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?
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.