Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

School as Factory:
The Greatest Barrier to Transformation

"Our schools are, in a sense, factories,
in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life."
~Elwood Cubberley—Dean of the Graduate School of Education,
Stanford University, 1917-1933

This series of articles discusses the metaphors that shape our perceptions of schools and learning. School as factory is less a metaphor than it is the historical foundation of compulsory education in the United States. To better understand the destructive and invalid components of school as factory, I encourage you to read the following articles if you haven't already done so.

The Myth of the Average Man

The Historical Purpose of American Public Education

The Lingering Influence of Scientific Management

The Factory Metaphor


erhaps the most detrimental aspect of the school as factory metaphor is that it conceptualizes education as a mechanistic atmosphere in which inanimate objects are processed. Therefore, the focus is on creating the most efficient assembly line for the manufacture of standardized products.

We see the influence of that metaphor in the current focus on a single type of learning—the acquisition of externalized factual knowledge, or what Dr. Carl Bereiter refers to as statable knowledge. The factory metaphor forces us to perceive knowledge as bits and pieces that teachers are supposed to "attach" to students as they travel through the assembly line. Those who believe that learning can be measured in simplistic ways prefer such externalized (and often inert) knowledge and skills. Just as the quality control worker in the factory can "see" that each product contains the correct parts, teachers can assess whether each student possesses the knowledge bits using standardized, data-generating tests.

Assembly-Line Education


he school as factory metaphor permeates the language of education. Schools are referred to as physical plants. The job of these plants is to turn out/produce successful students. Standards and benchmarks are the tolerances used to determine the quality of the product.

In 1995, the Department of Education team that developed the No Child Left Behind Education Act defended the use of standards as follows: "Americans. . .expect strict standards to govern construction of buildings, bridges, highways, and tunnels; shoddy work would put lives at risk. They expect stringent standards to protect their drinking water, the food they eat, and the air they breathe…Standards are created because they improve the activity of life."(1)

Powerful words! So powerful, in fact, that people fail to notice the inherent flaws in the logic! There are proven ways in which to "standardize" the concrete that goes into buildings, bridges, highways, and tunnels. These materials are inanimate. They have no personal wants, needs, goals, or preferences. They are engineered to uniform consistency for a specific application.

The components of air, water, and food can be measured with considerable accuracy. Therefore, creating a standard that describes those components is relatively easy. The same does not apply to human beings! Some will argue that we are more alike than different. That may be physically true. It may even be true in terms of basic cognitive processes. But beyond that, the billions of neuronal connections that form and continue to change throughout our lives in response to experience produce an almost infinite variety of combinations!

What assembly line can work effectively when each bit of raw material is different, not to mention constantly changing? Inanimate raw material can't "decide" what it wants to do or become. Human beings can and do! In his recent book, The End of Average, Dr. Todd Rose provides extensive scientific evidence that there is no such thing as a "standard" or "average" person. It is not only illogical, but essentially impossible, to insist that human minds conform to such limited and limiting standards.

Faulty Materials


n this assembly line organization of schools, what happens to students who can't keep up? Is it their fault? The teacher's fault? The school's fault? Or does the problem reside in the assembly line model itself? Beginning with NCLB, standards-based education has been steeped in assembly line thinking—the idea that raw materials are supposed to move through the line at the same rate. If they don't, it's up to teachers to make sure they are brought "up to speed"—that they don't get "left behind" in the assembly process. The distressing fact is that educators have lived for so long with this assembly line metaphor—are so comfortable with this way of thinking—that they no longer question the inherent logic of that premise!

Beginning with NCLB, standards-based education has been steeped in assembly line thinking—the idea that raw materials are supposed to move through the line at the same rate. If they don't, it's up to teachers to make sure they are brought "up to speed"—that they don't get "left behind" in the assembly process. The distressing fact is that educators have lived for so long with this assembly line metaphor—are so comfortable with this way of thinking—that they no longer question the inherent logic of that premise!

Can all children (or adults for that matter) learn the same things at the same time and in the same way? Is that how natural learning takes place? Is it the most effective way to help people learn? Can anyone who is familiar with genetic and environmental differences among humans, or the abundant research on how people learn say, "Yes"? Do all children "want" to learn the same things at the same time and in the same way? Ay, there's the rub. The "raw materials" reaching our schools today have already experienced multiple ways of learning. And it is a hopeful sign that they often willfully refuse to be shaped into the products defined by someone else's standards.

In the language of the factory/assembly line metaphor, we are led to believe that, not only the raw material, but the workers tasked with "producing" a standard product, have undergone a major decline. The growing percentage of students labeled "remedial" or diagnosed with some "learning disability" certainly suggests shoddy raw materials. But think about it? The raw material is labeled as flawed, not because there is anything inherently wrong with it, but because it can't or won't conform to the process! The mythical efficiency and productivity of the assembly line must be maintained at all costs—even if it means that more and more partially assembled parts fall off or are shunted to the reject pile!

As we saw in the standard medical assembly line story, the problems with applying factory mentality are obvious in other human contexts. Yet this powerful metaphor retains its death grip on education. The same standards for all students—especially when those standards specify a specific age or time limit—are both discriminatory and contrary to both research and common sense. Ironically, this assembly line approach remains favored by a national policy that insists that schools use only "research-based" programs. Apparently, that requirement does not apply to the mandated policies themselves!

Product Rather than Process


his factory metaphor is characterized by an emphasis on results—the bottom line—the return on investment. Not only are students perceived as products, but they are expected to produce essays, projects, and lab write-ups, which must go through a quality control check. In other words, if a toaster has all the right parts, and works correctly, it must produce the kind of toast specified in the design!

Alfie Kohn points out one way in which the factory metaphor shifts attention away from learning. "Someone who manages students' work is likely to strive for zero defects: perfect papers and assignments that receive the maximum number of points. Someone who facilitates students' learning welcomes mistakes—first, because they are valuable clues as to how the student is thinking, and second, because to do so creates a climate of safety that ultimately promotes more successful learning."(2)

Learning is defined in many ways, but one is "making meaning". Making meaning isn't a product. It is an ongoing process. But the factory/industrial metaphor pushes process into the background in favor of product. Classwork and schoolwork are seen as a means to an end rather than part of an ongoing process of growth.

Another definition of learning—as an experience that results in a lasting change in behavior—is all but ignored in the factory metaphor. Whether the student has integrated any knowledge that causes him or her to behave differently in a given setting is irrelevant. The only behavior that is important is the ability to produce an A on the test.

Some have attempted to reframe the work students do in school as "knowledge work." But that makes no difference in the perception of production and efficiency as the ultimate goals. Kohn points out that: "In factory-like schools, you will often hear words like performance and achievement, but rarely words like discovery, or exploration, or curiosity."(3)

Compensation for Production


rederick Taylor would be proud of the way schools have adopted his "compensation for more work" model. A through F, or their number equivalents, are an efficient quality control system to grade the products at the end of a particular phase of the assembly line. The ultimate example of fine tolerances in this quality control system is keeping students from graduating because they scored one point less than "passing" on a single high-stakes test!

Passing or failing is certainly compensation for one's work (or lack thereof), but in some places, good grades have become even more lucrative. In an attempt to "increase production", and as schools face more penalties for low grades on these tests, the stakes have gone up even higher. Some schools have offered compensation for every "A." Others have offered college scholarship money corresponding to grade point averages. And in a perfect example of how the factory/compensation metaphor plays out, a former CEO who became chancellor of the New York City schools proposed giving schools bonuses of up to $40,000 a year, largely based on standardized-test performances!

I don't intend to address the validity of rewards—be they grades, stars, or smiley faces at the top of a paper, the carrot of a college scholarship, or other external motivation that schools might use to create the illusion that students are eager to learn. Alfie Kohn(4) and others(5) have written enough on that subject to help you make up your own minds. However, I will ask two questions. Before students begin to attend school, what payment—what reward—do they require to learn? And second, despite the rewards, how many students would continue to attend formal schooling if it weren't mandatory?

I realize that this question is complex. But an item on the news seems to epitomize the attitude of too many students. The item appeared during the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong. A little boy—no more than 4 or 5 years old—was asked how he felt about the risk of infection that had caused the American School there to be closed. "It's great! No school!" Some of you may be thinking that any child of that age would rather play than work. But isn't that the issue? If learning is what children do naturally in the form of play, and if schools are really about learning, why is school so often seen as something unpleasant—something to be avoided?

Children pop out of the womb eager to learn. In fact, they begin learning in the womb. Many of them enthusiastically look forward to their first day in school—a chance to learn even more. They don't arrive at school thinking of learning as work. But rather than encouraging and facilitating that love of learning—rather than providing students with an environment that enriches their opportunity to satisfy their own curiosity—we sit them in a desk and tell them what, when, and how to learn for most of their formative years! Within a couple of years at the most, studies have shown that many children perceive school as little more than a dull and deadly duty. And because they have come to think of "learning" as synonymous with "school," their original love of learning fades away.

Brain wrapped in barbed wire

Authentic learning does not occur in assembly line fashion. Can schools provide opportunities that children may not have elsewhere? Certainly! Can teachers guide students toward learning those concepts and skills that will help develop their capacities to the fullest? Of course! They can and they do in many learner-centered schools. But when schools decide exactly what all students are to learn, when they will learn it, and how they are to learn it—and when the pressure to learn those things takes away any time there might be to learn other things in other ways—the spontaneity of learning is effectively eradicated. The desire to learn too often goes with it. Why are we surprised that many students are more than happy to escape?

Lest you think it's only the little ones who would rather be free, here's an example from the other end of the school spectrum. While visiting the library at the University of Montana near the end of the spring term, I overheard a young woman—apparently a senior—talking to a friend. She had just completed her last exam. Clearly jubilant, her words reflected what I fear is the attitude of many who have passed through the assembly line of public education. "I don't ever want to open a book again!" What a sad commentary.

In the next article on metaphors of schools, we'll take a look at a metaphor that offers many new insights on the educational process—school as organism.

  1. Ravitch, D. (1995) National Standards in American Education: A Citizens Guide, Washington: The Brookings Institution, pp 8-9
  2. Kohn, Alfie (1997) Students Don't "Work"—They Learn. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/students-dont-work-learn/
  3. Ibid.
  4. Kohn, Alfie (1999) Punished by Rewards. Houghton Mifflin
  5. cf. Ferriter, Bill (09/18/2015)If Grades Don't Advance Learning, Why Do We Give Them? http://www.teachingquality.org/content/blogs/bill-ferriter/if-grades-don-t-advance-learning-why-do-we-give-them and Bower, Joe. Abolishing Grades, http://www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-grading.html/

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