The Factory Model: Does It Work? Did It Ever?

What is the Factory Model of Education?

When picturing a modern public school classroom, most people imagine what is now traditional: students sitting silently in rows or groups while a teacher lectures about a topic at the front.   This highly regulated model of schooling, however, wasn’t always the norm.  It became common in the United States in the early nineteenth century, around the same time the Industrial Revolution began.  Its historical timing and impersonal style have led many to refer to it as  “the factory model of education.”

Early factory model classrooms were highly regimented.

The factory model originated in Prussia (modern day Germany and Western Poland) in the early 1800s.  That area of Europe wasn’t highly industrialized yet, but the schooling system they favored focused on standardization and efficiency.  When the Industrial Revolution began, this method caught on in England and the United States.  

What Came Before the Factory Model?

Prior to this, the Lancaster-Bell model was often seen in US classrooms.  The Lancaster-Bell model, also called the monitorial system, was designed on the principle that older or more advanced students should assist younger or less proficient students.  Essentially, under this model, the teacher served as the major leader of the classroom, but students were grouped by skill level to tutor and guide one another.   

Lancaster-Bell model schools were based more on merit and achievement than age or grade level, allowing students to advance or take on supervisory roles when they had mastered a particular topic.  Though some parents objected to their students being used as tutors, the model had many upsides: there was less competition for the main teacher’s attention; students could learn from one another as they progressed through the school system; and fewer teachers were needed per classroom.   Learn more about the early American educational system in our previous One-Room post HERE.  

A demonstration of the Lancaster-Bell model in 1860s Italy

While Lancaster-Bell model schools were fairly common throughout the US, education as a whole was still very disjointed across the country.   England’s educational system was similarly disorganized.  Though England actually led the Industrial Revolution, it wasn’t due to its schooling system.   England’s educational system was spotty at best; few students consistently attended school, and learning was often only available to the very wealthy classes.  

England’s advantage in the Industrial Revolution is somewhat of a mystery; in fact, researcher Sascha O. Becker states that, “The very question of why England was first to industrialize may even be misconceived and unanswerable because of the uniqueness of the event.”  Whatever gave England the upper hand in the Industrial Revolution, though, it’s clear that education wasn’t it.   Economic historian Joel Mokyr even suggests that England led the Industrial Revolution, “despite, not because of, her formal education system.”

What Changed with the Factory Model?

School attendance became compulsory under the factory model in both England and the US.  Students were expected to sit in organized rows and follow strict standards of learning.  Teachers were expected to deliver content in an orderly, highly conformative manner.  These rigid expectations served two purposes: to teach students to read, write, and do math, of course… but also to prepare them to be industrious factory workers.  

In his paper, “Catch Me If You Can: Education and Catch-up in the Industrial Revolution,” Sascha O. Becker reports that the data from Prussian-style learning “significantly accelerated non-textile industrialization in both phases of the Industrial Revolution.”  Simply put, the system worked: factory workers were becoming more efficient thanks to the new organization of public schooling.

Other researchers suggest that without this strict model, Prussia would have only experienced about one third of the industrialization they actually achieved by 1882.  

Clearly, the factory model produced results.  The system encouraged students to be conscientious, dependable, self-controlled, punctual, responsible, and orderly: all important qualities for a stellar factory worker, and perhaps, for a good student.

The Downsides of the Factory Model

Factory workers in the 1870s

Downsides for the factory model, however, became clearer as society continued to evolve.  Those who oppose the method point to its outmoded lack of flexibility,  lack of creativity, and lack of adjustment to individual students’ levels and learning styles.  Educational consultant David Nurenburg argues that the factory model, which prioritizes memorization and recall, fails to engage students’ critical thinking skills and natural curiosity.  

Rather than connecting knowledge to the wider world, the factory model encourages students to memorize information in small chunks in order to pass tests and master standards.  Once memorized, however, this knowledge is quickly forgotten, because students are not given the larger context into which that learning fits.  Learning about one event in history, for example, does little to help students understand and ultimately question what impact history has on their lives today.

The rigid format of teacher-based lecturing can often lead to both student and teacher burnout.  Teachers frequently feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of curriculum they are expected to cover for each individual subject.  Rather than take a deep dive into the foundations behind a concept, many feel forced to skim the surface, assign a quiz for basic understanding, and move on.  There is little opportunity for teachers to connect skills across content areas (for example, to combine a science experiment with math skills, or integrate a grammar lesson into a history class), because each subject is expected to be taught in a highly standardized and inflexible way.

Conforming to such rigid standards might appear more organized on the surface, but ultimately it can often create more stress and less joy for teachers and students alike.  Without understanding why a topic is important or how it fits into a larger framework, it becomes easier for students to simply “check out” from the material being taught.  After all, if they don’t master it, students know that an equally disconnected unit of study will follow either way.   The factory model focuses so heavily on the “what” and so lightly on the “why,” that many students lose their motivation to learn and discover.

Alternatives to the Factory Model

The factory model’s relevance to today’s society must be questioned.  In an era where creative startups, ever-changing technology, and individual freedoms are so highly prized, some argue that the factory model is woefully behind the times.  Those opposed to the model suggest that schools instead look for alternative options: classrooms where student-centered discussions take the place of formal teacher lectures; where project-based learning trumps standardized testing; and where students are grouped not by grade but by their skill levels and strengths.

A collaborative classroom where students use technology to interact with one another

Creating such an educational system requires a great deal of balance, however.  Nurenberg, in his experience as an educational consultant, admits to witnessing several alternative schools that sorely lacked behavior management systems or academic rigor.  It’s a fine line between creating a place of educational freedom versus educational chaos, but many argue that while it may be difficult, it’s also necessary.  Student interest is languishing in modern classrooms, and whether or not an ideal replacement system exists yet, many educators believe that the next generation at least deserves options.

In the words of John Dewey, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”  Indeed, when few aspire to be a factory worker, many wonder why our educational system still seems tailored to produce just that.

Do you feel as if you experienced the factory model during your educational years?  Do you believe teachers are able to overcome the factory model’s setbacks, or is a total overhaul in the way we organize our classrooms necessary?  We’d love to hear your feedback below!


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