Since 1991, Peter Senge has been writing books around his packaged version of systems thinking principles called the Fifth Discipline. It turns out Peter Senge was a student of Jay Forrester, the father of System Dynamics and those cool little stock and flow diagrams for modeling dynamic systems. Anyway, fairly recently Senge put out a Fifth Discipline book called Schools That Learn that applies systems thinking principles to education systems, from classroom to community.

The book covers a lot, including a brief history of modern schools systems, which originated at the dawn of the Industrial Age. It was then when European states started building educational infrastructure to help compete in this new era of science and technology. As the book describes,

The result was an industrial-age school system fashioned in the image of the assembly line, the icon of the booming industrial age. In fact, schools may be the starkest example in modern society of an entire institution modeled after the assembly line. Like any assembly line, the system was organized into discrete stages. Called grades, they segregated children by age. Everyone was supposed to move from stage to stage together. Each stage had local supervisors–the teachers responsible for it. Classes of twenty to forty students met for specified periods in a scheduled day to drill for tests. The whole school was designed to run at a uniform speed, complete with bells and rigid daily time schedules.

This very mechanistic model of the school, as well as the assembly line, was the result of the Machine Age worldview, which was responsible for the Industrial Revolution itself. Since World War II, this way of thinking has started to have limited application because it fails to address new issues that we’ve since discovered because of the efforts of industrialism.

As it turns out, schools are the only remaining institution entirely based on this worldview. In hindsight, we can see the disadvantages of this model that we should probably not tolerate any longer.

Those who did not learn at the speed of the assembly line either fell off or were forced to struggle continually to keep pace. It established uniformity of product and process as norms, thereby naively assuming that all children learn in the same way. It made educators into controllers and inspectors, thereby transforming the traditional mentor-mentee relationship and establishing teacher-centered rather than learner-centered learning. Motivation became the teacher’s responsibility rather than the learner’s. Discipline became adherence to rules set by the teacher rather than self-discipline. Assessment centered on gaining the teacher’s approval rather than objectively gauging one’s own capabilities.

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