An Address by W. Edwards Deming,Ph.D.

What is more important than education of children? We know about material coming into factories, raw, semi-finished, or finished. We know how devastating it is to have shoddy material and faulty equipment.  It is a difficult life for a baker if the stuff that comes in is of poor quality or greatly different from the usual run of flour or fat.  We know about mistakes in banks, retailing, wholesaling, foul-ups in transportation.

Children are raw material.  They will manage our country, our industry, our agriculture, our services, our government.  They will do the work of the future.  I wonder if anything is more important than children and their education. I have some appreciation of the importance of education at all levels, especially in the beginning.

I talk with management and in seminars about the importance of a good start, the intent of the management.  That intent has to be carried out by people that put intent into motion, into design, into production, into action.  What is the intent of education?

I understand that there is a builder here in the audience, and I think that he would agree with me that once the plans for a piece of construction (e.g., a house, a building) are 15% on the way, it is too late to make alterations, except to detour around a catastrophe.  Changes are costly and time-consuming.  It is important to think of education in the same way.  You should think also of the intent and how to carry out the intent.  The start – the first years of school – is very important. 

There were many articles years ago in magazines and in letters to the editor to explain why Johnny can’t read. I read about three years ago in the Atlantic Monthly another article on the same subject.  There is not much of anything interesting for him to read today.  The good stories that I read in school, which I knew, were interesting… I don’t have stories like that today, so this article says.  Now I have not gone back to school, to first, second, and third grades to find out, but the writer explained that the books that the children learn to read from today, put children to sleep.

Everybody at work in any pursuit, any endeavor, be it building, education, post office, transportation, manufacturing, service of any kind, has a customer.  Somebody takes his work and does something with it.  There is a chain of production.

The customer for people that select books for children to study is the children that are going to read them. The people that select the books are the school boards, not the teacher or the superintendent, and certainly not the children.  The children merely use the books selected for them. The school board selects the books, the children read them, except that there is nothing to read any more. No such thing as race or color any more, nor religion, not even gender any more, no such thing.  What is there left? Stories are bland. Children go to sleep reading them.

I think that children have as much intelligence today as they did when I was one of them.  Yet according to what the figures say, thirty-three million adults in this country are functionally illiterate.  They may be able to pronounce words but they can’t read.

Maybe we ought to think about the end-product that we are trying to produce, and the means of making it. Who are the customers? Who are the school boards working for?  Whom are the superintendents and the teachers working for?

You find in a manufacturing concern, General Motors, Ford or any other, that half of the people handle materials and turn out what we call product.  The other half are in the service part of the manufacturing concern – the management, the people that do the purchasing of raw materials and equipment, engineers, scientists, personnel department, finance department.  If you take a look where your taxes go for public education, remember that half the people on the payroll don’t teach at all.  No wonder teachers are overworked. Half the people on the payroll don’t teach, they are the so-called service part of the school system.  I wonder if we need all that service. I don’t know. It might be interesting to think about.

There was an article in Harper’s for April 1985 under the title, “Why Johnny can’t think.” Johnny never had a chance to think.  Children don’t get a chance to think any more.  Examinations are check-block systems. Children fill their heads with answers.  Some children, by knowing the right answer, or by luck mark off the right box.  Some by luck mark the wrong box.  In case of doubt, let it be heads or tails.  That is not thinking. That is not education.

If you have enough information in your head, you can mark the right answers, very simple. It is a labor saver, because the teacher can tabulate in a flash the results of fifty pupils, by bar diagram and comparisons. Neither the teacher or pupil need to think.  All so simple.  The Educational Testing Service grades applicants the same way; am I right?

Are we victims of great achievements in electronics?  Do such tabulations test education?  I raised that question with the Educational Testing Service, and I don’t think they liked it.

I would rather have a pupil present to me a paper in which he gave reasons why a certain answer to a certain question could be right, and under what condition it could be wrong, and why another answer could be right or could be wrong. That would require him to think.  It would give him a chance to think.  I would not care whether he gave the right answers or not, if he learns to think. He would develop some understanding of the world, why something is right or wrong. That would require him to think, and it would require the teacher to read the papers. What are we trying to create?  Children that can think, or children that can carry in their heads a pile of information. 

You know from your courses in the theory of knowledge that there is no meaning in any statement, no meaning in any conclusion, nor in any sentence, unless it has temporal spread, to enhance your degree of belief in something for the future or something in the past.  Johnny will have his head full of information, be able to pass the course by being able to mark off the right blocks, but that is not education. Marking the right blocks does not explain anything. They don’t help Johnny to predict or explain what happened in the past.

Science has advanced by explaining what happened in the past, as in geology, geometry, anthropology, geography, chemistry. Science is not a dictionary full of words, but is knowledge of the world, and this means temporal spread to explain what happened in the past , and what to predict in the future.  We modify theory, and thus learn. We are thankful for the dictionary, but it doesn’t lay out a course of action for us.  It does not contain knowledge. It contains words.

What is thinking?  Construction, use and modification of theory to explain what will happen. Nobody knows what will happen, but we can subject theory to experiment or observation. Education should prepare somebody to make a better prediction and to understand better the past.  One enhances his degree of belief as he learns, but degree of belief cannot be measured.  It is not .8, .9, or anything else.

These are just a few thoughts that I had in my head. What is education, what is management, what is science? It is to subject the world to observation, but there is no observation without theory, thought.  Theory may be simple, may be stupid, it may be only a hunch, and the hunch could be wrong.  Subject that hunch to a test about a school, about moving a lawn, about doing anything in this world, and you will learn by conformance or non-conformance.  You will learn that there is no such thing as a fact.  Get the facts!  Sounds great.  The facts are only what somebody observed who was trying to learn about the past or about the future.  A bookful of figures or observations is not knowledge.

Experience teaches nothing unless we ask a question for experience to answer. A question comes from theory.  A figure has not meaning except in terms of theory. What question does it answer?  We have too many figures these days.  People turn out truckload after truckload of figures, but with no information in them.  There is no such thing as a fact, except for what you need to know to explain something, to plan rationally.  History is what somebody recorded because he wished us to read it that way. Because he wished you to read it, and you believe it.  I learned this from the book by Max Nordau, THE INTERPRETATION OF HISTORY.

-W. Edwards Deming