The Widget Factory

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making,
the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
Campbell’s Law, Donald T. Campbell

If you worked in a Widget Factory, making widgets, your manager could assess you by testing the quality of the widgets you made. If some of the widgets you built turned out to be faulty, your manager might refuse to award you a pay rise, insist that you undertook additional training, or sack you for incompetence if your widget making did not improve. The widgets themselves would have no influence over whether they were faulty or not – the responsibility would be that of the widget makers alone. The widgets would not be impacted by the testing, since they are inanimate objects. If the worst happened, and lots of the workers made faulty widgets, your Widget Factory may have to close. That is how competition within a market works, after all.

Education is not a Widget Factory; it is a social endeavour, involving small and sometimes vulnerable children. Children are not ‘made educated’ by teachers and schools, as though they are widgets passing along a production line. Children must be willing participants in the process of learning, or the endeavour will not succeed. Learning is not something that only happens in schools, nor is it something that is only done by teachers. A child’s home environment has a powerful effect on his or her chances of educational success. If children were widgets, testing would have no impact on them. But children (especially tiny ones) are not inanimate objects – emotion is more powerful than reason when you’re a child. Any test that measures your school, your teacher, and you, is going to feel scary for some.

Trying to turn education into a Widget Factory, as the Government seems determined to do, is doomed to failure. As Campbell’s Law reveals, when you start trying to test a social endeavour, you begin to distort the very thing you had hoped to measure. The longer we continue in this manner, the more schools are encouraged to become like widget factories. Each one in competition with the others, all trying to produce widgets that will pass this month’s widget test. In her speech today, Nicky Morgan announced a consultation about Key Stage One SATs (which given the current rhetoric will likely translate into making them (a) harder and (b) externally marked). Sadly, Nicky Morgan seems to have forgotten that the children taking these SATs are only seven years old. And she also seems to have forgotten that parents are not sending their children to a Widget Factory to be ‘built’ and to be ‘tested’. They are sending them to school to be cared for and to learn.

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5 Responses to The Widget Factory

  1. Brian says:

    Interesting blogpost, thank you. These would be my reflections.

    “Education is not a Widget Factory”

    Unfortunately stste schools are indeed widget factories as are independent/private schools. The difference is in the technology used to produce the widgets.

    The private sector see students as individual widgets and hand craft them with skill and care that makes them all different. This is an expensive business.

    The state sector adopts a traditional sort of approach that sees children as more similar than different and therefore a one size fits all process will do. In a mass production sort of set up we can indeed use quantitative measures to manage quality control and efficiency. We can have little go/no go guages to check the widgets with. This is a much more cost effective process.

    It can be quite confusing when you try to adopt an “individual widget” system to produce “one size fits all” widgets. Children get stressed, teachers get stressed and Ofsted become increasingly punitive due to their frustration at the lack of harmony within the system.

    If you wish to have hand crafted widgets you have to pay for the privilege and for me therein lies the problem.

    We can push funds towards selective schools where we can get a little closer to hand crafting at the expense of the widget factories which have then to become even more efficient and maqke their one size fit all even better.

    Such is life methinks. It has always been thus and will always been thus.


  2. Helen says:

    I’m not sure I agree that the private sector always produces hand crafted, individual widgets. Often, they simply gold plate them and send them out with a price tag that includes a hefty branding markup. If I can be permitted to stretch the metaphor to breaking point…


  3. Don’t most parents send their kids to school because they ‘have to’


  4. You don’t ‘have to’.
    I home educated my two for six years to avoid all this nonsense.
    Then, when they were ready, and as they were ready, they chose to go to secondary school, and study the subjects they wanted to study, and one has left with decent grades, and a university place to do what she believes in, and the other is still in sixth form with ambitions and promise for stellar grades, and the chance to study what she believes in, at a stellar university.
    Neither of them were tested or even *in school* before the age of ten.
    Bah humbug.


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