No room for error on the education “assembly line”

The assembly line must be counted among the most important innovations of the industrial age. This revolution in manufacturing created jobs for the labor force and supplied affordable creature comforts to consumers, elevating the standard of living to unprecedented heights.

It is impossible to measure with precision the effects of mass production on our daily lives. So, it is probably natural that we turned to the assembly line model when deciding how best to educate our children while overlooking the reality that children are not uniform little widgets.

Elegant it its simplicity, the model moves the units (children) from workstation to workstation (classroom) where each worker (teacher) installs a new part (knowledge).

Few could have predicted the shortcomings:

  • First, this model ignores the widely varying aptitudes and cognitive styles of students that exponentially increase the challenges confronted by teachers.
  • Second, the assembly-line model offers no direct “profit” motive for those investing in schools since their is no saleable product at the end. Altruism fails to persuade as an argument for adequately funding the public schools. Americans prefer the relatively immediate gratification of dividends and profit statements.
  • Ultimately the system fails because bureaucrats learned nothing from the hard-earned lessons of the industrial age.

Relatively early in the industrial revolution, managers of assembly lines figured out that setting the line at too high a speed meant that workers were more likely to make mistakes. Furthermore, endless repetition of even a simple task inevitably led to boredom and error. Consequently, assembly lines were slowed and workers periodically exchanged workstations. This resulted in fewer breakdowns and higher, not lower, production of the product for the markeplace.

Regrettably, this wisdom has yet to find its way into the public schools. The conditions that teachers face in the classroom today frighteningly resemble the conditions confronted nearly a century ago. Today, however, a much higher percentage of students remain in school.

Sure, a few more tools exist for increasing productivity. Still, it mostly boils down to just one teacher responsible for the care and instruction of nearly three dozen clients at a time for around 275 minutes a day.

For “on-stage” instruction to be engaging and optimally effective, each minute of direct instruction requires at least one minute of planning. For children to be held accountable for their learning, teachers must allot a similar amount of time to the evaluation of student work.

Teaching is really three jobs in one. The schoolhouse assembly line continues to run full-bore every day, from start to finish. Then, the “behind-the-scenes” work begins.

In the meantime, the line forms at the rear for stakeholders and bureaucrats assigning new tasks to be performed, new initiatives to be undertaken, new programs to be implemented, new accountability measures to be administered, new advice to be considered and new students to be included.

Today the school day summons up the memory of a favorite episode of “I Love Lucy.” Each of us remembers the plight of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Murtz in the candy factory. As the conveyor belt speeds up, Lucy & Ethel fail to keep up with wrapping and boxing the candy at the desired speed.

She stuffs some candy in her pockets, conceals some in the folds of her dress, eats a few pieces and discards others. Her short stint on the assembly line is hilarious and the skit rightfully belongs in the annals of classic comedy.

That we routinely subject teachers and students to such treatment is a tragedy for modern times.

Further Reading: Dismissing the Factory Model School


[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct The Prince George’s County Journal on June 4, 2003. It has been revised for readability. This still is from the Lucille Ball on-line archive.]

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