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The Myth of So-Called ‘Factory Education’

Classrooms were not designed by businesses, but by academics — which may be worse

Bernie Bleske
Mar 8, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo: Helen Cortez / EyeEm / Getty Images

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It is commonly argued that schools are modeled on factories. Google “school” and “industrial” and you’ll get 42 million hits supporting this view. Nearly every significant education critic, from Sir Ken Robinson to former education secretary Arne Duncan, makes the case that students are shuffled through an outdated structure plagiarized from Henry Ford.

The factory analogy leads to other charges. The goal is a nation of drones. It’s a system designed by businessmen and corporations. The product is obedience and compliance. As with so many things that feel like conventional wisdom, none of this is true. The confusion does make a certain sense, though. Much about school appears mechanized or factory-like:

The physical structure. Students sit in neat and orderly rows. They live and work in a world of sharp edges and plastic surfaces. Long banks of fluorescent tubes provide overhead lighting. The air is cool, the walls are white, the shelves are neatly lined with manuals. Posters highlight the benefits of character and action in an industrious fashion. There’s rarely a plant in sight.

The activity. Students file in and out on a tight schedule. They don’t eat at work. They all toil together on the same things. A kind of floor manager directs the action.

The product. Students turn out a uniform package of crisp, identical detail and thought, judged — like meat or refrigerators — according to universal quality assessment systems and graded for value. The B+ History student as produced by the Jefferson High factory in Dubuque.

But the industrial feel of school is mostly an incidental similarity created by space, economics, and efficiency. It is neither intended to create a vast army of clones nor purposefully designed for obedient, compliant robots.

If American businesses were in charge of designing, staffing, implementing, and funding schools, they’d do a number of things very differently.

Consider first and foremost what students study in school. Classes are so distant from commercial application that they feel antithetical. Students don’t study the history of commerce, capitalism, production, or consumer goods. They don’t even study the history of technology used to improve the human condition, make money, or simply create things.

Students don’t read or analyze popular works of art — the kinds that produce a livable incomes for artists. They don’t analyze pop music (unless the teacher is an outlier). They don’t read the kind of popular nonfiction we consume as adults: newspapers, magazines, trade journals, cookbooks, and manuals. We spend vast sums of money on the stories that appear on our various screens, yet almost none of it—certainly nothing current—appears in school. In fact, you get in trouble for watching it.

Students don’t write business proposals or commercial correspondence. They don’t create advertising or write magazine-style articles. They don’t write for an audience at all. (A teacher is not an audience because a teacher cannot choose not to read what students write.)

Most jobs in America today are service-oriented, but there is not a single measure or marker of school that concerns how well a young person gets along with others.

Students don’t study the math of construction, finance, or statistics. Larger, wealthier school districts may offer these subjects, but they are not on every standardized or state-mandated exam. Students don’t learn much about the math of money. They may study biology, but not nursing or medicine. Sociology and psychology are exclusive electives, and rarely concern commerce.

Machine work. Materials science. Water. Energy. Electronics. Mechanical engineering. Plumbing. Agriculture. Personnel management. Sales. Food preparation. Truck driving (the single largest job in America). All are ignored, neglected, or avoided.

But consider the areas in which students have to prove growth and expertise. Advanced math concepts like calculus. Literary classics. Comprehension of isolated reading passages that rarely have much practical application. Much has little direct relationship to the world of work or commerce. Most jobs in America today are service-oriented, but there is not a single measure or marker of school that concerns how well a young person gets along with others.

Students mostly sit and listen, then repeat back what they’ve heard or read. Sometimes they analyze, but rarely toward any purpose other than the analysis. To prove understanding, a student is only as active as moving eyeballs and a pen across paper. The leap between knowledge and action is most tangibly made in the world outside school. Students do not study what the business world needs for its factories, and they also don’t practice assembly—or spend much time making anything at all.

Academics are the only people who sit around thinking about things and writing down their thoughts. Almost everyone else translates learning into action. The true model of the classroom is the academic university, and the true designers are academic professors.

If school were an actual factory, students would make things, or at least learn how to make things. Instead, they learn about things.

It might be argued that business is not relevant to a 16-year-old; that every kid needs a foundation of math and English and science, a kind of base knowledge or skill set to apply later; and that most classes meet those terms. And this is true—until seventh or eighth grade.

But it’s also true that the academic understanding of math or literature or science is a very narrow lens. A child first learns language outside a classroom; a three-year-old acquires a new vocabulary word about every 20 minutes. There is no intellectualized explanation of purpose and meaning. Imagine if a school was able to introduce, explain, apply, and put into practice a new concept every 20 minutes—without coercion, not within an unnatural learning environment, and with an excellent retention rate.

From the first day of school, we sit in rows with a teacher in front. We are grouped by abilities. We learn in a very specific way, and demonstrate our understanding in an even narrower way. By the time we reach high school, we have laid down an unquestioned set of assumptions about what constitutes true learning.

We are so captivated by the idea that education is what we study in school that we cannot conceive of how we might otherwise learn. We don’t realize how deeply learning already infuses everything we do.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing from a pro-business platform. My friends call me a socialist. I am not a businessman; I’m a high school English teacher and occasional college professor. My politics lean far closer to Bernie Sanders and AOC than Hillary Clinton.

One doesn’t have to be anti-academic, however, to see the iron grip academia has on all things school. You don’t have to be pro-business to recognize all the ways production, sales, commerce, and finance are shut out of traditional education. In the loud argument over whether academia or business is a better approach, we miss the simple fact that there is no better approach. We also ignore the multitude of aspects of the human condition that depend on learning.

School tends to treat learning as an almost exclusively academic exercise, just as it tends to favor any and all academic content. Unbiased. Theoretical. Truth-seeking. Even formulaic. It privileges the written word over physical action. Learning in school is not merely a mental exercise; it’s somehow purest when the content or skill can be reduced to mental abstraction. No high school exam involves doing anything more physical than putting a pen to paper, and this is in the service of abstract concepts and mental demonstrations.

Learning is a deep and profound aspect of living a life. We are, in some sense, always learning, always adding something new to our functioning selves

The question of purpose is rarely asked in school. The purpose of school is simply to know, which is like answering “because I told you so” to the question “Why?” “To know” narrowly applies to the multitude of forms and shapes of all things human. We nurture. Heal. Grow. Play. Laugh. Cry. Gossip. Eat. Shape. Create.

Not all of these can be confined in “to know.”

Most human work is also physical in one way or another, and most labor demands far more education than we allow—certainly far more than we actually spend time teaching. And this doesn’t just apply to traditional “trade jobs” like automobile mechanics. In classrooms, we also ignore plumbing, electronics, gardening, home construction, nursing, and cooking.

Learning is a deep and profound aspect of living a life. We are, in some sense, always learning, always adding something new to our functioning selves, whether it’s a skill, a fact, or an experience. Learning is not simply about new things; it’s also mastery and control over things we already understand. Falling in love is an act of learning about someone new. Cooking a meal is the act of learning a new taste, or the repetition and practice fundamental to mastery.

If we can re-establish a society-wide hold on learning and wrestle some of the authority away from the academics, we might help ourselves respect and nurture the full scope of our relationship with learning and education.

We might call this natural learning.

Natural learning is chaotic. Academic learning is heavily structured.

Natural learning embraces play. Academic learning scorns play.

Natural learning is self-directed. Academic learning demands an authority.

Natural learning is free (and includes the freedom to say no). Academic learning is forced.

Natural learning embraces willing repetition and practice. Academic learning distrusts pleasurable repetition and practice.

There is nothing inherently wrong with academics running classrooms, just as there would be nothing wrong with businesses directing class content. Or the medical field. Or farmers. Or journalists. Or soldiers. The problem is not with the academics; it’s with only the academics setting the terms for education, both what is learned and how it’s taught.

The mass education of large groups of young people is, of course, necessary. Reading, writing, and math are fundamental skills, but there’s no reason every person should pursue advanced reading — the kind necessary as a functioning professional adult — in the manner prescribed by most academic classes. The same goes for the math we privilege in high schools. And the history. And the science.

If society regularly pulled from its ranks of experts and professionals and had them teach teenagers, the classroom experience would be very different. If doctors and nurses taught biology and health, they would likely work with patients, combining the actual physical practice with content knowledge. The same goes for electricians, cooks, farmers, soldiers, salespeople, and even parents.

(Oddly enough, one of the few college bachelor degrees that requires significant time outside the college classroom is elementary education, a degree that usually requires hours in hands-on classroom practicum.)

The classroom itself is not a lie or an illusion. Classrooms do work. But classroom activity is fixed. And a very narrow kind of content is prioritized, to the exclusion of all else. Learning, however, doesn’t stop at the structure of rows and a teacher and whiteboard.

Change is happening in the classroom, to some degree, but it’s occurring far more quickly outside school walls, and schools are aggressively trying to keep it out. We live in an information-saturated world that feeds learning. Online, in the cloud, through movies and television and music, tooled by increasingly sophisticated programs and ever-more-flexible social media. The vast majority of young people — who spend a third or more of their waking hours in school — devour information and learning outside the classroom walls. The YouTube videos they watch, the computer games they play, and the social media tools they manage are all forms of learning.

If the academic world of the classroom is to adapt, it must give up its desperate embrace. It won’t be easy. But it might be necessary.

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