Customers or Product?

I’m back in Olympia for the Washington State Teacher of the Year conference.  This time not as a honoree but as a content presenter.  I jumped at the chance to get back over the mountains and hang out with awesome teachers. I was able to present with the 2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year Katie Brown on using social media tools like Twitter to build a personal learning network.  It went well and the conversations that followed were as rich and interesting as I’d hoped they’d be.  However, I was asked a question that brought me back to probably my roughest moment during the process last year.  I still am not happy with my answer so I thought I’d try to articulate it here.

The entire Teacher of the Year weekend is one big blur of meetings, conferences and presentations on how to present yourself and your passions in a public forum.  We spent a significant amount of time crafting our “platforms”, what we’d like to focus on for our year of service.  I struggled mightily when it came to my turn to pick an issue that I could use as my platform.  I went through so many different versions and drafts that I’m not even sure what I ended up settling on as my final “elevator speech” to describe my passions.  This failure to articulate myself stands as a glaring blemish on an otherwise amazing experience.

As I arrived at the conference hall this weekend I was asked by this year’s crops of nominees what I had settled on as my platform.  They’d apparently just gone through the same process that I’d struggled with last year.  I stammered a (in my mind) lame response about how I was passionate about using social media tools to forge connections between excellent educators around the world.  While it’s true that I’m very grateful for the wealth of information and professional growth that my personal learning network affords me, it isn’t where my passions lie.  I’m still not sure I can articulate my platform but I wish I’d been able to say something more along the lines of…

In our current educational system, there are two schools of thought about the role of students.  One side views students as the PRODUCT of education.  They write missions statements with the idea that schools create “responsible, ethical and useful citizens”.  It is the duty of the school to produce capable members of society with the skills and tools to contribute to the betterment of our democracy.  In this view, our schools have a patriotic duty to emphasize habits like grit, persistence, hard work, punctuality and community.  To this end, student progress is measured as a means of quality control and the educational experience is standardized as much as possible.  Our product (the students) is compared with similar products in other countries and ranked.  Much consternation and hang wringing follows if the quality of our product doesn’t measure up to other nations.

The other side of the coin views students as the CUSTOMER of education.  Schools exist as a means to give students the opportunity to experience a myriad of different opinions and points of view as they discover their own natural passions and abilities.  Students are expected to create meaning as they struggle to solve real-world problems.  Failure is not viewed as a symptom but as an important part of the learning process.  Grades are used as feedback, not as a ranking tool and schools adjust instruction in response to the student’s needs.  Schools with this mindset write mission statements with an eye towards a student discovering their own natural passions and abilities as they continue their life-long journey of discovery.  Schools only fail when they are unable to provide the appropriate opportunity for a student to find their own place and voice in the world.  Education is individualized as much as possible and assessment is a conversation, not a spreadsheet.

I would like to see our nation’s schools break their addiction to standardization and testing as a method of quality control.  We need to stop worrying about other nation’s kids and build a generation of careful and critical thinkers who have tried and failed just enough to know what they can and cannot do and aren’t afraid to push their mental and physical limits.  We need students who can identify in themselves their own passions and convictions and can pursue those passions and voice their convictions with energy and enthusiasm.  We should stop focusing on minimum standards and start asking our students to push themselves to their absolute limits just to see what happens.  I am absolutely convinced that the energy and passion of a motivated student is an invaluable untapped national resource that we need to mine more effectively.

That is my platform.  All I need to do now is fit that into an elevator speech!

2 thoughts on “Customers or Product?

  1. Love this idea: ” build a generation of careful and critical thinkers who have tried and failed just enough to know what they can and cannot do and aren’t afraid to push their mental and physical limits. We need students who can identify in themselves their own passions and convictions and can pursue those passions and voice their convictions with energy and enthusiasm.” I agree completely.

    And this is something I’m working on: ” Education is individualized as much as possible and assessment is a conversation, not a spreadsheet.”

    It is the conversations that encourage students to improve, when our class work is valuable enough that students want to improve.

    Our Google Apps allow that conversation to continue online through peer and teacher comments on student work, offering feedback on what is done well and suggestions for what could be better. The focus is on the work, not a grade.

    Congratulations, again, on your work and that recognition as “Teacher of the Year.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.