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Education: Replacing the Factory With The Workshop   (December 7, 2005)

A few weeks ago I introduced the notion that our entire education system is based on an outmoded "factory metaphor." The alternative, it seems to me, is a "workshop metaphor," in which every child is seen less as a "manufactured education commodity" and more of an individual resource which must be "hand-crafted" by the team of student, teacher, administration and parents/guardians.

The factory metaphor, you will recall, is expressed in the size of the physical plant of typical, large urban intermediate and high schools, in the standardized criteria used to judge the "quality" of the "learning" inculcated by the "end product," i.e. a graduating student, and in the uniformity and the "production schedule" of the "one assembly line for all" education "process."

One key insight into the "workshop metaphor" can be found in the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell presents research which indicates the maximum number of human beings which can effectively be assembled in a group is about 150. This is true for military units, factory floors, communes, churches or other social groups. These results have been corroborated by a number of studies.

The first and most obvious step toward a more effective education system, then, is to cut the number of students and teachers in each school (or school-within-a-school) to about 150. Such thinking is not new; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, is funding the establishment of small schools in Oakland, CA. Although there is no simple "magic bullet" to improving our educational system--we also need adequate buildings and recreational facilities, well-trained and professionally compensated teachers, accountable administration and involved parents--reducing the student body to the point that all the teachers and students can form bonds conducive to camaraderie or esprit de corps and mutual responsiblity is perhaps a key beginning.

Another critical advance from the "production model" is the understanding that not all students learn alike or have equal talents. Standardized tests sound admirable, but such standardization makes no allowances for the enormous range of students' abilities and talents.

The common sense approach of establishing flexible goals in test scoring is attracting some well-deserved interest.

While teaching every child basic math, social studies and grammar is clearly essential, the drive to match Asian-style educations heavy on math and science could well be as misguided as the rush to emulate the Japanese Management Model in the 80s. Alas, it turned out the Japanese had less to teach us than we imagined about management, as their economy fell into a 15-year-long funk. If a kid is a wiz at desktop publishing and graphics, is force-feeding him or her higher math really productive? What about the more practical skills some students will need to become contractors, chefs or sales managers?

A workshop metaphor recognizes the talents and limitations of every student, rather than attempting to manufacture a uniform "product."

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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