13 Sacred Cows in Schools (and what to do about them)

8 Dec

Sacred Cow (def’n): Something which cannot be tampered with, or criticized, for fear of public outcry. A person, institution, belief system, etc. which, for no reason other than the demands of established social etiquette or popular opinion, should be accorded respect or reverence, and not touched, handled or examined too closely.

In his paradigm for a new education system, “Stop Stealing Dreams“, Seth Godin mentions the word “industrial” seventy-eight times (creativity only four times and innovation just twice!!). Godin sees industrial thinking as the main problem with our education system.

He asserts that modern schools “…were invented at precisely the same time we were perfecting mass production and interchangeable parts and then mass marketing. ” Modern schools were designed to produce compliant workers and eager consumers for our emerging industrial  economy.

Godin says we’re now living in a “post-industrial age” and need to change our schools for changing times. Standardization and conformity should be eliminated and replaced with a love for learning, self-expression and innovation.

I don’t completely agree with everything Godin writes in “Step Stealing Dreams”, but I acknowledge  that schools need to change, and quickly. The shift from standardization and conformity has already begun, and schools are too slow to respond.

Educators must look critically at the “sacred cows” in schools, the vestiges of industrial age thinking, and decide if they have any place in an education system that tries to foster independent thinking and individuality.

Here’s my list of Sacred Cows in our Schools and what we need to do with them. The aim is to start people thinking about those things we accept as part of schools, but no longer make sense. I suspect that as you consider these 13 you’ll see many other things that no longer makes sense:

  1. Uniforms and Dress Codes: Students who make more choices get better at making choices. Expressing yourself with what you wear is an easy first step. A child in kindergarten can choose their clothes. Provide general expectation around appropriate dress, nothing else.
  2. Anthems & Flags: You can’t expect students to think independently but make the first act of the day standing in obedience to national symbols. Let children make choices about what is deserving of their respect. Explain why it’s important and let them choose.
  3. Walking in Lines: Instead of forcing children to move through schools silently in straight lines talk to them about respecting others’ rights, why that’s important, and let them figure out how to do that.
  4. Timetables and Tardy Slips: The same start and end times don’t work for everyone and they aren’t necessary. If students naturally wake up later, let them. Run schools on “flex time” so that students can learn when it’s best for them.
  5. Grades and Report Cards: Feedback is an essential tool in learning but learning is complex. Assigning an arbitrary letter or number to an emerging skill is misleading and often confusing. See Joe Bower’s excellent blog for more on this.
  6. Grouping by Age: The benefits of multi-age groupings are well documented yet we continue to group students based on what year they were born. Use flexible groupings that change as student needs change.
  7. Bells: A school that runs on bells screams “factory model”. Let students take breaks or eat when they need to, not when everybody else does.
  8. Desks in Rows: Learning doesn’t always happen in isolation, so why isolate students? Flexible arrangements that support students working both independently and collaboratively are needed.
  9. Exams: A single large evaluation, written in a large hall, doesn’t work for all students so why do it? Give students choices: a major project, write a thesis and defend it, etc.
  10. Morning Announcements: Few people get their information at the same time and in the same way as everyone else. They get it when they need it and how they choose. Put announcements on school social media or web resources so students can access information when they need it.
  11. School/Classroom Rules: One set of rules for all students doesn’t make sense. They have different needs and abilities. Instead use a set of guiding principles that can be applied to all students rather than a list of the things you can’t do.
  12. Fixed Classroom Walls: The recent work of Fielding-Nair and The Third Teacher is challenging the idea that children learn best in boxes. Sometimes walls are needed but sometimes they isolate and remove possibilities for collaboration. Movable walls offer flexibility and options.
  13. Desks and Chairs: A variety of furniture types support a variety of learning and learners. Tables for group work, couches and bean bags for reading, floor place for kinesthetic learning, etc.

Changing these 13 things won’t, on their own, change schools. Changing them will, however, make a new way of teaching and learning more likely. They’ll provide a fertile ground for the seeds of educational change to flourish and grow.

10 Responses to “13 Sacred Cows in Schools (and what to do about them)”

  1. Fred Galang December 8, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    It is with these 13 cows that I remain on the side of teachers and not administrators. Spend a minute in my school’s main office. In it, you’ll find that the sacred cows are alive, well, entrenched and disturbingly vibrant.

    The point I’m making is that when do we implement changes / elimination of these “cows”? When things are dire? When Dystopia finally takes place? When Mad Max and fire breathing vehicles rule the future? The 13 sacred cows you mentioned is the SOLE reason why the education system is reactive NOT pro-active.

    For years, I lamented on taking on a Masters in Education. My focus – to abolish these sacred cows you mention. For the longest time, I wanted to establish freedom and reform in perhaps the MOST restrictive structure we have in human history – our schools. Perhaps its not too late for me to re-visit that. I just can’t guarantee I’ll pass given my penchant to turn everything dysfunctional upside down.

  2. Heidi Siwak (@HeidiSiwak) December 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    While there is much I admire about Seth Godin’s work and he makes some good points, it is clear he never had to live through the butt crack and cleavage Britney Spears era of teaching. He writes with the naivete of someone who doesn’t work in schools. Attendance taking and late slips address safe arrival practices for children. Parents need to know if their children have not arrived at school. I don’t know of any school or classroom where rules are set in stone and the needs of children are not taken into consideration when applying them. Children need to learn that they are not the center of the universe and that others have needs. Walking quietly through a hallway so as not to disturb others is not an onerous expectation. Yes, education needs to move forward. Let’s address the important changes that should be made, rather than the trivial.

  3. PrincipalEit December 8, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on … Not the Principal's Office!!!.

  4. Royan Lee December 8, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

    I would slaughter, grill, and eat any of these cows, but the one that I would find most delicious is #10.

  5. Allie Holland (@allieLholland) December 9, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Now, I am usually the first one to break (rather bend) the rules to better my students education. Last year when I taught second grade, I rarely made my students walk in lines, our schedule was as loose as it could be, they were given options on practically every project/assignment and we used Twitter, of all things, to learn. I agree with the idea that education is due for a drastic change, but having no structure or rules school-wide may be too drastic. We have to think about ALL students when looking to change education. Many students thrive on structure and rules. If our goal is accomodate every student, throwing out all of those pesky cows may do the same as keeping them. I heard of an experiment once (can’t remember for the life of me where I heard it) where they took the fences down around the playground and all of the kids stayed in the center, but when they put them up, the students ran to all corners of the field. Freedom within classrooms is the key. Giving students a voice in how they want to learn is also key. Teachers should be given flexibility to meet all of their students’ needs.

    Again, this is coming from a constant rule-breaker. 🙂

    • Julie December 12, 2012 at 11:30 pm #

      Several of these sacred cows are the aspects of current practice that might not work in a Technology Enhanced Active Learning Classroom. In reviewing the comments so far, it occurs to me that what we need to stop doing, as Dr. Mark Milliron put it in a recent think tank sponsored by Desire2Learn, is to stop looking for the one right solution. The bell times and announcements and firm schedule may work for a large portion of the population. Can we offer an alternative pathway to learning–try the Oasis Skateboard Factory in Toronto. Thanks so much for posting this Andrew. This could be a good starting framework for the research propsal I am suggesting.

  6. M. FalerSweany December 14, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    Many students want the structure as it helps them to be creative and critical thinkers. These points assume that those students don’t exist. I wouldn’t throw out much of this structure, though we’re probably beyond the daily announcements and the pledge. Throw out the big exam–I wouldn’t but I would ensure that every student engage in each of the suggested “testing” modes throughout their school career as it would give every student flexibility. Mostly, I shudder at the flexible walls because my high school used the idea in the 70s. The noise from the other side of the “wall” made learning difficult for teachers and students. When one class was showing a movie for the students to critique or use in a collaborative project, my class got to hear the movie also. Unfortunately, it disrupted our discussions of current events. We (the students) suffered for two years and then petitioned the school board to eliminate the flexible walls.


  1. Mr G's Idle Musings » Blog Archive » My Diigo 12/14/2012 - December 14, 2012

    […] 13 Sacred Cows in Schools (and what to do about them) « Looking Up […]

  2. Update: Diigo in Education group (weekly) | ChalkTech - December 15, 2012

    […] 13 Sacred Cows in Schools (and what to do about them) « Looking Up […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: