A brief history of modern education

The organisation of schools in the 18th and 19th centuries was very similar to that of today. Unlike their counterparts in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, the purpose of these schools was to raise the literacy of the "common people" to a level suitable for life as a factory worker. In twenty-first-century technological societies, little has changed in terms of educational methods.

People must be able to approach a problem with the childlike playfulness of a child and the scientific thinking process of a scientist. They must be able to think independently and design their own solutions to problems that have never been seen before. I wanted to explore this theme and demonstrate that the solution to our educational system crisis is already being enjoyed and transforming the lives of countless people all over the world.

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”
— Nelson Mandela

In the early 1800s, mechanised textile production spread from Great Britain to the rest of Europe and beyond. Factory cities such as Manchester and Dewsbury emerged and grew rapidly during the 19th century, with new factories attracting more and more people from the countryside.

Factories were organised in rows and columns, optimised for efficiency. At each station, a worker would repeat that same movements again and again, for the duration of his shift. At the end of the shift, a fresh worker would take his place and repeat the same movements, again and again. Just like the factory was organised for efficiency, each station was also optimised for efficiency. The repetitive movements of the worker, over time, had removed anything not strictly necessary for the task in hand. The tools that he used were built for the single purpose of the task in hand. There was almost no talking at all, since talking can increase inefficiency. What had to be accomplished can be done so with minimal interaction with other workers. Each worker was trained to do one thing; one thing only and to do it efficiently.

Thanks to the way that factories were organised, each worker only had to be proficient at a very small repertoire of functions. Assemble a box, connect a couple of wires, attach a label. The workers did not need any special training, and in most cases they didn’t even need to read. In fact, these factories required workers with minimal knowledge of reading and maybe of simple arithmetic; however, most of them had no schooling of any kind, and could barely read at all.

This prompted the factory owners to create in-house training, where new workers would learn the basics of factory operation. Sometimes, this even included some reading and arithmetic.

Schools, of course, existed outside of factories. Children in the late 18th and the 19th century did receive formal education in schools that was very similar in terms of organisation to those that we are familiar with today. Although attendance was not high in the early years, it did increase to eventually guarantee that the majority of the population of a country, at least in developed countries, could graduate with adequate ability to read and write.

If you walked into a typical classroom in England of the 18th and 19th century, you would see desks and chairs organised in rows and columns. At the front of the class was a blackboard from where the teacher would address the class. The students were required to always look towards the front of the class, at the teacher. Talking was forbidden, unless the teacher had asked a question. The tools of teaching and learning were very simple, but just like their factory counterparts, they were efficient: a blackboard, chalk, books, pencils and paper.

The teacher was tasked with the responsibility of conveying knowledge to the students by means of a formal presentation. The students would be required to follow the instructions issued by the teacher, which included reading and writing tasks. The teacher would also quantify the knowledge accumulated by students by issuing formal or informal tests, and then rank the students based on the results of those tests.

Indeed, the purpose of these schools, unlike their counterparts in places like Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, was to increase the literacy of ‘common people’ to a level adequate for life as a factory worker. This was the mantra of conventional, classroom-style schooling back in its early days, and, as I argue in this book, it still is.

Indeed, little has changed in the methods of schooling in our advanced 21st-century technological societies. Not only there is a striking resemblance between schooling in the 18th/19th and the 20th and even 21st centuries, but the emphasis is still in maximising efficiency and productivity (measured as the volume of product that exits the production line in a given unit of time) is the common denominator between traditional schooling and factories.

Modern factories may not be powered by coal and steam, but they typically still require workers with a basic and common level of education. Modern factories require workers, that can work harmoniously together thanks to a common set of assumptions and beliefs, optimised to deliver specific outcomes. Without doubt, comparing the level of education of the average person today to a person from the 18th century is like comparing a Tesla Model X to a Ford Model T. Yet the uniformity, rigidness and high output rate requirements of that era, to name just a few similarities, still exist in modern schooling.

Unfortunately, the citizen of a modern, technologically advanced and hyper-competitive society of the 21st century needs to be prepared to navigate a world that is far more complicated than that of our 18th-century counterpart. Globalisation, hyper-competition and frictionless commerce, rapidly advancing technologies, social change, global and localised conflicts, climate change and mass migration are only some of the high-stake issues that a modern citizen must be able to comprehend and act upon.

Even the factories, traditionally associated with low-skill work, are being transformed. Robotics, artificial intelligence and automation have evolved to a level of effectiveness enough to be rapidly replacing human labour with machine labour. This inevitable process is causing massive unemployment to people in many industries around the world. Millions of people are left out of work, with no real prospects of ever catching up in the work market. This is the generation that is loosing out in this process of modernisation, and largely depend on social policies and social safety nets for ensuring the basics for their survival, if they are available.

Will the next generation of people that are growing up now be more fortunate? Will these next generations be able to adapt to a world where machines, more and more, are taking over jobs that traditionally used to be done by humans? Not just factory jobs, but jobs across the whole spectrum?

This kind of disturbance in the connective tissue of societies is not new. People went through similar experiences during the shift from the early agrarian and feudal societies to the those of the industrial revolution. Mechanisation and automation changed the ways that large populations made a living, and it did take them generations to adapt.

But this time, it is very different. The speed, breadth, and depth of changes are far bigger and more impactful than what we have every seen in the past. The speed by which technology has moved in to redefine whole industries, combined with its global reach, means that there is not escape. People have to adapt because they can’t hide from the change.

I believe that there are unique opportunities for people in a world where automation is everywhere. But to strive in such a world, we have to exploit and believe in what is unique in humans. Imagination; creativity; drive; curiosity; empathy; self-awareness; feeling. These are some of the traits present in every human, and the raw ingredients of products like art, science, language, society, and culture.

Going forward, more than ever before, our ability to thrive in a world where machines play a more significant role than ever before, depends on our education. How we learn, teach, and magnify our uniquely human traits.

So, we have to think about school, since this is the institution with the critical task of educating the young, and preparing them for the future.

Are our schools an outdated version of the same schools that contributed immensely during the Industrial Revolution? The same schools that produced the millions of workers that powered factories and paved the way to our modern way of life?

In this book, I argue that the answer to this question is ‘yes’, and that a solution in modern education’s dead end lies in the core of human ingenuity and creativity.

The system is broken, like an old machine. A 200-year-old machine, to be more precise. It was designed for a world that does not exist anymore. In the US, the industries that contributed the most in the Industrial Revolution—manufacturing, construction, mining and the like—comprise of less than 20% of the total output. Even in those industries, much of the demand is for people with highly developed skills in leadership, management, engineering and finance. In Australia, and other developed countries, the statistics are similar.

A modern society increasingly needs people who have a diverse range of skills. It needs people who are innovative and creative in order to generate new wealth for themselves and those around them. They need to be adaptable in order to be able to respond to rapidly and ever-changing conditions, locally and internationally. They need to be able to think independently, and to be able to set fulfilling courses for their lives.

These are people that approach a problem with the playfulness of a child and the thinking process of a scientist: people that can engineer their own solutions to problems that perhaps have never been seen before. People that thrive in complex, competitive, ever-changing and open societies.

What kind of educational system can help people become scientists, engineers, philosophers, humanists and politicians, all at the same time?

It must be a system that advocates that the individual is at the centre of the learning process. A system that believes that the scientific method and technological competency is a key component for personal and social growth and prosperity. A system that fosters collaboration and innovation, that focuses on the learner instead of the teacher, in adaptability instead of obedience, in creativity to support and enhance abstract thinking. A system that emphasises a growth mind set rather than the fixed mind set was a main characteristic of the 19th, 20th and 21st-century human.

I wrote this book because I wanted to explore this theme and show that the answer to our educational system crisis is already being enjoyed and transforming the lives of countless people around the world. 

Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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