Several years ago, I had the chance to visit a number of schools in Kenya that had been started specifically for impoverished children—Nairobi has an estimated 100,000 orphans living on the street, and these schools reached out to them.
One school particularly stuck out in my experience. It was called Impala, and when we arrived there in a van that had taken us over the unfinished roads of a slum outside Nairobi, we were greeted by teenage students who opened the gates for us. The students, all orphans with HIV/AIDS who lived at the school, showed us into the building that they maintained. They gave us a tour of the bakery where they made bread that was sold locally.
Then they brought us to the younger children who they were helping with math assignments that one of the few adult teachers in the school had assigned. Those children brought us to the youngest children at Impala, infants who they were caring for by swaddling them, feeding them, and playing with them.
Impala was not just a school. It was a bakery. It was a nursery. It was a business. If you wanted to measure success at Impala, where students were producing almost everything at the school, you could measure how well they kept the school maintained, how well their baked goods were selling, and how healthy the babies were.
Why don’t we measure success in most schools this way? It is true that we are lucky enough not to need to have a thousand Impalas in which children are taking care of themselves from such a young age. But there is a more fundamental difference in how school is envisioned that Impala can impart to us.
When we measure success in schools, we ask how well students are doing. If we take an analogy to business: we are treating teachers as the producers and their students as the products.
This seems logical enough, but only if we accept the production metaphor: a strong school produces students with strong grades or test scores. Though initially obvious, this metaphor has a few unintended effects. When we imagine students as the product of the work, we imagine teachers as workers with, say, 50 or 100 or 150 products they are producing each year. This easily translates to the idea of, say, teacher evaluation systems that ask what value was added to each of those students. It translates to progress reports that ask how much movement on test scores each of those students has made. And it translates to a view of teachers as, essentially, the equivalent of assembly-line workers.
At Impala, it is clear that students are not in fact the products. A well-maintained nursery is the product. A batch of bread is the product. The building is the product. Students are the workers. And the adult teachers are the management, helping the workers to produce good projects.
What are the implications of this change in metaphor? What if we saw teachers as managers with a team of 100 workers helping them?
For one thing, we would evaluate teachers and schools differently, asking questions like “What have the teams working with you helped to create or produce?” Perhaps they would produce baked goods or well-cared-for infants. But, of course, there is a range of other products and services they could develop beyond that: they could add to scientific research, contribute to knowledge, offer services in their community, or provide support to those in need. Collaboration would be more valued and individual achievement viewed differently.
When we think of students as teachers’ staff working on shared problems, rather than as the products of their work, the idea of having simple test scores to judge every student would seem anathema. If you have ever worked in a workplace with 100 colleagues, can you imagine giving each one of them a grade from 1 to 100 that represents exactly what progress they made from year to year in the workplace? Perhaps such a grade could exist if you were an Amway salesperson, but in almost any other situation managers need to draw on the varied skills and talents of a team that contributes in diverse ways.
When we think of students as teachers’ staff working on shared problems, we recognize that teachers are not assembly-line workers producing 100 widgets a year. They are overwhelmed managers with a staff of 100—a staff who, let’s face it, still has a lot to learn and who they cannot (and should not) easily fire. Their job is as hard or harder than that of any business manager in America. They need a performance management system, not a gradebook, to help their staff know what they are working on together and figure out how to accomplish it.
This metaphor clearly has its problems, too. There are aspects of learning, individualized attention, and diverse potential that it can dangerously overlook. Yes, there are problems with this metaphor. But there are also problems with the metaphor that we currently seem to blindly accept, the metaphor through which it makes logical sense to give tests again and again to see whether the products of our schools are getting better, the metaphor through which the work of a teacher is seen largely as delivering content to make students better.
Not every school needs to be like Impala, but if there is something to learn from a school like Impala, it is this: reimagining our schools can start with freeing ourselves of the hidden assumptions we make to define what schooling is. Try on a new metaphor for schools and you might end up with a whole new way of imagining learning.