Five Mindsets to Change About How Schooling Must Be

History is full of examples of people who thought that how things were was how they always must be. Consider these fixed mindsets from the past:

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

– Ken Olson, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” 

– Lord Kelvin, president Royal Society, 1895

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” 

– Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962

In each example, an innovation arrived that changed everything.

Education is facing a similar assumption-busting moment. For over 100 years we layered on assumptions about how schooling must be. But at this moment, shaken by the arrival of digital technology, those layers of belief are starting to fall apart. Here are five obsolete notions that students will be especially glad to see fall:

  1. It’s rare for learning to be rigorous and fun at the same time.

In Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, Michael Horn and I assert that school should help students fulfill the two “jobs” that most students are trying to get done in their lives: feel successful every day and have fun with friends. The pushback I hear on this idea is that school should be rigorous and challenging, not designed to facilitate fun per se. Many adults see a tradeoff like Chart 1 on the left depicts; as fun goes up, rigor goes down.Rigor-Fun


That mindset was truer before digital capabilities opened new ways for thinking about school design. With the proliferation of new content and delivery options—including game-based software and project-rich blended-learning programs—we’re moving into a world more like Chart 2 on the right. New designs are demonstrating that rigor and intrinsically motivating “fun” can go hand in hand.

One leader who is helping to disprove the old assumption is Dr. Matthew Peterson, Co-Founder and CEO of MIND Research Institute. During a panel discussion in which he and I took part, Dr. Peterson said that children need to be pushed into their challenge zones to wrestle with hard problems. Meanwhile, his ST Math program features silly games involving the animated GiGi the Penguin. Students benefit as programs such as ST Math debunk the idea that true rigor must be miserable.


  1. It’s worthwhile to sit through boring classes.

This one might be true if the only way to access information were by sitting through a boring class. But that’s no longer the reality. Today, given that many students have access to multiple options for obtaining content and instruction, there’s a case to be made for opening the doors and setting students free, rather than tethering them to an ineffective lesson plan. Send them on an apprenticeship, let them climb a mountain, inspire them to community service—countless experiences are more worthwhile than that of learning to endure a boring, uninspired class, except perhaps for the sake of developing patience.

Ferris Bueller


  1. Everyone in the same classroom must be working on the same subject at roughly the same grade level.

Another notion that used to be truer than it is today. Adults stuck in the old paradigm find this mindset hard to change. As the co-founder of Brain Chase, I recently participated in a webinar to answer parents’ questions about the program. The one question we heard five times during the webinar was from parents who didn’t understand how it is fair for six year olds to compete against 16 year olds. They didn’t understand that each student in the competition has her own dashboard, which serves up reading, writing, and math problems that are matched to her individual level.


The secret is responsive software, which allows children in a classroom or household to work on different subjects and levels at the same time, yet still move forward through the larger system or game as a group. Grade levels and age-based designations are becoming irrelevant.

Several districts and charter-school networks are abandoning the notion of age-based pacing. This iNACOL/CompetencyWorks report spotlights three such districts: Pittsfield School District in New Hampshire, Chugach School District in Alaska, and Educational Achievement Authority in Michigan. It’s worth the read. Other districts and schools are starting to awaken to the possibility as well.

  1. Doing online learning as a classroom or family is really expensive.

This was true when online learning first appeared. Personal computers cost upwards of $2,000 and few communities had high-speed Internet.

These barriers are falling fast. Our family recently purchased these remarkable Chromebooks for our children, which are available for $230 or $300, depending on screen size. This post by blended-learning coach Kiera Chase at Envision Schools suggests that Chromebooks may be the way to go for schools, too.

An even less expensive option is the smartphone. This study shows that 78 percent of teens in the United States now have a cell phone, and almost half (47 percent) of those are smartphones. Although their functionality is limited compared to a laptop, smartphones can still provide access to learning resources. (Children and teens need guidance when accessing content on smartphones, as this article discusses.)

  1. Anything school related during the summer stinks and is only for students who are behind.

As the nature and disposition of learning transforms, it’s becoming increasingly well-suited to year-around enjoyment.

Click here to find out how learning (even during the summer) can be every bit as delightful as it is rigorous.

In short, children will be better off as adults come to accept and appreciate the new realities of education in this promising century. The sooner we retire old notions that are no longer true, the sooner students will benefit from the advances that our generation can offer them.

Heather Staker is the author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (San Francisco: Wiley, 2015). She writes and speaks about the blend of online learning into schools. She also co-produces the annual Brain Chase summer learning adventure. Heather and her husband live in Salt Lake City, Utah, where four of their five children attend AISU, a blended, personalized charter school.