02 December 2013

Student preparation and the industrial-education complex

Last week, we had a visit from Kati Haycock from The Education Trust (video of her talk above; I have a cameo at the end when I ask a question). She says lots of smart and useful things, but one thing that got me thinking was she talked about whether students are “adequately prepared for university.” It’s not Haycock alone who talks about this: I hear the phrase all the time.

As an instructor, when I’m working with a student individually, I don’t care how prepared a student is. If I can teach a student at an advanced stage, then surely I can back up and teach them the beginner stuff if that person does not know it. I don’t (or shouldn’t) get upset by a student’s ignorance. I should view them as one of today’s lucky ten thousand.

Of course, the problem is that I rarely have the luxury of working with students individually.

The phrase “prepared for university” is an excellent example of how education is an industrial process. Ken Robinson (video here) often talks about this:

Public schools were not only created in the interests of industrialism — they were created in the image of industrialism. In many ways, they reflect the factory culture they were designed to support. This is especially true in high schools, where school systems base education on the principles of the assembly line and the efficient division of labour. Schools divide the curriculum into specialist segments: some teachers install math in the students, and others install history. They arrange the day into standard units of time, marked out by the ringing of bells, much like a factory announcing the beginning of the workday and the end of breaks. Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. They are given standardized tests at set points and compared with each other before being sent out onto the market. I realize this isn’t an exact analogy and that it ignores many of the subtleties of the system, but it is close enough.
― Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

Every time you hear the phrase, “prepared for university,” replace it with “meets factory standards.” If student age is comparable to their date of manufacture, university preparation is comparable to quality control. I suppose I should be grateful that students aren’t sent to university with tags like this in their wallets:

Once I realized that, I thought about how much of the language about improving university education mirrors industrial concerns. “Student success” is measured in the same ways that factory production in measured, by efficiency: time to degree, percentage of students who graduate with a degree, and so on.

From a certain point of view, my job as a university instructor is not to teach, but implement processes that minimize loss of product.

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