Mass Production of Individuals

Every student is a precious gift who deserves an educational experience that is at once self-paced and expertly guided; providing a constant but ever-changing  and perfect combination of challenge, relevance, support and blah-bitty blah blah, etc. You know…

And we all wish we could do that for our students.  Or, if we don’t wish we could, we used to imagine that we might be able to or want to. Or, lacking that, we reasonably assumed that our students might have endeavored to do more work on their own. But whatever the case, each student is a uniquely individual…individual…precious, wonderful gift.

Everybody will sign onto the idea of the precious gift. That’s easy. Less pleasing to the ear and the heart, but no less true, is that each student is nameless and interchangeable. The whole of public education is bureaucratic-services mass production. There are tens of millions of units to process every year; each then moves to the next production station. In the end we turn out brand new high school graduates and tally them. If we are going to do that, and even do a poor job of it, the precious gift model of production cannot be our practice.

We need to move product.

It doesn’t demean or trivialize students or teachers to say this. It’s simply a fact; a transparent, undeniable fact. If we could admit it and address it smartly, we could possibly make this whole operation much more efficient, productive and pleasant.

Any time there is some sort of repeated task to perform it’s worth taking it apart and thinking about how it could be done better. I only had to ship one box of six Teachbad mugs across the country and have all six handles break before I began to think more carefully about how to pack and ship them. It would be stupid to have 70 million kids in the system and not think to ourselves Hey, is there some part of this that can be streamlined and routinized so we don’t have to reinvent it and think about it brand new 70 million times every year?

This is actually the key insight of much of the education reform movement. Schools need teachers to do certain things and behave in certain ways, both administratively and instructionally, to have our best shot at producing massive amounts of well-educated people.

But the movement and its ideas have gone too far and become hopelessly complex and disorganized. Even if teachers still wanted to try to follow along and implement all of the strategies that work, they could not. Every state, district, principal and department chair examines the enormous menu of strategies that work and chooses a handful. They may contradict one another, they may not be well-understood or have ever been practiced by anybody in the school, and they may take an enormous amount of time. But they work. So we’re doin’ ‘em.

If they don’t work, we’ll pick new ones and fire some people. Etch-a-Sketch style.

Aside from being too great in number, the problem with mass implementation of strategies that work is that it bumps into the teacher’s instinct and desire to maintain a reasonable connection with the precious gift model of production. That’s why teachers are there in the first place. We want to give students more attention and work more closely with them as individuals. And if allowed to do this, if allowed to make mistakes while guided by people who have an interest in our genuine professional development, we will get better and better at teaching. Real teaching; not only improving our ability to feign compliance. Feigning compliance is obviously useful no matter what your line of work, but it has necessarily and sadly become something teachers spend way too much time on.

Your strategies that work might have worked for you, or you might have read about them in a journal, or you might have heard about them at a conference. But why does that automatically mean that I have to do it in my classroom? Along with your 14 other new ideas?

There are a lot of things teachers do to make public education run like the machine it is. But you have to leave us some professional space to do the actual teaching; the reason we came here in the first place. If you don’t, we’ll leave. We won’t go on strike. You’ll hardly notice it at first. But it’s already happening. Slowly but surely the people you really need to be in the classroom are leaving. They will eventually be replaced entirely by 4 million 26-year-old technocrats. Good luck with that.

This is all headed in the wrong direction.

Mr. Teachbad


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