The story of John Henry is a cautionary tale about the effects of modernization. The gist of the story- John Henry was a former slave working as a steel driver (hammered holes in rocks for the placement of explosives) during the railroad boom of the 1800's. A man of exceptional physical prowess, Henry was known far and wide as the greatest steel hammerer of all time. The railroad owner purchased a steam-powered hammer that could out-hammer an entire crew. Responding to the threat to himself and his crew, Henry challenged the owner to a contest to prove he could beat the machine. After a close back-and-forth contest, Henry narrowly wins in the end. He then dropped dead from exhaustion.
The moral of the story- humans can't compete with machines. This is a lesson we've confronted again and again. Here are some examples:
- Cars replaced horse and buggies.
- Robots replaced humans on assembly lines.
- Self-checkout lanes replaced cashiers.
- The shake machine at McDonald's replaced the milkshake maker.
- TurboTax replaced CPAs.
You get the idea.
So what does this have to do with teaching?
We spend most of our time and money training John Henrys. We have a tendency to ignore the effects of technological development when we consider what and how we should teach, and this is a monumental mistake. For example, we still have teachers that insist on making students memorize the capitals of the 50 states even though this information is easily researched with devices most of us carry in our pockets. There's absolutely no justification for this. That particular nugget of information does not help the student in any discernible way. We do other stuff, too, such as:
- Teaching kids to defer to authority.
- Teaching kids to follow directions.
- Teaching kids to do the same tasks again and again.
- Teaching kids linear thinking will reap rewards.
- Teaching kids to suppress creativity in favor of standardization.
All of these skills we relevant in the past... but no longer. Our world has changed dramatically. Some teachers are hip to it; most are not. Many like to give the idea lip service by confidently stating they're preparing kids for the 21st century workforce, but they're not. Most are still stuck in the past because they cannot see the world for what it is. They have no idea what the 21st century workforce really requires. They're preparing an army of John Henrys even after it's clear John Henry cannot compete with the steam hammer.