We Create Widgets, Students Create Us

This post originated from a conversation I was having with a very talented teacher reflecting on an issue he was trying to overcome in the programming of his class. As we were discussing various ways to circumvent the problem or innovate to a better solution; our discussion ranged from school scheduling, state standards and requirements to what is best for students and the direction in which we wanted to head. It was at this point that he said something that really struck me due to its simplicity and absolute truth.

It’s too bad people are trying to make education so much like a business because there are no dumpsters in education. When a product doesn’t work in business they throw it out and start over. We do not have that option in education.  We don’t throw kids out because they aren’t exactly what we want them to be.

That got me to thinking about how most businesses rely on replicating the most efficient process on a single product that turns out the same common result in an effort to maintain the highest margin possible. They do this by starting with specific, common parameters and inputs.  My question is this?  What is the highest margin for students and how do you achieve that? Students are unique human beings and therefore, require a different approach each time to achieve the same result. If we are to help them reach that deeper understanding that qualifies them for a diploma or proof of mastery in certain subjects and behaviors that prepare them for success in every or any area they decide; we must throw out the template and respond to their needs as individuals and what they bring to the table.

Some informal trips to classrooms, observations of students, ad reflections with teachers led me to these four ways to let students show you what they need to succeed.  With a little innovation we will find that it is indeed possible to escape that widget mentality, address where students are, give them responsibility, and as a result help them achieve as much as possible.

Don’t Teach…Mentor

You are not the sage…you are here to lead students to greater knowledge by building a relationship, making mistakes, and learning how they grow best.


Think of any relationship you had with a coach.  Did they know everything or did they learn about you and alongside you to help you craft success based on your strengths instead of highlighting your weaknesses?  There is a ton of knowledge available at everyone’s fingertips today.  It is no longer a matter of knowing something. Students must be able to apply that knowledge if it is to be of any value.  This is a process.  The role of the teacher should be to guide the student through the process as they figure out what knowledge applies to their current situation to answer the problem they face. Because they will figure it out with the proper coaching.

Relinquish Control

The best way to gain control of a situation is to realize you have none and then control yourself.


When we struggle for control over students we create an adversarial relationship.  This damages their ability to learn anything being taught.  Building a positive and professional relationship with students is the key to opening new opportunities.  When a student pushes back against the plan or acts inappropriately, that relationship allows you to call them o it in a manner that teaches them boundaries, self control, and goal setting.  I was in a classroom where the teacher was trying to play a video the students had made to show their understanding of a topic.  It wouldn’t play (awkward with the Principal in the room) and the teacher began to get frustrated and struggle with the technology. He has a relationship with the students that resulted in a student coming up, pulling up the video on her phone (it was in a Google Classroom), and asking the teacher to get the document camera ready.  She then plugged her headphones into the jack and streamed the video (over 4G) on her phone under the document camera so it projected for the whole class. The teacher laughed and thanked the student over the cheers of the class (and comments that it looked like a pirated movie).  The teacher could have shut that down and everyone would have missed the student work. He didn’t and by doing so validated the importance and work of many of the students.


Understand that students understand…just differently

Our understanding of a topic is perfect in our own eyes, but so is a bruised apple from the good side.

Understanding relies heavily on perspective. I remember those pictures that were two in one.  The image would change once you looked at the shading differently.  This is why it is incredibly important to let students show their understanding in ways that make sense to them.  We put so much weight on standardized tests that we forget the students who may show their understanding in a much deeper, richer way given the chance.

Remember that you must change…

I believe John F. Kennedy said it best when he said; “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”learning2


Even more importantly for educators is the fact that, due to today’s world, we are no longer the drivers of change, but instead those who illustrate just how much is possible as a result.  It is easy to become complacent.  Life happens.  Often at a very fast pace that keeps you moving so that the quicker you can create a routine, the easier things seem.  It is imperative that we all continue to learn throughout the course of our life.  If we don’t, we will stay the same, fall into a negative mindset because “this generation just doesn’t get it.” The question we need to ask is what don’t they get? The new, different world in which they live or the memories we have become comfortable with that are ready to be put in a textbook?

Learning in new situations is about perspective taking. How can we expect to teach or lead if we are unable to empathize with what is the very relevant, personal, and personal perspective of our student? Widgets are made with molds. Students are made around molds, so that they may remain creative individuals full of possibilities.

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