From Industrial Models and ‘Factory Schools’ to…What, Exactly?

Insights   24 March 2016

This post was originally published in EdSurge

BY NOW, THEY GO TOGETHER LIKE PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY: the image of the factory and the corresponding image of the factory school.

Think about it—from mind-numbed kids learning monotonously in identical rows to workers laboring monotonously in identical rows. It has become shorthand for the first part of the story that so many are telling these days about the paradigm shift needed (and beginning to happen) in our nation’s public schools. The “what we’re moving away from” part.

And that’s not the end of it. This industrial-era metaphor also indelibly describes our toolbox of go-to strategies to manufacture the change: mandates and compliance-inducing incentives cascading through hierarchies to produce a commodity (learning, in the coin of test scores).

But what’s the new paradigm of learning we’re moving toward, and the fundamentally different ways in which that might happen? What does the future of schooling—or learning, in general—look like, and how do we say it, succinctly?

Here’s the rub: We don’t seem to have the same kind of powerful images and metaphors for that one, yet.

Thinking About the Future of Learning and “What Could Be”

Recently, a group of 28 diverse stakeholders—from teacher union leaders to libertarian foundation heads—came together to create one shared vision for what could be, painting a powerful picture of a new system, one that puts learning and learners at the center—far away from the early-20th-century industrial model.

That vision is already being expressed in a growing number of student-centered, next generation learning schools across the country. These are schools where learning is the non-negotiable, rather than the ways, places, times, and people around whom learning happens. They define learning with a richness that accurately reflects the complexity of life in the 21st century. They intuitively understand that transformation of complex systems, like education or healthcare, can’t effectively be done “to” or “for” people; it must be done “by” and “with” people.


When you imagine learning freed from the way that our society has defined it over the past century, what images, metaphors, and phrases come up for you?

And, there is an appreciation in these schools for expanding who has to be engaged in education, as learning becomes the domain of the entire community, not just that of teachers and parents, and as it is recognized to be a crucial lifelong activity—not something confined to what we formerly regarded as the “schooling” years.

But we are not yet communicating effectively about these changes in mindset. Shifting the way we all see learning is a massive cultural change and should challenge us all to find words, metaphors, and stories that naturally prompt new ways of thinking in our listeners.

When you imagine learning freed from the way that our society has defined it over the past century, what images, metaphors, and phrases come up for you? What stories do we tell that help people move toward something exciting, not simply away from something that’s obsolete?

Let Your Imagination Run Wild!

Here’s our pitch: Let’s get creative and explore new ways of talking about learning, the systems that would support it for every child, and how we get from here to there. Give your ingenuity, inspiration, and experience. We invite you to share your thoughts, ideas, illustrations, images, and stories that reflect the new future of learning, the very nature of the change that’s underway, and the learning models currently being explored.

Below, you’ll find some of the ways you can participate. There are many other ways to stir good thinking on this question, we’re sure. We’re counting on you to dream them up, and to suggest them through these channels:

  • Post a blog. Put it anywhere you can reach students, teachers, parents, or your next door neighbor and get them involved. Just be sure to use #NextEdStory when you share it on social media, so we can all follow along.
  • Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat. 140 characters, long-form posts, pictures (they’re worth 1,000 words), video—there are a lot of tools to use to engage in this conversation and collaborate to find the #NextEdStory.

In need of some sources for inspiration about what schools could look like?

It’s time we gathered around where we’re going and how we’re getting there, instead of so relentlessly focusing on what we’re leaving behind. Be the change! Over the next two months, we’ll collect and organize the responses and return with a follow-up blog that—we hope—proposes the best crowd-sourced solution.

Until then, we’ll see you in the virtual public square to swap ideas and tell some forward-looking stories.

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