The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’: Personalized Instruction and Teaching Machines aren’t new

May 25, 2015 at 7:30 am 5 comments

When I was a PhD student taking Education classes, my favorite two-semester sequence was on the history of education.  I realized that there wasn’t much new under the sun when it comes to thinking about education.  Ideas that are key to progressive education movements date back to Plato’s Republic: “No forced study abides in a soul…Therefore, you best of men, don’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can also better discern what each is naturally directed toward.”  Here we have learning through games (but not video games in 300BC) and personalized instruction — promoted over 2400 years ago.  I named my dissertation software system Emile after Rousseau’s book with the same name whose influence reached Montessori, Piaget, and Papert decades later.

Audrey Watters takes current education reformers to task in the article linked below.  Today’s reformers don’t realize the history of the education system, that many of the idea that they are promoting have been tried before. Our current education system was designed in part because those ideas have already failed.  In particular, the idea of building “teaching machines” as a response to “handicraft” education was suggested over 80 years ago.  Education problems are far harder to solve than today’s education entrepreneurs realize.

Many education reformers today denounce the “factory model of education” with an appeal to new machinery and new practices that will supposedly modernize the system. That argument is now and has been for a century the rationale for education technology. As Sidney Pressey, one of the inventors of the earliest “teaching machines” wrote in 1932 predicting “The Coming Industrial Revolution in Education,”

Education is the one major activity in this country which is still in a crude handicraft stage. But the economic depression may here work beneficially, in that it may force the consideration of efficiency and the need for laborsaving devices in education. Education is a large-scale industry; it should use quantity production methods. This does not mean, in any unfortunate sense, the mechanization of education. It does mean freeing the teacher from the drudgeries of her work so that she may do more real teaching, giving the pupil more adequate guidance in his learning. There may well be an “industrial revolution” in education. The ultimate results should be highly beneficial. Perhaps only by such means can universal education be made effective.

via The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’.

The reality is that technology never has and never will dramatically change education (as described in this great piece in The Chronicle).  It will always be a high-touch endeavor because of how humans learn.

Education is fundamentally a human activity and is defined by human attention, motivation, effort, and relationships.  We need teachers because we are motivated to make our greatest efforts for human beings with whom we have relationships and who hold our attention.

In the words of Richard Thaler, there are no Econs (see recommended piece in NYTimes).

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Justin "JM"  |  May 25, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    I stumbled across your blog yesterday while searching for resources and researching methods to teach my five-year old daughter computer science. I have been devouring the content for hours. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your insight and for sharing it with all of us here.

  • 2. Ken Bauer (@ken_bauer)  |  May 25, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    I just *love* Audrey Watters’ work. I am currently reading her self-published book of her 2014 conference talks available here:

    Audrey’s guide to Ed-Tech is great too. I love the start of that page: “Frankly, most ed-tech is utter crap.”

  • 3. Guy Haas  |  May 26, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for the post Mark. The Chronicle commentary is excellent; Kentaro has articulated something I’ve believed almost since getting involved with K-12 a little less than two decades ago. In 1999, I ran across Clifford Stoll’s book High Tech Heretic. I used it to try to convince others (at least open their eyes to controversy) regarding wide-spread deployment of computers in the classroom. Without teacher training and a reasonable budget for tech support staff, back then the computers quickly degraded… money thrown out the door.

  • […] In the History of Education, as in many other arenas, the Devil is in the Details — not only the Devil, also the opportunity to understand what works under what circumstances for what purposes. Take a look at Audrey Watters’ excellent blog on The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’. She brings us an informative and long view recap of school development and puts the use of the ‘factory model’ metaphor in context. Audrey’s thesis and critique of expectations that computing can somehow ‘automate’ education are echoed in Marc Guzdial’s May 25th blog. […]

  • 5. lizaloop  |  May 28, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    From these writers and their predecessors we learn that most of the objectives touted by educational reformers today have been part of the discourse for thousands of years — our goals are not new. We are still addressing issues of compulsory vs. free choice schooling, play and games to motivate deep learning, efficiencies offered by presenting the same didactic lessons to masses of students, the role of schooling in promoting ‘industrious’ behavior and reducing idleness, and the concept of matching methods of instruction to the characteristics of the learner (whether age, personality, learning style, sociocultural background, or individual interest).

    All of these topics came together and were hotly debated when personal computing burst upon the scene, the period highlighted by HCLE…read more


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