Learning Factories

Here is an excerpt from an interesting blog post called The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education.’ 

Schools might feel like highly de-personalized institutions; they might routinely demand compliance and frequently squelch creativity. But they don’t really look like and they really don’t work like factories.

I disagree. I do agree that there was not as much intentionality, as some people have recently characterized it, to the initial design of both. I do think, however, the same sensibilities and values went into the early design of both factories and education systems. Many similarities continue to exist: siloed subject matter, grade levels, timed work and break periods (with bells to mark them), limited time to learn and to get work done, evaluation of work by superiors, sometimes there are uniforms, strict attendance and rules and consequences, transmission-delivery of knowledge (assembly line), and so on.

Whether the factory model of education is invented history or not, the parallels are there nevertheless.


Imagine you have a new job in a busy factory, on an assembly line where parts continuously come down the line that you need put together. They come really fast but you are new and can’t keep up. Just to reduce your anxiety and embarrassment, you quickly pile a large number of the parts into a big box beside you. Whew! Now, you can breathe. A few minutes later, a bell goes off and new parts are coming down the line. These parts need to be attached to the parts you got before. But those parts are all mixed up and piled up in a big box. There’s no time. And tomorrow, the factory is making something else. You’re getting really far behind but the speed of the assembly line does not slow down. So, in frustration, you quit.

After a bit of searching, you find a new job. This factory also makes things from parts but there is no assembly line. Instead, all the parts needed are organized on shelves in boxes around you. You are expected to start putting the parts together and eventually, you are told, you will get faster with more practice. The person who told you this is the person standing next to you who is doing the same job. You work next to this person, you can ask questions, and you can watch what they do. You like your new job and quite soon, you are very productive. But after a while, it’s repetitive, and ideas you had about doing it differently or creating new products fade away until you feel more like a machine than a person. So, in desperation, you quit.

Finding a new job this time takes much longer. Eventually, you do find one and the place looks nothing like the first two factories. It’s more like a workshop and the people there act more like a team. The workshop is not interested in conformity and standardization. They are interested in new ideas, new designs and new products. They are interested in looking at real problems and issues people face and trying to help people live better lives. They are also very interested in your dreams and passions. You take quite a while to acclimate to this new work environment because you had lost touch with those passions in yourself. Eventually, you realize you have a talent for seeing things in new ways and your ideas are valued and exciting to others. In this new job, you can be who you are not what someone else needs you to be.

Robinson points out that education should be customized for learners and the conditions for learning should be tended to, much like gardeners and farmers tend to their plots and fields, so that growth is not only supported but also flourishes. And individual talents and dreams are highly valued, they form the core of what each person starts with to build on and learn.

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