Matthew Wilson

Written by Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson works as an English teacher in a Scottish secondary school. He likes to blog about education, politics, economics and books. He thinks that schools have to change and adapt themselves more to the needs of the pupil so that people can develop the talents they have, in their own way.

The Factory School

Ken Robinson is a world famous educator whose talks are watched by the million on youtube. He travels all around the world giving lectures on the education system and if he’s not doing a TED talk then he’s at a book festival or conference promoting his ideas. He’s probably the most famous educationalist in the world who has global theory about education. And he’s roundly ignored by everyone with power who listens to him.

Robinson has a fairly simple syllogism. We’re all different. Different people learn differently. Therefore, different people should be educated differently. He contrasts this premise with the model of schools that is nearly universal for all countries that have a national system of education. This model has been brought into the world by the mid-wifery of the Enlightenment. It meant a vision of education that was extremely ‘rational’ (mis-use of the word). It meant classification and standardisation. A child’s birth determined when they would start school. A standardised curriculum was taught. Standardised testing categorised children. This decided a person’s place in society.

However, it would be more accurate to say that the education system was designed to train people for the industrialism of the 19th century.  The Industrial Revolution needed workers that would work continually and regularly. It required workers that would grind from 8am to 10pm (that’s right – 14 hours a day).  Previous patterns of work didn’t conform to this measure. Much of the work done in the 18th century was done Monday, Tuesday and Friday night, or similarly irregular times. People had a certain latitude to choose their hours. This all changed as that century became the 19th century.

One of the targets of the French Revolution was the clock tower. Peasants shot at it because they found the oppression of time, newly introduced into their lives, unbearable. The measurement and control of people’s time signaled by the bell was an essential feature of industrialism; it was vital to the efficiency of the system, and, as it was not natural, people had to be trained to it. This meant that conformity had to be imposed and that people’s time become regulated. Where better to start this process than at school with children? (The factory used to have a bell or horn to signal when people could ‘clock-off’ just as schools have now.)

Obviously, one of the victims of this new mode of education was individuality. Although, the village school would have had certain hours of work, it would not have had the impersonality and absolute adherence to time and task as the schools of the industrial period would have. The new industrial-era schools produced obedient workers for factories and for offices; offices that looked very much like schools with rows of clerks or typists working away under the watchful eye of the supervisor.

Ken Robinson’s argument is that this education model was never good; in fact, it was damaging. However, if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also now economically disadvantageous: there are no factories or ‘warehouse’ offices in the Western world to employ the millions of people that the ‘factory’ school produces. Economic success is going to have to be based on inventiveness, ideas and originality. A series of qualities stamped out the suppressing of an individual’s uniqueness in our standardised system. This lack of individuality and subsequent creativity is holding people back from being successful in the new, globalised economy where 7 of the top 10 earning jobs in 2010 didn’t even exist in 2000. Schools, consequently, must change says Ken Robinson, or societies will pay the price.

In Scotland, the new curriculum is an attempt to meet this challenge. Flexibility, creativity and the importance of the imagination receive a great deal of attention and praise throughout the documentation, by its proselytizers and its CPD courses! Nonetheless, it still does not meet the challenge as laid down by Ken Robinson because the structure of the 19th century factory is retained. Added to this, standardised testing will continue with age being the important category for ordering the process. It is no surprise then that sceptics do question whether anything is really changing that’s important?

If Ken Robinson is correct, we will need further, more deep-rooted change, for our education system, to nurture the imagination, creativity and individuality that will provide satisfying lives for people, alongside building a 21st century economy to maintain living standards.

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