An Interview with Jon Madian: Accountability – Wherefore Art Thou?

Sep 7, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

Jon Madian is an educational and counseling psychologist, curriculum designer and writer-in-residence. He founded the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project and Humanities Software. Jon serves as a consultant on curriculum design and advocates for technology as an R&D tool to personalize learning.

Jon Madian founded the Artist-in-Residence Reading Project and Humanities Software.

In this interview, he responds to questions about accountability, assessment and school reform. He can be reached at:

  1. Jon, you have advocated for educational reform for over four decades. What are your current impressions?

We’re caught between two approaches to accountability. We need to understand each to achieve a synthesis.

Accountability through standards is a logical way to “objectively” measure success so we can compare success of instruction based on test performance. In this spirit, we are building tighter links among standards, teaching resources, formative and high stakes assessments, and feedback.

This management approach grows from a command-and-control tradition. It relies on external motivations–the calendar of tasks, carrots-and-sticks. Problems arise because students, teachers and administrators all become the means to achieve set ends. We don’t know how to make this objective system adaptable to people’s needs, and those most in need of equity may require the most adaptable system.

  1. Is there an alternative?

Research on how to educate people to solve problems supports something quite different. Daniel Pink lays out the research in his book, Drive. He strongly suggests that autonomy, or choice and purpose, or setting personal goals, is fundamental to engage people in complex tasks, including learning.

In addition to choice and purpose people want time to explore and discover. Too often we seem blind to the positive effects of providing opportunities for people to learn without fear of blame or shame.

  1. What does this mean for how we organize education?

Students, teachers, administrators, and those who support them, like publishers, need to learn from each other. This means flat rather than vertical organizations. Reflective exploration trumps top-down evaluations.

What’s challenging is that both approaches …vertical and flat… use the same words— accountability, equality, quality, personalization—but these words convey surprisingly different ideas.

When command-and-control advocates talk equality, they refer to people having the same standard and measurement no matter what they want. When discussing personalized learning, they give the learner no choice about what or when she will learn or how her learning will be evaluated. The standard, grade level and assessment are dictated by the prescription programmed on the institutional calendar.

What may be personalized in this impersonal experience is the intervention, the remediation based on formative assessments.

Personalization for the flat-learning community focuses on autonomy: the importance of students having a choice inspired by a sense of purpose. This group also uses personalized feedback loops but builds from student’s self-assessments developed and shared in exploratory conversations. The learner and those who support her make adaptations based on insights about goals and difficulties.

  1. Do we have to choose between authority and autonomy?

We have to be aware of the effects of each. We have to know the high price we pay for top-down management. If students are invited to reflect on how to improve the quality of learning and performance, then there will be motivation and many skills will develop.


If students keep portfolios that demonstrate progress and strategies for dealing with difficulties, they become responsible for observing, documenting, and reflecting on what occurs.

These two variables, choice and self-assessment, are cornerstones of the flat learning community that are absent from our current top-down system.

  1. Can these divergent approaches be joined?

That’s the question. To combine these we will have to loosen our concept of standards. We need to see that most skills worth developing do not fit in a tightly tied package of testable abilities.

Most skills cannot be applied in isolation. Problem solving is interdisciplinary. It involves many kinds of knowledge about one’s self, about observing, thinking, and doing in the world.

General standards can be useful roadmaps, but what, when and how a student learns and demonstrates progress needs to be more flexible.

  1. Can knowledge from psychology and pedagogy help?

Our founding fathers maintained we have a right to an education; so each of us can participate intelligently in public discourse and can pursue a life of liberty (self-government + prosperity), and happiness.

Less understood by them was the psychology of becoming an autonomous individual who understands how to pursue personal and collective happiness.

The last several decades generated bedrock insights in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, sociology and anthropology. We know that there are stages in emotional and cognitive development. This research supports century-old insights that learning improves when there is strong social support. This research is changing centuries of management practices as applied to all kinds of institutions.

Unfortunately, schooling which should be the premier learning organization, is not fully implementing these insights. Some of our most powerful, most well funded initiatives work against what learning sciences tell us.

  1. What does this research say about day-to-day learning?

Book learning followed by tests without intrinsic learner interest and without significant practical or social experience is inefficient; it is dysfunctional. Such pseudo-academic approaches contribute to under achievement, boredom, bullying, drug and alcohol abuse and teen pregnancy for the many students who are insufficiently motivated and lack needed background knowledge, study skills and a sense of purpose and belonging.

  1. So our current curriculum produces many of the problems we expect education to solve?

Look at the clicks, bullying, suicides, drinking, drugs and other escapist behaviors at all grades. Our curricula and how we assess creates tremendous unhappiness and insecurity in students and teachers.

  1. How does the flat learning organization change this?

People are most creative, intelligent and empathetic when they are true to themselves and when they are intrigued by the task, see it as meaningful, and feel they have a choice and will be supported not judged. The more an individual is managed in ways that support self-management the more likely that person is to develop intelligence and self-esteem.

10) Why do we continue to build a command-and-control culture that ignores these facts?

On the surface it appears to provide the most stability for those who run the system. It enables everyone to know exactly what is expected and when. Textbooks, and now our next generation of one-size-fits-all standards and tests, are designed for daily stability.

It also gives the often-out-of-touch people at the top a sense of power. At least if the system isn’t producing by this or that set of measures, I can fire the bad guy and hire a new guy. So, as a politician or manager I’m responding based on data; I’m being scientific and accountable in a system designed with failure built in.

  1. You describe a tragic paradox. Is there a way forward?

Our National Seal states that diversity is the path to unity. To build unity from diversity we must educate not by lecturing at the expense of listening, judging at the expense of inquiry and reflection.

We must trust, and then embrace, the fact that autonomy carefully nourished leads to deeper levels of order and creativity than are achieved by authoritative systems.

These principles are so important because we are building a knowledge-culture and economy that we hope will guide the world toward responsible individuality. We rely on this quality of individuality to demand and then manage democratic processes. Yet, in our schools we fail to make conscious the structures that control our lives.

  1. How do you see the future?

We will invest heavily in programs to take advantage of our digital tools. But if we ignore the basic principles of human development, principles that align with our national values and the new economies we must build, we will erect systems that undo the opportunities we seek to create.

The future of education can’t be built by politicians, institutions or technologists alone. The future has to be discovered by informed conversation, by applying an evolving science of human development and learning.

The way to democracy is intelligence in its many forms. It depends on autonomy and autonomy depends on trust. The question we must answer is how we create organizations, from families to schools, governments to businesses that foster trust.

Where measurement and formative assessment can nourish trust and autonomy, let’s use these tools. Where these systems dull the intellect and limit individual development, let’s be mindful of their limiting effects and not let what could be helpful tools stifle us.

Both the interviewer and interviewee would like to thank Tom Watkins for introducing Jon’s work and promoting it!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.