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Alternate title: Men Explain “The Factory Model of Education" to Me

I published some 3400 words this past weekend on “The Invented History of ‘the Factory Model of Education.’” It’s part of my ongoing series on “The History of the Future of Education,” which in turn is part of the research for my book Teaching Machines.

As the book is a work-in-progress, I’m glad to receive feedback – it’s one of the benefits of writing and researching in the open. Is my argument unclear? Do I make leaps of logic? Did I get something wrong? (Not just typos.) Did I leave something out?

Chances are, particularly in an online essay (a “blog post,” whatever) that the answer to the last question is “yes.” Even at 3K+ words, my piece isn’t a definitive history of public education in the United States nor is it a definitive history of recent reformers’ attempts to invoke “the factory model” trope. It’s not really meant to be.

Nevertheless, the challenges to the article are mostly just that: 1) I didn’t include everything. 2) I didn’t include Sir Ken Robinson. 3) I don’t understand history. 4) I don’t understand analogy. 5) I don’t understand John Taylor Gatto, and I should read his work more closely.

3400 words in an essay with abundant links and citations was not enough to stop men from explaining “the factory model of education” to me. Thanks for the tweets and the emails, fellas. Do you offer this sort of feedback to every stranger-researcher-writer on the Internet? I’m curious. Or do you just assume that women in ed-tech lack understanding and expertise?

One of the first responses I received (via Twitter) to my essay asked why I hadn’t addressed Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity.” It is, after all, the most popular TED Talk ever. Other than “I didn’t realize I needed to,” here’s a graphic that perhaps will show you why:

(Click for full-size image)

Do note that there is not a single mention of the “factory model of education” (according to Google Books at least) in the 1840s, the date Salman Khan assigns to its introduction in the US. There is no mention at all of the “Prussian model” in books published from 1800 to 2008. (It is, of course, a popular tale on the Internet. Thanks, Wikipedia! Thanks, TED Talks!)

The inflection point when the phrase “factory model of education” seems to enter public discourse comes after 1970, the date of publication of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. I don’t claim in my essay that Toffler invented the phrase, but he certainly popularizes this particular version of events – a story about education’s industrial past and its industrial purposes. Future Shock, for its part, contends that we are moving from an industrial society to a “super-industrial” society, and that the pace and scope of the change are unsettling politically, economically, and psychologically. Our institutions – institutions like school – were not designed for this “super-industrial” future; nor were they designed to help us cope with the change.

Forty years after Future Shock’s publication, that is still the very much the dominant narrative. There are variations to be sure, and the narrative is told by those with widely different political affiliations and with widely different goals for what education transformation should look like. But whether you call it “super-industrialism” or “the Information Age,” the meaning is clear: when you associate schools with factories, you are implying that they are antiquated; they are obsolete.

Alvin Toffler is not a historian; he’s a futurologist. He tells a story about the past and the present in order to point us in a certain direction. As I note in my article, this story is “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.”

So when I cite Sherman Dorn there – “rhetorical foil” are his words – I do recognize that “the factory model of education” is metaphorical language. Schools are like factories. They’re like factories, some argue, because they were designed to serve industrialism’s needs. They’re like factories, some argue, because they were modeled on factories. These analogies wield an invented history of education in order to demand a change into an institution that’s designated as outmoded.

Now to some, that factory analogy posits that students are viewed by the public education system as products to be molded and standardized by an assembly line. To others, the analogy implies that the working conditions of school are oppressive. To others still, the analogy underscores an economic arrangement that is deemed to be inefficient; that is, in the future, there will be no unions, perhaps even no workers: the future of education will be automated.

One of the goals of my “History of the Future of Education” series is to uncover the ways in which stories about education’s future – and specifically its future with machines – have long been crafted. Often, in the service of the argument that machines will make things different, these stories address education’s past as well. They invent a past and sometimes even a present in order to orient us towards a particular future.

That’s how the story of the rise of “the factory model of education” operates. It’s a thumbnail sketch; it’s shorthand. The history of public education and of education technology are far more complex than that.

(But what do I know, right?)

Audrey Watters


Audrey Watters


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