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MSPnet Blog: ““Factory schools” part ii”

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posted March 5, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

This is the second in a series of three posts reflecting on the phrase “factory model of schools” (or its variants), and its use in current education policy debates.

(Why do I give hospitality to  this bee in my bonnet? My answer:  The exploration of the metaphors used in policy debates is important because the mental structures we set up as we diagnose a problem, without testing the assumptions that are built into them, tend to affect the kinds of prescriptions for improvement we design, foreclosing on the answers to the problems.  The importation of metaphors from one field into another may enliven or even enlighten, but that does not mean that they also are statements of fact. Yet they very often end up being taken for granted as part of a rationale for advocacy, and people stop asking about what they are actually claiming.)

To revive the theme, here is a quotation from a Rick Hess article in Edweek last spring which helps set the tone for an attack on “factory-style management, ” and includes a hint at a solution to the problems thus identified (in shorthand):

In the early 1900s, influenced by education psychologist Edward Thorndike and scientific management guru Frederick Taylor, proponents of progressive education worked to bring the same standardization and routine to education that they admired in industry and business. The problem, explained Ellwood Cubberley, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University from 1917-1933 and, in many ways, the father of modern school administration, had been that, before 1900, schools had been like “a manufacturing establishment running at a low grade of efficiency.”

In short, progressives worked hard to import the best practices of private industry to American education. (This is why the familiar school model bears such an uncanny resemblance to the early-twentieth-century factory.) That model made some sense at the time, helping to manage a massive expansion of schooling in a world lacking modern data tools and communications technology.

Point #1:  In at least the last century of US  history, “private industry” (and its deus ex machina, the Market) has been the most frequently recommended source of new “best practices” for ed reform. “Science” has been a close second, but “scientific” solutions tend in the end to be couched in technocratic terms, the terms of “scientific management” — IMHO, “science as inquiry” has been a thing (sometimes) to be mandated but not actually practiced, by educational systems.    Why is it, do you think, that economics, rather than the sciences of learning, is so often seen as the place to look to improve learning and teaching?

Point #2 Technology:  It is  interesting that the strategies that Hess, Rose, Gates, and others advocate  for replacing the “factory” align uncannily well with current market pre-occupations. That this may not be a coincidence is suggested by historical evidence that successive waves of educational technology have been sold as the way to the same solution, with little evidence that they deliver in any significant way.  Of course, new technologies must be investigated for their possible value in education, but the urgent cycle of “buy and install before investigating” sounds very much like the preferred market approach to introducing new products — do just enough research to assure short-term safety and possible value, ignore externalities and long-term consequences.*

It seems to me that only under some assumptions about the role and value of education does it make sense to re-align education in every generation so as to reflect some current favored management trends (in some but by far not all industries).  In every generation, too, the “make education more like industry” is sweetened by new proposed values.   Currently, a common opposite of the “factory model of education” is “personalized education.”**

New technologies, particularly technologies that offer “personalization,” are positioned as the future, the way to “modernize” schools by letting students move at their own pace through the curriculum. Is it worth considering why these are precisely the arguments that technicians have been making for teaching machines for almost a century? Also, what is the evidence so far about how (or under what conditions) something like these benefits can be achieved, and how school systems, teachers, and others have to adapt?

Next post, I’ll  carry on with some reflections on personalization in education, and what at least some research tells us.

* I feel a need to assert that I am no Luddite! I work at Technical Education Research Centers, and the contributions of technology to teaching and learning have been a  key element in our science ed work.

**Ironically, “Factory education” in the heyday of Thorndike et al. turns out upon investigation to have been invented in part to support just the kinds of personalization that we are being told necessitates massive  investments in technology.





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Thoughts about Brian's questions

posted by: Andy Zucker on 3/8/2015 9:53 am

With the caveat that there are multiple reasons why people believe what they believe, Ill venture an answer to two questions Brian posed: Why is it, do you think, that economics, rather than the sciences of learning, is so often seen as the place to look to improve learning and teaching? and [why are] the arguments that technicians have been making for teaching machines for almost a century [precisely the same]?

With respect to the first, I recently came across the digest of a 1982 memo written by Ed Curran, then-Director of the Natl Institute of Education, to President Reagan asking that Reagan abolish NIE. The memo states, "The agency is based on the premise that education is science. As a professional educator, I know that this premise is false. Our schools are in sad shape because we lack the will to apply what we already know." If you are so sure that you know the answer, then why ask questions, scientific or otherwise? Also, the book Merchants of Doubt (by Oreskes & Conway) shows that the people who fostered doubt about the dangers of tobacco, the ozone hole, and now climate change are driven to a significant degree by an obsession with free-market economics and a fear that regulation will destroy capitalism and thus capitalist democracy. If you know that science will lead to a terrible outcome (destroying free-market economics, or perhaps the knowledge that abstinence education does not work), then why support it?

The question about technology is harder to answer. Partly, America has long revered its inventors: from Benjamin Franklin, to Thomas Edison, to Steve Jobs. America landed astronauts on the moon and invented the Internet. We love technological innovation and, unfortunately, we also love to believe there are quick fixes to what are now called wicked problems. Put the two sets of belief together and you have a long-term and naive love affair with educational technology. None of which, I hasten to add, means that there are not some truly amazing technological innovations in education. E.g., I am about to enroll in my third MOOC (online course) and it is remarkable what is being offered for free, including courses by some of the best-informed people in the world on certain subjects.

post updated by the author 3/8/2015

Technology and learning

posted by: F. Joseph Merlino on 3/9/2015 8:37 am

The human mind is a living thing, like a plant that needs sunlight to grow. When it is deprived of light it withers and eventually dies and in its place is dead wood. Technology cannot revive deadwood. Only another seed or shoot from the dead stump can grow anew, but that too needs nourishment and light otherwise that new hope will wither and die. Teaching is about uncovering what is obscuring the mind so that light can penetrate. The "aha" moment is when light appears through the clouds and now one can see clearly what was once obscured. To "learn how to learn" is when the person is able to do their own uncovering. Technology at best is only an aid to the uncovering.

post updated by the author 3/9/2015

Education, science and economics

posted by: Brian Drayton on 3/10/2015 7:19 am

Andy, it's interesting that you bring up the idea of education as science. When I have been working on these blog posts, I have often recalled early XX century writings on the "science of education," not just from technocrats or business experts, but also from people like John Dewey, whose view of learning was dramatically different. "Scientific" has been a word to conjure with, ever since Newton, but it means rather different things to different people.
In addition to the motivations or attitudes you describe, I think there are fundamental ideas about what education is for which play into it as well. If education is seen, as an economist might well see it, as one element in an overall model of an economy, then you will tend to see it in input/output terms. With a view to overall economic function, you might well recommend that education be designed to deliver workers and consumers who have certain characteristics, with as little uncertainty or variability as possible.
This point of view, if applied as policy, would inevitably tend to make schools into places for the shaping of factors of production, and as economic systems change, the functional characteristics of the schools' output would need to change, but the mechanisms of standardization would over and over be deployed for this basic end, so you do quality control with strategic testing, you do all you can to eliminate variation in the mechanisms of production, and you seek efficiencies wherever you can, if by automation if possible.
Sounds cold, but I can't help but see that educational policy of the past 150 years bears an eerie resemblance to this approach.
Yet many actual educators (and parents and others, of course!) don't come to school with the economic model firmly in mind, but have more than one "agenda," and they keep trying to use the science and technology of education for those ends as well; and children are wild cards themselves, thankfully.
Hence the "two-edged sword," or multiple valences (often conflicting) of educational science and technology. In so many debates, I find myself on more than one side, and I think I'm not alone!