Sometimes we forget that the education system we take for granted today was invented. It was invented to serve a particular purpose at a particular point in time. In fact, our notion of public education took root during the 1880s, when the Industrial Revolution was in its infancy and pioneers like Henry Ford were inventing solutions to new efficiency challenges of an emerging industrial economy. It’s no wonder that the system of schooling invented over 120 years ago was designed to produce a standardized product as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
That system reflected the ideas of industrial leaders, not education leaders. Compare the impact, for example, of education leader John Dewey and industrial leader Henry Ford. While Dewey espoused “a laboratory for democracy” and advocated for experiential learning, Ford was inventing the assembly line and offering that his customers could have any color of car they wanted, “as long as it’s black.”
The efficiency model won out, and to this day we rely primarily on a public education system invented to serve the mass production needs of a different time.
Yet our economy has changed dramatically over the last century. Today, the fastest-growing industries trade in information and connectivity. They are decentralized and have a flatter more egalitarian structure. They change overnight, sometimes totally recreating themselves. They embrace new tools quickly. Their people are rewarded for being unconventional, pressing limits, and standing up for what they think is right. Today’s economy prizes mass personalization over mass production.
We could take a lesson, here, from an industrial leader in a bygone era. When Ford was engaged in creating the industrial economy, he didn’t work to improve the existing system. He said, “If I asked the customer what he wanted, he’d say a faster horse.” He didn’t tinker around the edges of the horse. Instead, he ignored his critics and created an entirely new mode of transportation and a new way of bringing his cars to the masses. He created a whole new animal.
Unfortunately, most current education reform plans only ask us to make a faster horse. This is the wrong request. Tinkering with the one-size-fits-all model of schooling is no longer sufficient. We must get straight with ourselves about what it will take to realign schooling and our world economy. How will we consider the needs of the individual and develop a process that allows for continuous adaptation, given the rapid pace of knowledge creation and technological innovation?
Cudos to A.B. Orlik, Adam Braus and Dan Rossmiller for their contributions to this post.