Before I get around to talking about being a student in an institution (I write about being a student outside of an institution later), I would like you to consider three kinds of machines and how they differ: a hammer, a photocopier, and a computer.

These three kinds of machines represent three levels of complexity.

Three Kinds of Machines

English: A standard household claw hammer.
English: A standard household claw hammer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A hammer is an example of the simplest type of machine. You can perform maybe three tasks with a hammer (beat things with it, pull nails, and use it as a paperweight), but it’s really just designed for two specific tasks — beating things and pulling nails. It’s very good at one or two tasks, but only those. A hammer actually doesn’t make a good paperweight, by the way. Because you can do other things with it, you’ll want to take it off your papers and use it, and then it quits being a paperweight. The best paperweights are useless for almost all functions but being paperweights. And of course if something really is only good for just sitting there, it may as well look good while it’s serving that purpose. Most importantly, the hammer is an inert object. It just lays there until you pick it up. It doesn’t do anything at all until you pick it up and do something with it.

Now, you might say that you can do many different things with a hammer, like chip wood, drive nails, or beat holes, but those are all just different ways of beating with it. You might say that you can throw a hammer, but unless you’re throwing the hammer at something, you’re throwing it for no reason at all (at least, no reason peculiar to a hammer — if you’re in a distance throwing contest, you could throw hammers, rocks, or frisbees), and throwing a hammer at something is just beating on it from a distance.

The next kind of machine, machines like photocopiers, are a little more complex. They too only perform one task, though. The photocopier in my office can scan and copy, but those are just two different ways of doing the same task, which is reproducing an image. It can staple and sort, but those tasks are only important because they are related to the copier’s primary task, which is reproducing an image.

When the spawn of Satan bothers to work at all, that is.

Photocopier of MaliceWe might think that what makes copiers more complex than hammers is the proliferation of moving parts. Since both copiers and hammers seem designed to perform a single task, it’s hard to compare them only on the basis of the work that they do. We might say that the single task that copiers perform is more complex than the one or two tasks that hammers perform, and that would be true, but I wouldn’t emphasize just number of moving parts as the most important order of complexity, or just the complexity of the task. I want to emphasize something else: copiers can be programmed to do their single task on their own, and once you’ve programmed them and started them running, they run until they’ve completed the task. So I can program my copier to make 500 copies double-sided and corner stapled, and once I’ve done so, it chugs away making copies and stapling them until the 500th copy is finished.

When the spawn of Satan bothers to work at all, that is.

This level of functionality is very different from a hammer, which just lays there until someone picks it up and uses it.

The most complex machine I’d like us to consider is a computer. Computers, like copiers, also need to be programmed, but their programming can get very sophisticated. Its normal functioning involves performing a highly diverse number of very complex tasks all at the same time, most of which the user is unaware — programming that runs beneath the user interface. Computers, as the most sophisticated type of machine under consideration here, can perform the most number of tasks and can work the most independently.

Now let’s consider the difference between any of these machines and a human being. Human beings can be programmed, but we can also program ourselves, and we can choose our programming. Furthermore, human beings are not limited in their behaviors to their programming — we can act beyond the parameters of our programming (in other words, creatively), and we can act in ways contradictory to our programming (in other words, annoyingly — but we can be deliberately annoying, unlike a computer, which is just passively annoying). Human beings are also capable of being self-directed. We can choose what to do and then go do it without any external stimulus. Even the most complex machines — computers — do not choose when they run independently. They’re just running established routines. When they act outside of those established routines, they crash.

Like the spawn of Satan that they can be.

Four Kinds of Students

I would like to suggest that our four options here represent four different types of students: hammers, photocopiers, computers, and human beings, and that student attitudes and institutional practices lead students to be one of these four types.

1. “Hammer” students do nothing until they’re forced to do it. School isn’t for learning but for earning grades. Curiosity and the potential for self-development play no role in this student’s motivation at all. This kind of student will do just what they are told to do and no more. They will do it when they are told and at no other time. Until they are told, they will lay there and do nothing. They are completely passive learners.

  • Institutional practices encourage students to behave like hammers when assessment drives education: students are not human beings developing their intellectual, social, creative, and emotional potentials, but are just test takers. The purpose of teaching in this model is to have students earn high grades with high test scores, and lessons offer no motivation for learning but test performance.
  • You might want to note that hammer students are still students. They participate in the educational task rather than resist it. They just do so as minimally as possible. Students who actively resist the educational task are prisoners. So are their teachers.

2. “Photocopier” students will work on their own to perform just the task(s) that instructors give them, but they won’t work beyond their given task. They repeat and repeat and repeat, but that’s it — they do not innovate, add, or create in relationship to the assigned tasks.They are better than hammers in that they have willingly accepted the educational task and will work on their own, but they are largely passive learners.

  • Institutional practices that encourage students to be photocopiers include teaching methods that emphasize only the acquisition of knowledge rather than the application of knowledge or the development of skills. Acquisition-based teaching requires students to take in information and then spit it back out in its original form. The more accurately the student can repeat acquired knowledge, the higher the student’s grade. The human mind is here being treated like a photocopier with no creative or critical potential at all.
  • Students taught to be photocopiers often want step by step instructions for all assignments. They feel anxious when they’re given a goal without being told exactly how to meet it.

3. “Computer” students are often A students. They can work on a variety of complex tasks independently, having developed a number of skills that they have learned to integrate into multiple kinds of tasks. They are capable of working on their own. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem here is that these students have not developed their potential for creative or critical thinking. They may write very competent, accurately documented, and grammatically correct papers but have problems with thesis development. They may have learned to write a thesis, but their best work is only a combination of what they’ve already been given. They never surprise their instructors, and they often tend to focus on figuring out what the instructor wants to hear and repeating that back to them in their papers. Depending upon the class, doing so can be a very complex task.

  • Institutional practices that encourage the development of this kind of student include limiting work to just one kind of methodology, or critical paradigms to just one or two — in short, students are not exposed to a meaningful diversity of ways of thinking about a topic or performing a task. Most of all, they are never encouraged to take risks in their thinking, to be creative. Instructors who write assignment instructions that tell students how to write their papers in significant detail (e.g., answer these questions about these possible literary works using this methodology) may be unintentionally derailing the development of student creativity and critical thinking skills.

4. Students who are fully developing themselves as human beings within an educational context see learning as play. Not frivolity, but serious play, the kind of play that creates new things with old materials, that relates existing material to the outside world and to one’s personal life, that changes and transforms and sees new possibilities for course material.

  • Institutional practices that encourage the development of this kind of student emphasize critical thinking, thesis development, creativity in thought, and problem solving (especially by posing impossible to solve or open-ended problems. Solving problems defined by the methodology is computer thinking — students may follow a complex routine, but they’re still following a set routine rather than thinking on their own). The best instruction explains the reasons for the class within the context of a student’s discipline and overall education, and it relates course material to big questions whenever possible.

Vending Machines

How Do We Respond?

First, I need to add a paragraph here that was not in my original draft. One reader reminded me that students can be photocopiers in one class, computers in another, and human beings in a third. That’s absolutely right. These are different ways that students postion themselves, or are positioned by institutional practices, in relationship to a specific course. Even hammer students may not necessarily be hammers in all of their classes. So while I’m describing four different kinds of students, I don’t mean to imply (though I probably have) that each individual student is one of these four types in some globally-defining sense of the word. It’s best to think of these four types of students as four types of student responses to material that can vary for an individual student from class to class.

If you are reading this blog as a student, I would like to encourage you to try to be a human being in all of your classes, however they are taught. Good students make the most out of even bad classes because they are driven to learn, not driven for grades or driven by their instructors. What you learn and do in class is of no benefit to your instructor. Your education, first and foremost, benefits yourself. Your instructor is not your employer — he or she is working for your benefit in class, as the work that your instructor assigns benefits you, not the instructor. For more details, read my next post.

If you are reading this blog as an instructor, I would like you to ask yourself about your classes — and what kind of student you’re creating with them. Are you treating your students like simple machines, complex machines, or human beings? I know that some classes, especially when taught to some student populations, need to be run on the lower end of the scale rather than the higher. Some students need to start out as hammers or copiers and then move up. I think courses designed like ladders — in which students attempt higher degrees of complexity as they move through the course — are best designed for beginning, introductory, or remedial students. We also need to consider this hierarchy in our curriculum design. By the time students are attempting 300 and definitely 400 level classes in their major, most assignments should be designed to serve the highest possible developmental ends.

I hope I’m being clear, though — I’m not laying the responsibility for student learning solely upon the instructor or solely upon the student. Students are responsible for being the type of student that they have chosen to be, and instructors are responsible for their educational practices and the type of student that they create with them. The success or failure of educational practices is dependent both upon the student and the instructor.

I would also like to suggest that this paradigm can help us define different management styles too. What kind of human being are we creating by our management practices? What kind of employees do we have, and what kind should we expect given institutional policies and our treatment of employees?


5 thoughts on “On Being a Student (in an Institution…)

  1. i agree with your points but there are really students who belong to the two groups (hammer and copier) even if the instructor employs the best practice(s) that he can use. What else can be done?


    1. I do try to address that question somewhat near the end of the essay, in which I recommend starting with students where they are and gradually increasing the complexity and sophistication of their work — structuring classes like a ladder. They don’t necessarily have to go from being hammers to being fully realized human beings (in relationship to the education task) in a single semester. We try to take them as far as they can go in one semester.


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