The Future of Big-Box Schooling


“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


by Carol Black

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.)

Sir Ken Robinson on “Changing Education Paradigms”


Sir Ken Robinson has proposed 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-network 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.



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  1. Daniel LombardoDaniel Lombardo08-19-2014

    I have an issue with your film and your writing. It’s extraordinarily one-sided. The attack on education volunteers is quite out of balance. I personally found the film so bias I was offended as you subtly mocked volunteers while victimised and condescended the communities you claim to be protecting.

    Professionals from the education field are aware of the down falls in the education systems around the world or at least in their context. You are welcome to criticise the individuals who are not open to change, well criticise anyone you like. But like it or not, the education systems you critique are their own, not sanctioned from the outside. Most volunteers don’t want to interfere in the local teaching community who are made up of conscious people who understand their own situation. However they are asking for our insights, and it’s an honour to offer what we can.

    My greatest concern is there is no turning back from colonial impacts. The drills and rote teaching system is extremely frustrating for me. We can now help them to transform the cookie cut education systems into being appropriate for local contexts. Would you like to march in and tell them not to educate their kids? Is that what you want to do? I think this would represent the real neocolonialism. Like saying, oh no, stop it, you got it so wrong and can’t decide for yourself what to do, stop it now please, go back to how you were living before and forget Europeans ever came here. Please be less general in the negative net you are casting, and cast a wider net of reference. Many NGOs are helping create real opportunities in scenarios that are in desperate need of assistance.

    Take Nepal for instance, millions flood into the capital city to avoid marauding Maoist militia and other terror groups. They’re left stuck in between, often forced to go abroad to gulf countries to earn marginally more than they would if they stayed in Nepal, that’s if there were any opportunities for them. The situation is so complex and difficult to understand he motivations of the people involved. And you say stop there education system because they wear uniforms and stand in lines. I can’t resolve this here, but I think you are wrong about 90% of the conclusions you make in your film.

  2. Carol BlackCarol Black08-19-2014

    Hi Daniel: Thanks for your comment. You make a number of points here, some of which I agree with and others which I feel reflect a misunderstanding of what I am saying.

    The film IS one-sided. This is because its purpose is to present the other side to the current public discourse about universal education, which is possibly the single most one-sided conversation of the modern era. The message that every single child on the planet must go to school (as modern societies currently define the term) is all we hear, and any competing points of view are marginalized or ignored. So the purpose of “Schooling the World” is to present another side to the picture; to point out that other cultures have valid knowledge systems, ways of teaching and learning, and ways of sustaining life, and that rather than modernized societies simply imposing their own vision on others they should engage in a two-way conversation, what the film calls “a deeper dialogue.” This dialogue needs to be seen not as one between “advanced” “rich” “developed” “educated” societies and “poor” “undeveloped” “uneducated” societies, but as a conversation between equals, who both have insights and blind spots, things to teach and things to learn.

    I also agree that many education professionals and aid workers are aware of the negative consequences of imposing our way of teaching and learning on other cultures; I have heard this from people working all over the world. However, their concerns tend to remain something that is whispered about in the margins, something confessed privately between friends but not discussed in a public way. I have heard from educators and aid workers who are literally afraid to voice their concerns for fear of losing their jobs and their reputations. The idea of universal education is a kind of sacred topic and debate is not sanctioned in many contexts. So my purpose in making the film and expressing these ideas strongly is to bring the discussion out into the open, to try to make this a public rather than a private conversation.

    As far as whether the education system is imposed from outside or locally controlled, I would suggest that there is a wide spectrum of realities here. In my view communities have every right to provide whatever type of education they think best for their children, whether this is conventional modern schooling, traditional forms of learning, or some blend between the two. But the colonial model of forcing children into schools still continues all over the world via compulsory education laws, despite the fact that many communities would prefer to raise and educate their children in their own ways. Parents who defy compulsory education laws are patronized and judged as irresponsible and as “not understanding the value of education,” while children who learn in traditional ways instead of attending school are viewed as “truant” or as “deprived” and even abused. When you look at the formation of that attitude during the 19th century when the American government was forcing Native American children into school and then reflect that it continues today, it is cause for concern.

    Because we are so accustomed to the idea of some hierarchical power deciding how children should be educated, people often assume that I have my own agenda that I would like to force on the world. But I don’t. My point is that we need to stop assuming that it is up to us to decide how people in other parts of the world should raise and educate their children, and allow communities to decide these things for themselves. This and related points are discussed at some length in our “Frequently Asked Questions” section for those who are interested.

    As far as the idea that there is “no going back,” I think there are two parts to the answer to this. Of course we can’t undo history, and we all have to deal with the complex legacies of colonialism. But the idea of “no going back” is sometimes taken as part of the assumption that humanity is on a uni-directional course of “progress” and from “lower” stages of “development” to “higher” stages of “development,” and that it would be undesirable as well as impossible to reverse this process. This is nonsense. Through all of evolution, there are wrong turns and dead ends as well as ongoing change; this applies to human societies as well as to biological organisms. We like to hope that previous forms of conquest and enslavement of peoples are on the wane, and that it is no longer a badge of “greatness” to ride into a village, slaughter all the men, enslave the women and children, and take their land as your own. It is not “going back” to decide to abandon a form of social organization that is destructive and to move forward to forms of social organization that are smaller-scale, lower-tech, more egalitarian, and more sustainable.

    It’s important to remember that our current growth-based economic system is going to change whether we like it or not ––because it is completely unsustainable –– and that when it changes, it would be good if we still had other models of how human life could be organized that might be more workable for a sustainable future. As Wade Davis says, this is why cultural diversity is as important as biodiversity –so that options are available that can enable life to go on under changing conditions.

    But unfortunately new forms of conquest are on the rise, and one of the most subtle and devastating is what Mi’kmaw education professor Marie Battiste calls “cognitive imperialism,” where it is assumed that one way of thinking and learning is the only valid way, and that all other ways of understanding the world and communicating about it are destined to die out. That is the idea that “Schooling the World” is meant to contest.

  3. DanielDaniel08-19-2014

    Hi Carol

    Thank you for your reply. There are a number of incredibly important insights there that I agree with. The reason I haven’t spoken up about the educational practices I disagree with openly when visiting schools in the villages of Nepal, is out of respect. I respect their right to use whatever method they prefer. They line their kids up in assembly every morning and I don’t like it, but they have chosen it, possibly because it helps with discipline. It’s ‘structurally’ required. I am not here to debate the validity of this, the necessity of disciplinary activities may point to a maligned circumstance, where too many children are together and not stimulated and engaged enough in the primary activities of schooling (and the curriculum would be to blame). They could very well be enjoying time learning about the family buffalo herd instead. I agree that local skills are essential for these kids’ personal development, however, they have the time to do both, there are around 100 public holidays a year in Nepal.

    It is not the hierarchical concepts of progress that are impossible to go back from, nobody said that. I think you making that statement above highlights one of the main problems of your film, it pulls into its orbit too many huge problems that education is not the root cause of and infers that Indian education should be dismantled rather than doing something about it directly. As for littering, they should have programs to curtail this trend. Take the stuff about river pollution, how can you suggest that this is a result of education, it’s so subtle and deceptively put, you cover yourself with the point that maybe the children just aren’t listening. Well, I’m sorry, littering and urban pollution is disgusting in this part of the world and it is not the be blamed on ‘white people’ in my opinion. Perhaps try local government neglect of essential services that are needed in urban environments. Why have they got urban environments and plastic packaging in the first place? Well go ahead and part blame that one on colonialism and the west’s consumer culture and the Japanese triple packaging everything and the Chinese manufacturing irresponsibly and big European food brands not using more expensive biodegradable wrapping, etc. Don’t blame education, as though the children have been enslaved and fed evil morals.

    You talk about these communities deciding for themselves… Yet you have not presented evidence that points to the decisions for these children’s futures being made from outside the country. How are decisions in India being made about education, who’s making those decisions, and how are those policies being enforced? It is not the British Queen I can assure you, however, I don’t know and it would have been interesting to see that examined in your film. My point about not being able to turn around and go back is important here. These countries have taken colonial models on board, maybe haplessly, I don’t know, but it’s now no longer appropriate to victimise them. I am in two minds about whether we should be whispering in their ear, excuse me, that model isn’t working where we’re from, you might want to try moving away from it.

    Lastly, I think like nearly every public service in the Asian Subcontinent, education is badly regulated. This film takes outcomes from the actions of councils and ministries for education that are functioning within a wildly corrupt and inept government, and directly blames how short-sighted and inappropriate it is on post-colonialism?! Then volunteers who want to give everything they can because local government doesn’t appear to care get harpooned for facilitating dislocation of children. There are definitely things to talk about, but if you could in future avoid vilifying volunteers quite so much. Don’t get me wrong, I like where you’re coming from, this stuff has already occurred to me and I am very concerned about education. It already does a job of damaging creativity whatever country it’s in. It was a Prussian invention to create compliant citizenry. I think you might be transferring the problems of US policies regarding Native Americans onto contexts that are dramatically different. Here’s another tip, try investigating Australian policies for First Nation People, and pull that into the debate please. Start with the film entitled Utopia by John Pilger.

    I hope that you will add another 20 minutes to your feature film and make it more well rounded by investigating the contemporary political dimensions of this subject.

    • Carol BlackCarol Black08-20-2014

      Hi Daniel: Too bad you can’t just come over for a beer so we could hash this out!

      I’ll try to hit your points one at a time:

      1) I appreciate your respect for the educational practices of communities you visit. I would by no means advocate going to Nepal or anywhere else and criticizing the educational choices people are making. There are sometimes opportunities to share information in a two-way or voluntary fashion, but in general it’s not for you and me to be the “experts” and tell people what’s wrong with their schools any more than it is for us to go to rural villages and tell people they need to build a school. We’re not in charge.

      2) You suggest that I am “blaming” education as the “root cause” of problems like pollution, garbage, etc., and that education systems should be “dismantled” in order to solve these problems. That’s not what I’m saying. Near the beginning of the film I tried to elucidate a way of looking at culture as an ecosystem, whose component parts are interconnected and interdependent. So when you change one thing, other things may change too, often in unpredictable ways. Our form of schooling is not the “root cause” of our form of capitalism, our hierarchical understanding of wealth and poverty, or our economic policies which lead to environmental destruction, but it is intimately interrelated with all those things. When kids are made to feel that their parents and grandparents, who have extensive knowledge of traditional sustainable farming methods, are “ignorant” and “uneducated,” and that it would be better for the younger generation to become “educated” and pursue a kind of “success” which is generally conceived in terms which may be quite alien to their own culture, many things get pulled along by this. Parents around the world report that when the first generation of children is sent to school, they lose respect for their elders, they become more selfish, they become more concerned with money and consumer goods. When societies are developing rapidly, rates of mental illness rise, as do rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, and obesity. There are many societies, Ladakh among them, in which the introduction of modern schooling — with its conceptions of success and failure — has coincided with sharp increases in teen suicide rates, and there are sometimes clear links to exam failure as a proximate cause of this. So my point is not to establish clear causal links but to raise questions around all of these things, because I think they call for serious reflection.

      3) I am not necessarily saying that education is being physically forced on communities by powers outside their own countries at this point. The patronizing attitudes about ignorance and knowledge sometimes come from foreign NGO’s and volunteers, but they also come from the educated ruling class within each country, and virtually all nations around the world now have their own compulsory education laws as well as their own violent economic agendas which lead to displacement of rural people through the building of dams, the cutting of timber, the mining and fossil fuel extraction, etc. So believe me, I’m not feeling sorry for India as a whole! I’m feeling sorry for tribal and Dalit people who are being ruthlessly exploited so the that India’s upper classes can attain astronomical levels of wealth.

      4) I understand that the situation at present in many parts of the world is complex, and that many volunteers are respectful, reasonable, and well-intentioned people. My goal is not to paint all volunteers as villains, but simply to point out the dangers of paternalism in the field of education aid. I’m sorry to portray any individual in an unflattering light, but my hope is that this will help other well-meaning individuals to be more aware of these pitfalls in a way that is ultimately beneficial to everybody.

      5) I’m very aware of the situation in Australia, where education was forcibly used in an effort to completely eradicate Aboriginal culture. There’s actually a clip in ‘Schooling the World” from the narrative film “Rabbit Proof Fence,” which is about this chapter in Australian history. And I’ve been meaning to watch “Utopia,” which I have heard great things about — thanks for the reminder!

      6) Unfortunately, if I added 20 minutes to the film for every topic people feel I should have covered in greater depth, the film would be 14 hours long! The issues surrounding education go in every direction — they connect to economies, environments, psychology, sociology, culture, religion, and more, and there are a million manifestations of this around the world. I made the decision to make a film whose purpose was to raise a complex series of questions, but not necessarily to answer them all, and I made the decision to keep it at close to an hour because I think people just start to feel hammered by it if you go on too long. I rely on my audience to think these things over and research them further if they are interested. Thanks so much for all the important questions you’ve raised! I’m sure a lot of people are thinking the same things, and it’s good to get a chance to talk it over.

  4. DanielDaniel08-21-2014

    Thanks Carol

    I am quite flattered you have taken the time to respond to me. I seriously appreciate it. It forced me to have a good think about my influence in Nepal. I did get a lot from your film and it has helped me identify what I am trying to do and I don’t think that is antithetical to you. Having hated the impact of my own Australian secondary education, I am trying to find ways to move it away from those pitfalls. Nonetheless, after moving onto tertiary study I experienced my world expand and now yearn for deeper knowledge of mathematics, the sciences, global politics etc. (and a way for everyone to learn them better with fun and without the need for tedious discipline and spirit crushing conformity) Which I suspect has only been stunted by the time-wasting secondary education that I believe morphed my youthful, playful energy into a dark cloud of frustration and misaligned angst.

    When I arrived in Nepal I came with a plan. I had come from working in education in Saudi Arabia as an e-learning developer for a public university. Many Nepalese work in the Gulf for marginally more than they would earn at home, problem is they don’t have opportunities in Nepal. (side note: it has never been colonised so the way globalisation has impacted them is very interesting) My idea was to establish a computer centre where young people could learn the skills needed to work as web freelancers online and earn money for their families without having to leave them behind for horrendous living conditions and dangerous workplaces in the Gulf.

    Well, it’s still in development 4 months later, life is a lot harder here that I had first imagined. I found an organisation that was helping community public schools get computers and Internet access. I’ve been helping them and it’s only Nepalese volunteers and teachers I’ve been working with. I will explore many contexts in my quest. When I first came, I happened to meet a Nepalese woman who runs an NGO for the protection of women – women’s rights in Nepal are atrocious. Anyway, she said to me, why don’t you go out to the rural places, they haven’t been exposed to ‘high technology.’ My response was: maybe they shouldn’t be. My concern here is dislocated, slum dwelling, and struggling families that are forcing their youngest and brightest to work in the Middle East. Globalisation benefiting everyone is a sick lie, but the skills to participate in the knowledge economy may be a way to help families alleviate poverty in the short-term without sending them to the most inhospitable place on earth to be further demoralised.

    I’m writing a paper for my postgrad on the issues which are important in the use of ICT in education in the 3rd world. Any tips for a useful article would be great, I’m already scouring this site for academic references. A lot of research indicates that ICT can be the catalyst of change in education that was once dreamed of:
    “IT could, or maybe even should, transform education and not just be integrated into existing educational structures.” (Voogt & Knezek 2008) It can decentralise, break linear systematisation, free children from their age group cages, give them the space to think critically, inform their adult life with the skills to scrutinise government and market entities pulling their strings, and many more. The ICT education sector needs people who care about creativity, free thought, and the protection of subcultural and minority groups from the hegemony of the private sector.

    Lastly, if you can stop American Christian neo-missionaries from entering the developing world to do social work, I cheer you on vehemently.


    Voogt, J., & Knezek, G. (Eds.). (2008). International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education. North (Vol. 20). New York: Spring Science+Business Media. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-73315-9

  5. DanielDaniel08-21-2014

    Oh, I forget to accept your offer of beer. Anytime im in the states, likely to be never unfortunately, but elsewhere perhaps.

  6. hannahanna03-14-2015

    Hi Carol
    I am interested to know what you think of conventional schooling within the West itself, vs options such as home ‘unschooling’ and democratic educational models such as ?

    • Carol BlackCarol Black03-15-2015

      Hi Hanna: Unschooling and Sudbury Valley-style schools are certainly more in line with the ways children learn in most traditional or indigenous cultures around the world – based in observation, participation, and levels of autonomy and choice that are unheard of in conventional schools. (See the articles “Indigenising Curriculum,” “Indigenous Knowledge Systems,” and “Open Attention as a Tool for Observational Learning” on our Research page. More thoughts on this can be found in the blog post A Thousand Rivers: What the Modern World Has Forgotten About Children and Learning.” thanks! Carol

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