  Why not move from “job” to “calling,” from material to non-material purposes, from success to excellence.

Third Way Education

Past innovative education and education reform attempts still struggle within a limited framework of conservative vs. liberal ideology.  You see this in reasons for homeschooling: Liberal parents tend to take their kids out of school because they find the curriculum too depersonalized, dumbed-down, and consumeristic.  Conservative parents take their kids out because they find that school culture contradicts their moral values.

As a so-called Gen-Xer, straddling generations, I propose we combine the best of past traditions, eliminate the worst, and strive to exceed both in our learning going forward.

You are already seeing this “third way” moving in much of the younger generation. They tend to be less brand-identified and institutional. Pragmatic solutions mean more to them than stances. “Spiritual but not religious” is a fast growing category.  Gay marriage is supported in much higher numbers across the political spectrum. Reproductive rights are also supported but there are also a higher percentage of young people who would not personally choose abortion because there are other options.

From conservative and liberal to progressive

Emerging generations are becoming post-partisan “progressives” more interested in moving forward than moving left or right.  Educationally they believe in solving problems not arguing about values.  Let’s pick up on this.  Decreasing unwanted pregnancy, for instance, is a goal we can all agree on, though we may have different ways to address it depending upon our backgrounds.  Education could be a way to evaluate the different options, the implicit values, trade-offs, and consequences of various approaches.

From dependent and independent to interdependent

Instead of the learned helplessness of remedial classes or the fetishized exceptionalism of gifted programs, why can’t schools at least have some instances where the purposes of schooling involves identifying, developing, and integrating the strongest personal talents of students in a collaborative fashion.  Envision individual and group portfolios of not just learning products but evaluated public projects and self-aware multi-media rendered learning processes, where application, experimentation, and learning style discovery and development play a central role.

From teacher-centered and child-centered to relation-centered

Let’s move beyond romanticizing either the “drill sergeant” teachers and their exacting demands or the bleeding heart teachers who “feel your pain”.  There is merit in both academic rigor and emotional compassion, but the relation-centered teacher does not see these as an end.  Rather he or she incorporates these elements in facilitating students’ own initiative and development of their learning leadership.  Relation-centered education would involve a mix of high challenge and high support— individual rigor, discipline, character-development, and skill blended with creativity, care, collaboration, and customized learning.

From group think and individual brain to social mind

One of education’s biggest and most important tasks is to challenge insulated thinking everywhere, whether it involves superstitions, naïve idealisms, or religious, economic, and political fundamentalisms.  Yet too often we confine this important task to individual critical capacity, i.e. fortifying the inward filter with which people receive and evaluate information.  In the era of Google and Wikipedia, we must expand this capacity to teach our individual minds to “swing outward” into what I call the “social mind” and creatively access, connect with, and contribute to a matrixed world.

From research and teaching to learning

Having been a university education professor as well as a practicing teacher for at-risk high school students, I can confirm that both educational research and teacher training miss huge opportunities to improve learning directly.  Research tends to be too abstract and removed to be practical and teaching tends to be to day-to-day practical to capture the big picture of learning.  Both often treat learning as a static object or something one does to an object.  Learning is better understood as a dynamic, mutual relationship one has with some entity.  As Nietzsche might say, the learner is not merely a “doer” but part of a “deed”.  Conversation is, therefore, the appropriate metaphor for learning.  It is also the effective basis for creating high performance in my learning consulting practice.

From state and individual in-fighting to community mobilization

Central office education bureaucracies war with state funding departments.  Teachers’ unions war with administrators. Parents seek the most extensive (and expensive) interventions for their particular children. This adversarial push and pull represents an obsolete framework:  Competing interests are trying to impose ideology, rather than forming a diverse, but allied, community to offer and integrate their best know-how.  Learning is ultimately a community enterprise.  Community is big enough to represent the world “out there,” but intimate enough to generate accessible experiences, relationships, and results “in here.” Community serves learning by offering an oasis between impersonal institutional mandates and purely personal advocacy.


This is grass-roots-minded democratic education.  It is neither state-minded socialism, nor individually-minded libertarianism.  State-run enterprises erode initiative and agency in managing community and individual learning.  Individualistic models imply there is no responsibility required outside one’s self.

True interactive, democratic education requires a much higher level of performance and participation than traditional education.  Democratic learners have to engage their relationships, their environment, their skills, and their own unique nature in a rigorous, authentic way to effectively contribute to the learning conversation.

This raises the bar:  Learners accept who they are in the start of an experiment in what they might be.  Instead of “minimum requirements,” “maximum growth, attainment, and exchange” become the new standard.  This is the very definition of excellence in an interconnected world.

Let’s raise our game and engage in this learning experiment ourselves.  We need it.  The world needs it.  Future generations need it.  In doing so, let’s also adopt a game plan that can maximize our chances of success.

If you liked this essay, please subscribe for free up at the top of the Citizen Zeus home page. I will notify you about upcoming essays on transformative learning as well as my soon-to-be released book, “Transforming Economy: Moving from Corrupted Capitalism to Connected Communities”.  I will also give sneak peeks into my upcoming book, “Mindflexing: Unleashing the Power of Transformative Learning”. Thanks!

by Zeus Yiamouyiannis, Ph.D. December 20, 2012, copyright 2012 (please feel free to share for educational or personal purposes)




  • Robert Thorn says:

    Dear Zeus, Had a quick look and love the feel of it. It’s late so I will read it properly tomorrow but – I love it – you hit so many buttons. I’ve just started an NGO to try to transform education. Maybe you’d be interested in what we intend to do?
    Best Wishes,
    Robert Thorn
    Developing Real Learners

  • Zeus Yiamouyiannis says:

    Robert, by all means, let’s connect. This education transformation process will take many minds and hands (and it involves building the plane while flying it). Let me know what you are up to with an email or comment:

  • Robert Thorn says:

    Ok, will do!

  • […] overall they fail, because the purposes of schooling do not match up with emerging trends.  Education reform has yet to grasp the crux and enormity of change gripping our […]