Please Stop Trying to Manufacture Students!

Gardening is a better metaphor than manufacturing.

So much of how we talk about education today implicitly adopts a manufacturing metaphor in which schools are the “producers” of graduates who are “successful” in college and in their career.

We talk about the output we want — the “graduate profile” of students who come out of our system (graduate profiles define the competencies and skills they should have developed by graduation). And, borrowing even more overtly from the manufacturing world, we talk about “continuous improvement” in student achievement (in manufacturing continuous improvement is an approach to streamlining processes and reducing waste).

The underlying narrative is, “To succeed in the workforce, kids will need to be x, y, and z. Therefore, schools should be set up to make graduates who are x, y, and z. And, we should work to ensure our processes are as efficient as possible in creating graduates who are x, y, and z.”

In other words, “Teachers, here’s the profile we want — now go create kids who fit the mold. Oh, and by the way, we’re going to hold you accountable for making sure every child fits that mold through extensive ‘quality’ assurance testing”.

Seems obvious and rational, right?

But this is a poor metaphor for schooling, founded on a poor understanding of human development and what the role of schools is within it [i].

The truth is that you cannot manufacture students anymore than you can manufacture a tomato.

Kids cannot be engineered, produced, or manufactured into a particular graduate profile. As the Heinz ketchup bottle proclaims, they are “grown, not made”.

Kids are more like tomatoes than widgets.

We need a different metaphor.

Schooling is more like gardening than manufacturing.

It’s often said but infrequently acted upon that schooling is more like gardening than engineering. But what does that really mean?

One obvious difference is that the manufacturer has direct control over the outputs, while gardeners can only control the environment. No gardener would say they are responsible for the potential or outcome of a specific seed — that they are “making” a tomato. A gardener, like an educator, cannot precisely determine outcomes by calculating inputs and minimizing variability in a process.

Gardeners and educators cannot control outcomes: they can only create an environment rich for potentialities.

This does not mean that there is no thought, planning, or science involved. It’s just that the science is different than it is in manufacturing. Expert gardeners do not leave development up to chance — they plan carefully for their plants’ needs!

For instance, gardeners ensure their plants have the right conditions for growth: they prepare the soil, consider the direction of the sun, build structures to support immature plants’ growth when it cannot yet support its own weight, and supplement the soil with the right kinds of nutrients.

They also are protective and remove threats: they consider interactions between species and place certain plants together and separate others; they weed to protect their vegetables from other plant threats; and, and they erect fences and other defenses to protect the garden from hungry animals.

Another way to put this is that it’s not the gardener’s job, or even within her power, to encourage, force, change, or supplement what is within the seed — to “create” a plant. Gardeners know that nearly every seed has the potential to grow into a healthy plant of its kind — every acorn has the potential to be an oak tree and every sunflower seed the potential to be a sunflower.Instead, the gardener’s job is to know the seed and how its species thrives and then tenderly care for it by creating the right environment in which that seed can achieve its fullest potential expression.

Furthermore, no one blames the seed for not achieving its full potential in the wrong environment.

An acorn dropped on concrete is not at fault for failing to grow into a mature oak tree — its potential was there, but the environment did not allow it to express its potential.
Yet we blame teachers and students for their outcomes and growth, without assessing the environment they are in, every.single.day.

As with plants, children (and in fact all humans) interact and develop in relationship with their environment: the environment provides resources and realities with which a child interacts and through these interactions, she grows: she comes to know herself, develop her capabilities, and create an understanding of the world.

Just as nearly every acorn in the right environment will grow to be an oak tree, nearly every individual will have the tendency to evolve and integrate a healthy, authentic sense of self[ii]. But, healthy growth is not guaranteed: the process can be interrupted or thwarted if environmental conditions present obstacles to development.

One condition for growth is that core needs are met. The core needs of a plant are sunlight, water, and rich soil. Without the right combination of these elements, we know a plant will not grow to its full potential.

Humans also have core needs that must be filled, yes physical needs like water and food, but also social psychological needs like autonomy, competence, relatedness, and meaning[iii].

Source: Raab 2017

When these needs aren’t met, it’s impossible for humans to grow to their full potential, because part of the energy (often subconsciously) is oriented toward trying to fill these core needs. Just as a plant in a poorly lit room will grow toward the sun, human behavior will subconsciously seek to fill its core social psychological needs. Children may throw tantrums to get attention, for instance, if they are not feeling seen or like they have enough connection with loved ones (need for relatedness).

The design of schooling is first and foremost, is about creating environments in which people’s core needs are met so they can grow, flourish, and learn to live together — NOT about creating or manufacturing a certain profile of student.

Our power does not come from defining the outcomes we want and measuring them. While we care about outcomes, through obsessively measuring and standardizing on outcomes — i.e. utilizing a manufacturing approach — we abdicate our real power: creating environments that meet students’ core needs and allow them to flourish and grow.

Before we ask, “how can we continuously improve student test scores?” or, “how do we maximize high school graduation rates?” we need to ask, “have we provided an environment that is rich for growth?”

If a school’s aim is to ensure children are empowered to act with character, competence and confidence in the world after graduation, or to develop a set of specific competencies, then its first focus must be on ensuring the environment it creates in the school as a whole, and in the classroom, provides the necessary conditions for growth.

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Curious what this actually looks like in the classroom? Check out Nicole Hensel’s blog post for REENVISIONED.

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[i] 1. Nearly all of the 21st century narratives adopt an efficiency lens (see more here), which is not useful for designing the practice of schools.

2. Most frameworks think about competencies in terms of what will be needed for the workplace, and not for a broader definition of a flourishing life or a thriving democracy.

3. They nearly all focus solely on individual purposes for school and ignore the larger role our schooling system serves in forming the collective.

4. It fundamentally misunderstands how learning and growth occur — not in a linear process of inputs creating predictable effects, but non-linearly, socially, and in a negotiated meaning-making process that is always evolving.

[ii] See Deci and Ryan’s extensive research on core needs for more on this here and here.

[iii] See Raab 2017, “Why School?: A Systems Approach to Creating Schooling for Flourishing Individuals and a Thriving Democratic Society” for a more full discussion of this.