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LITTLE FISH UNITE! The Big Fish Have Been Getting It Wrong Long Enough

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Without motivation, learning is dead. You can’t learn anything if you’re not motivated to learn it. If you don’t have your interest aroused to learn something, you will find a way to resist or avoid it altogether.  As adults, we learn little because we have the option of avoiding the discomfort that accompanies the learning process.

Let’s assume, for the purpose of this third installment of my four-part part post, that motivation for you to learn something new exists. Your loved one has guilted you, you want that raise, you’re tired of feeling terrible because you smoke - for whatever reason, you are motivated to learn something that requires changing what you are comfortable with now.

If you’re motivated, you will find a way to acquire the knowledge to learn whatever you feel you must learn - in spite of obstacles that present themselves. As long as your motivation continues, your learning continues

In spite of the millions of children in K-12 schools who come to their schools with little or no motivation to learn, parents and school folks continue to summon the courage to get the young ones to learn anyway. It’s a little like force-feeding. 

Why do we feel compelled to educate people anyway? Truly, what does this mean, in the simplest terms, "to educate”? Also, what is the point of educating people beyond high school if we adults are going to fight it? 


Education is getting others to adapt to change that those in power believe is necessary. If the learner is not motivated, you can’t educate anyone about anything if you don’t have some power (real or imagined) over them.

The point of this post is to make the following crystal clear: that there must be someone in power for initially unmotivated education to occur. Otherwise, who dictates what behavior change (i.e., "education") is deemed preferable? Who mandates the agenda?

In the home, parents are in power. In schools, principals have power. Teachers have power. Cafeteria workers and custodians have power. Secretaries have power (most people say they really run the schools). Even children have power.

Years ago, I was in the musical theater show Purlie. I played a character called Charlie Cotchipee. Charlie was constantly at odds with his father,  an old-school land owner in the South. When the son challenges his father about the latter’s rotten treatment of African-Americans, Old Man Cotchipee sings the song “Big Fish, Little Fish”.  Essentially, the song tells of the father’s reality that the littlest fish are eaten by the little fish, the little fish are eaten by the big fish, and, well, you get the idea. Almost everyone has power over somebody.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the agenda for education in our schools is determined.  The “Big Fish” (state lawmakers who have never once worked in a school and avoid even going to them as much as possible), school district superintendents, ... all the way down the food chain until you get to the “Littlest Fish” (little kids in Pre-K or kindergarten).

It may seem  crude, but this stark reality explains:

  • The immense disconnect between lawmakers and educators. This is classic “square peg-round hole” management. Demanding education be guided by political pressures, by ignoring trained educators, we lose sight of what we should be teaching. The teachers and their principals can tell you what is important to be taughtWhen are they ever asked to set the agenda? Right: never. EvidenceAsk any state legislator how much time is spent testing students in a school. They don’t really know since, though they mandate testing, they don’t track their own mandate. If you can get a state legislator to answer the question, he/she will pluck a number out of the air and tell you it is somewhere around 20%. Fat chance! The average percentage of time taken to test kids in the U.S. today is in excess of 45%!

  • The high level of teacher and student burnout. There is a national teacher shortage and it is getting worse each year. Evidence: Fed up with the joyless world of modern teaching, 50% of everyone who begins a teaching career quits the profession after two yearsMore evidence: The #1 reason students drop out of school is because they feel disconnected, not because the work is hard. We are focusing on the wrong kind of education really needed. 

  • Why each year fewer trained administrators apply for principal jobs.  Who wants a job where perfection is the expectation and any slip-up results in social media excoriation? Further, who wants a job where you are expected to force-feed littler fish what you yourself doubt? Evidence: In Palm Beach County, Florida, there used to be a dozen qualified candidates for each principal vacancy. Now, three qualified candidates is considered normal.

  • Who created the high-stakes state tests in all 50 states which cause so much pressure that kids are stressed and teachers teach to that test? If they were such great tests, wouldn’t results be better? Evidence: Teachers and their principals are not at that table, either. State legislators’ egos and political agendas trump true education of children. If you can track down the “educators” who were consulted on the creation and refinement of high-stakes tests, the handful that were involved will tell you that they weren’t listened to by the Big Fish. These tests are created by political sycophants doing the bidding of non-educator Big Fish. Did I already use the “square peg-round hole” analogy?

  • Why fewer than ten people in each state are in control over their high-stakes test that controls the lives of millions of people. Evidence: Try to find out who sits on the reading committee in name-your-state-capital. You won’t, because their names are kept secret. These Big Fish keep their littler Fish toadies secret to protect their Big Fish power.

The list could be far longer, but you get the idea.

So what am I saying?

I am saying that the wrong people in the U.S. have the power to determine what constitutes an “education” and they don’t have the decency to identify their clumsy authors.  That if the Big Fish really wanted to determine what our learners should learn  - in order to change their behavior - they are morally obligated to involve the practitioners who actually work in schools with children. 

Every year, international tests determine which country has the highest performing students. Most years, the #1 country in these tests is Finland. I know, you’re probably thinking all the kids in Finland come from native-born middle class families who are blond and white.  Wrong. Finland has a huge immigrant population, many of them quite poor, and most of them initially have  no understanding of the language of instruction, Finnish. Keep in mind, Finnish is unrelated to other languages, so it isn’t like speaking Polish or Romanian or Urdu helps you learn Finnish. Like the U.S., they have a very large ELL population.

So what are they doing in Finland to cause this high performance?

  • The Finnish government authentically includes teachers in developing what is taught. 

  • Teachers are involved in the development of national standards for education and their government pays for all teachers to get a master’s degree. 

  • Teachers are given the standards and then allowed to work in collaborative teacher groups to figure out how best to motivate the kids in their school community to get them to learn (yes, “educate”) those standards.

In other words, the #1 country in education in the world uses nothing like the “Big Fish, Little Fish” ego-power structure that we use in the U.S.

By the way, in those international tests, one fourth of the 8th graders in the U.S. couldn’t even find Texas on a map. In reading, our 8th graders scored an average of 267 points on a 500-point test (NAEP 2017). 

So next time someone brags that “America is #1!”, you know different.

However, the current U.S. government currently has the distinction of being #1 in offending and disrespecting most of the countries who educate their children better.

©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore. 

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