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Time to scrap the factory approach to education
Individualization, not standardization, empowers learners to thrive
It was 1952 and the Air Force had a problem, shares education innovator and developmental psychologist Todd Rose. “At the time, pilots were having trouble controlling their planes. At first the problem was pinned on pilot error and poor training. But the real problem turned out to be the cockpit or, more specifically, the fact that the cockpit had just one design: one for the average pilot of an earlier era, the 1920s.” The Air Force thought all they needed to do was update their measurements. So, they embarked on a project to measure thousands of pilots on 10 different dimensions of the body to help create a cockpit to fit an average pilot. To their surprise, not a single pilot out of the 4,000 measured fit the “average” on all 10 measures. A one-size-fits-all design fit no one.
Similarly, the American K-12 education system is, by and large, out of date and fits only an imagined “average child.” It was designed for a time that no longer exists, when a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all approach matched the needs and mindsets needed to succeed in what was mostly a factory-based economy. But ours is no longer the age of industrialization. We live in a time when technology and circumstance require participants in an economy to be nimbler, and we have learned that individualized approaches tailored to personalized needs and interests are far more effective than a standardized model. And yet, while our society and knowledge have evolved, our approach to education has not. The weight of that truth is made all the more crushing when we recognize the generations of young learners being underserved or outright encumbered because we have not adapted our approach with the times. To succeed in a modern, global economy, young learners need skills and mindsets that the original K-12 education system was not designed to foster. Perhaps even more frustrating and disappointing is that this unchanging system often fails to recognize those growing minds as individuals with unique strengths, needs, challenges and talents. Children are not factory-made products, why should we treat them as such?
Instead, we need individualized, innovative approaches to education - some of which are taking root in schools across the country.
Current system, antiquated thinking
Our current way of mass educating children was mostly developed in the 19th Century, at a time when the prevailing sentiment was that “the back door of the school should lead to the front door of the factory.” This “factory model” of education resembles many aspects of industrial life. Subjects are taught the same way to all students, in the same order, and for the same amount of time. Textbooks standardize knowledge for everyone. Students are grouped by the day they were born, not their level of aptitude or interest. Much like steam whistles of yore, school bells keep everyone on schedule, to ensure the assembly line of learning is followed by the minute.
This may have made sense 100 years ago when the majority of high school graduates found themselves working in factories, on farms, and in other jobs that have long since been replaced by automation and improvements in technology. In many ways, the system was designed to “track” students. Those who were able to stay longest in the system – into high school, through high school, some college, a degree, postgraduate work, etc. – were bound for management roles in the factories where former peers were working.
In her book, Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life, Diane Tavenner (CEO of the Summit network of schools) details how American education failed to adequately transform itself to keep up with a rapidly changing global economy. “It wasn’t enough to get a high school degree and qualify for that factory job,” says Tavenner, “because the economy became more service- and information-based. In the 1950s, a federal study of employers found that the top skills they looked for in job candidates were: 1) the ability to work rapidly and for long periods of time, 2) memory for details and directions, and 3) arithmetic computation.
This makes sense within the context of mid-20th Century workplaces, where even white collar jobs required employees to follow strict schedules and instructions, to not deviate from expectations, and toil away at repetitive tasks that can now be performed on a smart phone in a fraction of the time. In fact, there were entire professions of skilled workers who sat in rooms doing mathematic calculations over and over again. They were called computers – an occupation that was outdated at around the time humans first walked on the moon.
Today’s employers have far different expectations for job candidates. A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum that asked employers to list what they need out of job candidates. The top skills they list are 1) complex problem solving, 2) critical thinking, 3) creativity, 4) people management, 5) coordinating with others, and 6) emotional intelligence.
As Tavenner notes, “Employers want innovative thinking, independence, initiative. These were not coveted skills in our grandparents’ time.” In fact, many of the skills seen as desirable in today’s context may very well have been problematic at a time when employees were not expected to deviate from prescribed directions.
Of course, we’d be foolish to spend our time merely trying to align education to the needs of employers. Education should be about learning for life and – perhaps ideally – getting the foundation, skills, and values to be your own boss (if you want). But the misalignment between employer needs and what our system is focused on producing is worth highlighting.
So what’s the solution?
Whether in Air Force jets or classrooms, a one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work.
When it came to the former, the military eventually abandoned the “average approach” altogether and required their jet manufacturers, who were none too pleased at first, to adopt adjustability in their designs. In other words, they took into account individuality and allowed for personalized adjustments so that pilot performance was not inhibited by rigid structure.
Despite the early backlash from designers accustomed to the status quo, they found adding flexible components weren’t as difficult or expensive as originally assumed and were able to add simple solutions in the form of such features as adjustable seats. These efforts had spillover effects for the rest of society: the technology enables us all to have adjustable seats in cars today.
In the words of Rose, “[a]s a result, the Air Force not only improved the performance of the pilots they already had, but they dramatically expanded their talent pool. Today, we have the most diverse pool of fighter pilots ever, but here’s the thing, many of our top pilots would have never fit in a cockpit designed on average.”
The same principles apply for a myriad of aspects in our lives, but especially K-12 education where far too many components are designed on averages. Those who have known the status quo for years and maybe even decades may balk at first, but in time they will observe the very same as the jet designers: It’s not that difficult, expensive, or disruptive.
If we want children to soar, let’s not strap them in one-size-fits-all cockpits. Let’s give them better than the current system built on averages and provide for them, instead, models that allow them to discover, develop, and deploy their individual talents.
We’ll be exploring how to get there in the pages of this Substack. If you want to follow along, follow. If you want to contribute, we’d love to host your ideas.
 Tavenner, Diane (2019). Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life (pp. 19-20).
 World Economic Forum. “The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” January 19, 2016. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-10-skills-you-need-to-thrive-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/
 Tavenner, p. 20.