Thinkers v. producers

Think sign

In How Children Fail, John Holt makes the following distinction:

  • producers – students who are only interested in getting right answers, and who make more or less uncritical use of rules and formulae to get them
  • thinkers – students who try to think about the meaning, the reality, of whatever it is they are working on

A great question to ask ourselves: What is the ratio of thinkers to producers in our school(s)? In most schools, I’m guessing the ratio is fairly small, even for our high-achieving students.

Another great question to ask ourselves: What is an average school day like for those students in our school(s) who ARE thinkers?

Image credit: Think!, florriebassingbourn

14 Responses to “Thinkers v. producers”

  1. These are great questions, but if the implication is that we want to encourage thinking behavior, then something needs to change in the way school grading is structured. Most school grading systems are explicitly structured to reward producing.

    My children are thinkers outside of school, but to do so in school risks their grade achievement, so they act more as producers. How could schools reward (divergent) thinking so that even if thinking students don’t give the right (i.e. expected) answer, they won’t be penalized for it? As long as schools disproportionately reward producer behavior, why would any student risk thinking behavior?

    • Charles, I agree. Students act as producers and play the game of school because, as you note, that’s exactly what’s rewarded. If you want to be a ‘thinker,’ you often have to do that work in electives, extracurriculars, or at home.

      • I had a high school senior tell me one time that the best part of her high school career was the time that she spent in extracurriculars because that was where she actually did meaningful work.


        Love the distinctions, Scott — they challenge me.


    • Look into Programmatic Assessment… where assessment is about rich engagement, learning and feedback aand the aggregated set of evidence for advancement is considered at a program level rather than task by task…

  2. It seems a valuable distinction, but fairly limited as we need students that can both produce and think. One without the other is fairly limited in value. Too many times I see our system content to work with thinkers, and call that a success, without asking them to actually do that much. A strong thinker can easily write a sharp paper on a topic … but have no ability to actually influence that topic. We reward the thoughts, but ignore the actions … which to me seems the opposite side of the problem.

    • Justin, the distinction that Holt is making is not that ‘thinkers’ are unproductive. It’s that ‘producers’ are chugging out work mindlessly…

      You’re seeing schools ‘content to work with thinkers?’ That would imply that you’re seeing schools that are fostering thinking work. Which I and most others are not – and which the statistics bear out – except in a few exceptional locations.

      • I agree with Justin. You can’t have it both ways. I think a mixture of producing and thinking is necessary. Sometime you just have to get the job done, sometimes it is necessary to think about it a little more. Especially at the elementary level many teachers have completely abandoned practice and rote memory in favor of exploration all the time. This has led to middle and high school students who begin with very little intuition for some very basic concepts like spelling, grammar, multiplication, and fractions. Worse, they still aren’t very good at the actually process of thinking because they were never really guided through the process of how to get from A to B, just told to “explore”. As a teacher, coach, and professional leader, I have seen this with academics, student athletes, and even classroom teachers. It is easy to be critical, give grades, and judge others, but harder to guide, coach, mentor and lead others through the process of getting better. Maybe Hold did mean that thinkers are also producers, but then shouldn’t the inverse also be true. As with most things, balance is key. Our testing culture certainly creates a bias in favor of producers, but only thinking by definition is not productive. We need to teach our children that there is an appropriate time and place for both, and we need to guide them and help them to understand the difference. Sometimes it is OK to memorize a list because it is faster if you can simply recall something from memory. There is nothing wrong with using redundant practice to build a strong intuition for a basic skill or concept. However, education needs to move beyond skill and drill and help students to know when, where, and how to apply their skills and intuition.

  3. It is not an “either or” answer. This represents two ends of a continuum. 100% Producer will be productive, but produce the wrong things and has very little value to society. 100% Thinker does not produce what society wants and the product is ignored, therefore useless. Neither are of value to society. What society needs is a balance between the two.

  4. “What is an average school day like for those students in our school(s) who ARE thinkers?”

    Boring. Painful. Disengaging. Irrelevant. I could go on.

    Another related question I’ve encountered… what happens when students who have become so unaccustomed to thinking find themselves somewhere where they have to? “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it so I can get a good mark!” Lots to unpack in that more-or-less verbatim student request, including how grades have somehow become way more important than learning or thinking.

  5. Can mindless production actually lead to thought? To a sense of wonder? A sense of “better”? As a culture of producers, remixers, where would we be without our thirst to produce something new, something different, something meaningful? Where would some of our most treasured innovations be without the forced production?

    The need to publish and maintain relevance in a Stanford PHD program spawned Google. Without a push to publish, create, produce where would Google be? Produce and always be in beta, maybe we can learn and think through our forced production.

  6. Hey Scott,
    You’ve noticed an excellent issue here.In my childhood I was also a thinker student and that’s why I never needed a teacher to teach me basics of any subject.So,as I think,thinkers are far better than producers.

  7. Hey Scott, great post. My question…does it have be you are either a producer or a thinker? Why can’t students be both? That’s an interesting take on the word producer. In my opinion, a team of a producer and thinker would make a dynamic duo. Why not encourage students to be both? Or help students recognize their strengths and leverage them through collaboration?

  8. maybe see instead the producer/thinker polarity as a scale along which a person can move, rather than an ‘either/or’ personage that a student must inhabit. perhaps a student who is more shy/indoctrinated etc will have a disposition to become a producer, as John Holt also identifies humiliation as a source of why current school environments are so counterproductive. i’m in my graduating year, and in school, i am a producer – i picked classes which were closest to what i would be able to enjoy (if i hadn’t, it would have killed me when i thought about its meaninglessness) but i still don’t necessarily feel like we’re learning. we’re learning /for/ a test. in my Japanese class, we’re alienated from the language itself – we don’t speak it, unless we’re preparing for a speaking exam. but if you really want to have that skill, being able to speak the language is irrefutably important.

    i’m a thinker outside, and i’m frustrated by the dichotomy because i recognize it, and i feel helpless against it. if i’m a thinker in school, i’m thinking about the ways in which it doesn’t work, which is a waste of time.

    this is all whining, but i also don’t agree that producing is necessarily more productive than thinking – it just implicates work without understanding or genuine involvement. i’m sure that if you were thinking about it, understood it, were involved and interested, you would be productive and challenged and genuinely motivated.

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