Why schools are failing

Schools have factory-like organizations structure

The current school system was mass-scaled in the 19th century to meet the needs of industrial economy. An instrument of the fast-expanding industrial society of the early 19th century, schools could not escape being built on the new-found principles of industrial organisation. We cannot really understand the schools of today if we do not start with the key features of industrial revolution. The two defining facets of industrialization are as under:

  1. Developing machines that fed on mechanical power e.g. power of steam was used to operate machines, away from the dependence on the physical strength of men or animals. Use of mechanical power helped multiply the scale of operations. Mechanical power for machines was fairly fine-tuned by the early 19th century.
  2. Inventing the assembly-line system (taken to eminence by Ford motor company) that took the quality in mass-production to the next level and implemented ‘scientific management’ on the shop floors to optimize production. Assembly-line system was fairly fine-tuned by the early 20th century.

In common parlance, ‘factory’ is the assembly-line system. And what’s one of the key characteristics of assembly-lines? They can only produce ‘exact copies’ of a small set of variants of a product and the highest productivity could be achieved with no variation in the product, i.e. all products are of one type only.

It is very illustrative to recollect what ‘assembly line’ meant to Henry Ford:

By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model T. However, it was a monolithic black. Ford famously wrote in his autobiography about his ‘assembled cars’ in the following terms – “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. Until the development of the assembly line, which mandated black because of its quicker drying time, Model T was available in other colours, including red. The design was fervently promotedand defended by Ford, and production continued as late as 1928. –Wikipedia

Why is industrialization held on a very high pedestal in human development if it killed diversity of choices?

Industrialisation made scale and efficiency possible. Mass-production provided access to better quality of life to increasingly large proportion of communities across the world. We can debate the issue of quality of life and industrialization but the latter did democratize (cheaper) access to (quality) essentials and more.

Industrialisation was a clear trade-off – cheaper, ‘higher-quality’, ‘abundant’, novel, accessible-next-door products versus on-order, personalized, made-in-units-of-one and costlier products. It greatly serviced a basic human instinct – universal appeal of cheaper and better products.

And how do schools resemble factories? Here are some of the pointers to the comparable features of factories and schools (by no means an exhaustive listing):

  1. Fixed-step assembly line – EVERY student has to go through the 14-step (14 years) grind to ‘emerge finished’.
  2. Fixed step-operations – Batches after batches (year after year) play out the same routine and syllabus at each class level.
  3. Soap is a soap – Schools in Chennai and Srinagar, for instance, must follow the same steps of operations.
  4. All factories (almost) look alike – So are the schools (a building that is ΣClassrooms + empty playfields).
  5. Products come ‘identically wrapped’ – So are the students in uniforms, bags, buses, textbooks, copies, distinctive uniforms for PT.
  6. Standard quality benchmarks and certification – Standard assessment content and reporting for all students and ‘good, bad, ugly’ certifications (but everyone gets it sooner or later).
  7. Clock-work operations for efficiency – Time-tabling is the most serious business in a school.
  8. Each step is also a unit of efficiency – each subject and its teaching are also ‘independently optimised’ for classwork, homework, projects, assessments, delivery, etc.
  9. Ceaseless production of faceless products – Students are mostly admission numbers who have to be ‘pushed out’ of every step to the last and not to be bothered about ever again
  10. Competition defines quality – There is no hint of inherent excellence benchmarks in schools; a school has to just outdo the others in town (or just the neighbourhood) to be considered a good school.

More importantly, if all these seem hard on you (parents), take heart in the fact that ‘industrial-era schools’ will soon be passé. Partner with your child’s school to prod the school to become a ‘knowledge-era’ school. Ironically, parental support is the most critical missing link in any school’s quest for change.’

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