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