“From the perpetual agency of this System, idleness cannot exist… [T]he whole is a beautiful picture of the most animated industry, and resembles the various machinery of a cloth manufactory, completely executing their different offices, and all set in motion by one active engine.” — Rev. Cordiner, describing the popular Madras System of education in 1820.
Audrey Watters has a great summary
of the recent personalization debate, followed by some excellent analysis on some of the politics and history of personalization technology.
In that article she demonstrates that personalization through technology has been an obsession since the invention of the earliest teaching machines. Such efforts may work poorly or they may work well. But they represent a continuation of how we have viewed teaching machines throughout the past century and a half, not a revolution.
Let me throw another log on the fire.
Because all the rhetoric around how we will shove of the mantel of “factory education” for the brand new world of “personalized learning” misses a point of the utmost importance:
Factory education was invented as a form of personalization.
Now, let me add disclaimers here. I am not a historian. If Sherman Dorn comes onto the blog and tells me I got this 100% wrong, I will happily redact. I will recant.
But let’s walk through this, shall we?
People toss around the term “factory education” so much it’s become meaningless. That debate centered Social Studies class you had in 1987? Factory education. That rote class your grandfather had in Latin? Factory education. That project-based class that your daughter is taking in Biology? Factory education. As Salman Khan has informed us, nothing has changed in the history of education since the Prussians rode over and started running our grade schools. It’s just one big ball of factory education.
But if you’re looking for the first model of education truly derived from factory structure and informed by its values, my guess is it would be the Madras System (and its variant in the Lancaster System).
Developed in England by Andrew Bell in the last years of the 1700s, the Madras System used better performing students to teach poorer performing students. It did this by applying a factory model of division of labor and rigid mechanical instruction in a facility that was patterned directly on the factories of the day.
Unlike our schoolrooms today (which, perhaps you’ve noticed, look very little like factories?) both the Madras system and the Lancaster system took place in large warehouse or barn-like spaces where small groups of students gathered around work stations divided by ability.
At each work station, an older student tutored the younger ones. As the students practiced skill application repeatedly they could move up into more challenging groups. Students who had progressed through all the stages could then be employed as leaders of the groups. A school of 500 students could be served with one schoolmaster in this way, with all the students receiving personal tutoring from the monitors, who were trained in the system themselves. (This is why the Lancaster and Bell systems are sometimes referred to as “monitorial systems”.)
Here’s how Bell describes his system in his Manual
The Madras System consists in conducting a school, by a single Master, THROUGH THE MEDIUM OF THE SCHOLARS themselves, by an uniform and almost insensibly progressive course of study, whereby the mind of the child is often exercised in anticipating and dictating for himself his successive lessons… a course in which reading and writing are carried on in the same act, with a law of classification, by which every scholar finds his level, is happily, busily, and profitably employed every moment, is necessarily made perfectly acquainted with every lesson as he goes along, and without the use or the need of corporeal infliction, acquires habits of method, order, and good conduct, and is advanced in his learning, according to the full measure of his capacity.
I don’t think I have to spell it out for you, but what Bell is describing here is what many folks nowadays refer to as personalized learning. It’s not the only form we see today, but in practice it looks eerily like 100 students sitting in a charter school classroom trying to level up through educational software.
For Bell and his supporters, the “system” was everything, and they saw the parallels with facotry work as a point of pride. Here’s the Reverend Cordiner talking ecstatically about his visit to the Madras School:
From the perpetual agency of this System, idleness cannot exist… [T]he whole is a beautiful picture of the most animated industry, and resembles the various machinery of a cloth manufactory, completely executing their different offices, and all set in motion by one active engine.
This was system was not a historical footnote. It was, in fact, the most popular system of education in the English-speaking world at the beginning of the 19th century. And it was this system that was poised to take over the English-speaking world when the Mannian System in the U.S. (and the Glasgow System in the U.K.) came into prominence in the 1840s. The question Great Britain occupied itself in the first half of the 19th century was *which* monitorial system should form the basis of a national system of education: Lancaster’s or Bell’s?
Failure occurred, as it always will, when masters were slaves to “the system,” when they were satisfied with mechanical arrangements and routine work, or when they did not study their pupils, and get down to the Priciples of Education.
Most of my readers know the history from this point on better than I, but reading through Gladman is instructive. For Gladman, the great displacer of the Monitorial Method of Bell and Lancaster is Stow’s Glasgow system, and the great difference is its flexibility.
Stow’s method involved trained teachers, who don’t exercise step-by-step methods, but rather have a grasp of priciples and techniques and use them to foster inquisitiveness and discovery in the classroom. Stow believed that if students were to get to understanding instead of simple memorization they needed high quality teachers. Turning the “machinery” metaphor of Bell on its head Stow remarked it was useless to have “the machinery without the skilled workman, or the skilled workman without the suitable premises”. Similarly, the evil Prussians that form the villians in Khan’s worldview rejected the personalized models of Bell and Lancaster because they instilled too much thoughtless obedience in their students. Here’s Victor Cousin, writing in the book that fueled the Mannian revolution in America, Report on the State of Education in Prussia
Our principal aim in each kind of instruction is to induce the young men to think and judge for themselves. We are opposed to all mechanical study and servile transcripts. The masters of our primary schools must possess intelligence themselves in order to be able to awaken it in their pupils otherwise the state would doubtless prefer the less expensive schools of Bell and Lancaster.
That is those nasty sounding Prussians agreeing with the somewhat less nasty sounding Glasweegians that education must be reformed because it works too much like a factory. And the way to make it less like a factory is to bring in the expertise of a craftsman, in this case, the trained teachers that were the heart of the Mannian, Glasgow, and Prussian systems.
I’m not here to criticize the Madras System. In fact, there’s aspects of the system which I believe in pretty strongly. Bell’s insight that students learn best when they teach each other remains as true today as then, and his focus on “doing” rather than simply listening was admirable at a time when lecture was overvalued. At the same time, Gladman’s remarks regarding the rigidity of such systems strike me as an accurate summary of the issues that have plagued such systems since then.
Similarly, I know my history in this area is limited. It’s almost wholly gained from years of watching videos of people making claims that seem odd and then executing some Google searches to see if primary materials support the claims made by smug TED lecturers.
And so I could be wrong here. But after years and years of looking up this stuff I’ve found the more I know, the more it drifts away from this Ron Paul-John Taylor Gatto history of education. And the further I get into this area, the weirder it gets. The personalizers in history are the firm believers in applying factory principles to education. The Prussians are in fact the softies, arguing for teachers as trained craftsmen who can inspire students to think for themselves.
The point Salman Khan fingers as the date factory education began is in fact the date it began to die.
I’m not arguing for the current system, or that the system as constructed isn’t overly authoritarian and geared toward compliance over creativity and inspiration.
I’m not arguing against various forms of personalization, even. I think we ought to be doing more to bring out the unique gifts of our students.
But if my history holds up (and I’ve been looking at this for enough years to think it will) the idea that the history of education is an ages long struggle between the Mannian “factories” and the proponents of “personalization for empowerment” is odd at best, and backwards at worst.
I think history does have lessons for us. But in order to learn them, we have to engage with history in all it’s messiness, not the history of think tanks and TED talkers. If you’d like *that* sort of conversation, feel free to school me in the comments.