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Schools are farms not factories

Ever wondered why our schools look the way they do?

Why do children go to school in groups of others their own age?

Why are days divided into small blocks of time for different subjects?

Why do children sit at desks?

A (very) quick history lesson, courtesy of Educator and Author Ken Robinson.

In his book, Creative Schools, Robinson explains that before the industrial revolution in Europe about 5 percent of the total population lived in cities, and peasants worked for lords on land they didn’t own. School was for the sons of lords and for those who worked for the church.

During the Industrial Revolution everything changed. A series of innovations led to machines for industry and mining and steam engines for transport.

People swarmed to cities to work under hard conditions in factories, shipyards and mills.

In turn, this created a massive, poor, working class and the old nobility and something new too: a middle class of people who had made a buck in this new world.

There was suddenly a need to educate in large numbers :

  • the massive poor working class to become manual workers.

  • the smaller but growing group of middle class skilled workers in engineering, mining, construction and administration.

  • a small group of professionals such as doctors, scientists, lawyers and academics.

Schools Like Factories

The school system that emerged, served the needs and purposes of industrialism and was built on the industrial principles of the day:

  • to produce identical versions of the same product (throw out what doesn’t conform)

  • to produce in batches: the same age kids go through the same thing in the same way at the same time

  • to take children through a linear process with tests to decide which child goes down which route (most manual, some skilled, a few specialists)

Consistency and predictability was the game plan. It made sense in theory and for that time in history it served a purpose.

The ‘Human Problem’

My guest, Heather Wells, on this month’s episode of the Wonderfully Wired podcast explains, “It’s a bit like herding cats. The problem is - kids just don’t behave predictably!”

Ken Robinson calls it the Human Problem: Humans aren’t all the same. Humans don’t comply.

Compliance comes with problems for real humans: it discourages asking questions, seeing things from a different perspective or exercising creativity.

The Changing World

Apart from the HUMAN PROBLEM there is also the CHANGING WORLD problem.

This pyramid of blue collar workers, skilled workers and professionals isn’t serving the world our kids will be adults in. I wrote about this when I interviewed Thomas West in February.

A better metaphor Robinson suggests, that solves both the ‘Human problem’ and looks to educating our children for the Changing World, is an image of schools as farms.

Schools like organic farms

This time the student is not an item on a conveyor belt but a seed. The teacher is not the foreman testing and advancing some students and discarding others but a farmer tasked to feed,water and nurture that seed into what it will become.

This model believes in the seed, it invests and believes in the inherent ability of the seed to grow into something of value. In this model, the whole child matters, not just academic work.

For a farm to succeed the whole ecology must be protected. The school is built on collaboration between teachers and students, between students themselves, and between students and with the wider community.

In organic farming as in organic education, fairness matters. Every individual from the farmer to the consumer is treated equally. (More about what that can look like for parents and teachers in the weeks to come!)

In a farming model the student, teacher, parent and community are seen very differently. It asks more of all parties, is harder to measure and control but oh the fun, the growth and the joy that is possible.

In the next couple of weeks we’ll look at how everyone wins in such a picture of schools. We’ll look at how the roles and views of students, teachers and parents look different if we see teaching in this way and move away from the concept of schools as factories.

1 Comment

Samantha Webster
Samantha Webster
Apr 04, 2023

Very enlightening, bring on the organic farming before it's too late!

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