Moving Beyond the Factory Model of Education

stop schoolAn article from LinkedIn about schools and the future of education was shared with me yesterday. It was written by Heather Hiles, founder and CEO of Pathbrite Inc., a start-up that markets an educational portfolio platform.

She has decided that our education system is no longer relevant, that our current economy doesn’t need the factory model of education designed for the Industrial Era. Instead, she writes, a whole new set of skills is required now and in the future – things like problem solving, creative and independent thinking, and adaptability. That’s not exactly news to me and most of my readers! Here’s an article I wrote about that in Life Learning Magazine three years ago.

Hiles has been recently inspired by the work of Sugata Mitra. He’s the person who, in 1999, dug a hole in a wall bordering an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected computer, and left it there, with a hidden camera filming what happened next. Kids from the slum played around with the computer and, in the process (and without adult intervention), learned how to use it and how to go online, and then taught others what they’d learned.

In her article, Hiles springboards from describing that to presenting a vision of self-direction and applied learning that is, she writes, the way of the future. Here vision involves replacing rote learning and testing with “inquiry, search, discovery, application, presentation, encouragement and validation.” Of course, life learners / unschoolers (and all babies) already do that. But it’s great to see the light bulb turn on for others.

Then, she gets confused. In spite of her excitement about the kids in Mitra’s projects who learn naturally without being taught, Hiles’ vision also involves the nonsensical notion of students “learning how to learn.” As I’ve written countless times – and as Mitra’s work illustrates so well – children are hard-wired to learn; they only need to re-learn that ability if it has been stolen from them by school or other circumstances.

Hiles displays no other evidence of adultism. So maybe she arrived at that conclusion because she is, after all, marketing an educational product to teachers. But I think she has displayed a common logic lapse resulting from inadvertently being as stuck in the status quo as the system she criticizes. She is not alone. So often, I encounter people who understand the problem with how we’re currently educating children and young people, but aren’t able to take their concerns to their fullest conclusion of abolishing compulsory classroom teaching, curriculum, and testing. And they have an ideological block that doesn’t allow them to learn about homeschooling / unschooling in order to take it (and its lessons for the future of education) seriously. Remarkably, the school model has become so entrenched in our cultural worldview in just a few hundred years that most people – even those who understand that it’s past its best-before date – have difficulty envisioning anything much different.

As I’ve written elsewhere, home-based education is not an experiment. It’s how people learned to function in the world for millennia. And there is no reason that people today can’t do the same thing. School is the experiment, not the lack of it. That experiment is in trouble and we urgently need to use our understanding of how people learn to invent something more relevant to our kids’ needs, as well as those of our society and its economy. It might not be unschooling for every learner, but if there is a will to think outside the compulsory factory model box (which writer David H. Albert calls the “day jail”), the alternative model is there.

And, by the way, the teachers who are insulted or otherwise bothered by such statements (like those commenting on the Hiles article) need to realize they can be part of the problem or part of the solution. Many of their colleagues have already joined us in making the changes that are clearly overdue.