If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow. — John Dewey

We hear all the time from all kinds of people in and outside of Education that we need to move away from the industrial model of schooling.  We all know this model because it is likely the one we experienced when we attended school.  Kids in rows, we move according to age not ability, we all have the same instruction on the same day all at the same pace, it is a one-size-fits all solution for every child.  The industrial model is one of hierarchy, control, obedience, specialized task, and emphasis on punctuality.  The industrial model was designed for students who would eventually work in factories. Those factories had a top-down management structure, needed punctual workers who did not question those in charge.  This model has softened a bit over time but the basic structure and thinking has remained the same.
It is so ingrained into us that it is difficult to think of another model of schooling.  The industrial thinking shows up in peculiar places.  The system itself rewards and perpetuates the industrial model over and over again despite our desire to move to a more 21st century model.  Let me give two examples of what I am talking about.

1. Accountability Systems —District report cards are heavily reliant on Achievement Scores — because we rate schools using the report cards — it by design discourages innovation and perpetuates the status quo. You might get some districts that cosmetically make some changes but overall the foundation and thinking is the industrial model of schooling.

Think of this as a top-down model.  The State or Federal Government sets arbitrarily singular goals for all schools to meet.  Failure of schools to meet those arbitrary goals are subjected to a whole slew of draconian punishments including but not limited to closure.

We have plenty of data that proves that this kind of accountability model narrows the curriculum, places emphasis on rote learning and measures poverty not achievement. Despite all of this we insist on accountability models that mirror industrial thinking.  The end result is this — even the most creative districts will not innovate for fear the report card results will falter. Teachers refuse to try different teaching methods for fear kids will not succeed on the “test.” It smothers innovation and change.

2.  Colleges and Universities –They set the rules by which kids get to college and those colleges rely on traditional academic tracks and rules.  Often schools will not innovate for fear that will prevent kids from getting that scholarship or getting into the elite colleges.  It once again perpetuates an industrial model of schooling.

These are just two quick examples why despite our desire to move to a 21st century model we are thwarted into simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.   We only have disincentives to innovation and change.  This is pervasive in nearly all aspects of our k-12 system.  We have so much pressure to do school in one way any deviations are quickly squashed.

The John Dewey quote is so prophetic in today’s modern world.  “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”   Schools are preparing kids for careers and jobs that don’t even exist  — using an outdated industrial model of schooling —  and we all scratch our heads and wonder why our drop-out rates are high, wonder why our college completion rates are low, wonder why kids seem disinterested in school?

Everything you need in this 21st century skill set is exactly what is not rewarded in the industrial model of schooling.  We need kids who can collaborate effectively, who are creative, can function in a team, who can critically think and problem solve.  Kids need to have flexibility and adaptability, technology and information literacy, global awareness, good leadership skills etc….you get the idea. Even those schools that claim they are trying to become this 21st century school take those ideas and simply try and force them into the already existing industrial model.  It simply does not work.

Schools need the latitude to innovate and be creative without fear of reprisal from an outdated system of measurement.  We need to innovate from top to bottom the way we do school.  Everything from how we organize, teach, use of technology, use of time, resources and outcomes.  Schools should be different from when my grandparents went to school and we should expect and demand our schools look and educate this newest generation differently than the last three!


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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