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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 1991 Issue 

The Concept Of School As A Factory
By Lon Woodbury

There is the claim that schools are basically factories and that this concept was in place by the beginning of the 20th century. The assertion continues that all reform since then are only surface modifications, such as keeping students in school until an older age, reaching larger percentages of young people, bringing more resources and talent into schools, improve classroom techniques, utilize team teaching, etc.

In this country, the turn of the century was an exciting time. We had just conquered a continent. Many felt war was an obsolete way for a civilized society to solve differences. The advance of scientific knowledge and our system of economy and government had produced unprecedented prosperity. There was the feeling we could accomplish anything we set our minds to, and that we had unlocked the secrets of the universe. All that was left was to learn how to best translate this knowledge into practice in the most effective way.

In the business community, which at that time was basically the business of America, the greatest organizational tool was the factory. The organization of the factory was creating miracles everywhere, and the model of the factory was duplicated in other areas of human endeavor. Centralized decision making was vital to maintain quality and coordinate all aspects in the factory in an objective manner, so the school's headmaster became a principal, who became primarily an administrator.

In the factory, each worker was responsible for a single function which he could master with great efficiency, so each teacher and classroom was compartmentalized into specific subjects. The era of specialization and "experts" came into its own on all levels of society at this time.

In the factory, the most efficient way of bringing all skills to bear on a product was the assembly line, so in the school, students started moving from "expert" to "expert" for set time periods.

In the factory, the more time spent on work, the more production, so time spent at work became equated with productivity. The same in the school. There was a tendency to equate learning with the amount of time a student spent in class. This has evolved to where we now have state funding formulas based heavily on attendance.

In the factory, it was more efficient to have interchangeable parts. This resulted in defining jobs so that workers became interchangeable also. So also in the schools. Salary schedules were gradually evolved so two teachers with the same credentials and experience were paid the same. The height of this tendency was reached in the 1970s when the concept of "teacher-proof text-books" was being pushed. In that concept, all any teacher had to do was follow the textbook and the student would learn. A teacher's experience and talent were discounted.

By the turn of the century, the early behaviorists were reporting their findings. They applied their theories to education and saw learning as behavior. Thus each child was seen as an empty container to be filled with the knowledge of the teacher and textbook. As behaviorist theory evolved, it supported many of the other assumptions the schools operated under. The result was the assumption that if we could find the right external stimulus and system, learning would occur.

When I look at contemporary schools, I see the handiwork of the best thinking of the turn of the century. However, our knowledge of people and of the world has expanded during the 20th century. Unfortunately, this new view of the world has had only a surface impact on the way our schools are organized. It has not touched the core concept of our school system, that is that the school is modeled after a factory.

The factory, and all that it implied, was designed for mass marketing. Our society has changed to where mastering niche marketing is necessary to survive. Yet, education still tends to think in terms of mass education.

The factory was based on centralized decisions and a hierarchy patterned after a military organization. This worked with the problems of the turn of the century, but successful contemporary decision making is moving toward decentralizing, and networking, and drawing out the best thinking of the workers. Yet, education is still centralizing to where even state legislatures are making decisions as to how children are to be taught.

The turn of the century thinkers saw the universe as a mechanical universe. Newtonian mechanics reigned supreme, and Cartesian Reductionism (the whole is the sum of the parts) was the mental tool for solving problems. The specialist was a valuable resource. Yet, Einstein's theory of relativity and modern nuclear physics have taught us there is no objective observer, and Carl Jung's summary of the change in how we look at people (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) underlined that we must look at children and adults as whole people within their social context. Yet, the schools response to this has been only to foster awkward coordination between the existing separate compartments of learning.

The factory saw workers and parts as interchangeable, and early behaviorists saw children as empty vessels to be filled. Yet cognitive theory finds each child and teacher is unique and each learns or teaches in his or her own unique manner. Yet we find educators on the state and national levels developing their own mental model of children's needs, and working to force their solutions into public policy, as if all children and teachers were the same.

Special Purpose Schools have evolved with a primary focus on meeting the needs of the students and gives little credence to theory unless it is proved to work with children. Yet, most of them still approach their academics much like regular schools, at least in appearance. When I ask why, the answer is never that this is the best way for students to learn. Instead, they usually say something like, there probably is a better way, but we do it this way to prepare the students to return to regular classrooms. This is not exactly an endorsement of our assumptions underlying American education.

The only way schools can improve is for us to stop working and focusing on the system, and start looking at the needs of the students. Then, and only then, can we move past the limitations inherent in modeling the school after a factory. "

Copyright 1991, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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