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Dickens and the Competency-Based School

By Bruce Shaw — December 06, 2000 6 min read
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How do ‘fancy and wonder’ fare in a world of hard facts?

Last summer, TheBoston Globe reported the spate of criticism leveled at the then-newly-adopted Massachusetts mathematics framework. Detractors insisted that the guideline “sacrifices real understanding on the altar of algorithms.” The issue in Massachusetts, and across the country, is whether frameworks drive the testing, or testing drives the frameworks.

The debate is another reminder that the spirit of Thomas Gradgrind is back to haunt us. Gradgrind, Charles Dickens’ monotonous and dictatorial character—a schoolman, unfortunately—opens Hard Times with an exhortation to the students crowded into the village schoolroom: “Now what I want is Facts. ... Stick to the facts, sir!”

In the Gradgrindian philosophy of education, facts alone count. Fancy and wonder, those whirling dervishes of the imagination, are out. God help poor young Sissy Jupe, whom Gradgrind interrogates nearly to tears. She has astounded him with her belief that one can define a horse by its spirit as well as by its anatomy.

Gradgrind has re-entered the 21st-century classroom with the old assertion that facts, and competence with those facts, comprise the goals of education. In Massachusetts, the turmoil surrounding these goals is centered on the statewide standardized-testing program known as the MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, and has been constant since its inception. Whether in the reasoned and polite debate of the newspapers, the more raucous disagreement about frameworks, or in the strident, 1960s-style walkouts by protesting students that occurred last spring, the state of education in Massachusetts is cleaving into factions.

The dilemma over the testing stems from the difficulty of answering two central questions: (1) What constitutes an educated person? and (2) How do we know when a student becomes one? The MCAS has been nominated to provide the answers in Massachusetts. In 2003, this state will join more than 25 others now requiring students to pass a test prior to getting a diploma. Failure means that a student is neither worthy nor ready to graduate.

It is mistaken to confuse mere proficiency with what it means to be educated.

Unfortunately, the MCAS, like all standardized tests, provides only a narrow measure of what it means to be educated. I’m not against standardized testing. We employ it regularly in the school I head, using the results to confirm or extend what we have already learned about a student in the classroom. The ability to read with comprehension, to compute accurately, and to write fluidly belong in the repertoire of every intelligent and imaginative student. Careful analysis of the testing enables us to pinpoint with much more accuracy areas of struggle as well as strength. On the other hand, skills are only tools. It is mistaken to confuse mere proficiency with what it means to be educated.

When Thomas Gradgrind questions Sissy Jupe about horses (characteristically, he knows her only as “girl number 20"), she cannot give him a satisfactory response, even though her father is a farrier. He turns to Young Bitzer, who can: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely, 24 grinders, four eye-teeth, and 12 incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in the mouth.”

“Now, girl number 20,” said Mr. Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

One can neither fault Bitzer’s knowledge nor Gradgrind’s pride in what the boy has learned. But Thomas Gradgrind, “with a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to,” suffers from intellectual myopia.

Rob Evans, a Boston-area psychologist who consults regularly in schools, points out that school systems that struggled to become more child-centered during the 20th century now strive to be competency- based. He is talking about the attempt to force what some perceive as a failing educational system to be academically better, usually through legislative, political, or legal means, and often at the expense of everything else.


In the desire to reform, no one means ill. But not trusting that our schools can serve children well has fueled the drive to hold them accountable academically, even while expanding their missions to include a staggering multiplicity of social and other nonacademic goals. We cannot know that reform has worked, the argument goes, unless we measure results. Measurement requires standards, and those standards must be high. The purpose of education then becomes the acquisition of measurable skills—the competence Mr. Evans spoke about—and schools must use every means available to be sure that all children, with their individual learning styles and abilities, gain that competence. In the accountability movement, competence defines an educated person.


Not so long ago, adults assumed that children would make many mistakes, academically and behaviorally, and that these mistakes formed part of the basis for learning. Competence was viewed as important, but slow to come. The intricate process of learning required many false starts, dead ends, and frustrations that, along with equal amounts of success, would help children pursue learning as an inherently complex activity, interesting for just that reason.

The competency-based school is just the old factory model of Dickens’ time, where measurable production and performance are all that counts. When that happens, the stakes rise for schools trying to measure up; and, in response, children must become producers and performers. The Young Bitzers have become the new academic stars, while the Sissy Jupes are rendered superfluous. Stress also rises, and molehills become mountains—to kids, to their parents, to their teachers, to legislators. In the competency- based school, perspective—the long view—becomes a scarce commodity.

So do poetry and music, ethics and service. Long ago, Plato recognized that the purpose of education was enlightenment—the ability to perceive Truth. In defining a philosophy of schooling for the information age, we must not forget that while competence is important, it is merely an objective that serves the grander vision of creating an educated citizenry.

Education needs to be something more than a passing score on a standardized test.

Education needs to be something more than a passing score on a standardized test. Further goals need to include moral sensibility and the capacity to act ethically, broad knowledge about human thought and affairs, an imaginative outlook that helps structure a creative vision and deepens the spirit, and an intellectual core that sustains the passion for lifelong learning. Along with tests, the experience and intuition of a well-trained teaching force must also be measures of whether or not students understand as well as know.

As long as we gauge students’ lives in terms of their skill at grinding out passing scores, or in their ability to complete algorithms without necessarily understanding the mathematical principles, children will only be half-educated. Knowing that a horse is a quadruped must combine with the ability for inspiration and awe when seeing horses, with all their power and beauty.

We must not let education devolve into the narrow drive to create merely competent children. For our society to thrive, it needs adults who have the spirit necessary to sustain the creativity of our democratic experiment.

Bruce Shaw is the director of Shady Hill School, an independent, nonsectarian school of 500 students in Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Dickens and the Competency-Based School

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