Is the "factory model" of education really outdated?
Factories produce electric cars and Amazon-vended trinkets. Can they produce creative and intelligent students?
A few weeks ago I was tasked with a group learning exercise whose premise was this: Create a $10 million proposal for a school district that can improve, among other things, the factory model of education.
My group ended up offering a solution that included more after-school programming to allow students to explore their interests outside of standard academics. (Curiously, all three groups’ proposals focused on after-school programming — an approach whose efficacy I’ll explore in another post). But the exercise’s premise got me thinking about the factory model — and if it’s really all that bad.
In a talk that’s been viewed 17 million times on YouTube, Sir Ken Robinson suggests that our education system has roots in the industrial revolution. He refers to standardization and the production-line model to describe schools. The “factory model of education” seemingly refers to just that: the systematization of education. Roughly, it’s the idea that teachers are workers on an assembly line, moving students methodically through rote learning on that line until they’re finished in 12th grade, after which they exit the factory and go to college, which also resembles a factory, or to work in an actual factory — apologies for the run-on.
There are lots of scholarly articles that refer to the factory model of education and many education opinion pieces that use the phrase. It even has its own Wikipedia page.
The common theme in nearly all is that the factory model is awful, bad, and no good — a model of public education that has no place in the 21st century because factories are also awful, bad, and no good and have no place in the 21st century.
Or do they? I imagine nearly all of you are reading this on a device produced in a factory. A quick Google search yields numerous articles lamenting the loss of US manufacturing, celebrating the openings of new factories, and dreaming of ways to bring manufacturing back.
So why is manufacturing bad for students but good for the country at large?
I did some digging and found two interesting pieces, one by education writer Audrey Watters (The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’) and another by Sherman Dorn (How the "Industrial Era Schools" Myth is a Barrier to Helping Education Today)
From Watters's piece: 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. The irony, though, is using “factory” in the pejorative when describing our public education system, while using it in complimentary fashion when describing our economy. Even Howie Roseman, the Eagles’ General Manager, believes he’s doing the Lord’s work in creating a quarterback factory here even while that factory produces quarterbacks with the quality of an ‘88 Chevy Beretta — pardon the run-on.
In Dorn’s own essay, he writes that “…neither historians nor anyone else can definitively claim nothing has changed in a system such as schooling.” That tracks with my experience. My first job was teaching in a school originally built with no walls or doors. It was only when they realized what a terrible idea that was that the building was remodeled with soft partitions (but still no doors).
Therein lies my concern with using coined phrases like “factory model” to bash public education. Not only are they often inaccurate and without merit, they’re often weaponized to justify radical reforms — like schools without walls or vouchers — that have little basis in research and a low chance of efficacy.
We’ve got plenty of issues to fix in education. This blog (newsletter?) has highlighted many of them. But even if we assume that schools are modeled after factories, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. Factories have evolved their processes and systems to become wildly more productive than they were 100 years ago — all while producing more and more complex products (like the one you’re using to read this right now). And I’ve seen very few actual classrooms — where the learning goes on — that resemble factories. I mostly see teachers building strong bonds with students and adjusting their instruction to meet the needs of all 30 students in their crowded and under-resourced classrooms while juggling lots of other non-factorial (?) duties — sorry for the run-on.
After all, we’ve got some 50 million students to educate. I’m not sure we can school that many students with a small batch, artisanal, hand-crafted, farm-to-desk micro-school. But maybe we should give everyone vouchers and try. (jk jk)
Thanks for reading. Have a great week!