Reflections on “How To Break Free from Our 19th Century Factory-Model Education””

Two comments from readers got me thinking about the guest post by Joel Rose that I just published

The first is from Joe Nutt, former teacher and consultant in the UK:

There is a very real and very serious error underneath what so often passes for the enthusiasm of the reformers. It’s evident in this piece where the author refers to the “factory-model classroom.” The use of “factory” as a metaphor by techno-zealots and reformers, is popular but vacuous. It is just rhetoric. Any great teacher who understands what happens in any real “classroom” knows that. The classroom as learning technology (for what else is it?) is as hardy, as ancient and intransigent as the book… because it works.

That’s why designing “new classroom models” is a contradiction in terms. It’s a bit like saying designing new books. You can’t. You can write them. And before everyone yells “e-books,” they’re still books just as it’s still a classroom. (I know, I wrote one of the very first e-novels.)

One teacher, their skill and knowledge, a group of children and a readiness to learn is all any “factory-model classroom” needs to succeed. It’s ignorance about and the absence of these various elements in so many schools that is the problem. Not the lack of “innovation,” technology or new models.

The second is one from a clinical social worker in rural Maine:

Mr. Rose mentions that technology has not had “the exponential impact many anticipated, how can that be?” Well, that is because the whole issue of technology and its use in classrooms was, and continues to be, ill thought out. Learning is a step by step, time consuming process even for the brightest people. “Software that enables students to learn at their own pace” is not powerful. It is helpful and useful for some in some circumstances.

Even the idea of “designing new classroom models that take advantage of what these (technological) tools can do” misses, I think, the reality of educating a wide variety of students.

At least Mr. Rose prominently mentions a commitment to public education and appears to support the importance of public schooling to “build a common sense of national identity”. A country filled with charter schools and voucher systems can not do this.

These comments prompted the following reflections:

1. Rose ignores the history of technology-powered school reform in the U.S.

He points out that in 1983 the “federal government declared in A Nation at Risk that our system was starting to slide.” Rose connects that date to the appearance of new technologies of Microsoft Word and the Apple IIe. What Rose didn’t point out is that reform-driven critics of U.S. schools have viewed “our system” of age-graded schools–the model imported from Prussia in the mid-19th century–as out-of-date and unequipped technologically to compete economically with other nations for decades.

Consider that in the 1890s when competitors were Britain and Germany, in the 1950s when it was the USSR, and in the 1970s when it was Japan and Germany, new technologies were invoked to deliver more, better, and faster instruction such as machine-driven vocational education at the beginning of the 20th century, instructional television in the 1950s, and the early models of the personal computer in the late-1970s. In each instance, disappointment followed. Rose omits these prior examples of reform with technologies in mind. In calling for U.S. schools to be “modernized” through new technologies, he neglects to answer the question: why have schools been the target of reform through technology repeatedly and the age-graded school has remained unreconstructed through onslaught after onslaught of reformers.

2. Age-graded schools are organizations that have plans for those who teach and learn in them.

Rose’s analysis of the age-graded school containing “factory-model classroom[s]” of 1 teacher for 25-35 students can be critiqued as Joe Nutt has done. Here’s another way of looking at Rose’s solution of delivering personalized, customized, and individualized teaching and learning to students through “a combination of in-class activities, collaborative lab periods in the evening, and online coaches … through the combination of in-class dialogue, web-based software, and online activities with students in other countries. Still others, like New Classrooms use a combination of teacher-led instruction, student collaborative activities, software, virtual instructors, and a complex scheduling algorithm to enable each student to move through an individualized learning progression at his or her own pace.”

What Rose overlooks in his prescription is that all of this occurs within the organization called the age-graded school. Brand-new buildings remain age-graded schools.

Even with projecting all of these new technology uses, schools will pursue age-graded curriculum standards. Students take tests. Students get promoted from one grade to another. Teachers still have their own classrooms. Rose fails to mention how teaching and learning are shaped by the organization of the age-graded school regardless of the ways that technology is used. He neglects to mention that  the school organization socializes children and adults into community values of efficiency, work ethic, acceptance of bureaucratic values, and the like, yes, even in the School of One, Rocketship schools, and other blended programs.

While I do appreciate, as one commenter said, that Rose values the public good of tax-supported schooling, his willingness to tout the virtues of new technologies without altering the powerful organizational influences of the age-graded school undermines precisely what he yearns to happen in public schools.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

19 responses to “Reflections on “How To Break Free from Our 19th Century Factory-Model Education””

  1. Dennis Ashendorf

    While terms like “factory-model” are misleading. A classroom is actually somewhat “artisan.” Technology, including SISs, has either been used to automate advancement and routing of students according to “age-graded” rules or to augment instruction and, to an extent, assessment.

    I use technology to get past “age-graded” in a simple, yet unlikely manner: “concurrent licenses” and “groups” in proprietary suites like e2020 or Odysseyware or Novanet. I simply place students into a course and teachers place students into a group. When the semester ends or situations have changed (e.g. illness) for a student, the student is moved into a inactive group from the teacher’s standpoint, but the student stays in the class. Another teacher can add the student to his or her group. This is wonderful in remediation to summer school for example. Concurrent licenses are actually the key. They don’t cost the school any money when the student is inactive and the course is not individual teacher-dependent. In short, self-paced, mastery learning can be achieved. A more efficient model has a lower-cost advisor monitoring/motivating/pushing the student and teachers acting in tutor mode, either wandering around a computer lab or helping online if a student is stuck.

    This system actually works. Getting admin buy-in is funny. At first, no, then no, then the lightbulb clicks, and they get it. Students don’t have to start over every time they fail a class. They don’t really fail. They just may be slow in getting through the material.

  2. I think, and I believe the reply above is an example of this, there are oases in schools where innovative artisans are able to figure out ways around the mindless approach some of the reform is implemented. The question is: “Are we observing and using those innovations in a mindful and thoughtful manner?” Not everything new and shiny works.

    We are weighted down by bureaucratic and technocratic management from afar that forgets the idea of technology was based on artfully selecting and using the best tool for the job. Dennis, acting as a master craftsman and artisan, demonstrated an awareness and someone above him grew aware.

    I think we have to separate the business interests and the educational interests. What is the purpose of public education (Canadian or American)? What ways can technology serve those purposes? We may have the questions askew i.e. What ways can school serve technology is not the question.

  3. Dennis’s “artisan” metaphor is so much more accurate. It reminded me of the Irish hedge schools. Ivon’s thinking on innovation in schools is equally insightful, and I’m not at all surprised to discover he worked in business before teaching. I’ve just been involved in lengthy discussions with a UK business who have an honest, understandable and thoroughly laudable desire to see innovation happening in schools but who just couldn’t grasp what Ivon and I both know. Innovative teachers will be innovative whether you like it or not and neither policy initiatives nor businesses, (or a joint strategy by both: which is common) can ever force innovation on them. If they did: it’s not an innovation but an imposition.

    What you can do is listen to them and enable them to innovate, as Dennis describes his admin colleagues did.

    Recent research by the Cass Business School in the UK argues that successful businesses employ CEOs who basically know what they are talking about. “Researchers say the key to success is hiring so-called ‘expert leaders’ – individuals who have built up years of experience on the floor – instead of general managers.” A lesson the boards of “educational technology” businesses need to learn.

  4. Looks like some will always chafe at any idea of change that is offered. As usual the comments miss the forest for the trees. The idea is simple, as long as anything proposed as reform remotely approaches they system we have now, those ideas will always be susceptible to criticism. My challenge is to take the idea of changing the system and propose your own ideas of reform.

  5. Dr. Bob, Forgive me for not seeing. We may be writing about different things. To put it differently, not all classes need to be “age-graded.” Remediation classes aren’t, for example. More interesting: how seemingly useful alternatives; such as SRA in the 1960’s, barely survive or die. One Korean company developed two SRA-like, self-paced, mastery math programs almost a decade ago. The US market ignored it. They were marvelous IMHO. Why does this solution not stick?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Dennis, for mentioning the specific programs that were self-paced and easily adapted to non-graded situations.

  6. Jane Remer

    Larry, ….and to reinforce your commentary (above), just one look at the Common Core School Standards is actually the latest (and in my view) most limid and rigid demonstration of age, grade, testing

  7. This, of course, is the grammar of schooling. Why, critics ask, has public education so long resisted reform and change? In reality, the more pertinent question might be why do reformers insist on fundamental change that has in many ways succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Much of what remains about school does so because it works for its constituents. Certainly, the rise of online school like Coursera and Khan and Education Portal are shifting the paradigm a bit – but what works for large groups will – and probably should – remain.

    • You’ve honed in on one of least well understood aspects of this whole situation, certainly in my own experience internationally and in the UK. When you look into the educational background or personal views of many of the most vociferous school reformers, you often find they had a dreadful school experience themselves and pursue a deeply personal, anti-schools agenda.

      One of the researchers whose work on new school design was used again and again to inform the UK’s now mercifully defunct £42 billion Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF) was someone who made no bones whatsoever in his presentations about his own appalling school experience. His PhD was even called, “School as Prison.”

      The people who should be advising on improving schools are individuals who have extensive experience of the very best, understand how they work and can guide others without that experience, to assimilate the same practice and culture. I’d love to hear far more discussion about “schooling” and far less about “learning.”

      • Bob Calder

        Joe, That’s an amazing comment.

        I would be interested in knowing how many people in school reform are devotees of Donella Meadows’ _Thinking in Systems_?

  8. Pingback: Between a ROCK and a very HARD PLACE…(Pt 01) « allthingslearning

  9. Pingback: “Factory schools” part ii | bloghaunter

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