Students are Not Widgets (& a Must Read Book)

If you haven’t read Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica’s book, Creative Schools, I urge you to click here and buy a copy today. I am not overstating when I say that this is one of the ten most important education books of the last century. Robinson and Aronica highlight a critical issue in our education system, providing one of the clearest and most compelling arguments for why the modern standards movement is leading us and a future generation down a dangerous path. They explain how our industrial metaphor for education is partly to blame. Consider the following quote:

“Education is about living people, not inanimate things. If we think of students as products or data points, we miss understanding how education should be. Products…have no opinion about how they are produced or what happens to them. People do. They have motivations, feelings, circumstances, and talents.”

This critique of the industrial age is certainly nothing new, but Robinson and Aronica breath new life into this line of thinking. When you have a book like that, it doesn’t just provide information, it sparks new ideas and illustrations in the reader, and that is exactly what this book did for me. As I was reading the quote above, it reminded me of a story that further illustrates their point.

Long ago the ordinary way to pick a tomato was for a hand of a person to reach down and grab it from the plant. The human hand is a brilliant creation, sensitive enough to grab the tomato firmly (s0 that it comes off the plant), but not so firmly as to bruise or crush the tomato. The person would carefully place the tomato in the basket or other container, and walk through the field, giving each plant that same care and attention until the tomatoes were harvested. A team of people could efficiently harvest a field of tomatoes in a reasonable amount of time. With the industrial revolution, everything becomes about time and efficiency.

The more tomatoes you can pick in the shortest period while paying the fewest possible workers, the better. Enter the tomato harvester. Technological developments eventually led to machines that could do the task of dozens of workers in a fraction of the time, only there was a problem in some cases. Have you ever had a home-grown tomato and then compared it to one bought in your average grocery store? There is no comparison. The skin, flavor and flesh are qualitatively different. In some cases it is like comparing crackers with cardboard. Why is that? When you create a new technology, sometimes it runs into problems, like the tomato harvester bruising or damaging too many of the tomatoes. While you could adjust the system of tomato picking, another way is to focus on different types of tomatoes. Create or use a new breed of tomato, one that has thicker skin, more rugged, but also happens to have less flavor, hence the difference between many home-grown and store-bought tomatoes. They changed the tomatoes.

You are probably already making the connections to the education system. When we use an industrial metaphor for education, it has a tendency to drive us to the most efficient and scalable solutions. When things don’t work out, it is not the system or machine’s problem. We just need different types of students. So, we try to force students into the desired mold, proving that the system works. If the students don’t fit the system, they are problems.

There is a better way. Students are not widgets.