In Audrey Watters’ essay, The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education,’ she provides an insightful analysis of recent statements by respected leaders for change in education. According to them, the Western education system is based on an outdated factory model stemming from industrialization and consequently, it needs to be replaced. Watters makes a cogent argument that this assumption is untrue based on historical facts.
I agree. It is true that the goals and maybe even the mechanics of industrialization became intertwined with American education by the late 20th century. But it took a long time to standardize the system. For example, in 19th century rural America, the major purpose of multi-age one-room schoolhouses (about 200,000 of them) was to make people feel more connected to an emerging nation, to teach them the responsibilities of living in a democratic society. There was no resemblance to industrialization.
During Reconstruction, schooling was very important to African Americans; learning to read and write had been denied them as slaves. Education was the first step towards equality. In urban areas, schooling was mostly enjoyed by the elite until child-labor laws were seriously enforced in the 1920’s and 30’s allowing working-class children to take full advantage of public education. Until then, most children were “industrialized” through apprenticeships and early work years, not schools.
We tend to not see automation today as mechanization as much as algorithmization–the promise and potential in artificial intelligence and virtualization, as if this magically makes these new systems of standardization and control lighter and liberatory.
And so too we’ve invented a history of the “factory model of education” in order to justify an “upgrade”–to new software and hardware that will do much of the same thing schools have done for generations now, just (supposedly) more efficiently, with control moved out of the hands of labor (teachers) and into the hands of a new class of engineers, out of the realm of the government and into the realm of the market.
In other words, just because we have a new format in technology does not mean that its content will set us free. Accredited education will always involve the passing on of societal values and goals.
However, I would not be so quick to say that with technology solutions teachers will be replaced as education influencers. Many EdTech startups are depending on teachers to create content and pedagogy that work in digital programs.
We need engineers and instructional designers to lead in technology. Developers admit that they are far from creating education technology that is scalable—cost- and learning- effective. They want to work with educators and government agencies to “make it happen.”
How we educate students and who has control will depend on how well experienced educators, technology experts, and government agencies can collaborate for the common good—an old but still valid concept. Let’s not allow the high speed of technology push any of us into premature interpretations, predictions, and solutions. Let’s not jump from the exaggerated gloom and doom interpretations of the past to gloom and doom predictions for the future.