Breaking the Education Vending Machine

Authored by Dean Julius

– from Roadside Lights by Eiji Ohashi

There is roughly one vending machine for every 25 people in Japan, the highest number of vending machines per capita in the world. It’s an often popularized factoid about the island nation, especially for Westerners. Just take a moment to think about what more than five million vending machines spread across a relatively small island looks like, where do they all go? It was certainly one of the more peculiarly distinctive realities of Japanese culture that I discovered while venturing around central Japan. It was both anachronistic and beautiful to walk through the woods in Nagano or the streets around a two-hundred year old ryokan (traditional, Japanese inns with tatami matts) to find, somewhere along the way, a lone vending machine with coffee, juice, and milk soda. If you’re curious about the latter, I won’t go down that rabbit hole, but you’re welcome to explore. Of course, my time in Japan was much bigger, more spiritual, and taught me so much more than what I found in coin operated machines, but vending machines are such a good metaphor for what I believe is happening, currently, in education. Insert money. Press a button. Receive. 

If you know me at all, you know that I’m serially optimistic. It’s a blessing and a curse. So apologies in advance if my title seems like click-bait or this blog breaks with my typical demeanor, but I’ve become increasingly worried, in the time of a pandemic especially, that students are losing their ability to self-start. That their ability to think creatively and independently, something I believe they (we all) inherently possess, has been lost, to some extent, in the time of COVID-19, post COVID-19, and in the age of Siri, Alexa, & the Google (I’m sure he’s tracking me as I type this). Students are traversing through schools like consumers, thirsty for soft drinks.

Last week, Mr. Brister told me about a thought experiment he did in class that caught my attention. He began class as he always does, roll call, housekeeping, the usual, but on the whiteboard were a set of clear, enumerated instructions for his students. They needed to create a short skit, entirely in Spanish. They were allowed to use any tools available to them, including the internet and WordReference–a reliable, digital source for translating–to help them craft their skits. And of course, they were allowed to partner up. However, the most important caveat of this assignment was they weren’t allowed to ask Mr. Brister any questions. They needed to achieve their goal entirely alone, using only each other, their tools, and the instructions provided. For just one hour and twenty-five minutes, they couldn’t ask their teacher for help. 

You might be asking, what’s the aim of such an assignment, beyond the obvious language learning outcomes. What might it prove to ask the students to work alone, without the help of their teacher? Moreover, what role does the teacher even play in a framework like this? To me, the answers are simple. Mr. Brister (and I would agree with him) wants to measure students’ independent, creative ability, in addition to their ability to complete a multi-step assignment, without needing to be given the precise means with which to accomplish the task. His goal, and invariably all of our goals as educators, are to equip our students with the tools they need, the skills necessary, to complete not just the tasks they face within our respective subjects, but more broadly–and perhaps more importantly–help lead them to finding themselves and their own capabilities. The same charge Virginia Woolf gives in her diary, “The thing is to free one’s self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.” To do this takes stepping back and giving students both the opportunity to succeed and to fail.

This is no easy task. Students, particularly middle school students, are quick to seek immediate validation and confirmation they’re on the right track, so are adults. I’m certainly guilty of this. Many students will ask at the beginning of a new task or assignment, “How do I do this?” or “How do you want us to do this?” or some other variation of these questions–before even attempting to try risking failure or finding success. And though this is, I would argue, quite lazy as an approach to learning, it is also a deeply human instinct—the desire for immediate gratification. It keeps students (all of us) from the harder work of trial and error. The latter involves risk, analysis, and the potential for much greater reward.

We’re all familiar at least with the scientific method: observe/ask questions, research, hypothesize, test, analyze results/data, conclude, and report. It’s a cyclical loop. It’s keystone is built on the idea that even if failure happens, there’s always more questions to ask; therefore, more to learn, repeating the loop again. But in a moment, culturally, historically, when it is so easy to simply ask, “Hey, Alexa?” or “Hey, Siri?” when the answers to simple and complex questions alike are just a Google search away, what incentivizes students engaging in high-level, thoughtful inquisition? After all, I can quickly tell you that a chef’s hat has precisely 100 pleats or that Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart once took an aviation joyride together to Baltimore, instead of attending a dinner in D.C. because Google. And while I’ll admit that these are simple trivia factoids, students, parents, anyone with a connection to the internet can quickly find whatever it is they’re looking for, without the need for much inquiry or creative problem solving for themselves. To be fair, this is also both the beauty of our current moment in history and also the problem. The ease with which we can access information is, frankly, pretty glorious, and quite helpful. But it’s equally exploitable, and occludes us from pondering, on our own, difficult questions. 

It is, I would argue, part of the reason why the news is saturated with headlines like, “Students use AI rewrite tool to beat plagiarism checks,” “NFT marketplace halts most transactions due to proliferation of fake and plagiarized tokens,” “Rand Paul admits his plagiarism ‘is my fault’.” It’s also why the Department of Justice and others in the US continue to battle with China over claims of intellectual property theft. Clearly, these few examples aren’t representative of every student or individual, but they represent a growing sentiment among teachers and leaders who have been trying to educate, work, and live in a more digitally saturated age—certainly in the midst of a pandemic that has forced life to go entirely online in a lot of ways. If you’re curious about how this fits into the metaphor I created above, you should know that the quest to “hack” vending machines is a tale as old as time. We love the idea of free munchies. You can look deeper into the realities of vending machine tomfoolery by reading this article in Slate if you’re interested, but the TL;DR is that it’s not worth your time trying to manipulate vending machines. I would also argue that it’s entirely counterintuitive to the value of education to try and cheat the systems; however, grade-based economies, like vending machine economies, do nothing if not encourage finding shortcuts to getting that delicious end goal—the grade, those potato chips.  

Students are not just more inclined to academic dishonesty in this framework. They’re also struggling to trust their own instincts and find validation in their own ability to get their work done. My earlier example from Mr. Brister’s class represents this problem precisely. He found that students were unable to complete the assignment without asking for validation or feedback or asking questions. They immediately began to ask him questions within the first few minutes of the assignment. “How do we do this?” they asked. “What do we need to get a ‘good’ grade?” But none of them were asking the more difficult, internal question of why Mr. Brister might be expecting them to take on a difficult challenge alone, why his decision to not help gives them more freedom to create their own work without the influence or pressure of trying to create purely to please Mr. Brister—a chance to find themselves in the assignment. Of course, this isn’t to say that the students are the issue entirely, in fact, I want to emphasize that I believe the system we’ve created, the grade based system, incentivizes finding shortcuts. So if anything, students are doing what the system encourages of them. And this is precisely why I’d like to encourage more inquiry-based learning that is entirely devoid of numerical valuation. 

Everyone wants validation. I get that. Affirmation and validation are my middle names, so I empathize on a fundamental, deep in my soul, level. It’s probably because I’m a four on the Enneagram. But so often we do things for the reward or the affirmation, not simply for the sake of doing, just like students are quick to complete work merely for the sake of a grade, an often arbitrary number. They complete work based on what they think their teacher will like, not work they’re necessarily fully invested in or proud of. This particular kind of student-teacher relationship, transactionalism, feels much more like vending machine economics and less like education. What I deeply desire as an educator, what I think all of us desire, is for students to care less about GPAs and whether or not they’re an A, B, C, or XYZ student, and more about the intrinsic value of what they do at school. Why learning matters and what they’re truly interested in. Something that is, some might argue, impossible to truly teach.

Grade-based economies in education force students to build identity around numbers, numbers that are, if we’re (educators) being completely honest, at times arbitrary. For example, completion grades, or zeroes given solely because a student didn’t do the work, which doesn’t tell us anything about their inherent ability to do an assignment–just that they did or didn’t do it. Students develop identities around these numbers. Parents and teachers communicate about students and characterize students based on these numbers e.g. “Susie has always been an A student”; “Joey was never an A student, but he’s certainly not a D student.” Likewise, when students make something, complete an assignment, or take an assessment, it often feels as though they’re engaging in a transaction with their teacher, one where they expect, in return for whatever effort they put in, a “good” grade. But if or when students are let down by the number they receive in return–like getting the wrong drink from the vending machine, or having their snack get stuck on the glass–they feel slighted, let down because, again, in an economy where they’re identities, their futures, are wedded to numbers, numbers are self-defining. Sure, having a grade creates incentives for timeliness/time management, learning to comply with rules and guidelines. But can these outcomes also be accomplished without a numerical grade? When was the last time my boss gave me a numerical grade for the work I do day in and day out? Assessment can still happen without numbers associated with said assessment, and this doesn’t take away the ability to gauge competency with skills. 

Authentic learning and work in the “real world” doesn’t, by and large, involve grades. Your physician, your dentist, your pilot on this upcoming Spring Break trip could have all been C students in their fields. But it doesn’t matter one way or the other. They’re still professionals. I care less about the grades they made and more about how they’re performing the skills they need, right now, to do their job. Conversely, in the grade-based model, students are buying progress from the education vending machine. The value of learning comes from the incentive of a good grade. Learning for the sake of learning is discouraged by the nature of the pressure to perform for a number. Students put in the work/effort necessary to get the item they want from the vending machine. I want an A; therefore, I perform and work accordingly. If I know a shortcut or way to jiggle the vending machine to make that A happen more easily, I might also take that opportunity, because, after all, gaming the system is part of navigating any numbers-based economic system. 

While I don’t have all of the answers, there are a few things I often return to. The idea that less is more, and that our emphasis as educators on what is deemed important needs to shift away from numerical metrics and homework to skills metrics and doing more work at school. 

  1. School should be shorter, not longer, in my view. At the very least, it should start later. There’s science behind this. Kids need more sleep and they stay up later, naturally. Here’s some brain picking from The Atlantic on this issue. Or if you don’t fancy reading more, here’s a video from the same source. More ideally than a longer day with a later start, intended to match the American 40 hour work schedule, our school days should be centered around the science of learning and best practices. The current model has little to nothing to do with the pedagogical efficacy of “teaching” students for seven plus hours a day. In the current systems of American education, students are at school from 7:30 am to sometimes 5:00 pm purely because parents need some place and someone to watch their children. I know this sounds harsh or perhaps critical, but I cast no judgment. I just think it’s an honest assessment of how the system is structured. While this idea of a shorter academic day might seem entirely unachievable, it should be seen as an aim. Heck, reduce the work week. Can I get an amen? There’s plenty of recent evidence that shorter working weeks leads to happier, healthier, more productive adults as well. Feel free to explore that rabbit hole more if you like. At minimum, we should be giving our students more free time and less instructional time. Why? Because exploration, innovation, and deep learning happens when kids are left to their own devices to explore, innovate, and play. Recess is also learning. I’ll die on that hill. There’s also data to support this, so you don’t just have to take my word for it. According to a study out of George Washington University, as quoted in this article from Time,

In 2007, the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University found that 62% of school districts had increased the amount of time spent on English language arts or math in elementary schools since 2001, while 44% of school districts had cut down on time spent on other subjects. The survey showed that 20% of school districts had reduced recess time. According to the 2016 Shape of the Nation report, just 16% of states require elementary schools to provide daily recess.

Katie Reilly, Time

We’re, across the country, taking away time from our students because we’re playing a national game of numbers chasing. Between a history of wrestling with No Child Left Behind policies and our current infatuation with state standards, standardized testing, and data driven schooling, teachers—especially in the public school systems—often struggle with this pull between teaching for the sake of a test or standardized testing and teaching what they know is best for their students. Perhaps we don’t need this dichotomy at all. Maybe the answer is simpler than we thought: let kids play. Granted, this is slightly reductive of the complexities and nuance of the broader issue, but it goes without saying that students deserve more time to explore and be children. Adulting is hard. Save it for adults, or can we also make adulting easier too? I’d like some more recess myself. . . 

  1. Again, kids are at school from, roughly, 8 am to 3 pm. Seven hours a day, five days a week. 

A couple of years ago, a former colleague, Chris Harth, showed me a chart he’d plotted out (based on student survey data from high schoolers at St. Andrew’s) of how much time students spend every day preparing for school, going to school, doing extracurricular activities, and you know, showering etc. Essentially, most students at St. Andrew’s (at that time) woke up around 6:30 am to be at school by 7:45 am. From there, they were at school until 3:15, unless they had sports or extracurriculars. Most students in 7th – 12th grade do, so that means they’re busy until after 4:30 pm though many are here until 5 or later. Considering also the nature of a metropolitan area and travel to and from places, students don’t get home until 5:00 pm at best. Factoring in also that students need to eat, use the bathroom/take care of personal hygiene, and do any other non-school related chores/responsibilities they may have—sleep also has to happen at some point—this, in good faith, only leaves students with a roughly three hour window every day to get things done and do whatever it is they enjoy doing to unwind. That means that the average student from grades seven through twelve needs to complete, at worst, seven classes worth of homework in a few hours and also enjoy their evening? This isn’t always the case. Obviously some days they’ll have more or less work, depending. And many students, especially at our school, have a study hall. But the point is simple and the same one that each and every adult argues most days: there isn’t enough time in the day. Students don’t just need more time. They deserve it. Dare I say all of us humans deserve more time to ourselves to just be who we are sans a mountain of responsibilities: human. As Eugene O’Neil says in Long Day’s Journey into Night, “It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish.” Clearly, he knew what I’m talking about. Sometimes, it’s gloriously perfect to just be. 

  1. Which leads me to my last point about homework. Homework, in the traditional, take-home sense, isn’t helpful, and it often doesn’t lead to deep learning. More often, it feels like an arbitrary numbers generator. We need grades. Notably, we need lots of little grades to help students out when they don’t do well on big grades. Which means we also need a decent amount of big grades because we don’t want a student’s grade to hinge on just one or two assignments. Students know this. Teachers and administrators plan for this. It’s expressly why I rewrote my entire grading system a couple of years ago to be “big grades” and “little grades,” if only to simplify my own thinking and student thinking about how grades work. But also because I understand that the nature of our grade-focused systems forces me to give students numbers, and I know that I need to give them as many opportunities to get “good” numbers as possible within this system, otherwise they run the risk of feeling like a failure. Likewise, parents feel like their child is lacking the necessary skills to move forward. Ultimately, I feel like the whole lot of us are trapped in this cycle of thinking that because Joey only, numerically speaking, understands seventy percent of what I’ve taught, he’s somehow on the cusp of failure. However, for some perspective, Steph Curry shoots roughly forty percent from the three-point line. Drew Brees has a seventy-four percent completion rate. Ty Cobb, The Georgia Peach, the best hitter in baseball history, got a hit only about thirty-seven percent of the time he walked up to the plate. Which is to say, numbers don’t accurately represent greatness and they’re subjective, relative, and don’t accurately depict the whole child (or athlete).

These are all, to be fair, big shifts in the way we think about teaching and learning. There are mountainous obstacles in the way of implementing changes of this magnitude on a larger scale, and I’ll admit that. However, this shouldn’t be a deterrence from thinking and talking about them and aiming to overcome them. The other option, of course, is to continue munching on snacks from the vending machine. Though, as I’ve tried to highlight here, this framework is to the detriment of not just our students, but our teachers, and parents. And it’s a rather reductive way of educating. Pursue grade. Get a grade. Move on. Repeat. Sometimes the best learning comes from simply, being, existing. As Walt Whitman says, 

To be in any form, what is that?

(Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither,)

If nothing lay more develop’d the quahaug in its callous shell were enough.

Mine is no callous shell,

I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,

They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I think we could all use a little of that kind of happiness. More time for that kind of being, like the quahaug, and less time jumping through hoops. And I think once our students are given more time to be on their own, they’ll learn, like clams, to live in their own shells, pearls or no pearls. Until then, they’ll keep working to make their own jewels for a system that encourages only the shiniest.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: