Sir Ken's Challenge

“How do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century given that we can’t anticipate what the economy will look like at the end of next week?”

“The current education system was designed and conceived and structured for a different age.”

“I believe we have a system of education that is modeled on the interests of Industrialism and in the image of it.

“If you’re interested in a model of education, you don’t start from a production line mentality.”

“I believe we’ve got to go in the exact opposite direction and this is what I mean about a new paradigm in education.”

—Sir Ken Robinson, from talks given at the 2006 and 2010 TED Conferences and The Royal Society of the Arts

Sir Ken Robinson Challenges Us to a Duel—of Paradigms

The Industrial Age model of school hasn’t changed much. But our goals for it have changed tremendously. Where once we sought to educate only a portion of the populace, most for manual labor, we seek now to educate every child, many for knowledge work. How then do we prepare kids for the Information Age with an Industrial Age education system?

Our system of education is called the “factory model.” At present, major reforms do not directly affect its fundamental nature. Current approaches do not replace the factory. At best, they retool it for greater efficiency, and codify it into law for more effective administration. Education reform doesn’t change the form of education because it doesn’t address the fundamental assumptions upon which our Industrial Age factory model system is based.

The Fundamental Assumptions of Industrial Age Education

The factory model of schooling is based on five fundamental assumptions:

  • All learners are the same.
  • Learning occurs best in a fixed scope and sequence.
  • Learning occurs at predictable rates.
  • Instruction is focused on the elimination of differences.
  • Conformity to minimum standards is the goal.

Creating an Information Age education system requires upending these assumptions and replacing them with the best information we have about human development and organizational effectiveness.

Assumption #1: All Learners are the Same

In the factory model of education, we process learners in batches sorted by age. These groupings are based on the idea that the children within them have the same needs.

But children vary greatly even when their ages don’t. As a result, many don’t respond well to standardized assembly line processing. For some children much time is wasted. Others don’t get enough time. Even kids in the middle may fail to get their needs met because the notion of averageness by which they are characterized is so poorly defined.

Information Age schooling must account for broad diversity in social, emotional, physical, and intellectual development, and be designed intentionally to take advantage of this. Just as such diversity is valued in the world, so must it be valued in school.

As Dr. Scott Page, a professor at The Center for the Study of Complex Systems, at the University of Michigan, notes in his book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies: “Why can teams of people find better solutions than brilliant individuals working alone? And why are the best group decisions and predictions those that draw upon the very qualities that make each of us unique? The answers lie in diversity—not what we look like outside, but what we look like within, our distinct tools and abilities.”

Assumption #2: Learning Occurs Best in a Fixed Scope and Sequence

In the factory model of education, we design multi-year curricula to flow in a pre-defined scope and sequence. What individual children need to learn is often determined years before they enter school. This privileges the identification and ordering of information over the needs of the those who must consume it.

Creating scope and sequence curriculum is largely guesswork with little scientific basis to support it. Standards are created, testing systems are designed, and new curriculum materials are developed with little field testing.

Industrial Age curriculum developers assume that curriculum can be used to control instruction. They further assume that it is more important to follow a plan than it is to follow the people who must execute it—or the little people who must learn from it.

To get ourselves off the assembly line, curriculum must be created as closely as possible to where it is consumed. It must be developed through rapid iteration, tightly coupled with real-world interaction, and continuously improved by incorporating feedback from classroom results. We must also teach students how to identify important skills and knowledge on their own and master it without explicit instruction.

Assumption #3: Learning Occurs at Predictable Rates

Factory model curriculum is typically parceled out in thirteen 180-day school-year-long chunks. This chunking is arbitrary, an historic hold-over from our agrarian past.

It is assumed that this material can be taught by all teachers and learned by all students at roughly the same rate. Just as the manufacturing assembly line moves continuously at the same pace, so does the curricular assembly line of the Industrial Age school system.

Pre-defined curriculum and pre-programmed instruction are so powerful that some people feel that increasing their use would be a constructive way of reducing variance in teacher quality: “[One] way to make teacher quality more consistent is to use a curriculum, so that lesson content is more consistent across teachers,” writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School? “The down side of this tactic is that it hampers the creativity of terrific teachers.”

For purposes of measurement and management, tightly controlled and highly standardized curriculum is ideal. Current approaches to reform increase top-down control. In the process, we have shifted power from the classroom to Congress and changed the definition of “customer” from student to state.

Assumption #4: Instruction is Focused on the Elimination of Differences

In an idealized Industrial Age system, teachers strictly follow pre-planned standardized curricula tightly aligned with standardized tests. Multiple classes, and even entire districts, stay in sync with pacing guides. The intent is to deliver instruction in the same way and at the same rate to all students. In this scenario, education is a matter of eliminating differences between student abilities and state requirements.

Rather than suppressing individuality, we must teach children how to develop their differences into expressions of meaningful expertise. Intellectual diversity is not just a reality, it’s an Information Age mandate: the best work is most often done by self-organizing cross-functional teams.

Such groups are characterized by high levels of skill among the members, diversity of skill sets, and the ability to re-organize to meet changing requirements. Says Professor Page, “Progress and innovation may depend less on lone thinkers with enormous IQs than on diverse people working together and capitalizing on their individuality.”

Assumption #5: Conformity to Minimum Standards is the Goal

Finally, in the Industrial Age factory model of schooling, students are measured by standardized means for the purpose of assessing minimum acceptability. Often, this minimum is lower than we think. In most states, students can be deemed “proficient” on end-of-course or end-of-grade tests with scores equivalent to less than 60%.

Regardless of where we set the bar, a pre-planned, scope and sequence, minimum competency, assembly line system can’t prepare our children for a rapidly changing world and an unpredictable future. Under these circumstances, only our most advantaged kids, those who may not need much of what is offered in school today, have a reasonable chance of avoiding the limitations of our increasingly standardized system.

Our national goal, established in 2001 with the passage of No Child Left Behind, to educate every child to minimum proficiency in reading and math is both historic and laudable. But using a standardized Industrial Age factory model education system to achieve this goal risks the ironic and unworkable outcome of achieving 100% proficiency and still leaving many children behind.

Wrong Model, Wrong Product

Even if we can get the factory model of schooling running at full efficiency, it will never give us what we need because it produces the wrong product.

The factory model might be reasonable if all students started out at the same place. But they don’t. It might be reasonable if we could predict what the world would be like twenty-five years in advance of when we expected kids to graduate from college. But we can’t. It might be reasonable if we only wanted the top third of our students to achieve economic and social stability. But we know this minimum level of success is economically unviable and morally untenable.

Our Industrial Age education system can’t deliver what the Information Age requires. It must be altered dramatically or future generations will find their lives altered dramatically in comparison to the lives lived by their parents and grandparents.

To reform education for the Information Age, we must look outside the educational system to societal sectors that have successfully reformed themselves. In the process, school will have to become less like school and more like the world around it—less mired in tradition, less backward-looking; more present-aware and future-focused. Fortunately, we have models of success in our society where this goal has been achieved.


Add your feedback below. To keep track of who is saying what, use an H1 tag (a plus sign "+" in the edit window) to identify yourself. For example:

Steve Peha

People tend to think that testing is the root of the problem. But the real challenge, I think, to providing an Information Age education to our students is the way we in the United States use curriculum standards. Where other countries see standards as guidelines, we interpret them more literally and implement them more rigidly.

Even though in theory curriculum does not control instruction, in practice, in most American schools, it does. Our approach to standards freezes the curriculum. As standards become operationalized in schools, we freeze instruction and assessment as well. Standards, as we apply them, become a powerful lever to constrain practice. Testing by itself doesn't by itself enable a lock-step teach-to-the-test culture; standards and testing do.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can improve both the accuracy of measurement and degree of student achievement without locking teachers into limited frameworks of curriculum and instruction—or locking kids behind the doors of teach-to-the-test classrooms. It's perfectly fine to base tests on standards as long as we don't enslave teachers to their literal execution—and as long as we are judicious about the use of test-ready materials that too often entice teachers to recreate a high-stakes performance environment in their classrooms.

When we teach to the test, we not only the narrow the curriculum and deny our students learning opportunities, we distort the data we're trying to use to measure their achievement. If we use standards as a guide, and support a responsible variety of effective methods of instruction and assessment, our kids will do just fine on high-stakes tests.

We also don't need, as a country, to choose a standards-driven curriculum in order to measure student achievement or prepare kids for tests. Some of the most famous tests in education can't be taught to directly—and they provide a more trusted and more accurate view of knowledge and skill as a result. Think of the NAEP, TIMSS, PISA, SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT, for example. Other than taking a prep class (which is typically very short and focuses mostly the tricks of the test), there's no 13-year series of classes you can sign up for where you'll be given test answers and where testing conditions will be recreated for you on a regular basis.

Curriculum is the assembly line that keeps the factory model running, and highly standardized curriculum makes it possible for every kid to receive the same instruction in the same way every day—whether that's what they need or not.

Testing is just quality control. The tests we have aren't very good at it, but the fact that so few people regard them as accurate measures of learning should be our first clue that their functions as gatekeepers of the assembly line, or indicators of productivity, are probably not being performed.

Still, there's no reason to fear quality control if we're doing quality work. If the tests were better, if test results were used more responsibly, and if they gave us information we could use to help kids learn, they might even be useful.

Improving test performance is not a mystery: teach to the students and not to the tests. The bar for "proficiency" on most state tests is low. If we applied known high-quality instructional techniques, and directed our work toward individual student needs, scores would rise. But with such low expectations, even kids who made it to the end of the assembly line with full factory approval probably wouldn't be well-prepared for life outside the factory.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License