In the so-called “factory schools” that originated in early 19th-century Prussia education was provided by the state and learning was regimented. Before that formal education was reserved for the elite and those who could afford it. But as industrialisation changed the way people worked, it created the need for a model of schooling that includes everyone.
In these schools students were placed in grades according to their age and moved through successive grades as they mastered the curriculum. Factories required workers who were going to show up every day, on time, and be prepared to do what their managers told them. Sitting in a classroom all day with a teacher was good preparation for that.
In these settings value was placed on compliance, punctuality and conformity, the things valued in factory settings. The highly time-managed, assembly-line factory settings were no place for workers who wanted to innovate or express their personal approach.
But this is all familiar to us – right? There are hundreds of books, articles and blog posts that attest to this being a picture of the origins of our modern schooling system. So why raise it again here? We’ve moved beyond the industrial age, and now live in what’s variously referred to as the information age, or the ‘digital age‘ with factory settings giving way to the emergence of the gig economy.
The dispositions of creativity, innovation and critical thinking are all now highly valued. Personalisation and student agency are the norm. Coping with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the new normal – correct?
If so, then why does so much of our current school system still resemble the factory settings of the past? To understand this it may be helpful to consider the contribution of two middle aged white guys whose work was significant at the height of the industrialisation of our education system. These two, born just three years apart, made significant contributions to the thinking that underpins our current education system – but in very different ways.
Frederic Taylor is regarded as the father of scientific management. Taylor’s philosophy focused on the belief that making people work as hard as they could was not as efficient as optimizing the way the work was done. Thus he proposed replacing working by “rule of thumb,” or simple habit and common sense, and instead use the scientific method to study work and determine the most efficient way to perform specific tasks. From his research he proposed breaking tasks down into tiny steps, and focusing on how each person can do his or her specific series of steps best.
The impact of Taylor’s work was immense. His research informed much of the way factories at the time became organised, focusing on efficiency and productivity through the application of his principles of scientific management. The application of his approach has become known as Taylorism, and continues to be referenced in modern texts.
Taylor’s influence extended well beyond the field of industry. He also had a profound influence on education, promoting the standardisation of the operation of schools and classrooms. He was a major influence on the thinking of E L Thorndike – considered one of the most influential people in the history of education. Thorndike believed that the main goal of education is to sort young people according to their ability so that they could efficiently be appointed to their proper station in life, whether manager or worker, and so the educational resources could be allocated accordingly.
Arguably, the influence of these men in the structure and processes of our education system remains strong, even to this day.
Born just three years after Taylor, the name of John Dewey will be more familiar to modern educators. His work formed the backbone of much of the theoretical work I encountered in my training as a teacher back in the 1970s when constructivism and progressive education were becoming more popular. Dewey believed that education is not an affair of telling and being told, but and active and constructive process.
Dewey’s approach to education was learner-centered, and he suggested several innovative ideas for teaching and learning. Dewey was a strong proponent for progressive educational reform. He believed that education should be based on the principle of learning through doing.
Dewey paved the way for a number of prominent educational theorist who followed, including Piaget and Vygotsky – other names who regularly featured in my own teacher education, and whose work (and derivatives of it) continues to inform the work of educators in classrooms to this day.
A tension exists
A quick comparison of the beliefs and influence of these two men would appear to place them at opposite ends of a continuum. Taylor giving prominence to systems and standardised processes over the initiative of people, and Dewey arguing for the emphasis on liberating the capabilities of individuals through a more participative approach. His is a pedagogy of learning by doing compared with Taylor’s pedagogy of compliance.
Acknowledging this in the formation of our modern schooling system is an important first step in understanding what might be required to bring about the transformation so many are arguing for, yet seemingly ineffective in achieving.
We need to understand where the dominant influences remain, and what we might do to change them. When it comes to designing the system of schooling, it would seem we’ve given prominence to people such as Taylor (and more recently, Picot in the NZ setting) whose experience in commercial or industrial settings appeals to government ministers and those who find education because of the way it provides ways of measuring return on investment and ensuring what is being produced will contribute economically to the future of the country.
On the other hand, we have aspirational curriculum statements published, promoting a learner-centred approach to teaching and learning, giving emphasis to inclusive practices, the development of character, creativity and critical thinking – to name just a few of the competencies identified as essential for our young people to thrive and contribute positively into the future. Such documents, and those who promote them argue strongly for a system that is innovative, open to change celebrating diversity.
It’s not too difficult to identify which of these positions wins out. While we have teachers in classrooms, highly motivated to challenge their students to learn in ways that suit them and help them to achieve their goals, we have a system still strongly tied to the principles of Taylorism and its pedagogy of compliance.
Frankly, it seems almost too big a problem. to address. Teachers at the chalkface are under constant pressure to demonstrate their successes using measures that arguably, come straight out of Taylor’s play book.
Politicians and bureaucrats who are in positions to actually do something that would create the conditions for change are victims of short-termism, bound by the pressures of a three-year election cycle where the immediate pressures from the voting public will always sway thinking more powerfully than any philosophical arguments. (And if they don’t, then the voters will vote them out anyway).
As we sit at the threshold of yet another structural system change here in NZ, with the formation of Te Mahau, how can we be sure that the aspirations behind this initiative won’t simply be captured again by the fundamentals of Taylorism, and stifle the progressive ideas of Dewey (and others).
Of course, it’s not as binary as that. It’s not Taylor OR Dewey. I’ve used them to illustrate the polarised influences that are at work, and how without critical thought, one will impose itself on the other. We want to see our young people develop as confident, capable young people who will thrive in their future. But we also need to consider what sort of system is required to support them in achieving this. That continues to be where the tension lies.
What can be done?
In writing a blog post like this it would be remiss not to at least attempt to offer some thoughts about some of the things we could consider doing (offered here in no particular order)…
- Let’s agree that this is an issue that won’t be solved in the short term We have to be driven by a paramount concern for our tamariki – not our own vested interests. We have to commit to thinking long – re-discover the art of seven generational thinking in all areas of our education and schooling system. This includes applying the discipline of learning from the past, looking to the future and then living in the present.
- Let’s be bold in exposing our beliefs – the things we hold dear about what’s important for our future generations, and not simply at election time or for some other political purpose. Let’s work critically to understand what has shaped, and continues to shape these. Developing a shared vision and beliefs that we can rally around and be inspired by is essential if transformation is to occur. But this is hard – in the process everyone’s beliefs will be challenged, new ideas emerge, old ways of doing things left behind, and after 40 years of a neo-liberal agenda that will be difficult, but not impossible, to generate a new impetus for a collective approach where we may be more willing to set aside some of our personal ambitions for the sake of the broader good.
- Let’s promote more conversations involving learners, educators, communities, bureaucrats and politicians where we can critically engage with the histories that have shaped our beliefs and thus our current system design. We had signs of a good beginning to this with the EdConvo series, but in the end it was pretty much ‘flash in the pan stuff – it’s really difficult to find anything of substance that suggests any ongoing commitment to this, let alone evidence of the specific actions or decisions that were informed by it. I am sure there are some, but in an ideal world these would be more iteratively developed with the communities involved, and not simply used as a mandate to underpin more top down decisions. We don’t need to wait for this to be led from the centre – these conversations can be organised in local communities – just don’t make them a ‘one-off’, but create space for them to be ongoing and purposeful.
- Let’s stop apportioning blame for the current state. We’re all in this together, and are all contributing to what’s happening in some way. It seems the government or Ministry of Education is always a target in this game. But then there’s the finger pointing between primary and secondary schools, or between secondary and tertiary institutions. Or even more of a concern, the blame apportioned to the initial teacher education providers. As long as the work if initial teacher education and in-service/professional development are seen as separate and not integrated we’re always be in a mess in that area anyway. The blame game is also implicit in the messaging of many educational pressure groups, whether formal groups such as unions and subject associations, or the informal ‘activist’ voices that are appearing on the fringes. Collaboration is what is required, and that cannot thrive where blame exists. It can’t always be someone else’s fault. Sure, it’s easy (and sometimes helpful) to identify where the cause of problems may exist, but remember, when you point your finger there are three pointing back at you.
- Let’s take some risks. We got through a recent lockdown where we found many of the practices we’ve fought against for ages can actually work. Why wait for the next pandemic? Why not take what we learned there – or any idea that we are convinced might actually work in the interests of our learners, and do it. But not in a cavalier way that abandons all responsibility or good practice. Let’s actually apply the principles of teaching as inquiry – to become researchers of our own practice on a day to day basis, in our classrooms, our schools and our system. And let’s ensure this is communicated – not in the form of summative reports that take an age to get published (if at all), but in the context of communities of practice (in-person and virtual) so the ideas spread, and the good ideas can multiply.