The Original Factory Education Was a Personalized Learning Experiment

“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?

Factory Education

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?

So why was this approach unseated? Gladman in his treatment of that period sums it up rather neatly:

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.

23 thoughts on “The Original Factory Education Was a Personalized Learning Experiment

  1. You’re right that monitorial schooling is a much closer parallel to early factories than the current pattern of self-contained classes. Because American monitorial schools borrowed from the English, we had the irony of having “factory-like education” grow and start to die long before the height of factories. There isn’t too much academic work on why monitorial schools died out; in the American context, they were one of many experimental school forms in the early 19th century, along with infant schools, solo-instructor proprietary schools, philanthropic systems like the New York Free School Society, etc. An article in the History of Education Quarterly traced the growth and death of them in Baltimore about a decade or more before Horace Mann, and I think it would be a mistake to see Mann, Henry Barnard, or other common-school writers/advocates as a cause in their decline. Rather, I think parents would have been the hardest to push for self-contained classes rather than have their children be one of 300 or so in a single room. (Today, we wait until our young charges are in college before we’ll accept that.)

    What’s fascinating about the transition in Baltimore is the adoption of choral call-and-response pedagogy. I wish there were more detailed work on this, because it’s really hard to know how instruction turned from one-room rural individual recitations (mostly rote memorization) into this whole-group version.

    My apologies for forgetting the year and author for the Baltimore article; I’ll try to remember to snag it and post it here when I have a better connection. For more Grumpy Historian responses to “industrial-education” mythology, see my blog entry from 2011 on this:

  2. Sherman — that’s an excellent article, and I must wonder yet again why I wasn’t reading you years ago.

    Point well-taken that the models of the day were much more varied before Mann than I’m asserting here. Do you think that was as true in Australia/Great Britain? I need to read this Gladman book cover to cover, but the parts of it I have read seem to indicate there was some sense of Bell and Lancaster as the primary antecedent of the approach that was eventually adopted. But again, I haven’t read the whole book through.

  3. This (and the work Sherman posted) is fascinating. I have been digging back through the past 100 years of school debate for a few months and uncovering all kinds of misunderstandings and myths along the way. Your post now has me wanting to dig a bit deeper to the very roots of it all. I am seeing a pattern but can’t quite make it out yet. It seems that proponents on both sides of key educational debates (traditional vs. progressive, teaching vs. learning, doctrinal vs. dialectical, instructionist vs. constructionist, structured vs. personalized, etc.) always have half of the truth. Every once in awhile a well-known visionary like Dewey (along with several lesser-known practicioners) find a visionary synthesis which becomes adopted, institutionalized, and ultimately diluted until the visionary synthesis can be straw-manned and pounded back by a divisive antithesis as we wait for the next visionary to come along with a new synthesis to suit the times.

    I am struck especially by Gladman’s comment. For it strikes me that it is indeed still the case that “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 Principles of Education.” I would love to see the full context for that comment. When we don’t settle for routine or what “the system” dictates, study our pupils, and study/contemplate principles of education, we are continuously invigorated and adapt to whatever is at hand. Instead of simply siding with this or that buzzword in a debate and strawmanning the other side, wecan create a vision that puts the apparently opposing forces of these debates into a synergistic spin. We find that they are not mutually exclusive but are instead mutually constitutive of one another.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I see more digging in my near future.

  4. Michael, I’m struck by a couple of things – first, I think the typical use of the term “factory model” assumes that the students are the product on an assembly line, rather than actors in the process. What you are describing is a classroom organized like a factory in which the students are organized like workers in a factory. In fact, I think the Madras model seems like large-scale apprenticeship, a metaphor that I find rather appealing.

    Second, those who sneer about schools as factories are deeply ahistoric because they simultaneously claim that schools haven’t changed in hundreds of years, while at the same time comparing them to an assembly line – and the assembly line is an innovation just over 100 years old. I doubt anyone who describes schools as operating on the factory model has 19th century factories in mind. (Wikipedia dates the first day of operation of Ford’s assembly line to 12/1/1913, almost exactly 100 years ago.)

  5. @wesch Here’s the Gladman book for context here. I need to read it all through, but it is fascinating. The guy writing it has his Victorian biases, but there’s lots of thinking in it that are pretty sound. The quote I have here seems to be something he is pulling from a government report to explain the failing, rather than his own words, but it’s difficult to understand the citations in this book, which presume a lot of reader knowledge.

    @amichaelberman — I’d agree that Khan seems to have the weird idea that Mann’s 1840 design was influenced by the thinking of Henry Ford. On the other hand I think that when other people talk about industrial age education they ar in fact referring to the factorization of the process. The article of Davidson’s that Sherman Dorn points to is a good example of that. I’d also argue that the monitorial schools were, in fact, based on the idea of products moving through various stages of composition — that quote from Cordiner to me certainly sees the students as product moving through a machine.

  6. I’m reading the book now. It is amazing how so many contemporary debates are already worked out in these pages. And there is much here in this 1885 work that would be a revelation to many. Against rote memorization Gladman cites Fowler (who was writing bout Locke) in stating “the ideal of a liberal Education is to train faculty and develop aptitudes, rather than to impart specific knowledge.” Great example of @shermandorn’s wonderful refrain, “It was an era when rote learning was highly valued in school, despite arguments against the same.”

    • The thing I like best about the sections of the Gladman book I’ve read is how attentive he is to the tensions between different aims. So he’ll explain the reasons why individual teaching has fallen out of use, but he will also take careful note of the advantages it provided. And it’s all wound up in this implicit idea that you’re never going to get a perfect system together, because what works for one thing often does so at the expense of other things.

      That shouldn’t feel weird to read, but it does, unfortunately.

      • Yes, exactly. He conveys a wonderful respect for those he is amending, and humility in his own proposals (unlike Bell and Lancaster, who apparently (pg 20) gained a sense of immense spiritual power from their respective systems and thought they would spread over the earth. Lancaster “speaks of himself as an ‘Elijah,’ ‘a chosen vessel,’ ‘a David before Goliath,’ ‘a Joshua before Jericho.” I suppose some might quip that MOOC providers sometimes glorify themselves in this way, but that too is a bit of strawmanning and casting aside a phenomenon worthy of careful consideration.

    • Have you noticed this “Sympathy of Numbers” idea that keeps popping up? (In both the architecture book and the Gladman)?

      It’s an idea I’ve often wrestled with myself — we talk a lot about how diversity benefits groups, but there’s also a thing you have to do with teaching, where you try to make sure that with a given task students are commonly advantaged or engaged. If a group fractures too much you lose a certain powerful momentum. It has to be diverse enough that people find their place but unified enough that people multiply each other’s power.

      It makes me think of that first YouTube video you did with your class, where it seems to me you really worked with the power of that — that you used the power of a large class to your advantage rather than disadvantage…I like having a term for that sort of thing, especially one in 19th century capitalization. 🙂

      • Be careful about putting to much into numbers theories when it comes to learning. There have been some very successful MOOCs (in spite of what detractors are saying today – don’t we all carefully pick and choose our evidence) that have worked with truly Massive numbers with brilliant learning opportunities throughout.

      • That is very interesting, and echoes both you and Dan Meyer in relation to personalized learning. In this regard, the key asset of the MOOC that has not yet been fully leveraged is the massive numbers they bring in. George Siemens has talked a lot about this lately. There is some tremendous potential there – but it is difficult to tap due to the lack of shared time and space with all participants. That’s why Stow also emphasizes synchronous activities when discussing sympathy of numbers.

  7. You may observe that there are clearly significant differences between Skype in a meeting
    room and a traditional video conference area. If it’s
    less than 2GB, then you need to install more RAM However,
    if you have 2GB of memory or more, then most likely there is a
    piece of software that is causing the problem. Estamos na era digital, quanto mais supridos estivermos, maior controle de
    informacoes teremos, neste mundo onde estar um passo a frente significa muita

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s