Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

In Education Technology as ‘The New Normal’ (a talk given on 24/5/17 at CENTRO’s symposium “Data, Paper, Scissors Tech-Based Learning Experiences for Higher Education” in Mexico City by Audrey Watters), the following point is made-

I want to be sure that anytime we talk about “the future of education,” that we always consider “the history of education.” We cannot break from history. We have not severed ourselves from the past through the introduction of computers or computer networks. Our institutions have not been severed from the past because of these. Our cultures have not. (At least not entirely. Not yet.) We have not.

When we talk about “the future of education” as an explicitly technological future, I want us to remember that “the history of education” has long been technological – thousands of years of writing, hundreds of years of print, a century of “teaching machines,” 75 years of computing, almost 60 years of computer-assisted instruction, at least 40 years of the learning management system, more than 25 years of one-to-one laptop programs, a decade (give or take a year) of mobile learning. Education technology is not new; it has not appeared “all of a sudden”; and it is not a rupture. It is inextricably linked to history, to histories of education and to histories of technology.

I very much agree with this statement, but feel that it is giving insufficient consideration to an incredibly crucial landmark in the history of educational technology- the ascent of Taylorism (Frederick Winslow Taylor, March 20, 1856 – March 21, 1915). Quoting from the paper Scientific Management Still Endures in Education (various emphases mine)

Frederick W. Taylor’s “scientific” and managerial approach to the workplace maximized efficiency and productivity through the standardization of labor. Through motion and time study, Taylor vigorously studied body movements and assigned exact approximations of the time necessary to complete the labor. A primary principle of his management approach was to eliminate opportunities of chance or accident through the scientific investigation of every detail of labor. Scientific management eliminated the need for skilled labor by delegating each employee one simple task to repeat over and over. Although this method increased the productivity of factories, it stripped employees their freedom to choose their work, as well as how it should be done

With the publication of his first article, “The Elimination of Waste in Education,” John Franklin Bobbitt (1912) started his career as a leader in the field of curriculum and became one of the pioneers that set the stage for the adoption and implementation of scientific management in school administration in the US. Bobbitt’s work in curriculum studies in the US is particularly important because of his application of Frederick Taylor’s concepts of scientific management to educational management and planning. While arguing that factory-like efficiency in education should be driven by objectives, Bobbitt (1920) stated: “It is the objectives and the objectives alone … that dictate the pupil-experiences that make up the curriculum. It is then these in their turn that dictate the specific methods to be employed by the teachers and specific material helps and appliances and opportunities to be provided. These in their turn dictate the supervision, the nature of the supervisory organization, the quantity of finance, and the various other functions involved in attaining the desired results. And, finally, it is the specific objectives that provide standards to be employed in the measurement of results.”

Bobbit argued that schools, like businesses, should be efficient, eliminate waste, and focus on outcomes to the degree that the curriculum must be useful in shaping students into adult workers. Along with Frederick Winslow Taylor, Bobbit believed that efficient outcomes depended on centralized authority and precise, top down instruction for all tasks performed. Within Bobbitt’s educational vision—similar to Taylor’s vision of managers—the administrator gathers all possible information about the educational process and develops the best methods for teachers to get students to meet the standards. 

According to Bobbitt’s (1913) scientifically managed education, teachers must be required to follow the methods determined by their administrators because they are not capable of determining such methods themselves: The burden of finding the best methods is too large and too complicated to be laid on the shoulders of the teachers … The ultimate worker, the teacher in our case, must be a specialist in the performance of the labor that will produce the product. Bobbitt’s conception embraced one of the core logics of scientific management in education, which asserts that the end-points of predetermined objectives and/or standards alone drive the educational process (the production of students). Within these logics, all aspects of education therefore must serve the ends of the education process, with student learning purely based on pre-determination, and teachers’ content delivery structured by pre-determined scientific methods. Thus, the ends determine the means. This allowed the curriculum to be broken down into content units that could be standardized, determined in advance, taught in a linear manner, and easily assessed.

Scientific management of education is the essence of twentieth century educational technology.  In many ways I think that not very much has really changed so far in the new millennium.

Technology in education does not have to be what learners or educators encounter, it can be the provenance of education’s administrators. This is information technology understood in terms of social processes rather than understood by reference to what kinds of artefacts are used in educational activities- information technology in terms of software rather than hardware, where the software is being run on humans, not on computers. 

The essence of scientific management in education was that the education system was centrally planned and the centre decided everything for everyone involved in the system (which included everyone at some stage in their lives, education being mandatory).

In striking contrast to that, the controversy-laden buzzword in education right now is ‘choice‘.

It is undeniable that the idea of choice in education is going hand-in-hand with governmental abrogation of universal education and the opening up of education to the business world. I share the concerns of many that the business world may not be entirely to be trusted with assuming the mantle of the principal educator of society. For as long as educational provision continues to be legally mandated and for as long as most families cannot easily afford to reduce their working hours sufficiently to home-school their children then I strongly expect to see continuing unscrupulous profiteering by educational businesses that recognise that they have a captive market. This is what a monopoly is. The monopoly in education provision is just being sold to the private sector.

Where consumers of education are legally obliged to purchase it, how much of a choice do they really have? The prospect of giving people choice of education providers but not the choice to refuse any of offers provided has notable parallels with some phenomena that have arisen in the USA- firstly, compulsory medical insurance purchasing (and the dissatisfaction therewith) and secondly to the party political system that somehow resulted in the presidential election being contested by two people that the majority of voters both disliked so much that they may have found it hard to decide which they disliked more, but what other choice did they seem to have?


3 thoughts on “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

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