The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

American schools are modeled after factories and treat students like widgets. Right? Wrong.

A worker prepares assembled stand mixers for packaging on the production line at the Whirlpool Corp. KitchenAid manufacturing facility in Greenville, Ohio, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

How many times have you heard that public schools in the United States were modeled in the 20th Century on factories and have yet to be restructured to meet 21st Century needs? A lot, I’d bet. But what if that isn’t true? In this post, education historian Jack Schneider looks at the truth behind the “factory model” theory and whether school design is really the cause of student disengagement and inadequate learning. Schneider is an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross and the author of “Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools” and “From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education.” Follow him on Twitter @Edu_Historian.

By Jack Schneider

American schools were modeled after factories. And they treat students like widgets. As a consequence, learning is often irrelevant to young people—failing to target their interests or to recognize their unique needs.

The claim has been repeated so often—by entrepreneurs, by policy wonks, by the secretary of education—that it has achieved a kind of truth status. And increasingly, it’s a rallying cry for reform. Our schools need reinvention, reformers assert. If we want to promote real learning, we need to tear down the factory and rebuild around technologies of the Information Age.

It’s the stuff of great TED talks. It just happens to be wrong.

Now, reformers aren’t wrong that school all too often feels irrelevant to young people. Students are regularly bored and disengaged in the classroom. They memorize meaningless minutia that makes only a shallow imprint on their brains. And they rarely have the opportunity to pursue their passions.

But that isn’t because of a “factory model.”

[How school reform became the cause célèbre of billionaire philanthropists]

To start with, American schools were not actually modeled after factories. That’s an invented history full of errors and omissions. It illustrates very little knowledge of how actual factories operated. And it happens to totally disregard the evolutionary changes that have taken place over the past several hundred years. The phrase “factory model,” we might conclude, is a misleading metaphor at best.

Still, there are some factory-like aspects of American education. And they’re worth considering.

As reformers point out, our schools are characterized by bulk processing of students—lumping them by age and clustering them in groups of roughly twenty, for instance. And cognitive science research, to say nothing of common sense, suggests that this isn’t an ideal approach. Learning is a complex process shaped by biology, experience, and interest. Consequently, the more students you have in class, the harder it is to target each as an individual.

There’s also an assembly line aspect to American schools that doesn’t really match what we know about how people learn. The typical school curriculum, for example, precludes students from pursuing genuine interests at an individualized speed. Yet educational psychologists have convincingly argued that student curiosity and an appropriate level of challenge are key drivers in the learning process. Consequently, a system that forces students to learn things, often at an inappropriate pace, does a great deal to inhibit real learning.

Perhaps most obviously, schools, like factories, are generally geared toward producing a fairly uniform product, rather than a series of custom-built objets d’art. Our schools lean heavily, for instance, on assessment tools, particularly standardized tests, that reward only one particular manifestation of human intelligence. Prominent theories of mind, meanwhile, suggest that such measures fail to account for the full range of a student’s knowledge and ability. In such cases, efficiency is clearly being prized over efficacy.

“OK, well, sorry for the fake history,” reformers might reply to all this. “But see—we’re still basically right. The factory-like conditions of American schools are preventing real learning from taking place. Out with the old, in with the new.”

To test this proposition, let’s try a thought experiment in which we wave a magic wand and remove these conditions.

And now let’s ask a simple question: do students learn more in these altered environments?

Even if teachers had much smaller class sizes, no curricular restraints, and total freedom from state testing—dramatic changes for even a magic wand to produce—they’d still face many of the same core challenges with regard to learning. That’s because those challenges aren’t caused by the factory-like elements in school, just exacerbated by them.

The root causes of disengagement and shallow learning, as it turns out, aren’t design problems at all. They’re problems inherent to the concept of schooling. Young people would rather be socializing than learning, and though some learning can happen through play, much of it can’t. Young people, like adults, would also like to avoid exhausting and effortful work; but thinking is hard, and much of learning involves thinking. Finally, young people aren’t naturally interested in many of the things we want them to learn in school; yet as long as school is designed to serve the needs of society and not just the desires of the individual, much of education will involve steering students away from what they are naturally interested in and towards something else.

These are big problems that can’t be wished away or solved by new technologies.

They can, however, be ameliorated by great teaching. And that’s what we should be focused on if we’re going to talk about improving learning outcomes.

Engaging students in deep learning requires the cultivation of environments of trust and care. It means finding adequate space for play and for hard work. It means nudging and cajoling students, pestering and praising them. It means uncovering puzzles and conjuring mysteries. It means drawing connections to student interests, engaging with the real world, and cracking the occasional joke.

Masterful teachers know this. And their classrooms are places of wonder. No observer would ever liken them to factories.

To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with innovation, per se. Go ahead and flip classrooms, “blend” learning, and arm students with tablets. Shrink the high school. Overhaul the curricular standards. Knock down classroom walls. Remodel until there are no foundation dollars left.

But remember: schools are much more like gardens than they are like factories. And great gardens aren’t the result of modernist design or entrepreneurial innovation. They are products of attention, devotion, and love. They are complex systems that demand our time and respond to our care. And in a thousand different blooms, they reward us with their beauty.