April 26, 2006

The Three Little Pigs

It is frequently said that educating children is not like making widgets because every child is different. As a result, the end quality of the widget is highly dependent upon the material with which you start. Some of the starting material is simply defective and will never produce a suitable widget.

There is, of course, a grain of truth in this argument. But, based on NAEP, about two thirds of our educational widgets roll of the assembly line broken. Educators would have us believe that all the broken widgets are due to defective starting material because their underlying assumption is that they presently are doing the best that they can.

I think there is sufficient research out there that convincingly shows that no more than about 10% of the starting material is fatally defective. This means that about 85% of the broken widgets produced by our education system are not the result of defective material, but rather the result of a broken manufacturing process (the instructional delivery system).

With these parameters in mind, let's analyze the starting material.

Sure, the material comes in differing qualities. Most of the material is average quality. Some is below average and some is of exceptional quality. As I've pointed out above, 90% of the material is capable of being crafted into an acceptable finished widget. But, some of the material will take a great deal of skill to fashion, while some of the material almost builds itself. The weakest material will always result in the vast majority of broken end products. And, the best material will have the fewest.

Let's use the story of the three little pigs to illustrate the point (as if I haven't tortured this metaphor enough already).

The Brick House

The pig with the bricks (the best material) doesn't have to build his house that carefully. It will easily stand up to the big bad wolf. Even with sloppy building, the brick house will often be the strongest and will produce the least number of houses unable to withstand the wolf.

The Wood House

The pig with the wood (average material) has to attend to more details in building his house and has to employ a good design or else it won't stand up to the wolf. Even with careful building, the wood house most likely will not be as strong as the the brick house. And, more of the wood houses will fail when the wolf comes.

The Straw House

The pig with the straw (the weakest material) has a very difficult job ahead of him. He has to build his house very carefully and has to monitor the process every step of the way. He has to use efficient and advanced building techniques to make sure the house is up in time before the wolf comes a knockin'. Any errors are potentially fatal, especially errors building the foundation. This pig has to get everything exactly right and work at an accelerated pace or he'll get eaten by the wolf.

Even with careful building, the straw house will most likely be weaker than the wood house. But the well built straw house can withstand the wolf when he comes. But, overall, the greatest number of failures will be straw houses.

In education today, the craftsmanship standard is average to sloppy. Most brick houses stand up, some of the wood ones do too, but almost none of the straw ones do.

And bear in mind that in most states the big bad wolf is emphysemic.


Anonymous said...

ditto that

I had a conversation with a mom this morning whose 3 children were all super-stars (first one went to Yale & found it easy, etc.)

She told me about the private school she'd sent them to, and said that the school basically crushed the kids, giving them far too much work in far too little time - which I'm beginning to think may be a standard scenario in a certain type of private-school-aiming-at-the-Ivies

Her own daughter could manage, because she was a superstar. She was at the top of everything - academics, sports, etc.

Many of the other kids could not manage the workload on their own, and their parents hired tutors. This was routine, apparently.

Her take was that these were highly competitive parents who wanted their kids to get into Ivy League schools & had hired tutors in order to 'keep their children in a school where they didn't belong.'

Anonymous said...

I think this is an apt metaphor, but...who's the wolf? Is it "the system"? Teachers?

As for the widget metaphor, I do agree that it's overly simple, but I would like to point out that defects in widgets along the way, as a result of conditions within the widget machine, or circumstances beyond the machine, like climate even.

Ah, and I've been meaning to ask, since you are such an advocate for improving motivation in instruction: do you have any suggestions to make my 10th grade English students read the books I assign them? I've tried discussion, quizzes, at least 5 different reading strategies, discussing short term and long term purposes of reading in general and the particular assignments...There are still several who just refuse, and I'm not sure what else I can do. Any ideas?

KDeRosa said...

Hi Laura

The wolf just an arbitrary deadline -- being able to read at the end of first grade, being ready to pass the state's fifth grade exam, completing the school year at grade level, etc.

The defective widgets along the way would be included in my initial defective pool. For whatever reason these widgets won't become a suitable finished product due to defects in the widget itself (the student with severe cognitive defects) or external factors (habitual truancy).

Motivation in 10th grade is dependent on motivation in k-9th grades. If the student wasn't motivated in 9th grade, you probably won't be able to motivate him in 10th. I hear 5th grade or so as being the last time a student can be re-motivated, then peer effects take a more prominent role.

Motivation is highly dependent on the student actually learning. If the student is learning he can be motivated. If he isn't, external motivation is unlikely.

Have you determined whether these students are actually capable of reading? Students would rather be bad than to look dumb in front of their peers.

I'd bet that most, if not all of these students have no business being in 10th grade and probably have been socially promoted through the grades and have serious gaps in their skills and knowledge. Their reading ability is probably slow and labored.

Anonymous said...

5th grade? That's sad, but does not sound inaccurate. The strange thing is that two of my worst readers in my present class (I only have 1 English this semester) do put out effort to complete their work at least half of the time, which is probably double what at least 3 of my best readers, whose writing is surprisingly complex (when they actually turn a sample out--in front of me) and who read aloud rather well. I know these 3 at least that I'm thinking of could do so much if they would just engage with the text--and I think they know it too, but they still don't want to!

So would you suggest greater interaction between high school and middle school (if not primary) teachers at least to resolve this lack of motivation?

KDeRosa said...

Ideally, all the work between K and 12 should be aligned.

Schools should start at the end and determine what they want students to have learned (e.g., calculus by 12th grade) then work backwards to K making sure all the necessary pre-skills are in place to succeed a the next level and wind up at the end.

This would be a huge benefit to teachers and students. (4th grade teachers would only get students who have mastered the third grade material.) This way the teacher only has to teach 4th grade material. Grouping should be done by ability rather than age.

EdWonk said...

Both educational and entertaining. We've linked this post over at The Education Wonks.

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

I like the extended metaphor.

graycie said...

Nice analogy -- to torture it a bit further: Did the brick-house pig have mortar? Did the wood-house pig have nails and a hammer? Did the straw-house pig have enough material to bind and secure his house? If teachers are the pigs, and the pigs don't have enough materials or enough time to build strong houses, then what?

(I agree with what you have laid out here -- I just think it's more complex.)

BF said...

Of course it's more complex, but accurately describing the problem would kill the metaphor.

What about the fact that the pigs never get to work with only one building material? That it might cost $10 to build the brick house, but the pig is only given $8.50?

Sure, we could go on, but it's easier to just point out the underlying fact that most teachers (apparently, 90%) are failures.

I do appreciate the argument and I am not oblivious to the fact that system isn't perfect, but focusing on the negative without offering a viable solution doesn't help anyone.

Anonymous said...


I would like to comment on your readers. Many of today's learners HATE busy work. If they view your assignments as BUSY WORK, forget it. Your good readers probably see no "Value added" in reading your materials. My opinion is from personal experience. This is why I got such average grades in mathematics. I didn't do the busy work, but I aced the exams.


Anonymous said...

Bryan Bessette, that's the most troubling thing of all perhaps--they will ONLY do busy work. I can give them worksheets, and they're on them like white on rice. Give them meaningful, creative assignments, things that involve their opinions and world views? And they'd rather not try!