EdHistory 101 Project- Volume 2- December 2018- Our Industrial Legacy

Why do schedules, bells and teaching routines in our schools feel so machine-like and industrial? So relentless and repetitive? It’s not by accident. And it’s certainly not good for learning. In this edition of our EdHistory 101 Project, we look back at the roots of some of the unhelpful correlations among time, learning and subject matter that persist today.


One summer a few years back, at a shoreline vacation spot bookstore, I picked up a volume called Six Lives, Six Deaths. The book related the lives, and as the title suggests the manners of ritual death of six notable figures in Japanese history. As the book unfolds and relates stories from the 19th century, it so happens that a favored practice in a late-1800’s, “newly-opened”, Meiji Japan was to send promising military men abroad for study in Germany, England, France, and the United States. Notably these were the world’s major coal-powers, and the goal of these study tours was to keep abreast of exploding Western developments in science and technology.

At that point in time, the accelerating industrial revolution was advancing into new frontiers, including an area that became known as “management science” -the detailed study of work and factory production.

In the first half of the 19th century the requirements for precision in the finishing of machine parts increased sharply as steam engines spread and machine-building developed. This brought about the rapid development of industrial measurement technology. The works of Carl Gauss, who had developed the  method of “least squares”  and  the “absolute  system of units” (CGSE), became foundational. New principles and theories abounded, and the field of metrology was established, including the metric system, to insure uniformity of scientific research and production.

As the new field of management science matured, it quickly developed its own canon and lore, ascending into prominence in the burgeoning world of capitalism. Attention turned to how newly-recognized “improvement principles” in industrial settings (i.e. factories) might be applied to other important dimensions of a nation’s growth and development. Industrial technology science was most often applied first to a nation’s military infrastructure, but then its principles began to branch out to other aspects of public works and government services. It seemed that wherever the Japanese visitors travelled a consistent component in the quest to create a secure, wealthy and high-functioning state was the application of “measurement technology”.

In America, concepts from this field soon began to impact the design of a new wave of larger and more uniform public schools, beginning by impacting the beliefs and practices of the educational administrations that shaped and tended schooling “for the masses”. Reading reports and records from that time period concerning the nature of those “scientific” developments I was struck by their potent impact on end-of-19th century thinking about school.

At the turn of the 20th century powerful metrological institutions were founded in industrially-developed countries where their technologies swiftly meshed with emerging knowledge bases in other fields. Some contemporary educational graduate courses (I hope) still spend time on the impact of thinking from Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) on the organization of our work force, and later, on our schools. He was convinced that with study, observation and analysis -and the application of new concepts in measurement science- the "one best way" to do things in almost any arena could be discovered.

Taylor is perhaps most remembered for his stopwatch time study, the findings of which combined with motion studies (now able to be captured on film for analysis) to become the larger field of “time and motion study”.  Just as with factory machines, he could break a job into its component parts and measure each to the hundredth of a minute!  One of his most famous studies involved shovels. Taylor observed laborers shoveling varying weights with the same size shovel. After analysis, Taylor concluded that the shovel load with which “a first class man would do his biggest day’s work” was 21½ lb., and therefore fabricators could design shovels that, for each material , would scoop up exactly that amount.

At this point, it’s worth noting that among Taylor’s aficionados were Elwood Cubberley –arguably the most influential figure in shaping the early 20th century’s school routines and organization (Link to EdProject 101) Cubberley as well as 1930’s-40’s Soviet economists who built much of their social-industrial planning on Taylor’s  ideas and studies. In America, Cubberley, citing the threat from other nations with competing philosophies and economies (and armies), drilled home the ideas of schools as “factories where the raw materials can be shaped to meet the various demands of life”, institutions that demanded “efficiency in all endeavors”.

The extension of that thinking among school-designing policy makers was to use the schools as a “grading” device, so that the top 10% of school performers would become our leaders –the bankers, professors, statesmen, generals, inventors and entrepreneurs – and the rest would be directed where they were “suited”, a paradigm that, despite our rhetoric,  exists today. Other distinct hallmarks of that historic intersection of schooling, capitalism and industry remain largely without examination, such as the “report card” which mimics quarterly reports of production, profit and loss, and stock value to boards and shareholders, and which resembles an accountant’s ledger to quantify “learning” and behavior. Others include the calculation of grade-point averages and the reporting of “class rank”, suggesting the social “class” within which one is likely to fit.

So, there it was, and so it remains. The result of that era’s machine-age thinking was the solidification of an industrial model school, which, as intended, remains separate and apart from daily life, and as Peter Senge articulately pointed out in Schools That Learn, poses the problems which students, families and teachers struggle with to this day. Beliefs from that era include that knowledge is fragmented and arises in separate, distinct categories; that the school should therefore be broken into “pieces” managed by specialists; that there are smart, fast kids and slower, not-smart kids, and when the machine moves forward some students will lag, others fall to the side and require some sort of label addressing their inability or difference. The list goes on, but the upshot of these beliefs is that every day secondary teachers face the impossible task
of addressing dozens of learners in hour-long settings, and consequently, many learners and
their families struggle to fit into a system that is built to impede “fitting in” and a degree of
success for all.

And the brilliant Yale psychologist Seymour Sarason pointed out, the system can degrade the motives and performance of teachers as well. (The Culture of School and the Problem of Change, Sarason, 1996) He writes convincingly that, despite their proximity to children, most educators work largely alone the vast majority of the time, and too many can experience a kind of professional isolation and loneliness. Many suffer the negative effects of prolonged, relentless routine and repetition, similar to those of assembly line workers. Others lose faith by internalizing some of the impact of the failure and “buy-out” they see with many learners, year after year.
As a consultant to scores of schools, these are symptoms that are all too common but seldom discussed, even surprisingly, by groups that represent our teaching corps.

As we close out 2018, growing student disinterest in what we offer as classroom learning is increasingly well-documented. Two decades of flat achievement and our inability to move beyond repeating the same list of failed strategies ought to lead us to look more deeply at the model, and ought to be disturbing enough to make those who guide our policies decide to revisit the 19th-century “science” that has given us the schools we have.

At the very least, we ought to know where these lingering ideas come from.

Larry Myatt, Co-Founder