Students are Not Products. Or Are They?

What type of student should schools produce today? That was the question that I read in an article today. At first, I read it and translated it to mean what we typically think when we hear such a question. Namely, it is about what students should know and be able to do upon graduation. In fact, when we talk about the “big picture” of education today, this ends up becoming the focus of the conversation. This time, however, instead of jumping to thoughts about outcomes, I paused to consider the language choice in that question.

This question draws upon a production metaphor. If we are asking about what kind of student we want to produce, then that assumes that students are products. Browse your favorite online dictionary quickly to see what comes up when you look for the definition of “products.” You will find a variety. My “go to” source is the Online Oxford English Dictionary, which provided me a few insights.

The first definition is, “An article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale.” The second is, “A thing or person that is the result of an action or process.” So, the first definition points us to that factory concept that many critique in education, but the second did not. It suggested a definition of product that applies to people influenced by an action or process. We can find many ancient metaphors for human learning that relate to this second definition. People are clay that is molded. People are art that is created. People are plants that are grown.

So, I turned to the etymology of the word next. Starting with “product”, I kept being sent to the verb, “produce.” For that, we can find the Latin origin of the word.

producere “lead or bring forth, draw out,” figuratively “to promote, empower; stretch out, extend,” from pro “before, forth”

Given that I often explore the etymology of words used in modern education, this meaning struck me as rather close to yet another common word today that has a Latin origin. I’m referring to the word “education.”

mid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanish educar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,”

Do you notice anything?

So, are students products? Is it good, wise, or valuable to refer to students and education today using the product term or dominant metaphors associated with that term? I’ll leave that up you to.

However, the Latin seems to draw us to another valuable way of thinking about education. We can think of it as a bringing out and a leading forth. Maybe that points us to another set of questions to consider. How can schools bring out the best in students? How can schools lead students forth, embracing the challenges and opportunities of life and learning in this contemporary age? How can we bring out the gifts, talents, and abilities in young people in ways that help them flourish and be a blessing to those around them?

To me, these are far more inspiring questions can asking about what students we should produce.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

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