06/02/2014 10:46 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2014

Why Would Learning Be the Goal of 21st Century Schools?

In his Education Week Commentary, "The Goal of Education Is Becoming," Marc Prensky expresses his frustration regarding the strange preoccupation of schools with the single goal of "learning." The real purpose of education, Prensky observes, "is becoming -- becoming a "good" person and becoming a more capable person than when you started." Learning is just a means to that end, but reformers have erroneously defined learning as the prime reason of schooling.

Even worse, schools now concentrate "almost exclusively on kids learning four basic subjects: math, language arts, science, and social studies." Worst of all, they are preoccupied with tests, and trying to "put numbers around that learning and to rank students in their acquisition of it. We ask, ad infinitum: How much are our kids learning?"

In part, this cheapening of education is an unintended consequence of standards-based instruction, or the system where educators are responsible for teaching the concepts and skills laid down by the state. Prensky, however, calls for "accomplishment-based education" whereby our kids have the means to become the kinds of people we want them to be.

Prensky explains:

Our kids should be asking themselves: Who am I becoming? Have I become a better thinker? If so, in what ways? Am I able to do things I couldn't before? What is important to me and why? Can I relate comfortably to individuals, in teams and in virtual communities? Can I accomplish bigger, more sophisticated projects to add to my portfolio? What kind of person have I had to become to achieve these accomplishments? Can I make the world a better place?

The real villain, I believe, is not standards-based reform but the way it was high-jacked by test-driven accountability hawks. Prensky rightly questions the obsession with Common Core, but its standards are a sideshow. It is the crazy idea of attaching stakes to Common Core assessments to force compliance which is the real battle. Even so, the faith of reformers in the supposedly transformative power of standards of instruction is perplexing, if not downright weird.

As Prensky explains in Brain Gain, "there is no time to teach - and no point in teaching - all of the curriculum we taught in the past. In theory, Common Core would reduce the number of standards, so they could be taught for greater mastery. In reality, Common Core testing will put the teach-to-the-test mania on steroids."

The actual result will be the further speeding up of the educational assembly line. The testing mandate will further accelerate our leap back into the era of the Model T, despite our children's need to develop "digital wisdom" for flourishing in the global marketplace of ideas.

The way Prensky makes his argument may come as jolt. I suspect he is intentionally phrasing arguments in order to capture the attention of persons who have become comfortable with learning being accepted as the goal of education. He realizes how far we have strayed during this reform era, while remembering the principles of public education that almost of us once all affirmed. As Prensky says, "very few educators or parents have learning or scholarship in their hearts as the endgame for their children."

If reformers took a step back from their obsession with measuring "outcomes," many might regret their contribution to creating schools where "rarely do we expect our K-12 kids to become anything besides good test-takers." Because we devote so much attention to "petty" measurements of "'learning,'" that "we have little time or energy left to focus on who our students are (or are not) as individuals, what they love or hate, or what drives them."

Once we wrestle with deliberate (and inspired) way that Prensky challenges the idea that learning is the prime purpose of schools, we can accept the seemingly obvious truth of his statement, "Most of us would prefer our children become the very best people they can be, capable of effective thinking, acting, relating, and accomplishing in whatever field they enjoy and have a passion for."