A New Way of Looking at Students

I doubt you ever thought of students this way before.

Terms like raw material, assembly line worker, quality control inspector, product, and customer mean something to most of us. Just to be sure we are on a level playing field, I will put these in the context of a clothing manufacturer. Raw materials include the fabric used to make pants. Pieces of fabric are cut to shape and sewn together by an assembly line worker known as a seamstress to make the product, a pair of pants. A quality control inspector checks to make sure the product meets certain standards, for example the quantity of legs. Assuring there are two legs, the inspector puts a little slip of paper in the pocket that reads, “Inspected by No, 7.” Now, if there are fewer than two legs or there are no pockets, I am not sure what the inspector does. But, somehow, the pants make it to the store where I, the customer, shop. Unfortunately, I don’t realize the problem until I get them home and have no place to put my left leg. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?)

Okay, enough silliness about pants. I will now pull a rabbit, no make that lucid point, out of my hat. Sit tight. Drum roll. More drum roll. Hear it comes. Cymbal smash!!! Vois la! … what? You say you can’t see it? Well then, read on and I will describe my amazing feat of prestidigitation.

Few academics think of the learning process in manufacturing terms. Up until now, I may have been the only one. I hope you join me! These terms provide a valid and insightful lens through which to view your students. It’s true! In a learning-centered class your students are all of these.

Learning is the change in knowledge or behavior of the raw material, a student. The student himself is the assembly line worker who makes this change. You, the instructor, are just the foreman. You provide the tools and give direction, but learning is the active process that your assembly line workers perform. In a learning-centered class, the students should also inspect their own work, which creates a richer learning experience. (This is a topic I will write about in a future post.) Anyway, the educated student is now the product. Your quality control inspectors provide you will a sample of the product they approved, often in the form of answers to test questions.  Remember, you are the foreman, the boss. Your job is to make sure your assembly line workers and your inspectors are all doing their jobs. You can’t possible check everything they did (i.e learned), but you collect enough information to rate how well they are doing their job. Are they making good products (i.e., educated students). Some earn a bonus, and you give them an “A.” Sadly, you may have to fire one or two. Their pink slip reads, “F.” The students who pass the course are also their own customers. They paid for the product that they have become – a more educated person, one with greater knowledge and abilities.

In industry, the concepts of raw material, assembly line worker, quality control inspector, product, and customer are distinct and unique. The fascinating aspect of education is how these terms apply to one distinct entity, a student. If both you and your students understand this multifaceted metaphor, the learning environment in your classroom will be enhanced and you will have far fewer rejects. No one-legged pants; that’s for sure. 🙂

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted March 13, 2010


About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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