The current educational system is essentially a Taylorist-Fordist mass production system, organized on a batch-and-queue basis, geared to supply a uniform, standardized and graded input for corporate employers. According to Cathy Davidson (“Standardizing Human Ability,” DML Central, July 30, 2012), education
changed drastically, radically—as did all of Western society—during the great era of Taylorist standardization of labor and of the laborer, roughly 1870-1920. Compulsory, public, taxpayer-supported education in the United States found it needed ways to measure children’s educational productivity with the same uniform standardization as was being applied to workers on the Fordist assembly lines. Frederick Winslow Taylor invented “scientific labor management” where he strove to regularize human output, so that the well-fed, rested worker at 8 am worked at the same rate as he did at 6 pm after a full day of manual labor. For every job, there was the “one best way” (his famous catchphrase), determined by the supervisor, and then everyone was judged by how close they came to that one best way (“soldiers,” he called them) or how far they fell from the mark (“malingerers”).
It’s hard to imagine a more dehumanizing or a more joyless way to work.
And in the first burst of Fordist assembly line labor, educators took the apparatus of scientific labor management and turned it into scientific learning management. Virtually all of the protocols now in place for measuring academic success are based on Taylorist principles. Not on ages’ old traditions of learning, but on a system of reducing human qualities to measurable, standardized productivity designed for the assembly line.
Naveen Jain (“Rethinking Education: Why Our Education System is Ripe for Disruption,” Forbes, March 24, 2013) makes a similar comparison to mass-production industry:
Our education system today uses the mass production style manufacturing process of standardization. This process requires raw material that is grouped together based on a specific criteria. Those raw materials are then moved from one station to another station where an expert makes a small modification given the small amount of time given to complete their task. At the end of the assembly line, these assembled goods are standardized tested to see if they meet certain criteria before they are moved to the next advanced assembly line.
We are using the same process to teach our kids today, grouping them by their date of manufacturing (age). We put them on an education assembly line every day, starting with one station that teaches them a certain subject before automatically moving them to the next class after a certain period of time. Once a year we use standardized testing to see if they are ready to move to the next grade of an education advanced assembly line.
If traditional education is a mass-production system, it should be obvious who the customer is for the product. You’re probably working for one of them. The public schools and higher education system are not designed to facilitate learning. After all, Matt Yglesias notes (“Why Didn’t Books Kill the University?” Slate Moneybox, March 26, 2013), for a self-directed student who wants to learn something for her own purposes, the classroom learning environment is—to put it mildly—a suboptimal learning tool.
Suppose you’re curious about something. Like maybe articles about the recent banking crisis in Cyprus have made you curious about the island’s history. The best first step, by far, is to go to the “History of Cyprus” Wikipedia page and read it. If you’re still interested, maybe follow up with a book or two. Watching a person stand up and talk about Cyprus is pretty far down the list, whether you’re watching the person live or on a video. It’s true that if you want to learn how to tie a bowtie or to properly flip a Spanish tortilla, you may want to watch a video. The visual information is very helpful when you’re talking about demonstrating a physical action. But to convey information? Reading is faster than listening, and buying a book—or checking one out from a library—has always been cheaper than paying college tuition, in part because when you go to college you still have to buy all these books.
So, he asks, “Why didn’t books kill the university?”
The answer, again, is that the student is not the customer. The purpose of college is not to facilitate the student learning about Cyprus. It’s to produce a human resource who’s certified by one institution to have been processed to the specifications of another institution.
If the institutionalized educational system is a mass-production factory with the human resource as its product and the employer as its customer, an educational system organized around the agency of the learner will be a lean, demand-pull system. Rather than moving human beings to an assembly line to be processed, it will move knowledge to the point of consumption, when and where it is needed. If young people are alienated from the old mass-production schools, they understand instinctively how to use new networked learning tools for their own autonomous purposes. Mimi Ito writes (“What Teens Get About the Internet That Parents Don’t,” Atlantic, March 8, 2003):
It is no wonder my daughter wants to mess around with the guitar and the Internet and pursue some interests at a pace that doesn’t feel like the relentlessly scheduled pressure of school and structured activities. For her, the Internet has been a lifeline for self-directed learning and connection to peers. In our research, we found that parents more often than not have a negative view of the role of the Internet in learning, but young people almost always have a positive one.
When we interview young people, they will talk about how the Internet makes it easy for them to look around and surf for information in low risk and unstructured ways. Some kids immerse themselves in online tutorials, forums, and expert communities where they dive deep into topics and areas of interest, whether it is fandom, creative writing, making online videos, or gaming communities….
Young people are desperate for learning that is relevant and part of the fabric of their social lives, where they are making choices about how, when, and what to learn, without it all being mapped for them in advance. Learning on the Internet is about posting a burning question on a forum like Quora or Stack Exchange, searching for a how to video on YouTube or Vimeo, or browsing a site like Instructables, Skillshare, and Mentormob for a new project to pick up. It’s not just professors who have something to share, but everyone who has knowledge and skills.
When my daughter graduates from college, I want her to be able to ask interesting questions, make wise choices in where to direct her time and attention, and find a career that is about contributing to a purpose that’s more than her own self-advancement. I am proud of her for managing a rigorous course of study both in school and out of school, but I’m also delighted that she finds the time to cultivate interests in a self-directed way that is about contributing to her community of peers. The Internet and her friends have offered my daughter a lifeline to explore new interests that are not just about the resume and getting ahead of everyone else. In today’s high-pressure climate for teens, the Internet is feeling more and more like one of the few havens they can find for the lessons that matter most.