Can there be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to education?

Posted by Marcus on May 20, 2016

Whilst reflecting on my journey throughout this module, I looked back at my previous think-pieces and found that there tended to be a common theme running through my thought processes. We have been introduced to lots of good pedagogical ideas, most of which I feel have elements that would have some use within the classroom – But I generally ended up coming back to the same question… Can there be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to education?

What does education look like at the moment?

Within the United Kingdom, the current educational system follows a very much ‘One size fits all’ approach, students are to attend school, go to lessons that end with the sounding of a bell before moving on to their next lesson for more of the same, all with the final outcome in mind… passing their exams. This sentiment is echoed by Ken Robinson in his TED talk Changing Education Paradigms where he also argues that this style of education stems from the industrial revolution and that not much has changed since in order to keep up with the evolution of the world we live in. Many educators are looking for a new way to approach education, but is there a solitary solution to my question?

When I consider my experience from working within a secondary school, two students spring to mind. The first student is a quiet girl who likes to work independently; she listens to all instructions given and is very methodical in her approach. She highlights key words throughout lessons and will ask questions when she is stuck. She realises that her ability in maths is not as good as others and she tries her best to work her way through each lesson. The second student is a cheeky teenage boy that likes to act the class clown; he is not unintelligent and I think that he generally sees the importance of education, however he gets bored in class and doesn’t flourish as much as he should do. When I think about these two students, I wonder how they can possibly be taught in the same way? Surely some of the ideas we have encountered are more useful to one than they are to the other.

How can we start to change our approach?


Whilst looking further into the question I have posed, I came across a video of a TEDx talk called ‘Hackschooling makes me happy’, by a 13-year-old boy named Logan LaPlante. He talks about how he was pulled out of education to be home schooled and how he ultimately decided what to study based on what he was interested in, and on what he felt was important for him to be happy in life.

So let’s imagine that it was unanimously agreed that there shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach to education and that all students would get to choose the ways in which they learn best, as well as deciding what subjects they would like to study (just like Logan). Great, we have lots of happy students! But should we really be giving students a choice as to what they study? Should we scrap core subjects and let students decide whether they study them or not? Just like they do with all the other subjects in secondary school…

This is all very well but we must consider what this option would mean for the world we live in? It would be really hard for there to be standardised testing, as every student would be following their own tailor made curriculum. Therefore, employers wouldn’t be able to decipher which candidate would be more suited to a job within their company. There could also be potential for students not being able to get a job, because there would be no way to show that they had the relevant skills set in order to be successful at it. What would this approach mean for educators? We would have to base our lessons on what each individual student was interested in rather than making sure they had a relational understanding (Skemp, 1976) of all the background knowledge behind their chosen interest. Perhaps this example is a little bit extreme, it quite clearly seems to be an unmanageable prospect, so where do we go from here? Of course we want our students to be happy within their journeys through education, so maybe we need to look at how we can achieve this within schools…

Similar to Ken Robinson, Karin Anne noticed that the way in which classrooms operate hadn’t changed since she was at school. So she decided to open the International Montesorri School to try and do something about it. In her TEDx talk: In Education, one size doesn’t fit all, she argues that education does need to be tailored to the individual and talks about how we shouldn’t be setting by grade or ability, this very much favours the approach of mixed ability, as argued for by Jo Boaler in her article Ability and Mathematics. Although I can see the positives of a mixed ability environment when considering that all students would be seen as being on a level playing field; wouldn’t we see that some of the lowest achievers start to become more disengaged, and some of the highest achievers start to coast? So whilst solving one problem, we potentially create another? Boaler concedes that students are well aware of ability grouping practices, so why would mixed ability grouping suddenly mean that students wouldn’t be aware of differences in ability? I don’t think it would… So how do we make sure that education is tailored to the individual as Anne suggests it should be?

Does the answer lie within technology?


Anne goes on to point out that online tests change based on student response and she questions why we can’t emulate this within the classroom? This seems like a reasonable prospect so how about digital tools; can they be considered as an individualised ‘one size fits all’ solution? If we consider maths education websites such as Khan Academy, Sumdog, MangaHigh and MIND’s Math instructional software; we find that these platforms all adjust based on the responses given from individual students. This essentially allows all students to use one form of education but in lots of different ways.

In this TED talk, Salman Kahn talks about how we can ‘humanise the classroom’ through the use of technology. He says that the notion of a ‘one size fits all’ education can be completely removed by getting students to do their work at home. This essentially allows students to view tutorials in their own time and most importantly at their own pace. Whilst I was studying through The Open University, I used some of the tutorials on Khan Academy to learn some of the mathematical concepts, and this was brilliant when you consider that I was trying to learn pretty much everything from a book! I can definitely see some benefit in this approach however, my worry with transferring this model into the classroom is that although I think that it is a brilliant supplement to the learning of mathematics, I don’t think that it provides everything. I feel that actual human interaction is still vital for student’s learning (I do accept that available time is a massive factor of what we as educators can do in the classroom though). The concept of a ‘flipped classroom’ as discussed by Khan, sounds like a good approach but how can we ensure that students will commit the time and effort to learning a concept when they are left to their own devices?

So should we go with Peterson’s approach of teaching without words (as discussed here)? I’m not so sure that it’s a massively good idea… the reservations I have with this approach are that in my experience, games have a tendency to be really exciting at first, but after time, they become boring. At the school I work in, we implemented the use of Sumdog; the students all loved it at first but the novelty soon wore off and now they hardly ever mention it! In Dan Willingham’s article: ‘Have Technology and Multitasking Rewired How Students Learn?’ he argues that “the mere presence of technology in a classroom is no guarantee that students will learn more” and this backs up my reservation about the use of technology… I think that in order for it to be used effectively, we need to be making decisions centred around what will produce the best outcome for the student; whilst thinking about whether students would make more progress with the technology than they would without it.

My thinking now leads me to considering whether educators can learn from the advances in technology? In the article ‘Video Games and Learning’ James Gee talks in depth about the structure of a good game. I like the way that Gee likens the structure of gaming to the education of particular topics in schools. In my opinion, the way in which a game is structured is not too dissimilar to the way in which education should be structured within our schools. Gaming allows players to “integrate new learning with old mastery”, an idea that is being explored in depth by the NCETM… it allows players to feel that they can take risks, this links nicely to the idea of ‘Growth mindset’ – Dweck/Boaler… It links previous learning experiences to new learning experiences, essentially producing a relational understanding, a concept argued for by Skemp… It allows players to progress in their own way, by allowing multiple methods in order for them to advance, linking to Swan’s idea of multiple representations… It encourages a player to be gritty, and to fully commit themselves to the task, which relates to the ideas discussed by pick n mixDuckworth. This suggests that a mix of different pedagogical views is important for the journey of education… So perhaps the answer to my question lies within how we as educators set up our learning environments by picking a mix of techniques that we feel best support learning; as opposed to giving students free reign on their education… My worry with this approach is that some educators would be more successful than others. Giving this free reign to education would allow teachers to decide on their best approach based on their pedagogical views, and in some cases this could end up being detrimental for the students within their class. Therefore, I feel that we need to be mindful of the (sometimes unintended) consequences of the choices we make within our approaches.

What’s the most important?

If we are to consider that a mix of techniques is the best way forward, then we must think about the order of importance whilst making the decision about the way in which we approach education… In my opinion, I think that one of the most important things to consider is the students themselves. How can we make it possible for all students to be happy within their learning environment? I think the reality is that we can’t… There’s so much to consider that we can’t always succeed in making everyone happy, all of the time. That’s part of life! But we should be able to do a good job of taking everyone’s individual needs into account before deciding the best approach for a particular class.

order of importance

The next thing that I feel is important to consider is the best way to facilitate the progress of all students within our classrooms. I think that in order to do this, we should be encouraging our students to gain a relational understanding (Skemp, 1976), through the promotion of patient problem solving (Meyer, 2010) and high quality practice (Syed, 2014) as well as emphasising the importance of a growth mind-set (Dweck, 2014 & Boaler, 2010); especially when considering that some students are currently content with just doing as well as expected.

Another view that I wholeheartedly agree with is one of John Hattie’s – “Classrooms where error is welcomed are where learning occurs” (Hattie, 2011). Whilst I was supporting in a bottom set year 11 class last year, the class teacher worked hard to create an environment in which the students weren’t afraid to get things wrong or say “I don’t know”, it wasn’t easy and it took time but I think the results were amazing; the student’s new found respect for each other meant that they were comfortable within the lesson and that they were able to learn more. This is the reason why I feel it is important to create this kind of environment, especially when we consider that education is not for results and achieving the best grades, it’s about facilitating the learning (Anne, 2014).

So can there be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to education?

When considering the views of all of the people mentioned within this think-piece; as well as Ken Robinson’s views within the most watched TED talk in history (Do Schools Kill Creativity?) where he suggests that we need to rethink the “fundamental principles of education”. I think that there appears to be a general consensus that there needs to be a change within our education system and whilst there are lots of brilliant ideas out there, I’m still not sure that anyone really knows the actual answer just yet…

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