Steamrollers vs. Cranes

Steamrollers have one job: squashing things (including originality). Photo Source: jasonEscapist via flickr creative commons

Steamrollers flatten things: they get rid of bumps, imperfections and quirks. They put everything on an even level and crush differences. They work wonders on asphalt and cement and dirt. They’re great at construction sites and out in the street. They’re not so great, however, when used in classrooms and schools.

In industrial school systems (like those in America and Japan) there is a tendency to approach teaching like a steamroller does its job. We want everyone to produce the same answers, do well on tests, understand things in the same way and fit in obediently. As for disruptions? Variations? Mistakes? Well, those need to be stamped out – after all, we don’t want bumps or imperfections on the road to learning.

I think teachers (including my self at times) insist on form, perfection and obedience over creativity, originality, quality and passion. The result? In the quest to stamp out mistakes and disruptions we squeeze  the passion, creativity and originality out of our students.

Industrial approaches beget industrial machinery, and this approach to teaching turns our precious teachers into steamrollers. And if we are going to have discussions about inspiring passion in students, we also must have discussions about how we squeeze passion out of them.

I think you’d agree that flattening students out like this is a problem not just for the individual, but for a society and economy that actually needs students that graduate from school with creativity, originality and passion in tact. Crush all the buildings and we have a flat world; crush all the people and we have a flat future.

So is there an alternative?

Cranes build structures that reach for the sky. Photo Source: anroir via flickr creative commons

Yes, there is. As you know, the construction site (which, by the way, is a great metaphor for teaching) has plenty of machinery specialized for different tasks. We don’t drive steamrollers up the walls of buildings and expect to add new stories until the building is finished. No, we use cranes for that.

What’s the difference? Well, cranes don’t flatten things; they build them up. And this is what teachers ought to be doing: finding the strengths in each individual and building on top of that.

Crane work encourages diversity, it’s interactive, it gets input from students, it sees what they are capable of and then attempts to build on that. Instead of lumping students together and using drill and repetition to ensure obedience (flatness), teachers act like high-rise cranes at a construction site, contributing to a base of acquired knowledge and skill with input from students. Rather than squashing students into one, faceless chorus we are providing room to grow. The difference in degree is small but noticeable.

I realize this discussion is abstract in its current state of talking about teaching in terms of construction machinery, but I hope you see my point. Steamrolling is a common shortcut to teaching that gives the appearance of   effectiveness because it silences questions and encourages obedience.

I have some examples of these approaches that I would like to share in the coming weeks. For now please comment and share your reactions.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly that the classroom should be a place of creativity! I believe that the current approach to teaching English in Japan fails to encourage enthusiasm or even easy understanding of this complicated foreign language. It’s inspiring to know that someone else feels the same way.

      • It’s definitely one aspect of school life that I continually struggle with.

        It bugs me when I see other teachers flattening students out like steamrollers, demanding obedience. But it especially bugs me when I am the one responsible for it — because heck, sometimes it becomes important for every person to be on the same page.

        A balance definitely needs to be struck between the two extremes of asking for obedience and encouraging creativity. However, l’d like to see more teachers fighting for the later — because there’s probably 100 teachers for every 1 that asks her students to question authority, feel passionate about a subject, pursue creative pathways to solutions, etc.

        What are some ways that you try to encourage creativity with your students?

        • Whenever it fits, I try to design my worksheets with blank spaces in which I ask my students to write their own thoughts. 自分の考えで~ Sometimes they just sit there and stare into space; but they do that anyways. Sometimes there are students who truly don’t know what to do unless they are given a directive and a concrete answer. But once in a while, I get a thoughtful or witty response. And it isn’t always possible, but with one of my JTEs we always, ALWAYS ask for (and select) volunteers. It’s a great way to check answers (so I don’t have to make corrections on 100s of papers), and it is always fun to get volunteers who weren’t really expecting to volunteer, which helps keep the kids on their toes.

          • Wow! I really like your ideas. I’m going to put your “自分の考えで~” box on my next worksheet!

            “Sometimes there are students who truly don’t know what to do unless they are given a directive and a concrete answer.”

            -I see this in some of my students as well and it strikes at the core of the problem of “obedience-oriented” school systems. Happily, encouraging creative thinking in the types of ideas you said you bring to class works to combat this tendency of students to “blank” when they don’t have specific instructions.

            Like my hero Seth Godin says often on his blog and in his books, if we are training students for a factory job, then perhaps obedience to instructions is a good approach. If, however, we realize that the modern economy is about developing leaders with passion and original ideas, we need schools and teachers that nourish these skills in students.

            I can see you are on the right track!!

            Please tell me more of your ideas when you have the time. I’d like to hear them.

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