Assembly Line Education

As this video suggests, we have to get out of the “assembly line” approach to education. It isn’t easy, we are addicted to quantifying “learning”. We are addicted to “cosmetic tinkering”. We are addicted to the “herding” of children into rooms. We are infact scared of the truth.  (see John Taylor Gatto for a whole plethora of info. on the history of the assembly line education following the Prussian model)

Most of us teachers pretend we are “modern”. I don’t think we are at all. Mostly because the underlying principles which maintain the factory approach, still rule. Timetables – punch in, punch out. Memorization, recall. A focus on efficiencies, rules, order. Age grouping. Class lists. Command and control from curriculum bosses. I could go on and on ….. don’t let all the fancy “reform” ideas fool you. If you teach these days, you are most likely dancing to the tune of a grammaphone.

Yesterday, attended a delightful talk by Kieran Egan about his Learning In Depth initiative. He’s one of my heroes, for many reasons but mostly for his focus on what works in student development/learning. Students connecting with ideas in a passionate, literate, human way.  Creating learners rather than creating “knowers”.  Here’s one other teacher’s appeal.

Let me be frank and “take out the cork”. School is so irrelevant these days. Truly. That’s sad, I’m saddened that these places of so much potential – do so little to light a fire and better the world.

I joked during Kieran’s talk about “not letting schools get hold of this” (his project), “they’d ruin it”.  And that is true. Why? That’s what we have to look at.

I see 3 fundamental problems with schooling. Unless these are fixed, we don’t stand a hope in hell of “reform”.

1. It’s compulsory. Meaning, there is no value given to work done outside the factory. The informal side (but I hate this term) has no relevance but truly that’s where things are happening in our world.

2. It’s one size fits all.  Students are grouped by age when there are more important criteria to consider – learning style, personality, interests, skills, maturity level, motivation/goals for learning etc…. Further, there is little attention to which teachers get which students. A crucial thing in the whole mix. Please read Ira Socol for a full report on this “illness”. 

3. Learning is commanded. We know this doesn’t work these days. Knowledge is too vast, we can’t control it any more. It’s about “how” not “what” these days. Yet we continue with this silly model of “the system” dictates, “you” regurgitate. No matter how you lipstick it – it still is this pitbull approach which we go by.

It would be a long discussion to address all the issues in these 3 points. Let me just pose a few questions to leave you thinking – a few questions about point #3 – the command approach.

Why don’t we have schools where the students decide what to learn?

Why can’t they learn the basics through things that they are “sparked by” instead of having to wait hours to ask a question or days until the curriculum hits upon something they are passionate about?

Why can’t we let go? Why can’t we start educating children to be adults instead of just “better children”?

Knowledge is now accessible to most in Western societies. The school no longer has a stranglehold on “the rabbit in the hat”. So why don’t we let students run free in the garden of knowing? Why do we keep the apples hidden away?

How can we bring back student interest in school? So they want to go to school for knowledge’s sake and not just sports or to socialize with their friends?  What if Johnny went to school to learn what he wanted?

Ending with a few thoughts from “Kids Aren’t Cars”.

If you enjoyed this post – you might like “Giving Students Room To Do Their Own Thing.”


Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

You may also like...

4 Responses

  1. Barbara Bujtas says:

    Help me David! I’m a freelance EFL teacher. I share all that’s written above, my principles are those mentioned, I’m not restricted by any institution, no imposed assembly line regulations whatsoever (apart from a timetable :)) However I don’t feel successful, the approach I identify with often results in my students’ doing virtually nothing. They sometimes tell me they would like me to be strict, they say it’s better if I assign their tasks, if they can choose they will choose to be idle. Are they too much used to spoon-feeding and carrot-and-stick motivation? Or is it my fault? :S

  2. ddeubel says:


    Don’t blame yourself! A big part of the problem is not only teachers that have been enculturated (and yes, teaching is a culture – something we learn and that’s a big problem for innovative teacher training) into the factory model of education – a big part of the problem is students who don’t know anything else!

    Students spend thousands of hours and are “gotten young” to borrow the term used by the communists to create the new working proletariat. It is no wonder they expect, “open the book, turn to lesson 4, Jane start reading”!

    I think there are different ways to approach this depending on the age group. What age of learners do you teach?

    Also, you have to explain it in a way that makes sense to them (why you need an age specific approach). Also, have the stubbornness to stick with it. There will be A LOT of dislocation at the beginning for students. It isn’t just, “O my god. Learning what I want to learn is so wonderful” , right away. You have to bear with it and almost deprogram in a way.

    I think it even better when you work with colleagues. If a group of teachers does this – it will be supported more by students. The school buying into it, even better. Also, communication with the ultimate stakeholders, parents.

    But you got to stick to your guns and also at the same time “suffer” as you watch students do nothing. be there for them but have the patience to realize that they must “do the lifting”. Some teachers say wean them – offer both approaches. One week one way, next another. You’ll never win like that, given the force of culture.

    I’ll offer more tips later – but appreciate your comments. Hang in there!


  3. Barbara Bujtas says:

    Thanks, you are really making me go on! I think I tend to give up too early 🙂
    I’m basically a one-to-one tutor,I carefully select who I use this approach with: very open minded teens and adults. (I have students of all age groups, I try and drip learner autonomy to younger ones.)
    I work all alone, so there are no colleagues to rely on. (Which is not always a problem, in a school here I would be considered a freak. As for parents, most of them don’t even want to know what we do in the lessons, they pay and want a language exam or better exam grades in exchange. (They have been brought up the “assembly line” way.)
    I just feel like I’m swimming against the flow, running against a brick wall now and again, hauling water uphill in a leaky bucket, blahblahblahhblaaahhh….
    All my confidence and confirmation come from my PLN.
    I’m looking froward to your further ideas 🙂

  4. Torn Halves says:

    A response to Barbara: Sometimes I think that liberals need to learn from the Old Testament (an utterly illiberal text). There is a tendency amongst liberals to wilt in the face of student complaints or recalcitrance. I guess the wilting sometimes presupposes an idea that children should spring from the womb willing and motivated to pursue the good whenever the opportunity arises. The hard truth in OT (regardless of your theological position) is that we are fallen creatures. We need to right kind of social setting, with the right encouragement, motivation (and even the right kind of punishment) to develop into a reponsible, autonomous learner and citizen. So, in practice, we need a sort of Maria Montessori firmness of purpose and insist – forcefully sometimes – on the highest of standards. Idleness will not be an option (although no one is to work themselves into ill-health). Similarly, in some cases we, as teachers, can see that students are wasting their time, and then we ought to step in with some persuasive redirection. In short, a consistently student-centred education requires a lot of hard work and intervention from the teacher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe By Email

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.