Imagining School

Boldly Reshaping Education

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From the Factory to the Drawing Board

By: Alex Wenzel

“School buildings mirror our educational concepts.  America has a predilection for straight lines, rectangles, squared-off blocks, and nowhere is this more true than in the usual schoolhouse.”  — J. Lloyd Trump

In the physical sense, school buildings certainly model straight lines, rectangles and blocks.  The organization of classrooms, hallways, offices, etc. models this exactly.  In my opinion it mirrors our traditional model of education as well.  Students move vertically from Kindergarten to twelfth grade.  They are boxed in to batches that move from one square room to the other.  They are separated from the other grade levels and classes by square walls and long, linear hallways.

Traditionally, we think of curriculum, teaching and learning in this way as well.  We categorize learning by subject and we organize it into linear sequences of knowledge bits.  Once students acquire the first piece of knowledge in the order, then we can feed them the next one.  Theoretically learning progresses in this way until students complete the acquisition of all the linear knowledge bits and graduate from high school.  The entire idea of standardized education captures this idea of ‘straight lines, rectangles, squared-off blocks’.

This model also extends to the bureaucratic organizational structure of most schools and reminds me of the Weberian model of bureaucracy described in the text.  The characteristics of the model include, “a division of labor and specialization, an impersonal orientation, a hierarchy of authority, rules and regulations.” (Hoy, 2009, p. 95)  Nearly all schools hold some resemblance to this.  Teachers and staff specialize in a certain level and/or subject.  They represent the ‘squared-off boxes’ that students move through in ‘straight lines’ through the educational system.  The hierarchy of authority represents straight lines as well; “the superintendent at the top and assistants, directors, principals, teachers, and students at successively lower levels.” (Hoy, 2009, p. 96)  The rules and regulations that are part of the organization provide the continuity and uniformity that stabilize this model.

This quote reminded me of the TED talks and writing of Sir Ken Robinson who would disagree with our ‘straight lines, rectangles, and squared-off blocks’ in education whole-heartedly.

(If you haven’t seen these TED talks yet, they are well worth it:  How schools kill creativity – and How to escape education’s death valley –

Robinson’s views resonate with the original quote.  He remarks in his book, The Element:  How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything(2009), that “Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism—they were created in the image of industrialism. In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support.”  If viewed in this way, we can see that schooling does represent an assembly line (students) with division of labor of the assembly line workers (teachers).   “Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments: some teachers install math in the students, and others install history.”  Even the daily time schedule at schools fits with this model with bells marking the beginning and end of work.   “Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture.”  We seem to altogether ignore the students as individuals in terms of their skills and talents. (Robinson, 2009)

I do believe that this model of education is changing.  Current trends in education strive to deviate from the traditional model.  For example, the idea of competency-based learning avoids the ‘batches’ model by advancing students based on acquisition of skills and knowledge rather than with the grade level.  Cross-curricular integration, project and challenge based learning attempt to more appropriately unite different subject areas and skills as they natural occur and are acquired through experience.  We now recognize the vast importance of skills students will need in jobs of the future.  Largely know as 21st century skills, schools all over the world are striving to foster abilities such as communication, collaboration, information literacy, and creativity to create global thinkers prepared for jobs outside of the ‘factory model’.

“The future for education is not in standardizing but in customizing; not in promoting groupthink and “de-individuation” but in cultivating the real depth and dynamism of human abilities of every sort.” (Robinson, 2009)