Over the last 125 years, we have witnessed incredible social change. From the second industrial revolution and through both World Wars, including the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights era, and even a third (!) industrial revolution. Unfortunately, traditional school classrooms largely mirror instruction from early American public schools. That’s a problem.
In 1907, Henry Ford announced a dramatic plan to build a motorized car “for the great multitude.” The Ford assembly line used a series of driven conveyor belts to move connected parts through sequential stations. Standardized production meant that each laborer focused on one repeatable assignment. “The man who puts in a bolt,” Ford explained, “does not put on the nut. The man who puts on the nut does not tighten it.”
The second industrial revolution transformed American industry . . . and American public schools, too. The new American school professionalized academic instruction and standardized student learning. Secondary schools increasingly emphasized modern professional traits, including “punctuality, concentration, and obedience.” An educator at the time explained: “The back door of the school leads to the front door of the factory.”
Traditional classroom instruction remains rooted in the factory model of education. The floor supervisor stands at the head of the classroom. Line employees sit in straight rows to the back of the room. Workers learn fixed tasks at specific stations and complete repeatable worksheets for homework. In the end, quality control administers standardized assessments to measure competency.
We have witnessed amazing social change, but think about it: common school education has stayed roughly the same for almost 125 years. Today, children have more access to more content and information that at any period in human history, but students are still expected to learn the way we did when riding horses or trains was the most common way to travel.
The factory model of education is obsolete. Rote instruction simply demands that students memorize past knowledge and patterns. And it isn’t even entirely effective. During the last 30 years, we have spent more than $175 billion on education. However, student achievement in reading and mathematics remains largely flat. Peter Sims (2011) explains, “Students are taught the knowledge is static and complete and they become experts at consuming knowledge rather than producing knowledge.”
Too often, schools do not prepare our students to develop interesting, individual, or independent ideas. They do not challenge our children to create or imagine new ideas, new knowledge, or new patterns. Too often, traditional schools limit expression and discourage individuality. Sir Ken Robinson explains that schools “dislocate” students from their primary “natural resource”: creativity, imagination, and innovation. (Ooof.)
But what if school were different?