calling bullshit

The industrial education system myth

“Reading hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens”

Audrey Watters does a fantastic job of debunking the myth around the concept of the factory school, or industrialised education model. I see this mentioned almost as often as ‘education is broken’, and it is a close ally of ‘education hasn’t changed in 100 years‘. The basic line is that we have an education system that was designed for an industrial age and we are now in a post-industrial age, ergo, that education system is faulty.

I think the first thing to do is what Audrey has done so magnificently, which is to really dig into the historical perspective, and demonstrate why the assumptions underlying that stance are just wrong. Another approach is to examine why the lack of change that is touted is wrong also. So view this piece as a little sibling to Audrey’s foundational work.

When people suggest that schooling is the same as in the industrial change, as Morrissey would have it, this is true, and yet it’s false. I want to explore both the elements that are true (and why that’s not a bad thing) and those that are incorrect, by way of an analogy. Imagine that it was commonly stated as fact that “reading hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens”. To take the true aspect first, we could take a photo of someone reading a book (maybe even a Dickens novel), printed on paper, sitting in a chair in front of a fire. If you could go back in time you could show this to Dickens and he would declare that indeed, reading has not changed (he’d also be very pleased that people were still reading his novels). The first question to ask then, is why would you want reading to change? Why is an absence of change deemed a bad thing? Reading a book is a pretty good way to convey an idea, a story, and an enjoyable, enriching thing to do. That it hasn’t changed significantly in 150 years is testament to its value, not a sign of its weakness.

The next aspect is to look at why this statement is, while true, also incorrect. There are undoubtedly core similarities between reading now and in Dickens’ time, but there are also very significant differences. For example there have been significant changes in:

  • technology -eg ereaders,
  • the publishing industry – eg Amazon
  • the publishing process – eg Dickens serialisation versus self publishing
  • the novel genre – compare a William Burroughs or graphic novel with Dickens
  • the context – reading now exists alongside gaming, television, cinema, the internet, etc

So any statement that merely says nothing has changed would not recognise that reading in 2015 is a very different experience to what it was in 1840.

If we now return to the industrial schooling argument we see a similar pattern. Firstly, there are significant similarities, so the statement is true in some respects. If you looked at education now and in the 1900s there are some things you would recognise: we send children to a central place, we group them by age and ability, we have teachers. As with reading, this unchanging aspect might be because it’s a good thing. Whenever I hear people state that they want to revolutionise (or do away with) the school system, I am struck by their lack of a viable alternative. If you want to educate all children in your country, regardless of motivation, ability, parental engagement, etc then you need a robust system. If you completely started from scratch tomorrow, my bet is you would end up creating something that didn’t look dissimilar to a schooling system. So the absence of change so deplored by many may indicate that viable alternatives are not available.

The second aspect is to consider what is wrong with the statement. As with the Dickens example, it actually ignores many significant changes, including:

  • Use of technology
  • Changes in curriculum
  • Changes in pedagogy
  • Increased professionalisation of teachers
  • Access to resources
  • Increased access to education for all children

When you take these into account, the schooling of children in 2015 is nothing like that of kids in 1915. Now this is not to suggest that there aren’t significant changes we can make within the schooling system. The Finnish approach is often cited as having a better attitude to assessment, curriculum, grouping, pedagogy, etc. And too often the education system is subject to the whims of whoever is the education minister (for example, the disastrous Michael Gove, who seemingly did want a 1915 system). And this is what irritates me about the industrial schooling argument – as so often with tech driven approaches, it demands wholesale revolution, instead of focusing on doing practical changes within the system which would actually be useful.


  • MJ

    Interesting take on the “industrial education myth”… I would argue that it depends how one frames that “myth” within a certain context. Albeit education has changed significantly in the past 100 years… I still believe one can argue that it is the “same” in the sense that the system is still geared towards “passive” learning as oppose to “pro-active” learning. That being said, I believe the advent of eventual adoption of online learning can finally change that.

  • Guy Cowley

    This makes a lot of sense. Recognising what is good then incrementally improving is likely to be more successful and more reliably deliverable than dogma-driven revolution.

  • Dominik Lukes

    I liked Audrey Watter’s piece and I agree that this resurgence of hypercriticism of schooling needs to be taken head on. However, I think that we need to be cautious before we claim that there’s no ‘viable alternative’. Because there are, of course, many alternatives that have not become widespread systemic options for education. But, I think the approach to a realistic critique of current schooling should come from an investigation of the factors that prevent the viability of alternative arrangements. Because, while we may not necessarily have schooling for the industrial age, we have a “grammar of schooling” that has been influenced both by the needs of organising an essentially industrial organisation (system of schools with many moving parts – inputs and outputs – that need to be managed) run by people driven by industrial metaphors alongside those of learning and growth ( There are many aspects of schooling that we would probably not want to recreate – organising children into ‘years’, organising learning into equitemporal chunks with equal size groups being led in the same learning activities by one person, running a school day from 8.30am to 3pm, measuring success by exams immediately at the end of the course rather than a year or years later… If the ‘education system’ was primarily about learning and growth, all of the above would be rightly seen as barriers to that. But the ‘education system’ is really about organising schooling (and to a large extent child care) across the population as ‘efficiently’ as possible. And while lots of things have changed on the inside (no corporal punishment, less rote memorisation, more recognition of cognitive variation, reliance on classics, etc.), and the outside (gender equality, post-industrial society, internet, etc.), the essential organisation still runs along the same lines. What I think many people imagine the internet can provide is an alternative to the industrial arrangement of schooling in the same way they imagine it has provided an alternative to the industrial arrangement of work. But by overestimating the latter, they underestimate the robustness of the former. That does not mean that we should settle for the status quo as an aspiration

  • Lorraine Pearce

    Whilst both articles present very clever and detailed counter arguments they both miss the central point. It doesn’t really matter from where the “sit them in rows so that I can teach at them” approach originates; Prussia, Henry Ford or the moon…..what matters is that didactic delivery and children seated in rows is not a conducive environment to develop the interpersonal, self managing, creative, problem solving and adaptive skills that they will need to be successful in their various futures. Also the model does not lend itself easily to student engagement and student centred learning.

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