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MSPnet Blog: “Block that metaphor! Schools as “factories” pt 1”

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posted February 18, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

Reading Darling-Hammond et al. (2014), my attention was caught by a sentence in the introduction, where the authors say that we need to “transform schools from the industrial model of the past to innovative learning systems for the future.”  I suddenly realized that I was in the presence of a buzzword:  industrial model, with the perhaps more frequent variant factory model of education (or schools).

Buzzwords tend to be catchy and easy to deploy — but they also seem to align so well with the Zeitgeist (from which they get their buzz) because they carry tacit ideology and unquestioned assumptions They serve to provide quickly deployed building blocks to the author seeking to build a case for a proposed course of action.  Always a good target for reflection, if one can be alert enough to see them buzzing by!

Noticing this one made me reflect on classrooms I have been privileged to observe over nearly 30 years in science education, as well as to recall my own schooling, and actual factories I had been in.  Had I ever been in a factory-model classroom?  I don’t think so – not even in the large undergrad survey courses which sometimes make one feel like part of a herd of livestock.  So I started to rootle around in books on ed history, and of course the Web.  Historians of education like Cremins and Cuban don’t really support the “factory model” metaphor, except for the period in the early-to-mid 20th century when time-management and other industrial efficiency ideas were promoted to put education on a business-like footing.  Turning from my bookshelf, I did the unavoidable:  I  googled “factory model of education.”

My little exploration has led me down many interesting byways — ending up at the edge of the Ocean of Cognitive Science, by way of the Streams of History, hopping from one Stone of Opinion to another.  This will be the first of several posts reporting on this little excursion into metaphor, ideology, and ed policy and research.

Most of the top hits on Google were from technology people. A good example is the Joel Rose piece in the Atlantic, about “breaking free of our 19th century factory model of education.” Rose asserts that Horace Mann’s ideals for education were designed for homogenization, in a country riven by Protestant-Catholic tensions:  ” large groups of students learning together would help to blur the divisions among religious groups and establish a more unified and egalitarian society.”  Leaving aside the dubious claim that Protestant-Catholic tensions were salient and driving forces in 19th century New England, I have to say that the idea of schools as a place to prepare students for a pluralistic society sounds pretty good to me.

Rose, however, sees early public schools as building upon the best technology for “scaling up,”  the factory line:

The factory line was simply the most efficient way to scale production in general, and the analog factory-model classroom was the most sensible way to rapidly scale a system of schools.

It is easy to see why a glance at the New England Primer, for example, might  give a sense of “factory-line” schooling.  The first-grade text places a strong emphasis on rote learning (or is it “reading in the context of literature”?), and of course an overwhelmingly Protestant-Christian content.  Later, more sophisticated texts (such as McGuffey’s readers, still very popular in home-schooling circles) give a rather different approach based on a lot of increasingly challenging texts — still very moralizing, still drawing heavily on biblical stories, but also fables (Aesop and others) and other sources.  But these are no more “factory line” texts than any textbook is — I have seen modern classrooms in which modern science texts are used roughly as McGuffey’s readers might be, with students reading aloud in turn, and answering teacher queries to test comprehension.

As one who as a child sat in the back of his father’s one-room schoolhouse in rural Maine, I can testify that the processes at work in “old fashioned” schooling bear little resemblance to factory methods. Human material is so complex, various, and stubborn, that each individual is a significant challenge (or opportunity) to the teacher, and the less automated the class, the more evident this is, it seems to me.

Rose does not dislike factories, per se, but they’re so over.   He just doesn’t think they’re well suited for the modern person, because “Factories weren’t designed to support personalization.”  This, indeed, is the core of his concern.  Although he earnestly argues that technology is not “the answer, ” he still feels, with so many others, that

The Information Age has facilitated a reinvention of nearly every industry except for education. It’s time to unhinge ourselves from many of the assumptions that undergird how we deliver instruction and begin to design new models that are better able to leverage talent, time, and technology to best meet the unique needs of each student.

The theme of personalization, with its close relationship to the identification of individual as consumer, appears in many guises in arguments in which “factory schools” play an important rhetorical point.

The desire for effective attention to each child’s growth and flourishing is commendable, of course (though not new! For example, see Erasmus on education) . While great educators like Darling-Hammond believe that NCLB has moved us more in that direction, it is striking how discussion is shaped in the context of the current economic buzz words, such as “information economy,” “21st century skills.” The solutions involve the purchase, and ideally the deployment, of more technology in the schools. For example, Michael Horn and Meg Evans write:

 Each of us needs a different, customized learning approach to maximize his or her potential. Milwaukee and urban school districts across the nation must embrace innovation to break out of this monolithic education system. Schools must use technology to personalize their learning environments to address the needs of individual students.

Customization, individualization, personalization — we will see more about these ideas later in this little series of posts.