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.

What Would Thomas Edison Do on an Assembly Line?

Ford_assembly_line_-_1913What would Thomas Edison do if he worked on an assembly line? That is the strange question that popped into my head on Tuesday morning. My first thought was that he would do the same thing as everyone else, because an assembly line does not celebrate expressions of genius, innovation, or individual preference. As far as I know, it doesn’t recognize or reward extraordinary thoughts or actions. It depends upon compliance, conformity, and predictably ordinary actions. There is a narrow scope of what a person can or can’t do on an assembly line. Either you get the work done, or they find another person to do it.

Is there a lesson here for how we think about school, the design of learning experiences and workforce development? Some argue that not everyone can or will be a Thomas Edison, so we need to prepare them for reality. Prepare the masses for jobs with repetitive tasks and a narrow scope of actions. Teach them to listen, follow instructions, and have a strong work ethic. This is a good list of qualities. Followership, listening and hard work are commendable traits. Plus, I don’t want to disrespect the noble work of people of the past and present in factories. Martin Luther King’s famous words about work apply in the factory as much as the board room.

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Why not “Here lived a great assembly line worker?” Yet, factory jobs in the United States are on the decline. While 1 in 4 worked in factories back in the 1970s, that number has dwindled to less than 1 in 10 today. This is a worldwide trend as more factory jobs are automated. When it comes to workforce development, many workforce training companies focus on the fish distribution approach. Give them specific skills for a specific job. That makes for good return customers, because when they need new skills for a new job, how will they get them?

I’m reminded of John Taylor Gatto’s list important abilities for people in today’s world (in Weapons of Mass Instruction). He argued that people need to be able to frame problems without a guide, ask hard questions, challenge assumptions, work alone, and work in teams with little or no direction. They need to be able to create and use heuristics, extract meaning from large collections of data, and discuss important issues and work toward decisions that benefit society. They need to be able to categories and imagine new ways to categories or make sense of information, and to think in complex ways with the goal of solving problems. In other words, people need to be have abilities like Thomas Edison.

The web and education conferences are full of declarations that it is time to leave behind the factory model of education if we want to prepare people for a largely post-industrial world. In fact, we’ve been having such a conversation for 40-50 years in education. Many K-12 schools have changed curricula in response to the challenge, but the processes and environment lags further behind, continuing to reflect the attributes of the factory: bells, scripted schedules; segmented tasks and topics; rating and evaluation of student performance using a system not unlike how we rate milk, meat and bonds; heavy emphasis upon rules, structure and protocol.

Menlo_Park_Laboratory_of_Thomas_Edison_site_of_the_Invention_of_the_light_bulb_in_Dearborn,_Michigan_at_Greenfield_Village_The_Henry_Ford_Museum_from_Menlo_Park,_New_JerseyThere is room for order, system, and rules; but perhaps we are better suited to take a few notes from Edison’s real workplace instead of the assembly line approach to education. As we think about the design of learning communities and spaces, and as we think about workforce development, what if we instead looked to Edison’s labs? His Menlo Park research laboratory no doubt had rules, and there were certainly technicians at work. Yet, it was a place of experimentation and exploration. It was a place with almost every imaginable type of material of the day, everything from screws to sharks teeth, chemicals to silk. It was a place that expected, celebrated and nurtured disciplined, curious minds.