International College Hong Kong
Mar 09, 2017

Escaping The Factory School

There are a number of well-established, even taken-for granted, features of school structure and organisation that seriously hold back education, particularly at secondary level. In each case, they are quite clearly inadequate, even damaging of learning, and yet in each case they linger on in the mainstream.

In his celebrated TED talk from 2006, in which he famously suggests that the “factory model” of schooling is killing creativity, Sir Ken Robinson provides insights as to why clearly flawed aspects of school live on, well past their sell-by date.

The reason for their stubborn endurance, he implies, will be well understood by anyone familiar with industrial production – because school, as we have come to understand, expect and accept it, is run on industrial lines and to industrial principles.

School, according to Sir Ken, is in the business of the mass manufacture of students. And, in mass manufacture, introducing change is expensive and burdensome, and to be avoided as far as possible. Change entails replacing some, much, or even all of the technology in the production process, which will have been set up to churn out a particular product at a particular rate to a particular design.

Amendments to either the specification of the product or the schedule of its production can easily entail wholesale change to the entire system. It can require junking expensive machinery and retraining or replacing the skilled machinists who tend it; rethinking and refurbishing the industrial space; recalibrating the supply line and its many tributaries; reimagining and arriving at an understanding of a whole new market for the revised product. That’s a lot of time-consuming and energy-sapping work. Why bother if the old product is still widely accepted by consumers and still selling well enough, even if, in truth, it is not fit for purpose?

That is the analogy Sir Ken draws. It has some sad and wasteful repercussions for the learning experience of children in “factory” schools.

Here, then, are four characteristic features of mainstream education. You will see that they make perfect sense if the industrial concerns of convenience, efficiency and standardization are your key priorities. You will see, too, that they make no sense at all from the perspective of learning, for obvious and commonsense reasons.

Teaching learners in groups based solely on their age: this is certainly a quick, convenient, easy and ‘objective’ way to create ‘batches’ of students by, as Sir Ken has it, their ‘date of manufacture’. But why do it when we know that children develop at different rates to each other, experiencing spurts and plateaux at different times? Why do it when we know that, in any given conventional classroom, there is likely to be a five to six year differential in cognitive development between students, and that this is expressed in ways that are deadening to some learners and intimidating to others?

Sedentary learning environments, in which students spend most of their time sitting at desks listening to teachers talk: this makes good sense when your ambition is to ‘bolt on’ information to students, who are expected passively to accept and memorize it. But why do it when we know that all this ‘seat time’ is leaving our children aliens in their own bodies, physically unfit and, far too often, overweight? And why do it when experience tells us that, in any case, the vast majority of what they learn by way of facts, they will have forgotten within a week, let alone a month? And when much of what little remains will be hopelessly out of date by the time they leave school? And why do it when what we want is not passive acceptance but critical engagement and enquiry?

High stakes, pen and paper tests sat in isolation and without resource to relevant materials: this is an acceptable means of grading students if your sole interest is in assessing their ability to remember information and to represent it, hopefully analytically for the higher grades. But why do it when we know that even the best designed of these tests (and not all of them are well-designed), whose implementation takes up huge tracts of potential learning time (revision, mocks, study leave, examination season…), capture only a tiny fraction of the human qualities and attributes we value in life? Why do it when, in reality, in our daily experience, we know that it is what you can research, what you can extract and synthesize from multiple sources, what you can validate, what you can correctly prioritize as meaningful, and what you actually do with the knowledge gleaned, usually in the company of others, that has value and fuels cultural and social progress?

League tables of academic results as the prime indicator of school quality: this can be defended if, really, that narrow set of qualities identified in (c) above are all that you value and, moreover, if you are confident that the results have been arrived at reliably and fairly. But why do it when we know that, in fact, examinations are frequently subject to manipulation by schools, which game the system to produce “better” results (for example, by refusing students the chance to sit exams at which they will not excel or by requiring low attaining students to leave schools altogether)? And still more vitally, why do it when we research tells us that it is EQ rather than IQ that correlates with eventual success in life (as measured by productive relationships, responsibility in employment, self-acceptance and self-regulation)? Why make a fetish of a human technology that tells us so very little about being human?

Ten years on from Sir Ken’s record-breaking talk, the state of mainstream schooling is still all but identical to that exposed by his critique. And, as my first paragraph suggests, this is not so very surprising: the problems he identifies, and which are discussed above, are systemic. They are built into the very heart of the organisation and structure of the education industry. In these circumstances, for any one school to break ranks and adopt more intelligent approaches to any of these four, or other similar, issues, is anything but straightforward.

Nonetheless, all around the world, determined and forward-thinking schools are coming up with their own solutions, often tailor-made for the particular conditions under which they are individually operating.

ICHK is such a school. Already, innovations to timetable, curriculum and pedagogy such as Free Learning, Human Technologies and Enrichment & Flow are serving to provide our students with more choice, more flexibility, different work practices, more opportunities to develop skills and attributes not addressed by examinations.

In the months to come, we will be piloting additional, new, exciting ways of breaking the shackles of historical habit. Habit, as discussed above, that has long since ceased to serve a useful purpose. My next blog will explore how.

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