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  • Tales from the Classroom

Individualization in the School of Mr. Miyagi

In this article Dr. Stephen Fleenor offers a bold new vision for how we might think about how kids learn in schools, inspired by the teachings of The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi.

It is my sincere and profound hope that every public high school student in the United States right now is thinking to him-or herself, “honestly, what is the point of all of this?”

There once was a good boy named Daniel who thought exactly the same thing. His wise teacher, Mr. Miyagi, gave him the rigorous task of waxing cars in clockwise and counter-clockwise motions, monitoring Daniel’s work throughout the assignment and adjusting when necessary to ensure that his young student mastered the skill of waxing cars.

This story is fictional (for those of you who do not recognize the Karate Kid reference), but it plays out over and over again in virtually every classroom in the country every day. Granted, most teachers are far more engaging than Mr. Miyagi, making games and competitions out of the waxing, or chunking up the assignment to wax on some here and wax off some there, or even integrating technology into the lesson by having students review 3D models and watch videos of waxing, then having the students create digital presentations on waxing. In spite of this, I would go so far as to suggest that the vast majority of American public high school students, like Daniel, do not see a purpose in their tasks.

The Need for Purpose

But let me be clear: the teachers who tirelessly develop these rich, thought-provoking waxing lessons are not to be blamed (as we so often are quick to do in education) for students wondering about the relevance of high school academics. It is our best teachers that scramble to find answers to “when I am ever going to use this?” and it is our best teachers who painstakingly resist the urge to respond, “because I said so.” No, this is not a problem of individual teachers finding the relevance of their curricula; this is a problem of systematic communication. Because the phrase “because I said so” is really what we are collectively saying, as a society, starting in grade school. Our collective answer to the question of purpose is “so we can grade you,” so that when you enter the workforce “we can evaluate you,” so that we can place you on an economic scale and you can climb slowly or quickly up the ladder of success.

The best teachers fight nobly day in and day out to communicate to their students that “it’s not about the grade,” and that it’s about learning and self-enrichment, whether it’s waxing or writing or wave-particle duality. I know, as formerly one of those teachers, how very difficult it is to communicate purpose when society is blaring from the loudspeakers, “it is about the grade.” The Karate Kid was only a great story because Mr. Miyagi eventually showed Daniel, just as he was about to give up, how his waxing skills could be applied to defending himself against the Cobra Kai. It would have been a lousy story – albeit much more realistic – had Mr. Miyagi told Daniel that once he goes to college or his career he can learn more about waxing, and eventually get a good waxing job and have financial security. And yet that’s the story of the American public high school experience.

The Need for Individualization

The greatness of The Karate Kid story also depends on the fact that Mr. Miyagi only had one student, and it turned out that the lessons he chose were all ideally suited for that one student. If Mr. Miyagi worked at a public high school, where he trained upwards of a hundred students (and oftentimes much closer to two hundred) every day, his pedagogy would probably not have been successful with every student. Instructional leadership at the school would have coached him to use engaging waxing activities and even differentiating one day to the next and with different groups performing different waxing assignments, and upon determining that his Tier I instruction was up to par, they would flag the unsuccessful students for remedial support.

But the success or non-success of our students, as we define it in education (why is 70% “successful?” and 70% of what, exactly?), is not to be confused with optimization of the learning experience. As teachers, we tinker and toil hours on end to develop the lesson that is perfectly suited to meet the needs of our best approximation of the “average” learner. We know our kids, but more importantly, we know our “average” kid. We don’t (because there aren’t enough hours in the day) consider what one type of learning modality will work best on this one student in this one subject for every single student every day. The barriers to personalized education are rooted in structural, systematic problems and they cannot rest on the shoulders of individual teachers. Because it is not just having pedagogies that differentiate to the scale of the individual: it is also the standardized system in which high schools operate. If a hypothetical student (let’s call him Jorge) could master the US history objective in 20 minutes but could benefit from an extra 30 minutes of chemistry instruction, why should he be engaged in a US history enrichment activity while he’s failing to master chemistry? Or if he could benefit from devoting 207 days to learning algebra but could master reading in 92 days, why should he be in both classes for an identical 180 days? Jorge is coming of age and the world is at his fingertips; are we really going to tell him he shouldn’t pursue STEM fields because we failed to optimize his learning experience in science and math?

Intuitively, in our own lives, we know that standardized teaching is not what’s best for our learning. For example, let’s say I want to learn how to use Microsoft Excel to track my personal finances. First, I have a definite sense of purpose in learning this skill. Second, I have a wide array of resources at my disposal to help me learn, and since my time is precious, I’m going to find the resource that helps the best. I might Google things or read books, or search for YouTube videos, or solicit advice from friends or browse online forums, or maybe work through some practice scenarios until I get it right. Or maybe I’ll take a class at the community college, but I’ll be sure to walk away from the class the minute I learn what I need to learn. Sitting in a room for 50 minutes a day five days a week for 180 days with 30 other people simply for the sake of doing it (or because my boss told me to) might teach me the skill, but my learning would definitely not be optimized.

Purpose through Individualization

So imagine a school that did optimize. Imagine different teachers holding different lessons at different times and days of the week with different modalities (direct-teach, small-group, one-on-one tutoring, Socratic seminar, peer-to-peer collaboration), as well as computer labs with all of the resources of the Internet available, and every single student free to choose which lesson or which resource will help him or her learn the best on any given subject. In the “real world,” professionals learn by exploring resources, and highly competent professionals know which resources work best for them individually. In fact, it could be argued that many professionals only attend sit-and-get professional development or certification classes because they’re told to do so. What if the purpose of high school was for students to learn how, as individuals, to best become lifelong learners?

Perhaps this all sounds chaotic and a bit extreme: students passing through hallways at all hours, free to enter and leave any room as they please. What about bells? What about roll call? “Here are your resources, kiddos, now go get yourself a degree!” sounds like a recipe for disaster. Agreed. What would be critical in the school of individualization is the role of teachers as mentors. This role already is critical in schools, evidenced by the abundance of research tying student success to positive teacher-student relationships, but structures which support active mentorship are largely not in place in traditional public schools. In addition to delivering a few lessons of various modalities each day, each teacher would also serve as a mentor for a group of students. Importantly, the mentor-teacher would work with the student holistically: a science teacher would not just focus on science. Instead, he or she would help the student understand his or her cross-curricular and social-emotional strengths and weaknesses, and create action plans and timelines to help the student progress smoothly through learning the standards. The conversation would constantly center around the student understanding what best helps him or her learn. Just as Daniel trained with the purpose of mastering the art of karate, students at this school would progress with the intention of mastering the art of learning.

In most schools we currently have the resources to make this work. In 2014, the average student-teacher ratio nationwide was 16.1, a peak since its low point of 15.3 in 2008 (NCES, 2017). That means, on average, each teacher would be responsible for mentoring sixteen students. If the mentor-teacher is working with a group of students at varying levels of development, he/she could meet with students at different frequencies (some daily, some weekly, some fortnightly). Also, Internet-based resources and peer-to-peer learning could be leveraged so that each teacher would only need to conduct a few modules per day and could focus the rest of his/her time on monitoring and feedback. In the vast and interconnected digital landscape in which our young people exist today, the only true resource limitation is the extent of our own imaginations.

It's when we focus on optimization that all of the structural obstacles to rich, broad learning begin to disintegrate. The mentor can provide a student cross-curricular, holistic feedback. The mentor can coach students through their social-emotional development. The most trouble-prone students would suddenly become the most listened-to students, because misbehavior is simply a form of communication. If someone was there to help students find which kind of environment and which kind of behaviors work best for them, maybe “discipline” would finally become a concept of a bygone era. “Because I said so” could, finally, become “because I can show how well it will work for you.”

And maybe, at the end of the day, the requirement to learn Shakespeare or Pythagorus or Alexander the Great needs not be any fancier than explaining that this core set of knowledge and skill are what society has determined to be foundational for a life of learning. Once we get down to the business of optimization, the vast majority of students are probably going to master all necessary curricula well before the end of their four years. That’s when we can really inspire and motivate students by engaging them in internship and/or community development projects, helping them to discover their professional interests and exploring new fields and personal interests.

If you’re wondering “how do we get there?” you’re not alone, because “there” looks so radically different from what “here” currently is. The transitions to schools of individualization will likely look different in different environments, but the emphasis on mentorship and holistic learning will be universally central. Ultimately, what matters is that we start to walk that path forward, with a commitment from entire schools to employ every mind and every heart needed to provide the richest possible educational experience for every single student. Because every young person deserves a Mr. Miyagi.

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