The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’


As edX CEO Anant Agarwal puts it, “It is pathetic that the education system has not changed in hundreds of years.” The Clayton Christensen Institute’s Michael Horn and Meg Evan argue something similar: “a factory model for schools no longer works.” “How to Break Free of Our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System,” advises Joel Rose, the co-founder of the New Classrooms Innovation Partners. Education Next’s Joanne Jacobs points us “Beyond the Factory Model.” “The single best idea for reforming K–12 education,” writes Forbes contributor Steve Denning, ending the “factory model of management.” “There’s Nothing Especially Educational About Factory-Style Management,” according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess.

I’d like to add: there’s nothing especially historical about these diagnoses either.

Blame the Prussians

The “factory model of education” is invoked as shorthand for the flaws in today’s schools – flaws that can be addressed by new technologies or by new policies, depending on who’s telling the story. The “factory model” is also shorthand for the history of public education itself – the development of and change in the school system (or – purportedly – the lack thereof).

Here’s one version of events offered by Khan Academy’s Sal Khan along with Forbes’ writer Michael Noer – “the history of education”:

Khan’s story bears many of the markers of the invented history of the “factory model of education” – buckets, assembly lines, age-based cohorts, whole class instruction, standardization, Prussia, Horace Mann, and a system that has not changed in 120 years.

There are several errors and omissions in Khan’s history. (In his defense, it’s only eleven and a half minutes long.) There were laws on the books in Colonial America, for example, demanding children be educated (although not that schools be established). There was free public education in the US too prior to Horace Mann’s introduction of the “Prussian model” – the so-called “charity schools.” There were other, competing models for arranging classrooms and instruction as well, notably the “monitorial system” (more on that below). Textbook companies were already thriving before Horace Mann or the Committee of Ten came along to decide what should be part of the curriculum. One of the side-effects of the efforts of Mann and others to create a public education system, unmentioned by Khan, was the establishment of “normal schools” where teachers were trained. Another was the requirement that, in order to demonstrate accountability, schools maintain records on attendance, salaries, and other expenditures. Despite Khan’s assertions about the triumph of standardization, control of public schools in the US have, unlike in Prussia, remained largely decentralized – in the hands of states and local districts rather than the federal government.

The standardization of public education into a “factory model” – hell, the whole history of education itself – was nowhere as smooth or coherent as Khan’s simple timeline would suggest. There were vast differences between public education in Mann’s home state of Massachusetts and in the rest of the country – in the South before and after the Civil War no doubt, as in the expanding West. And there have always been objections from multiple quarters, particularly from religious groups, to the shape that schooling has taken.

Arguments over what public education should look like and what purpose public education should serve – God, country, community, the economy, the self – are not new. These battles have persisted – frequently with handwringing about education’s ongoing failures – and as such, they have shaped and yes changed, what happens in schools.

The Industrial Era School

Sal Khan is hardly the only one who tells a story of “the factory of model of education” that posits the United States adopted Prussia’s school system in order to create a compliant populace. It’s a story cited by homeschoolers and by libertarians. It’s a story featured in one of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks. It’s a story told by John Taylor Gatto in his 2009 book Weapons of Mass Instruction. It’s a story echoed by The New York Times’ David Brooks. Here he is in 2012: “The American education model…was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers.”

For what it’s worth, Prussia was not highly industrialized when Frederick the Great formalized its education system in the late 1700s. (Very few places in the world were back then.) Training future factory workers, docile or not, was not really the point.

Nevertheless industrialization is often touted as both the model and the rationale for the public education system past and present. And by extension, it’s part of a narrative that now contends that schools are no longer equipped to address the needs of a post-industrial world.

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Perhaps the best known and most influential example of this argument comes from Alvin Toffler who decried the “Industrial Era School” in his 1970 book Future Shock:

Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.
The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius. The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time.
The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.

Despite these accounts offered by Toffler, Brooks, Khan, Gatto, and others, the history of schools doesn’t map so neatly onto the history of factories (and visa versa). As education historian Sherman Dorn has argued, “it makes no sense to talk about either ‘the industrial era’ or the development of public school systems as a single, coherent phase of national history.”

If you think industrialization is the shift of large portions of working people to wage-labor, or the division of labor (away from master-craft production), then the early nineteenth century is your era of early industrialization, associated closely with extensive urbanization (in both towns and large cities) and such high-expectations transportation projects as the Erie Canal or the Cumberland Road project (as well as other more mundane and local transportation improvements). That is the era of tremendous experimentation in the forms of schools, from legacy one-room village schools in the hinterlands to giant monitorial schools in cities to academies and normal schools and colleges and the earliest high schools in various places. It is the era of charity schools in cities and the earliest (and incomplete) state subsidies to education, a period when many states had subsidies to what we would call private or parochial schools. It is also the start of the common-school reform era, the era when both workers and common-school reformers began to talk about schooling as a right attached to citizenship, and the era when primary schooling in the North became coeducational almost everywhere. It was an era of mass-produced textbooks. It was an era when rote learning was highly valued in school, despite arguments against the same. And, yes, the first compulsory-school law was passed before the Civil War… but it was not enforced.
Maybe you think industrialization is the development of railroads, monopolies, national general strikes, metastasizing metropolises, and mechanized production. Then you mean the second half of the nineteenth century, and that is the era where the structural dreams of common-school reformers largely came to pass with tuition-free schooling spreading in the North, the slow victory of high schools over academies, more (unenforced) compulsory school laws, a pan-Protestant flavor to schooling without official religious education, the initial development of a parallel Catholic parochial school system when Catholic leaders became convinced the public schools were hostile to their interests, the first research-oriented universities, a broad diversity of languages of instruction through the Midwest and south to Texas, the development of extensive age-graded self-contained elementary classrooms in urban school systems, the bureaucratization of many such systems, the (contentious) development of public schooling in the South, and the era when segregation laws were written at the tail end of the 19th century. It was also an era of mass-produced textbooks, and an era when rote learning was highly valued in school, despite arguments against the same.
Or maybe you think industrialization was assembly-line factories, private-worker unionization supported by federal law, the maturation of marketing techniques and the growth of a consumer economy, major economic crises, the introduction of cars and trucks, the mechanization of agriculture, and brutal, mechanized wars. Then you’re talking about the first half of the twentieth century. That was an era of rural-school consolidation forced by states, continued racial segregation, efforts to Americanize immigrant children and force them to speak English only in schools, the first legal successes in undermining segregation, the growth of (mostly small) high schools across the U.S. and tracking within those schools, the growth of standardized testing for local administrative purposes (including tracking), the evolution of normal schools into teachers colleges, and the slow separation of higher education into secondary and tertiary levels. It was the era when several regions of the country first experienced a majority of teenagers graduating from high school. It was also an era of mass-produced textbooks, and an era when rote learning was highly valued in school, despite arguments against the same. It was an era when compulsory school laws were finally enforced at selective ages, when child-labor opponents first failed and then succeeded at efforts to limit child labor by legislation… aided significantly by the Great Depression and the mechanization of agriculture, as teenagers found fewer opportunities for full-time work.

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As Dorn notes, phrases like “the industrial model of education,” “the factory model of education,” and “the Prussian model of education” are used as a “rhetorical foil” in order make a particular political point – not so much to explain the history of education, as to try to shape its future.

What Do Factories Look Like?

It’s tempting to say that those who argue that today’s schools are fashioned on nineteenth century factories have never read much about the Industrial Revolution. (Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 is in the public domain and available via Project Gutenberg, for what it’s worth.) Schools might feel highly de-personalized institutions; they might routinely demand compliance and frequently squelch creativity. But they don’t really look like and they really don’t work like factories.

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In fact, the “Prussian model” superseded an education system that actually did look like a factory. The monitorial system and its variants the Lancaster, the Bell, and the Madras systems, involved schools that were housed in large warehouses – larger often than many of the nascent factories at the time – with hundreds of students in one massive classroom with one teacher. Students were grouped (30 or so together) not by age but by reading proficiency, with more advanced students – “monitors” – assigned to tutor and train the others.

Khan argues in his “History of Education” video that the Prussian model was the only way to provide a free public education, but as the widespread popularity of the monitorial system in the same period demonstrates, it was really just one way. Due to labor costs alone, the monitorial system was actually far cheaper. (After all, the major innovation of the Prussian model was in levying a tax to fund compulsory schooling, not in establishing a method for instruction.)

In his book A Voyage to India (1820), James Cordiner explains the functioning of the Madras system following his visit to the Military Male Orphan Asylum in India where this model originated:

From the perpetual agency of this system, idleness cannot exist. On entering the school, you can discover no individual unemployed, no boy looking vacantly round him: the whole is a beautiful picture of the most animated industry, and resembles the various machinery of a cloth or thread manufactory, completely executing their different offices, and all set in motion by one active engine.

In other words, the monitorial system expressly operated like a factory. “Industry” here isn’t simply a reference to manufacturing or production; “industry” is the opposite of “idleness.” To counter idleness, students must be taught to work – and the functioning of the classroom should be like a machine.

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As Mike Caulfield points out, the monitorial system quite arguably provided a certain amount of “personalization” – at least as that word is often used today – insofar as students could move at their own pace, one of the shortcomings so often indentified in the “factory model of education.” Caulfield cites Andrew Bell’s guide to the monitorial system Mutual Tuition and Moral Discipline (1823):

The Madras System consists in conducting a school, by a single Master, THROUGH THE MEDIUM OF THE SCHOLARS THEMSELVES, by an uniform and almost insensibly progressive course of study, whereby the mind of the child is often exercised in anticipating and dictating for himself his successive lessons, by which the memory is improved, the understanding cultivated, and knowledge uniformly increased – a course in which reading and writing are carried on in the same act, with a law of classification by which every scholar finds his level, is happily, busily, and profitably employed every moment, is necessarily made perfectly acquainted with every lesson as he goes along, and without the use or the need of corporeal infliction, acquires habits of method, order, and good conduct, and is advanced in his learning, according to the full measure of his capacity.

But as Frederick John Gladman’s manual on education School Work (1886) suggests, despite its widespread adoption throughout the UK and US, the Lancaster system fell out of favor, in part because this “personalized” model of education did not stimulate sufficient intellectual curiosity in its students:

Failure occurred, as it always will, when masters were slaves to “the system,” when they were satisfied with mechanical arrangements and routine work or when they did not study their pupils, and get down to the Principles of Education.

According to Gladman, the Lancaster system was replaced by the Glasgow system, developed by David Stow, which emphasized the training of teachers so as to “cultivate the whole nature of the child, instead of the mere head – the affections and habits, as well as the intellect.” Training of teachers was necessary, Gladman contended, as “it is useless to have the machinery without the skilled workman, or the well-trained workman without the suitable premises.”

Similarly, the Prussian model was based on the training of teachers. As Victor Cousin wrote in his Report on the State of Education in Prussia (1837) – a report commissioned by the French government but, once translated into English, with great influence in the US:

Our principal aim, in each kind of instruction, is to induce the young men to think and judge for themselves. We are opposed to all mechanical study and servile transcripts. The masters of our primary schools must possess intelligence themselves, in order to be able to awaken it in their pupils; otherwise, the state would doubtless prefer the less expensive schools of Bell and Lancaster.

Caulfield concludes, “That is those nasty sounding Prussians agreeing with the somewhat less nasty sounding Glasweegians that education must be reformed because it works too much like a factory. And the way to make it less like a factory is to bring in the expertise of a craftsman, in this case, the trained teachers that were the heart of the Mannian, Glasgow, and Prussian systems.”

The Coming [Industrial] Revolution in Education

Many education reformers today denounce the “factory model of education” with an appeal to new machinery and new practices that will supposedly modernize the system. That argument is now and has been for a century the rationale for education technology. As Sidney Pressey, one of the inventors of the earliest “teaching machines” wrote in 1932 predicting “The Coming Industrial Revolution in Education,”

Education is the one major activity in this country which is still in a crude handicraft stage. But the economic depression may here work beneficially, in that it may force the consideration of efficiency and the need for laborsaving devices in education. Education is a large-scale industry; it should use quantity production methods. This does not mean, in any unfortunate sense, the mechanization of education. It does mean freeing the teacher from the drudgeries of her work so that she may do more real teaching, giving the pupil more adequate guidance in his learning. There may well be an “industrial revolution” in education. The ultimate results should be highly beneficial. Perhaps only by such means can universal education be made effective.

Pressey, much like Sal Khan and other education technologists today, believed that teaching machines could personalize and “revolutionize” education by allowing students to move at their own pace through the curriculum. The automation of the menial tasks of instruction would enable education to scale, Pressey – presaging MOOC proponents – asserted.

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We tend to not see automation today as mechanization as much as algorithmization – the promise and potential in artificial intelligence and virtualization, as if this magically makes these new systems of standardization and control lighter and liberatory.

And so too we’ve invented a history of “the factory model of education” in order to justify an “upgrade” – to new software and hardware that will do much of the same thing schools have done for generations now, just (supposedly) more efficiently, with control moved out of the hands of labor (teachers) and into the hands of a new class of engineers, out of the realm of the government and into the realm of the market.

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