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Fourth Way Futures

Authors: Dennis Shirley Published:

Focus on testing and ranking is bad for schools. Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley propose an alternative, the "Fourth Way". Active citizens taking part in education planning are central to the Fourth Way.

The Fourth Way forward?

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Before he was murdered by one of ancient Rome’s most horrific tyrants (Nero), the Stoic philosopher Seneca coined a dictum which has been passed down through the ages:  “Non scholae sed vitae discimus,” or “Learn not for school, but for life.”  It’s a timeless quote, especially for anyone trying to understand the labyrinthine realities of schools today.  Its relevance endures because in spite of an apparently endless tsunami of reforms sweeping schools around the world we continue to ignore Seneca.  We continue to organize our schools such that students are compelled to learn for schools and not for life.

This distortion of true learning is evident everywhere: in cram schools in East Asia that pound facts into the minds of bewildered students until late at night on schooldays and on weekends; in parental obsessions in North America to place children in the most expensive private schools that will push their children’s test scores ever higher; in the simmering competition, visible just below the carefully sustained taciturn surface, of Nordic professionals who are keen to place their sons and daughters in their city’s most prestigious secondary schools.  In Singapore it is called “kiasu,” or “the fear of being left behind.”  It drives parents to rank their children’s schools with one another even when the Ministry of Education has stopped ranking them officially.  Perhaps this benign ministerial reluctance to rank schools is doomed because the public simply must know how schools compare with one another even when such perseverations get in the way of the kind of learning we are most needful of at the beginning of a fragile and vulnerable new millennium.

There may be some benefits to all of this hyperventilating competitive energy.  It works in sports, business, and entertainment—why not in schools?

The short answer is that excessively achievement-oriented cultures breed systemic distortions that distract us from the deeper and more rewarding parts of the human condition.  They steer us away from lifelong learning and a broader empathy with and understanding for those who are most different from us and for whom imagination, tact, and curiosity are most needful.

Even worse, they direct us away from active citizenship, understood here not as a contingency for modern constitutional republics but rather as an indispensable cornerstone of free and self-governing polities.  “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone,” Thomas Jefferson wrote when promoting the American Revolution in his Notes on the State of Virginia centuries ago.  “The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories.  And to render even them safe their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”

For Jefferson, the best way to create active citizenry was to construct a system of public education that would disseminate the idea that “influence over government must be shared among all the people.”  Jefferson argued that literacy should be taught not through the Bible, as had traditionally been done, but through the study of history, which should enable students “to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.”

Yet in spite of Jefferson’s warnings, the arc of modern education has shifted in recent decades away from the civic-building purposes of schools towards a more economically-oriented, human capital emphasis.

An older Enlightenment-inflected discourse of active citizenship, borne of the struggle against monarchical rule in absolutist states, has now been surpassed by a discourse of returns on investment, administrative accountability, and entrepreneurialism.  Some of this has been positive, as an older, elitist tradition of academic knowledge based in the classics has had to open itself to more applied, practical considerations. But the trend has gone too far.

Although there are occasional efforts to revive it (Lovlie, Mortensen, & Nordenbo, 2003), by and large the older humanist tradition has been utterly vanquished.  Little now stands in the way of the economistic reduction of education to endless strategizing about increasing one’s market share, even (or perhaps especially) in higher education.  Karl Marx was wrong about many things, but the recognition that capitalism left unchecked universalizes itself into every nook and corner of modern life was surely accurate.

One of the best ways to apprehend these negative aspects of competitive energy gone awry is to read a counterintuitive study published by the Harvard Business Review a few years ago entitled “Goals Gone Wild”  (Ordóñez et al., 2009) Challenging a core tenet of modern management—that the setting of ambitious goals and relentlessly pursuing them is imperative for organizational success—the authors compile research showing that an excessive focus on achievement leads to a narrowing of focus that can blind individuals to unethical dimensions of their work and to necessary modifications that need to be made en route to achieving goals.

In the US, the most spectacular example of “Goals Gone Wild” in education surfaced when the award-winning Superintendant of Atlanta’s public schools, Beverly Hall, was found guilty along with 34 colleagues of massive cheating to reach goals established by the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Such tragic distortions of education grab headlines and lead to collective skepticism about public education.  But beyond the usual carping and complaining, there is a more serious message entailed in their findings: if we seek to create societies in which active citizenship, modeled by adults on a daily basis, is a foundational dimension of our shared experiences, we are unlikely to achieve this goal as a result of happenstance.  Instead, we will have to be intentional.  We will have to think deeply and tenaciously about what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to live in.

The marketization of schools

It is out of an abiding concern for the future of active citizenship and lifelong learning that my friend Andy Hargreaves and I have written two books about education.  We’ve studied educational systems around the world, from Finland to Singapore and from Canada to Chile.  While there are isolated pockets of excellence, in general what we find is alarming.  Public school systems that could and should be preparing the young for lives of active citizenship are under assault.  Increasingly, public school systems are putting some of their essential services up for sale to the highest bidder.  For-profit schools organized for the bottom line and not for learning for life are proliferating from England to the United States to Australia.  New start-ups without oversight from school boards of elected community members are spreading that generate entrepreneurial inventiveness in theory but often replicate the most rule-governed authoritarian school climates of the past in practice.  Computer-assisted instruction, initially promising to supplement the role of the classroom teacher, is now dispensing increasingly with a live teacher at all, saving money but also leaving vulnerable populations of students with little adult guidance when they endeavor to master demanding curricula.

Much of this is done under the guise of providing students with a slick and gimmicky diet of “twenty-first century skills.”  These embody what Hannah Arendt (1954) called “the pathos of the new.”  Arendt observed just how popular and fashionable the idea is that simply by declaring that one has a novel idea it must inherently be better than older, more time-tested virtues.

How to educate for active citizenship?

Increasingly students and their educators are asking for a counter-narrative to the contrived, fear-driven catalysts of social and educational Darwinism.  They are eager for ways of understanding themselves and their societies that open the door to help them to understand the complexity of their own lived experiences and to aspire towards a better future.  Educators and students are looking for an alternative approach to improving schools and society that deepens active citizenship and lifelong learning.  In response to this incessant questioning, Andy and I have written The Fourth Way:  The Inspiring Future of Educational Change (2009) and The Global Fourth Way:  The Quest for Educational Excellence (2012).

The premise of each book is simple.  Building upon the arguments of the former Director of the London School of Economics, Anthony Giddens, we identify three broad patterns of social policy in developed societies since the Second World War.

“The First Way”

From 1945 until the 1980s, publics looked to the state to solve problems.  At the time, this meant that educators were the beneficiaries of a passive trust that parents extended to them.  Teachers were believed to instantiate public values and norms and to be capable and competent in passing these along to a rising generation.  Parents did not intrude in the business of schools and educators enjoyed their autonomy.  This was a paradise for educators as individual artisans but it came at a cost because educators worked in isolation and did not develop an ethic of collective responsibility for the young.  The great and the grotesque each enjoyed and suffered from what was a privatized craft.  This was the “First Way” of change.

“The Second Way”

In the US and the UK a “Second Way” of change began with the election of President Ronald Reagan in the former and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the latter.  Each political leader brought a fierce anti-communist orientation to his and her political leadership and sought to infuse marketplace principles across their societies.

At the same time, and entirely paradoxically, each began a process of increasing the intrusion and control of the state into local educational politics.  As a consequence, the Second Way represents a curious blend of standards-based reforms in education, driven and enforced by the state on all schools, along with marketplace models of reform that placed schools in a new and uncomfortable relationship with one another.

For educators accustomed to splendid isolation, the transition from the First to the Second Way was a shock.  The passive trust extended to them under the First Way was now replaced with active mistrust.  Test score results were used to shame and control not only struggling students but also those teachers who decided on the basis of ethics and political convictions to serve in the most under-resourced communities. Where First Way practices supported parents running for school boards and democratic oversight of the schools, the Second Way preferred to give parents the choice to opt out of the traditional public system altogether for relatively autonomous innovations like charter schools in the US and academies in the UK.  Active citizenship, then, was displaced and replaced with a new individualized educational politics of consumer choice.

“The Third Way”

In the US and the UK the ferociously conservative politics of Reagan and Thatcher were replaced with the comparatively benign leadership of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s.  Here began the Third Way of social policies.  Both Clinton and Blair accepted many aspects of the conservative critique of the welfare state, as is evidenced by Clinton’s reforms of the welfare system and Blair’s insistence that “New Labour” shared little in common with the fractious, working-class militance of “Old Labour.”  In terms of education, both Clinton and Blair overcame the divisive politics of Reagan and Thatcher; funding for education was restored and public confidence replaced the active mistrust of the Second Way.  But this public confidence came at a heavy cost for educators, as the standards and market-based reforms of the Second Way were now supplemented with a new technocracy of data-driven decision making in the Third Way.  Schools were incessantly and insistently ranked with one another, and struggling schools were increasingly sanctioned and in many cases, held up for public contempt.  Educators who sought to articulate a broader set of educational goals or to fight back against narrowed curricula found themselves marginalized and in many ways driven out of the system altogether.  Education was reduced to an endless round of tested subjects that crowded out other disciplinary considerations.  Civic education, which at least was on the agenda in terms of lip service in the First Way, fell into the background.  How, after all, could one create a standardized test to determine if students were on the way to becoming active citizens?

Focus on testing

Not all nations pursued this same path of the First, Second, and Third Ways of change.  Still, the change architecture has proven to have some staying power even in jurisdictions with separate paths because these jurisdictions now increasingly find themselves pulled into the vortex of Second and Third Way policies.  International tests such as the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) of the OECD are playing a role here, as policy makers seek to use them to burnish their credentials and to reassure anxious publics that their children will be well prepared for the future.

On the one hand, the rise of standardized testing, marketplace models of reform, and data-driven decision-making has had some positive aspects.  It is now much harder for educators to overlook struggling students.  Markets can place pressure on teachers who are too complacent and self-satisfied to rededicate themselves to their profession to lift up enrollments.  Data-driven decision-making has increased the evidentiary basis for teachers’ decision making.

On the other hand, the cumulative effect of the Second and Third Ways on a system level has been to constrain the horizon of what education can be and what the fulfillment of the human condition entails.  The narrowing of the curriculum to focus on tested subjects, and the heightened anxiety about results, makes it increasingly difficult for schools to explore the many tangential dimensions of teaching and learning, such as learning to get along with one’s peers, or learning how to work independently, that are not so easily measured.  When governments choose to shut down struggling schools and to provide those which improve their test score results with financial rewards, extraneous dynamics of shock and awe distort the carefully constructed climate of a school classroom that should encourage sensitivity to others, compassion for the less fortunate, and the pursuit of excellence balanced with a dedication to social justice.

“A Fourth Way” is Needed

This is why we need a Fourth Way of change.  We need a way of change that puts an inspiring and inclusive vision for education first and an insistence on tested outcomes second.  We need a way of change that rededicates the role of the public in school reform and that protects schools against the incursions of those who seek profits, whether they come from the sectors of information technology, supplementary school services, or evening cram schools.  We need a way of change that has a moral compass focused on active citizenship first and foremost, with a full understanding of the intellectual rigor and the civil courage that entails.

To move beyond the current orthodoxies of global school reform we need everyone who plays an educative role in society—parents, teachers, and school principals—to develop into lifelong learners who are not afraid to challenge what John Stuart Mill called “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”  We need provocateurs that combine eccentric and iconoclastic views with a persistent dedication to the public good.  We need to support forms of thinking and learning that are deep and mindful, not just fast and episodic.

We already have many manifestations of Fourth Way principles in practice.  We find them in hundreds of inner city schools in the US, where teachers’ unions and community organizing groups have insisted that power-holders serve their constituents rather than their own self-interest.  In one particularly striking case, the California Teachers’ Association sued former Governor Schwarzenegger and reached a settlement of over $2 million US dollars to fund a network of schools in the state’s poorest and most disenfranchised communities.  Significantly, schools in that network receive the resources directly, rather than being channeled through their local district offices, so that teachers can be the “drivers” rather than the “driven” in leading change initiatives.

Canadian schools demonstrate many Fourth Way attributes and especially those in the Western province of Alberta.  Here, the government funded for 13 years a network that supported bottom-up, teacher-led initiatives that provided a corrective for top-down mandates and control.  Recognizing that its long-established testing regimen was distorting learning, Alberta recently has abolished its Provincial Aptitude Tests at grades 3, 6, and 9.  The province can make such liberalizing changes because the Alberta Teachers’ Association invests over 50% of all of its resources into professional development so that a highly skilled teaching force can use classroom and school-based assessments to catalyze learning forward.

Other examples of Fourth Way principles in action come to us from Finland, a provocative counterexample for advocates of more testing, markets, and pay-for-performance the world over.  Finland provides strict quality controls over who can enter teaching within a Nordic context of generous social policies that reduce child poverty and escalate students’ life chances.  It also provides a mindful antidote to the hyperactive boosterism that throws everything at schools and asks everything to change at once.  “To rush change is to kill it,” warns Pasi Sahlberg (2011), who is helping educators around the world to aspire towards a more humane system with characteristics analogous to his native Finland.

Singapore, although in many ways infected with a hyper-competitive spirit in terms of the individual student or school, counterbalances this individualism with a strong professional ethos by continuously moving educators from a given school to the Ministry of Education and to the National Institute of Education, where all teachers and school principals are prepared.  The net effect is to uplift the whole profession through incessant communication across sectors that in many other contexts are entirely separate and in many ways antagonistic to one another.

Are such example of Fourth Way principles in practice quixotic, indicative of exceptions to the rule rather than generalizable strategies for change?  Perhaps.  But ultimately the game of standardization, testing, markets, and data-driven decision-making will play itself out. Texas is reducing its high school graduation examinations from 15 to 5.  Not just students and teachers, but also principals and school superintendents, are protesting against excessive testing from coast to coast in the US.  The moment of post-standardization finally is arriving in education.  Young people don’t just want to be distracted or entertained.  The human longing for meaning and purpose will prevail in the end.

In the interim it is up to all of us to model lifelong learning and active citizenship in our homes, our workplaces, and our communities.  So check out a big and demanding book from your local library on a topic that intimidates you and work through it chapter by chapter until you’re satisfied that you’ve mastered its contents.  Stretch yourself out of your comfort zone by going into a neighborhood made up of people from a culture other than your own to learn more about their lived experiences of your society.  Front the essential facts of the life by hurtling all that you have against seemingly impermeable systems that assault human dignity in ways big and small.

Re-read Seneca and ask educators and students if they are teaching and learning for school or for life.  If we can do with patience, integrity, and compassion, we can reclaim the life of the mind and the electrifying experience of discovering that while the quest for meaning is often elusive, it can be found in thousands of small acts that uphold the dignity of the human quest for knowledge.  This, and nothing less, is the promise of the Fourth Way, an educational movement whose time has come.


Arendt, H.  (1954).  Between past and future:  Eight exercises in political thought. New York:  Penguin.

Hargreaves, A., & Shirley, D. (December 1, 2007).  The coming age of post-standardization.  Education Week.
(2009). The Fourth Way:  The Inspiring Future for Educational Change.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin.

Hargreaves, A., & Shirley, D. (2012).  The Global Fourth Way:  The Quest for Educational Excellence.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin.

Jefferson, T. (1787/1954). Notes on the state of Virginia.  New York:  Norton.

Lovlie, L., Motrensen, K.P., & Nordenbo, S.E. (2003). Educating humanity:  Bildung in postmodernity.  Malden, MA:  Blackwell.

Mill, J.S. (1859/2003). On liberty.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.

Ordóñez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E.,  Galinsky, A.D., & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). Goals Gone Wild:  The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Business School Working Paper 09-083.

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons:  What can the world learn from educational change in Finland?  New York:  Teachers College Press.

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Dennis Shirley Dr. Dennis Shirley is Professor of Education at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. His work in education spans from the microlevel of assisting beginning teachers to the macrolevel of designing and guiding large-scale research and intervention projects for school districts, states and provinces, and nations. Dennis and his colleague Andy Hargreaves are working on a grant with Education Northwest to improve rural schools in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana. Previously he served on a team for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development studying improvements to lower secondary education in Norway. The findings of much of his research were presented in two collaboratively authored books with Andy entitled The Fourth Way and The Global Fourth Way. In August 2013 he will begin serving as Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Educational Change. Contact: Follow Dennis on Twitter at @dennisshirley. Show all articles by Dennis Shirley
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