How to Break Free of Our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System

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A technology and education entrepreneur gazes into the future of the classroom

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Apple Marketing chief Phil Schiller speaks during a news conference; Reuters

More than 150 years ago, Massachusetts became the first state to provide all of its citizens access to a free public education. Over the next 66 years, every other state made the same guarantee. The result was a publicly-funded system where, in every American classroom, groups of about 28 students of roughly the same age are taught by one teacher, usually in an 800 square-foot room. This model has been the dominant archetype ever since.

It's a factory-model classroom. Inspired in part by the approach Horace Mann saw in Prussia in 1843, it seemed to adequately prepare American youth for the 20th century industrialized economy. But in 1983, the federal government declared in A Nation At Risk that our system was starting to slide.

The year 1983 was also seminal for the technology industry. Microsoft released MS Word and Apple introduced the new Apple IIe. Some predicted that the demand for better schools, coupled with the supply of computers and new software, would soon revolutionize our nation's classrooms.

It didn't quite happen.

Schools did move to adopt new technologies -- computers and software, increased bandwidth, and infrastructure. But there is scant research-based evidence that these tools have had the exponential impact on public education many anticipated.

Given the enormous impact that technology has had on nearly every other aspect of our society, how can that be?

WITH LOVE FROM PRUSSIA

Perhaps it is because educational tools that have come into our classrooms over the last couple of decades, whether technology or otherwise, continue to be used within a school structure that is virtually unchanged since the mid-nineteenth century.

That model was imported from Prussia with a different purpose in mind. Horace Mann's free school movement stemmed less from a belief in the economic or moral imperative of education for all children and more from a desire to simply create a tolerant, civilized society.

Mann grew up in Massachusetts during the early part of the 19th century, where religious tension between Protestants and Catholics dominated public life. Parochial schools, in his view, only reinforced these divisions. The Prussian model, on the other hand, was designed to build a common sense of national identity.

Applied back home, Mann thought, large groups of students learning together would help to blur the divisions among religious groups and establish a more unified and egalitarian society. And as that model became the American blueprint, Mann's vision ultimately became the foundation for our national system of schooling.

Mann's vision also made sense for the industrial age in which he lived. The factory line was simply the most efficient way to scale production in general, and the analog factory-model classroom was the most sensible way to rapidly scale a system of schools. Factories weren't designed to support personalization. Neither were schools.

TOOLS AREN'T ENOUGH

Today our collective vision for education is broader, our nation is more complex and diverse, and our technical capabilities are more powerful. But we continue to assume the factory-model classroom and its rigid bell schedules, credit requirements, age-based grade levels, and physical specifications when we talk about school reform.

That's why the promise of educational innovation is less about processing power and software code and more about the opportunity to release ourselves from general assumptions regarding how instruction is organized and delivered. It's why our collective charge in K-12 innovation today should go beyond merely designing and producing new tools. Rather, our focus should primarily be to design new classroom models that take advantage of what these tools can do.

Absent new models, many of our technological capabilities (which can now support both scale and personalization) are either inaccessible or clumsily grafted on. Three computers added to the back of a classroom may look like a positive step toward bringing that classroom into the advanced technological age. However, smoothly integrating three computers into a daily lesson is not always easy when a teacher has to consider the needs of 28 students all learning at the same time. Software programs that enable students to learn at their own pace can be powerful, particularly for students who are at an academic level far above or below the rest of the class. But this type of software is often not readily compatible with a teacher's need to cover a grade-level scope-and-sequence for all students.

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Joel Rose is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of New Classrooms Innovation Partners. More

Joel Rose is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of New Classrooms Innovation Partners. Previously, he was the Chief Executive Officer of School of One, an initiative within the New York City Department of Education that uses a mix of live, collaborative, and online instruction in order to provide students with instruction customized to their unique academic needs and learning styles. More information at newclassrooms.org.
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