Infinity & Beyond: Unbounded Learning and Human Potential


geese Figure 1. Unbound Learning

Learning is limited by the test-based and standards-based accountability system that holds the reins on the curriculum of American schools.

One of the consequences of this system of accountability is the limitations it has imposed on the real curriculum that emerges in the classroom.  Learning is limited, and restricted to a set of performance goals that are crafted using technical language and not in plain language.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are full of technical words that student’s will be held responsible for learning.  In the end, the standards are “decontextualized” into discrete pieces that can be easily tested through multiple-choice high-stakes tests.

The Common Core State Standards, and the Next Generation Science Standards set up artificial barriers that hold teachers to discipline-based content that may or not be related to the interests or experiences of their students.  By and large teachers are nonparticipants in the design and writing of standards.  But more importantly, teachers were not part of the decision to use standards to drive school science, mathematics, or English language arts, first.  That was done by élite groups of content specialists.

My view is that the standards movement is not in the best interests of students and their teachers.  But it is in the best interests of the organizations and people behind the standards movement. Who are these organizations, and how close are they to what really happens day-to-day in the classroom. Many critics of the standards movement point to the idea that it is corporate led by a very élite group of wealthy people that really don’t want to have an open discussion on the merits of common standards. Authoritative demands were issued by the US Department of Education in its Race to the Top Fund insisting that if states did not adopt the Common Core State Standards as part of their proposal for funding, then it could have negative impacts on the assessment of the proposal. Last minute deals were made in a number of states to accept this demand.

For example, here in Georgia, the state agreed to adopt the CCSS as part of its contract with the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund.  Four years later, the Georgia Senate (SB 167) has set up a process that will likely lead to the abandonment of the CCSS, and has shut out any possibility for the adoption of the NGSS.  I have not been an advocate of the standards movement, but the actions of the Georgia Senate are politically motivated, and throw the curriculum of Georgia schools into stress, some say chaos.

Limits to Learning

The standards have been shown in research to limit teacher’s ability to design learning activities that meet the needs of their own students (Wallace, 2011).  Standards are authoritarian commands adopted by states and school districts outlining the content teachers are required to teach and students to learn.

In Carolyn Wallace’s study of the science standards in Georgia, she found that the current generation of accountability standards pose barriers to meaningful teaching and learning.  She says this:

The tightly specified nature of successful learning performances precludes classroom teachers from modifying the standards to fit the needs of their students.

The standards are removed from the thinking and reasoning processes needed to achieve them.

In every instance that standards are used, corresponding achievement tests are designed and use to measure student growth.  However, since there are significant numbers of content standards performances, it is impossible to sample all the performances on these tests.  Thus, any high-stakes test that is used to measure learning is limited in scope.  Indeed, there is no assurance that items selected correspond to the curriculum implemented by the teacher.

Unbounded Learning

Figure 2. Unbounded Learning. NASA

Figure 2. Unbounded Learning. NASA

Schools ought to be places that remove limits to learning, and instead find ways to help students push beyond their limits, and enlarge their human potential.  Although teaching to the outer limits of human potential is not easy, the philosophy of opening up to this possibility are powerful.

One way to do this is to democratize the curriculum.  School curriculum is the content-knowledge that is generated and legitimated by groups, usually by an élite social group (scientists, mathematicians).  For example, since the 1960s, the science curriculum has been designed by groups of scientists and educators at the national level to name content that is communicated as organizations or clusters of content knowledge.

To democratize the nature of school curriculum will need a shift in power.  As others have written, curriculum (standards) is decided by those in power–whether it is social, economic, or political.  In the standards era, the driving force for curriculum is college and career readiness, and the ability of the nation to compete in a global marketplace.  Using these two constructs, sets of performances (standards) have been devised as the “official knowledge” of the states.  In recent years, this knowledge in the form of the CCSS and NGSS has been published by one group, Achieve, Inc.

In partnership with the US Department of Education, the measurement of this official knowledge is done through two national testing consortia, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)  and SMARTER Balanced .  Each assessment is aligned to the CCSS, and each is designed to measure college and career readiness based on the CCSS official knowledge.

Teachers and schools have not been a part of any of this.  A very small group has created the “technology” and wield the power to limit curriculum and learning decisions in the classroom.  In one of a Alex Jacoby, explores suggests that in a democratic society curriculum of schools should not be legitimated by specific and special interest groups. (Jacoby, Alex (2005, November 22), Reenvisioning Education and Democracy. March 9, 2014, from

To many of us, the curriculum is far from being democratic.  As I’ve stated above, political and economic contexts are driving the curriculum based on the CCSS and NGSS.  Buried in the current push back against the CCSS and NGSS is the idea that curriculum is being more and more undemocratic.  Disclaimer: I don’t think this is the reason some are pushing back against CCSS and NGSS.  For some, the CCSS is a fascist or communist attempt to take over education led by federal forces. For others, there is no place in the science curriculum for evolution or climate science.  For others, any mention of federal or national immediately evokes rejection.

students_discussBut these groups are missing a more important aspect of the current dialog about the national or state-led standards movement, and that is the enabling of a few well-financed groups to influence the nature of American curriculum.

Jacoby explores the power sources that have shaped the current reform of education in America.  Basing some of his comments on the research of Michael Apple, he identifies two main forces.  He says (Jacoby, 2005):

The first force is composed mostly of the New Right pushing for an education that is rooted in classical Western culture and widely ignores multiculturalism and alternative views points. The other dominant force in undemocratizing of curriculum is the ever-present influence of Corporate America and its particular breed of capitalism with concerns only extending to the availability of new workers.

These two forces have directed the movement turning schools away from having a democratic curriculum.  In more and more instances, teachers are instructed implement curriculum they had no part in creating.  But more significantly is that we are teaching the skills and official corporate knowledge.  Jacoby puts it this way:

Problems with curriculum moving in this direction should immediately be obvious – these are not values we want our children learning! Students should not be learning about competitiveness, but rather should be focusing on skills that allow them to build consensus and to include as many of their classmates as possible. In attempting to foster democracy and develop skills for deep democracy in the class room, it is integral that students are able to interact with other members of society. As another example, curriculum is increasingly focusing on what corporations view to be high-value knowledge – discrete knowledge. In the system, workers won’t need skills like active listening or critical thinking, but rather will be to be able regurgitate information and facts.

Unbounded learning does mean a curriculum free-for-all, anarchy, or a muddle.  It means that instead of the authoritarian system of the CCSS and NGSS, curriculum becomes a collaborative, systems, and cooperative process that in the end helps student learn how to learn, and learn how to be participants in a democracy.  The artificial limits that are imposed on schools by an authoritarian standards-based curriculum, will be replaced with a more democratic and liberal approach to learning.

To what extent do think it is possible to move beyond standards-based curriculum and embrace more open and unbounded learning possibilities?


About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University