Denis Ian is a retired school teacher from New York who has taught more than 4,000 students over his 34 year career. Since retirement he has become an educational advocate who writes about issues concerning educational reform in America, sharing a unique vision that has to be read to be believed.

Boy walking alone

By Denis Ian 

This post was originally featured as a comment on Why School has Stopped Working. We loved it so much we asked Denis if we could publish it as an article. While Denis specifically mentions the American system, we feel it applies to similar systems in Europe and Australasia too.

We’re doing this all wrong.

Some day …. somehow … education will discover a proper obsession.

Until then … children will suffer these testing-despots … and too many adults will make believe it’s all okay. And it’s not.

But let’s be certain about this … there are some things in life that just can’t be measured … because they can’t even be defined. Love. Creativity. Curiosity. Courage. Passion. And those special forces that jolt the spirit and open the mind.

If you want a real thinker to blossom from childhood, don’t measure them at every turn … or condition them to shine on every command. Instead … help them indulge in their own natural curiosities … and they’ll measure themselves and shine for all of ever.

American education has become so disappointing … controlled by didactic gurus and self-imagined geniuses who share one important experience: they have no experience.

Most have never lived in any classroom for longer than a few moments. Short-stay aliens who parachute in … and then dash off … having seen enough, so they think, to deduce this or that … and to pen another bit ridiculousness … mostly for others who share the very same silliness.

Few have ever spent a morning on a kindergarten floor, or in a hot-hot circular discussion with lively seventh graders, or faced off against wing-spreading high schoolers who have suddenly come of age.

They know nothing of real-deal epiphanies … because they’ve never seen one. Or been a part of one. Or watched one unfold before their own eyes.

That’s what classroom teachers see. It’s what they help happen.

They don’t know … or care … about percentiles and modules and averages and statistics. For them, it’s all about kids and how to help ‘em grow.

But these experts make these testing mistakes again and again because … like love or courage or talent … the important things about education can never be measured so neatly … or so efficiently reduced to graphs or charts or tables.

And here’s why.

Education … real, real, real education … is all about people. And every learner, how ever old or young, lugs trunkfuls of variables to this pursuit of … of … of becoming.

Yeah ... becoming. That’s what education is all about … becoming.

But still they try to wow us … or alarm us … with their neat and tidy assessments of the state of “becoming” … with a barrage of numbers and endless inferences that they puzzled into something that doesn’t even look like “becoming” at all. Because it’s not. Not even close.

So … right from the start, they’ve misunderstood what they’re measuring … so why should we ever take them seriously?

Instead of pushing bubble-sheets in front of kids and asking them this or that … why don’t we ask them about the passions they don’t even know they have. And their talents they can’t even see Or the cleverness they take for granted. Or the gift they have for this or that.

And why don’t we just get out of their way most of the time? And stop bothering them so much. Maybe just nudge them now and again to … to become what’s inside those tiny bodies … and those gorgeous little minds.

Let them be

What the hell is so hard to understand? Stop bothering them so much. Let ‘em be.

We should give every child lots of stuff. Like chances to run and sing and dance. And fall down.

Girl playing and dancing freely

Chances to act their age … and we shouldn’t interfere with that. Or insist otherwise. Chances to sample things … and even walk away from certain things that just don’t do it for them.

Give ‘em chance to make choices … as much as possible … because life’s a stream of choices. Practice can’t hurt.

They need chances to work together … and to be left alone. Chances to drift into their own worlds … where they can imagine who they are … or might become.

They should have chances to feel safe … and to take risks. And to tell luscious-lovely lies … and fantabulous tales … that we should all take very seriously … because that works both ways.

We should let them speak marvelous nonsense … and not interrupt … because they’re just exercising their imaginations. So we should listen … and shut up … and give them the floor for a change..

And, of course, we should teach them to speak and to count and to scribble. And all of that will sprout … I promise … but never evenly enough to please those testing-tyrants … or the extra-serious beard-scratchers who just can’t leave childhood alone.

And you know what? This is what happens when the importance of teaching is cheapened … when professionals are shoved aside because some Ivy League fat-head has decided that teaching is a science … when it’s not. It’s more like conducting … or being in a play … or traveling in time. And most of all …. it’s about remembering. And becoming.

This is what happens when some of us grow too old and become too forgetting of those teachers who swerved our lives … and helped us wriggle out of our cocoons.

Those fuzzy memory-people who polished some talent no one else saw. Or who just whispered us a perfect kindness at the perfect moment …when it was so badly needed. Or who just loved watching us … become someone we never ever imagined we might be. Someone like me.

You get the point? We’re obsessed about the wrong stuff.

We’re doing this all wrong.

Do you agree with Denis' poetic vision for a new kind of education? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Jenny Diaz

Denis Ian


Denis is a retired public school teacher with 34 years of experience teaching social studies and English. He is now an educational advocate who writes nationally about issues concerning educational reform in the United States and around the world. He lives in Westchester County, New York.

  1. Proud to consider Denis a friend. He writes so eloquently yet simply and directly what all of us feel as we fight for our children. Let them be children. Let us teach them to be.

  2. Totally agree Denis. That is why I home educate my four children. There is no school getting it even close to right in our area. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. No I don’t really agree with those ideals. He posits the parent’s function on the teacher. He usurps the Church’s function in ethical development. He makes the teacher into a self-help guru who lets the child become themselves.

    People in their natural state are not cherubic prodigies. They learn from their parents and their peers and yes they learn from their teachers. We call this acculturation. But there is much they must unlearn and much they must have put in their face. Yes, let the child blossom but show them where to plant and how to measure the fertilizer and when to water and not water. Culture is not some natural self-revelation. Culture is what society develops through constant revelation and persistent insistence.
    Yeah he is right that the teacher can get in the way. But it seems like Denis is saying the child already has what they need and we should stay out of the way. Well, I agree the teacher shouldn’t get in the parent’s way. The teacher is not a leave the perfect child alone, self-help guru. The teacher should be an impediment the child must overcome by understanding.
    The teacher has a part to play and that part requires the hard work by child and teacher in a mutual discovery of the world. This often gets in the way of the child’s natural bent. We don’t need a baby sitter for our children. We need teachers. We need math teachers and reading teachers…and they need to stay on task until the child develops into something they didn’t start with. We aren’t trying to create a perfect child we are creating a good adult who understands the world.

    1. Dennis , yes we should be trying to guide the child to adulthood, but not by using a mold that we try to fit them in so they all “come out looking just the same.” A child has to be given choices about how he will learn. One path is not good for all. The learning environment should be prepared with materials that allow the child to use them and learn concepts on his own. “Children are not vessels to be filled, they are lamps to be lit”. The teacher is an important part of the process but as a guide, as someone who helps when she is needed and gets out of the way when she isn’t.

    2. A good teacher (and a good parent and a good adult member of society) has the responsibility and privilege of educating the young until they are adult members of the culture in which they are. All these people can and should allow the child’s “natural bent” to unfold while guiding these adults-to-be into those skills in math, language, science, the arts that will increase their knowledge base and their ethical practices as members of a community. Anyone who has helped a youngster learn to ride a bicycle when that child wants to learn knows that staying on task when interested and motivated is not an issue. Adults who understand themselves are prepared to understand their own culture, and the world.
      I am particularly questioning your “But there is much they must unlearn and much they must have put in their face.” What would a child have to “unlearn?” And ethical training can occur no matter what faith community the child’s parents are part of.
      I teach English to speakers of other languages, from many educational systems around the world. They are young adults (18+) who have invested their time and their money to study in the USA, a country they mostly admire. What is said in Denis’ essay is true, I believe, throughout formal education. Learning is an art, not a science, even when studying the sciences. Look at the leaders of our culture. I’d wager that they would be first to mention those who encouraged them to follow their natural bent while acquiring the skills they needed to be a part of society.

  4. Beginning my 32nd year as a primary grades teacher and this is spot on. As I watch my colleagues obsess over numbers and colors on a print out from a benchmark test and talk about growth mindset, I keep reminding myself that KIDS NEED TO BE KIDS! Who cares if they’re yellow, or red or green? Who cares?? Only the people that want to destroy public education.

    1. I care. This mindset contributes to low literacy graduates of public schools — young adults who are not ready for a career or college because they are not literate. Schools often don’t heed the early warning signs reading failure. The remonstrance was “oh it will all work out” or “she’s so cute, it will be okay” and”she’ll learn to read eventually.” I wanted to believe, but it was not to be so without early identification and effective interventions. And the social, emotional and academic toll of such ignorance has had a profound impact on many that I know, including our own family.

  5. As a retired math teacher/alternative school teacher/administrator I had extensive experience trying to reform HS education, with very mixed success. Taught me a lot about institutional change. Public ed is about as hard to reform as health care. I agree with much of what Denis writes, but there’s no revolutionizing schools nation- or even state-wide, and even durable change within a town is very hard because it is a political endeavor. And there’s no use just brushing aside academics & statisticians…they have their jobs, their turf, and their influence, and they try their best, too. And sometimes they are right. And sometimes we are wrong. In the end, I have to disagree that we’re doing it “all wrong.” But we must continue to play our parts advocating for humanistic education.

  6. Thank you Denis. You are so right. Theree is a place called Macomber Center in Framingham, Mass, where childrens learning is entirely self directed. Let’s all spread the word about places like this, as well as unschooling, and other alternatives.

  7. Oh Dennis, you are so on target! I’m also a retired grade 1 & 2 teacher. The wonderment and growth that you’ve chronicled is evident to any teacher who’s spent time in a primary classroom. So much of learning, especially in the early years is acquired incidentally. Not able to be measured; it’s a seed that’s been planted. The pundits have taken away that critical piece; the teaching moment, and replaced it with scripted curriculum. Some of my best teaching occurred when I had the freedom to teach at the pace of my students, creatively, with ideas instead of wrote learning, across the curriculum, using writing as the vehicle. Sadly, those making the rules, decry the notion that children need a structure on which to build that learning, and a delivery that excites and motivates them. The “read the script, give the test, and record the data” that is now the prevalent classroom model is suffocating our young people. I’m sad and fearful for this generation of students and educators.

  8. I agree with Dennis.

    In elementary, we give them the tools to find the answers which will later lead them on their path. Without these tools they will wonder aimlessly.

    I like your remark, “a mutual discovery of the world”. This is the relationship a child and a teacher must have together. In doing this, children must learn how to make the right choices for the betterment of themselves and others. They do not learn this independently.

  9. I have the privilege to see the blossoming that Denis cites when children get to indulge their curiosities. I am an elementary school librarian so I interact with K-6th grade students year over year. I wish there was recognition in measurement circles that some of the biggest student growth and learning isn’t quantifiable in the year the material is presented. Many of the seeds a teacher plants won’t bear fruit until several years later. Conversely, the effects on students of having a “bad” teacher has an even more long term impact on their development yet STILL can’t be quantified in a single year. Part of the inherent problem here is that the best teachers often leave the classroom and become administrators in order to earn a decent salary. Districts blow their budgets to pay “Ivy League fat head” consultants $150k a pop when they’d get better actionable information from teachers who have been in the classroom. Why not increase annual teacher salaries to $80-100k? Attracting (and keeping) more high quality teachers who engage students and share their passions shouldn’t be a radical solution for student success.

  10. A great article and so right for the current times. I applaud the author’s respect for teachers who instinctively want to do the right thing by their students. The curse of grades and testing and comparing one unique individual with another is at the heart of the failure of current schooling.

  11. All the way from Australia, “Yes! yes! Yes!” At a faculty meeting yesterday we were asked to describe the learning culture in our ideal school. Boy, was that wonderful! Then, when we reported, it became clear we were meant only to regurgitate the document we had been handed upon entry…..
    Current education policy is sucking the life & soul out of our students. And us.

  12. The analogy of the activities to being like a play resonates with me. I am an English teacher about to begin year 33. I am also a drama director. The best in my classroom is when it is functioning like a play. Some days, the director (me) needs to have the voice and be the “sage on the stage” (a euphemism used to decry the expertise of the teacher). Other days, it’s improv time where some boundaries are set and then everyone participates in his own direction. Some days, it’s rehearsal time where mistakes are inevitable in order to grow. And, of course, eventually, it’s show time where the end result (a good show/scores or grades) is known before the curtain goes up/the bell rings. Keep in mind, though. The play is ALL about the performers. While it’s nice to get thundering applause, sometimes the outside audience (especially the critics who left before intermission) just doesn’t get it…

  13. An inspirational, insightful piece, Denis. I’m also a retired teacher and often feel despair for the children and teachers who are continually tied up with programs, outcomes, standardised testing …
    It’s such a privilege to be part of a child’s becoming – empowering them to believe in themselves, lovingly guiding them to discover that awesome universe that is within themselves.
    In Australia, academics ‘do their best’ but, in my experience, most of their work is geared towards preparing ‘original-thought’ papers for publication, desperately trying to hang onto their job and hoping their contract will be renewed.
    I did some post-graduate study some years back and could see that much of what we learnt could never work in a classroom. When I spoke to the lecturer, who happened to be my age and a senior educator and practitioner in the field, and not an academic, he agreed. He put his finger to his lips and mouthed shoosh. “I just do what they pay me to do. It’s not for me to correct them.”
    And the circus moves on.
    What can we do in this aspirational age? Some parents are incredibly competitive and also believe in the senseless, time-consuming, sucking-the-life-out-of-the-classroom testing. They seek out additional tutoring and attempt to buy a head-start for their child.
    God willing, in amongst all this chaos, teachers and students alike will continue to light fires of imagination and learning.
    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you, Caroline …. your remarks moved me … “God willing, in amongst all this chaos, teachers and students alike will continue to light fires of imagination and learning.”

      And I would add …

      “In the heart of a child, one moment …. can last forever.”

      About this testing …

      There is no virtue in making children so brave that they might withstand the idiocy of adults. Nor is there any virtue in lying to children so as to protect adult ridiculousness. And when adults trip over their own commandments and reason away the subtle wounding of children … then they themselves have committed a great sin.

      Childhood is an extraordinary moment. It has its own sanctity because it is the maker of first memories … and we make big deals of firsts in our lives. And first memories should never be ugly. Not ever.

      But what has become of us? Why have we arrived at this moment when children become fair game in an adult controversy? Instinct tells us never to place children in the middle of a muddle. But here we are … hearing unbelieving tales of adult unfairness that seem such the antithesis of what is expected from the guardians of our children.

      Life is a long frustration. The great beauty of maturity is that we learn to keep our cool and to react only to the most insistent frustrations. Adults learn to separate the important from the unimportant … and it prevents us from the nasty human inclination to settle on easy scapegoats … and then to punish the weakest and most vulnerable.

      Scapegoats are born of frustrations adults cannot control … and we have loads of frustration surrounding this wretched reform. But frustration is never a green light to exercise a disturbing dominance over the smallest of the small. If that is the first impulse of an adult, then they are in a queer orbit.

      Children cut off from pizza parties and ice cream treats because their parents exercised their right of refusal? Little humans in little desks made to sit and stare for hours … in of all places … a school? Children confronted by some towering goliath … insisting that they revoke their parents’ own wishes? What the hell is going on here?

      Where is the wisdom in gluing children to desks for hours as they squirm their way through some asinine educational gauntlet that has no real purpose other than to pay homage to some testing god? Who thought that a good idea?

      This is a mess that cannot be unmessed. When will we start over … and get this straight?

      Is this how children should ever be treated? Are there not school campaigns to disarm bullies … and to champion kindness? Have those champions vanished? Were those just paper heroics? Empty nonsense?

      I sense adult ugliness seeping through a holy firewall behind which childhood is protected. It seems too many are now comfortable liars … even with children. And worse, some have become hypocrites.

      There is never an excuse to scar a child. And if you’re in the child business … that sort of action condemns you to a special sort of hell.

      For children, school is a majestic cathedral. A near shrine where every minute should be crammed with as much wonder as a minute might hold. To disturb that atmosphere is to violate the inviolate,

      A school should have no place for anyone unable to plug into their own memory bank perhaps they shouldn’t be in the memory-making business at all.

      When one’s memory of childhood evaporates, so does one’s empathy. And that is a signal to move on.

      “Childhood is a short season.” Give it its due.

      Denis Ian

  14. Denis, again and again you amaze with your words. So many of your posts hit the mind, heart and soul of what we are allowing to happen to our children. They need your voice. So glad to see you are being heard! I can only pray you will be listened.

  15. I always look back at my own education when I was a young child and what we were taught in Kindergarten is very different to what is expected today! Education is about data and results! Kids are no longer allowed to be kids! Every teacher would agree that workloads have become so demanding that a lot of new and very experienced teachers are leaving the profession because it’s too stressful! Every teacher in the world wants to see a student grow and learn to their full potential whilst also encouraging children to follow their dreams. Imagination seems to be something that is of non existence because kids have a strict routine of lessons taught and trying to fit in as much content within the day – basically overload of information that kids can not process properly in the time given to them! Creativity is lost! And education is not only sucking the life out of students but teachers as well! Many teachers express that teaching is not the profession it once used to be. We spend a lot of money on resources because of a lack of funding and then we are expected to pay a fee every year just so we can be classed as a professional! When you turn up to work and your main job is teaching but in one day you are also a counsellor, nurse, mediator, behaviour management specialist and use your canteen account to feed kids who forgot their lunch! Why do we do it? Simply because we care! We want the best for our students. Higher authorities need to stop worrying about data and results and start listening to educators before everyone walks off the job! Let our kids be kids! We will still continue to teach children but they will learn when they are ready! Why is it so important for kindergarten to be so skilled in Literacy and Numeracy but socially they have difficulties coping? You have to wonder why anxiety is on the rise?

  16. I came upon this article at a perfect time. I run a very small K-8 private school in Alaska and have designed a curriculum that I think Denis would approve of, a little Montessori, a lot of John Dewey, project based, hand on, etc. This will most likely be my last year being able to keep the school open, I just can’t keep my numbers high enough and have no support from a church group, etc. So many parents can’t let go of their public school mentality, for the good and bad, and are suspicious of a school that teaches multi-age and has no interest in the Common Core or high stakes testing. My devoted families know exactly how wonderful and special our school is and I love what I do. On to the next great adventure. Thanks for the words of wisdom and inspiration.

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