NOTE: In the summer 2014, Head of School Scott Looney published “The Future for Education: Why Hawken Has to Lead” in the Hawken Review. While over the last five years Hawken has worked hard to address the issues within the piece, much of what he described still applies because the project of redesigning school is just that complex. We thought it would be worthwhile to return to Scott’s piece to refresh your memory, name the problems we’re trying to solve, and propose ways we might fix what needs fixing. We’ve made modest revisions and have broken the article in a handful of posts.

This post is Part I.


Education in America is fundamentally broken. Some of the basic educational practices and assumptions in the United States are simply wrong, and, as a result, signs of distress have been evident throughout our educational system for decades.

The public response to that distress? To implement more high stakes testing and greater standardization. Companies like The College Board, Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report magazine have co-opted the selective college admission process so pervasively that they are influencing the direction of American public and private education in ways that directly counter the findings of studies on teaching and learning.

Thankfully, there has been an awakening among some schools in the U.S. and abroad, and Hawken School is at the epicenter of that renewal. One of the few schools poised to swim against the tide of our misguided educational practices, Hawken is among an even smaller few that are positioned to the lead the way.

How History Can Distort Our Vision & Restrict Our Future: A Story

To frame why the history of education is, in fact, our biggest hurdle, I am reminded of a story that I once heard told by Ian Jukes, educational futurist.

The story is about an important design flaw in the solid rocket boosters on the space shuttle – the two narrow, missile-like tanks that flank each side of the shuttle. The engineers at the ATK Thiokol Propulsion faculty in Utah would have preferred the solid rocket boosters to be notably wider.

Unfortunately, the only way to transport the rocket boosters from the factory in Utah to the launch site in Florida is via railroad track, tracks that have to pass through several mountain tunnels along the way. The booster rockets have to be narrow enough to pass through the mountain tunnels, which are only slightly wider than the railroad tracks, which are always exactly 4 feet, 8 ½ inches apart. Railroad tracks in America are exactly 4 feet, 8 ½ inches apart because that is the exact spacing used to build railroads in England. Why did English railroad designers use the measurement of 4 feet, 8 ½ inches? That was the measurement that wagon makers used for their axle width. If they used any other axle width, wagon wheels would break on the sides of established wagon wheel ruts in the roads.

And where did those rutted roads come from? The first long-distance roads in England were built by the Imperial Roman Empire for use by the Roman military, and have been used ever since. Why did the Romans use the axle spacing of 4 feet, 8 ½ inches? That is the original specification for the Roman war chariot because it is roughly the width of two horses’ backsides.

So, the specifications for arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was dictated and compromised by the width of a horse’s behind!

I share Ian Jukes’ story because our current education system has a design flaw that, like the space shuttle booster rockets, has a long history. The width of a horse’s behind might define and limit booster rockets today, but we should not let the future of educational excellence be defined by our current metaphorical horse’s behind: standardization.

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From Latin Grammar Schools to the Industrial Revolution

Prior to the advent of Latin Grammar Schools, humans learned through apprenticeship, just as most mammals still do today. A tiger teaches her cub to hunt and a dolphin her calf to fish. In this natural apprenticeship model, the master (often the parent) was assigned apprentices (often their children), and the master provided individualized tasks, expectations, instructions, rewards, and punishments.

The master understood that each child was different and that apprentices had varying levels of readiness for the tasks they were to be given. The excellent masters thus found ways to ask the apprentice to do the most that each could handle at the pace that each individual could manage.

It was not until the 14th and 15th centuries that we began to structure and systematize educational processes. Latin Grammar Schools taught priests and monks to transcribe the Holy Bible in Latin script so that each one, as the word of God, was precisely the same. This required a systematic, regimented form of instruction. So at the core of this Latin Grammar School process was conformity, efficiency, and standardization.

Originally connected to churches and monasteries, these Grammar Schools eventually evolved into boarding schools and colleges independent of the Church; but they still employed many of the same teaching methodologies. Boarding schools in England like Eton College and Winchester College were formed in the 15th century to educate the children of the aristocracy, and the Academy model of education was born.

Today you can see many remnants of the Academy model in private boarding and day schools, as well as in the public system. The British public school system was modeled after the Academy, and the first American schools, public and private, were clearly modeled after the British system.

The trend away from the individualization of the apprenticeship model towards more conformity and standardization got a huge boost with the convergence of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The primary intellectual model of the Enlightenment highlighted deductive reasoning and a study of the classics. Reason and classical knowledge, therefore, defined academic ability.

This specific intellectual model of academics was blended with the economic practices of the Industrial Revolution, which focused on efficiency: producing more in less time and for less money. Coinciding with this trend toward efficiency were efforts to bring “compulsory education, paid for by taxation and free at the point of delivery” to the masses.

In America, the movement toward compulsory public education occurred at a time when hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived on our shores. So the public system of education created in the late 19th century was modeled after a narrow Enlightenment model of intelligence delivered with the efficiency of industrial production.

Many remnants of this industrial model are still used today, even at Hawken: cohorting kids by grade levels; segmenting our complex, interdisciplinary world into discrete academic departments of math, science, English, etc.; and, most problematically, practicing quality control by applying a standard measurement at the end of the assembly process (i.e., standardized testing).

Standardization vs. Individualization

The multiple choice exam did not exist until Frederick J. Kelly, a graduate student at Kansas State Teachers College, invented the Kansas Silent Reading exam in 1914. Mr. Kelly invented this exam to measure “lower order thinking skills among the lower orders.” He believed that multiple choice exams were useful for targeting the lowest cognitive functions, largely for vocational placement.

By 1926, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) had chosen multiple choice as its test format, and shortly thereafter it became the primary admission exam for selective colleges.

Think about it: Our finest colleges universally adopted a mandatory test that measures lower order thinking skills as one of their primary entrance standards. Equally disturbing was what followed for K-12 education: a series of educational reforms in the direction of standardization – reforms that placed multiple choice exams and other standardized assessments at their center.

It seems, then, that educators were focused on a form of testing that was designed to measure only lower order thinking. This emphasis unfortunately defined the course of modern education in the 20th century. What followed was the recalibration of K-12 education in the direction of teaching to tests of lower order thinking and a movement away from the “whole child” and higher order thinking orientation. “Memorize and regurgitate on command” became a common call-and-response between teachers and students.

The complexity of the world and the inherent stimulation of curiosity that complexity engendered were stripped away from the educational model – replaced by a model of compartmentalized standardization where the speed of acquisition of content knowledge, rather than the depth of understanding, was the standard for success. When Frederick Kelly, a disciple of John Dewey, saw what had become of his multiple choice exam, he was appalled, and he spent the remainder of his life fighting against its use, to no avail.

Most of us understand the need for a firm grasp of lower order thinking skills, particularly at the elementary level. Some things have to be memorized because they serve as building blocks for higher order thinking – like multiplication tables, for example. But by the time students are between 11 and 14 years old, they begin to develop the mental capacity for abstract reasoning – the ability to manage higher order thinking skills like synthesis, analysis, systems thinking, and deductive and divergent reasoning. Our schools fail us miserably when these higher order thinking skills are not appropriately stimulated and nurtured.

Interestingly, even the College Board is starting to acknowledge this problem, as evidenced by the following quotation from the article “Rethinking Advanced Placement” by Christopher Drew, in The New York Times, January 7, 2011:

Next month, the board, the nonprofit organization that owns the A.P. exams as well as the SAT, will release a wholesale revamping of A.P. biology as well as United States history – with 387,000 test takers the most popular A.P. subject. A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking. In biology, a host of more creative, hands-on experiments are intended to help students think more like scientists.

In the next post, Scott will outline a way forward.

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Scott Looney

Scott Looney

I joined Hawken School as its 10th head of school in July 2006. Since that time I've worked with talented faculty and administrators to advance the school with a variety of forward-focused initiatives that have earned national recognition. My belief in student-centered and authentic learning has fueled each effort including the founding of the Mastery Transcript Consortium in 2017.