The Future of Big-Box Schooling

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“I think the way western education has grown over the last few centuries, especially with the rise of industrialization, was basically not to create human beings fully equipped to deal with life and all its problems, independent citizens able to exercise their decisions and live their responsibilities in community, but elements to feed into an industrial production system.”

– Vandana Shiva, “Schooling the World”

“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products… The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

– Ellwood P. Cubberly, Dean, Stanford University School of Education, 1898

For those who haven’t yet seen it, this animation of  a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson makes a good complement to the film Schooling the World.  Robinson is approaching the question of education from a different angle, and with a different set of assumptions about globalization and culture, but the ideas here can begin to illuminate some of the questions and possibilities raised by the film.

The structure of schools as we know them today developed during the rise of the industrial period, and as the quote above from Ellwood P. Cubberly indicates, the resemblances between big-box schools and factories are quite intentional.  People in the 19th and early 20th centuries did not have our sense of political correctness, and they built into the public school system their very conscious intention of  testing, labeling and sorting the population into a modern class system – with a small intellectual elite, a somewhat larger managerial class, and a large laboring class, whose main “education” would be in obedience, punctuality, willingness to respond when a bell rings, and conditioning to the dutiful performance of repetitive and uninspiring tasks.  As John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board articulated in 1906, “In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands.”

The SAT was developed by a man who ardently believed in eugenics, and the pseudo-scientific quality of these tests functioned from the outset to lend an aura of legitimacy to the privilege of the economic elites  – in other words, they created a vehicle for redefining aristocracy as meritocracy.   With a small percentage of exceptions, upper-class children were reliably found to have more academic “aptitude” than lower-class children – a situation which continues today – and the entire testing /grading / sorting function of schools was overtly intended by many to identify superior genetic stock and foster interbreeding among them, while discouraging reproduction among the mentally inferior. Poverty was seen as inevitable, and grading and intelligence testing as a valid mechanism for determining which of our children would be abandoned to it.

While of course we no longer think this way, and teachers working in contemporary schools no longer hold these goals for the children in their charge, the structural features of the system which are designed to perform these functions remain intact, and continue to do considerable harm to children.

The fundamental flaw which is structurally embedded in our education system  is the fallacy of social engineering – the false belief that it is possible to institute a top-down, mechanical structure, impose it on a complex living system, and expect predictable results.  The entire superstructure of goals, objectives, state standards, curricula, and tests is fundamentally built on the assumption that learning is a mechanical process, in which the proper ingredients can be fed into the pipeline and the proper product will emerge at the other end.  (Of course, the fact that this persistently does not happen, John Taylor Gatto argues, is no accident, but reflects the fact that it is not actually in the interests of the existing power structure to have a large population capable of exercising independent critical intelligence.)

In his talk, Sir Ken Robinson is proposing that we shed this “factory” model of education like a snake sheds its skin, and begin to explore the more flexible, creative modes of learning that will better serve the needs of children in the 21st century.  But what will these new forms look like?  Interestingly, the modes of learning characteristic of many indigenous cultures have the kind of flexibility, open-endedness, and intuitive nature that may be better suited to the organic growth of human intelligence and creativity than the modern regimes of state-standardized curricula and testing.

The key to the development of human intelligence and learning is that it is an organic process, in which a myriad of elements – some seen but many unseen – engage in a dynamic interplay to produce results which are stubbornly unpredictable in both timing and ultimate outcome.  If you change your fundamental metaphor for the education of children from a mechanical one to an organic one – in other words, from the manufacture of a product to the flowering and fruiting of a plant – then you begin to see that your role is not to rigidly control each step in the process – with age-graded standards and lists of objectives and scope-and-sequence outlines and percentile scores –  to but to create the conditions –  the soil, the water, the light –  under which human brilliance may unfold and flourish.

Every culture is different, and as anthropologist Meredith Small points out, every culture makes trade-offs: it would be romantic to assume that there is some perfect balance to be found.  But because a traditional culture embodies learning which takes place over many generations, in which thousands of years of observation and trial-and-error allow for a multi-generational wisdom about human nature to evolve, it is possible that nuanced and workable ways of relating to children may exist in traditional cultures from which modern societies can learn and benefit.

Aspects of learning in many (not all) traditional cultures include:

  • Immersing young people in adult activity rather than segregating them by age.
  • Immersing children in multi-age groups where they can learn from older children.
  • Immersing young people in nature rather than confining them indoors for most of the day.
  • A blurring of the boundaries between work and play.
  • Allowing for physical movement and engagement with new tasks or knowledge rather than requiring a sedentary existence as the condition for learning.
  • Allowing the time for freedom, experimentation, choice,  fluidity, play.
  • Learning through deeper personal relationships, mentorships, apprenticeships, rather than from teachers who are not known on a personal level.
  • Control over the timing, form and content of learning which resides in the child and/or in adults who know the child as an individual, rather than control being located in distant “experts” and one-size-fits-all “standards.”
  • Allowing for extended transformative experiences in which young people make independent choices to discover their unique gifts, rather than step-by-step controlled sequences which attempt to dictate the process as well as the outcome of learning.

These strategies can work for learning to identify medicinal plants in a rainforest, for learning to anticipate and respond to the moods and movements of wild caribou, for learning to build a sustainable house out of mud brick, and they can work for learning how to design software applications or conduct a biological field study or write an elegant and compelling essay.

So if modernized societies are beginning to discuss moving from 20th century “big-box” schooling to a more 21st century networked model of learning, one possibility is that we may see a convergence of learning styles between ancient and modern cultures.  As Sugata Mitra has discovered, unlettered street children can teach themselves how to use computers when given free access to the technology.   So does it make sense to remove indigenous children from their traditional cultures and put them into outdated factory-style schools?  Or should traditional people consider skipping that step, and deciding for themselves how they may want to use, ignore, adapt, blend, or hybridize  new technologies and information in an open-source self-regulating manner?

When a new form of knowledge is truly vital and desired by a population, and access to the necessary resources is available, there is no question of needing to make education compulsory — you couldn’t stop the spread of knowledge if you tried. Look at how computer technology and expertise spread through the developed world.  Personal computers were not invented by people in schools, and the vast majority of the population did not learn how to use them in schools.  It was an open-access / open-source process –  an organically expanding, networking, self-correcting, self-regulating and incredibly effective process –  just like the early spread of literacy in many parts of Europe before the institution of widespread schooling.

Whether this is always good, of course,  is another question.  New technologies always change our lives, and not always for the better.  Television has burned a wide swath through many cultures, including our own, leaving obesity, isolation, and advertising-driven insecurity and depression in its wake.   I’m uneasy about the aggressive marketing of cell phones and technology to remote areas like Ladakh: once people from a sustainable culture suddenly require cash to feed a technology habit, many negative consequences ensue.  But ultimately, it’s still better to be in control of what you adopt and what you choose not to adopt –– to be able to take what you need and leave the rest, absorb new things at a rate of your own choosing, than to be forced into an obsolete model of schooling just as the developed world begins to seriously discuss moving beyond it.

~ Carol Black

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  1. Clint ViebrockClint Viebrock05-30-2011

    Hearing you speak at the May 28 Coffee Meeting in Telluride has prompted at lot of thought. I have long believed the “requirement” for a college degree has diminished the concept of mentored apprenticeships in the trades. And I have a very smart grandson who was failing in traditional school, and doing better in a “cyber” school environment. It’s definitely not “one size fits all.”

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If you wanted to change a culture in a single generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children.