Education is upside down – A Review

As a proponent of explicit instruction, character education potentially causes something of a problem. I certainly don’t think that you can stand at the front of a classroom and instruct students in developing their characters or personalities. Instead, I think that this occurs implicitly. I am not sure how much a person’s character can be shaped but insofar as it can be, this is through experience.

This apparent contradiction may be understood by an appeal to evolution. Personalities have been around for millions of years and have therefore been subject to evolutionary pressures. So we develop them in the same way that we develop walking or talking; experientially. However, the objects of school instruction such as reading and mathematics are recent inventions and thus need to be transmitted by more explicit means. This line of thinking has left me wondering what, if anything, a school’s role is in character education. Is it about playing winter sports on a muddy field or participating in community service? Does it occupy the fringe of school life?

Eric Kalenze has given me a new perspective on this problem after reading his excellent book, “Education is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems.”


Throughout the book, Kalenze uses the metaphor of a funnel. He claims that the funnel of education is upside down. Instead of education fitting students for the world that they are to inhabit we attempt to fit the world to our students. He traces this back to the progressive movement in American education at the start of the 20th Century.

Kalenze sees the role of school as being to prepare diverse students for participation in institutions such as college, careers and civil society. It is as if we want to pour a liquid into a vessel with the aid of a funnel. However, because this funnel is upside-down, much of the liquid just bounces off the sides and never makes it into the vessel. Only that proportion that was already on the right path will pass through the narrow opening. Likewise, only students from families with an academic tradition will be inducted into academic ways at home and so make it to College.

Much of Kalenze’s argument is focused squarely on American public education. He notes that reformers simply don’t see the problem. Although desperate to improve schools, they take the same ill-conceived approaches of personalisation and engagement that the system already prioritises; cue one-to-one iPad policies and the rest. Instead of solving the real problem, these reformers seek to measure, reward and punish. They measure flow in and out of the funnel. They provide money linked to performance, they report, they close schools. But the funnel remains upside-down no matter how much they shout at it.

Interestingly, Kalenze points to a lack of high stakes assessment as a problem in American education. “What?!” I hear you exclaim in disbelief. The problem is that assessment in the US is high stakes for the schools and teachers but not for the students. Apparently, there are no compulsory leaving exams at the end of a US High School career. Kalenze contrasts this with supposedly progressive Finland where the final “abitur” exam is demanding, rigorous and high stakes for the students involved.

Kalenze draws the reformers’ comparison of choice by relating education to a business. Imagine a gym. If you buy a gym membership and then never go to the gym then that is your loss. You can’t complain to the gym owner if you don’t lose weight. However, schools are judged on the performance of everyone with a membership, whether they turn up to the gym or not. This is a problem because the customer is the product. Clearly, it is tasteless to think of students in these terms but if you are going to apply a business model then it needs to fit. And such a business model just doesn’t fit schools.

Which brings us back to character. Kalenze does what I never thought to do and asks: what character? We can develop all sorts of character traits so which ones do we want to develop in school? Well, if we want to fit our students for the institutions of college, careers and civil society then the character traits that we need to develop are those that come from grappling with difficult and not-always-immediately-rewarding work. In other words, we will develop such traits by ensuring that students apply themselves to school work.

After all, that is what school is for.

Eric Kalenze was kind enough to send me a review copy of his book.


13 thoughts on “Education is upside down – A Review

  1. Thanks for this Greg. Well written, timely, logical and helped me feel less isolated in my thinking. Guess I should buy a copy of upside down, thank you for the tip.

  2. Hi Greg,

    FYI, a few states in the US have or are beginning to implement mandatory exit exams. California started this with its CAHSEE test, which is first administered in the second year of high school. Interestingly, with retakes, 95.5% of students have passed it so far, leading reformers to call for a revision of the test. In New York, all students must pass the Regents exams in multiple areas (though there is some fudging).

    As Common Core spreads, the goal seems to be to push for more exams based on its principles and goals, for better or worse. Personally, I loathe the CC history standards, which appear to be more about busy work and skills over content knowledge. Thankfully, my private school has not gone in that direction.

  3. Interestingly, all teachers are engaged in character education WHATEVER we do. The ways in which, day in, day out, we present challenges to children and respond to their efforts habituates them to respond in particular ways to the lives that will follow. As you alluded above however, the character we now predominantly seem to shape is one that best suits circumstances being adapted to them, rather than the other way round, and that is a very limiting form of character to develop in them indeed…

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