Mass education Systems’s achievement and limitations

I’ve have been dedicating quite some time to thinking about #edtech (Educational Technology), participating in online discussions on the topic and trying to learn as much as i could about it. I am convinced that technology (computing capabilities, ie. computers, smartphones and such, plus the network of networks aka. the Internet) has the power needed to transform educational practices.

I am also convinced that said educational practices -from the way we design the learning interaction to what the student carries in her backpack- in their current iteration do not respond to the opportunities that are present, to the potentialities of those opportunities. They merely are a rote repetition of patterns that were created in the 19th century. The fact that they are rote repetition is -unfortunately- quite appropriate, considering that rote repetition was a pillar of that system.

I feel like i must start by acknowledging that Mass Education Systems, as represented by the Education Ministries of Education of most of the world, achieved something unique in the history of the world: They managed to bring reading to the masses, inverting the amount of literate people to 85%. The following graph shows eloquently the magnitude of this transformation:


(the graph was taken from: )

We owe so much to that achievement. We can build so much of humanity’s future thanks to this achievement. The scientific and technological marvels that are constantly being built and reported day after day are the result of this massive effort that was achieved in just the last 200 years.

While every citizen of the Earth should be thankful to their teachers, education administrators and knowledge providers, we are appreciative of the result more than we are attached to the methods that were used to achieve this. The mass education systems that were rolled out in the early 20th century responded -necessarily- to the restrictions and the needs of that time. It also made the best of the technological possibilities that were available. In my next post, i will describe what i perceive were those restrictions, needs, and technological possibilities, trying to explain how they framed the design of the mass education systems.

To finish this first post, a few questions i like to ask of educators:

  • Does it make sense to do things the way they were done 200 years ago?
  • In which contexts would we be want to be caught saying “This is how we’ve been doing this for one hundred years, so there’s no need to change”?
  • How could it be acceptable to say “Well, the context might have changed quite a bit (you know those pesky computers and all), but the founders of mass education systems had already foreseen all those changes, so we’re good here.”?

2 thoughts on “Mass education Systems’s achievement and limitations

  1. The article makes a number of points very clearly.

    Chapters 6 and 7 of the 1921 book, “The Salvaging of Civilization” by H.G. Wells, contain many points related to this article and remind one of how long educators have been dragging their feet.
    In addition, there are online lecture videos of Peter Norvig and David Thornburg that both refer to the same painting of a 14th century lecture and note similarities to teaching in the 21st century. Also there are numerous lectures/presentations/speeches by Mr. Sugata Mitra that mention an outdated factory schooling system of the Victorians.

    Lecture painting

    Roger Schank: How Technology Can Actually Change Education

    The Salvaging of Civilization by H.G. Wells (1921)

    “But if we could so economize teaching energy—if we made our really great teachers, by the use of modern appliances, teachers not of handfuls but of millions; if we insisted upon a universal application of the best and most effective methods of teaching, just as we insist upon the best and most effective methods of street traction and town lighting—then I believe it would be possible to build the civilization of the years to come on a foundation of mental preparation incomparably sounder and higher than anything we know of to-day.”
    H.G. Wells, The Salvaging of Civilization, Ch. 6: Schooling the World

    “This means that the great teaching professors will not lecture, or that they will lecture only to try over their treatment of a subject before an intelligent audience as a prelude to publication. They may perhaps visit the colleges under their influence, but their basis instrument of instruction will be not a course of lectures but a book. They will carry out the dictum of Carlyle that the modern university is a university of books.”

    “I do not think that our educational and university authorities realize how far the college stage of education has already escaped from the local limitations of colleges; they do not understand what a great and growing volume of adolescent learning and thought, of college education in the highest and best sense of the word, goes on outside the walls of colleges altogether; and on the other they do not grasp the significant fact that, thanks to the high organization of sports and amusements and social life in our more prosperous universities, a great proportion of the youngsters who come in to their colleges never get the realities of a college education at all, and go out into the world again as shallow and uneducated as they came in. And this failure to grasp the great change in educational conditions brought about, for the most part, in the last half-century, accounts for the fact that when we think of any extension of higher education in the modern community we are all too apt to think of it as a great proliferation of expensive, pretentious college buildings and a great multiplication of little teaching professorships, and a further segregation of so many hundreds or thousands of our adolescents from the general community, when as a matter of fact the reality of education has ceased to lie in that direction at all. The modern task is not to multiply teachers but to exalt and intensify exceptionally good teachers, to recognize their close relationship with the work of university research—which it is their business to digest and interpret—and to secure the production and wide distribution of books throughout the community.”
    ibid. Ch. 7: College, Newspaper and Book
    “Every time we educate a man, we as educators have a regenerative experience, and we ought to learn from that experience how to do it much better the next time. The more educated our population the more effective it becomes as an integral of regenerative consumer individuals. We are going to have to invest in our whole population to accelerate its consumer regeneration. We are going to be completely unemployed as muscle-working machines. We as economic society are going to have to pay our whole population to go to school and pay it to stay at school. That is, we are going to have to put our whole population into the educational process and get everybody realistically literate in many directions. Quite clearly, the new political word is going to be investment. It is not going to be dole, or socialism, or the idea of people hanging around in bread lines. The new popular regenerative investment idea is actually that of making people more familiar with the patterns of the universe, that is, with what man has learned about universe to date, and that of getting everybody inter-communicative at ever higher levels of literacy. People are then going to stay in the education process. They are going to populate ever increasing numbers of research laboratories and universities.

    As we now disemploy men as muscle and reflex machines, the one area where employment is gaining abnormally fast is the research and development area. Research and development are a part of the educational process itself. We are going to have to invest in our people and make available to them participation in the great educational process of research and development in order to learn more. When we learn more, we are able to do more with our given opportunities. We can rate federally paid-for education as a high return, mutual benefit investment. When we plant a seed and give it the opportunity to grow its fruits pay us back many fold. Man is going to “improve” rapidly in the same way by new federally underwritten educational “seeding” by new tools and processes.

    Our educational processes are in fact the upcoming major world industry. This is it; this is the essence of today’s educational facilities meeting. You are caught in that new educational upward draughting process. The cost of education wil1 be funded regeneratively right out of earnings of the technology, the industrial equation, because we can only afford to reinvest continually in humanity’s ability to go back and turn out a better job. As a result of the new educational processes our consuming costs will be progressively lower as we also gain ever higher performance per units of invested resources, which means that our wealth actually will be increasing at all times rather than “exhausted by spending.” It is the “capability” wealth that really counts. It is very good that there is an international competitive system now operating, otherwise men would tend to stagnate, particularly in large group undertakings. They would otherwise be afraid to venture in this great intellectual integrity regeneration.

    I would say, then? that you are faced with a future in which education is going to be number one amongst the great world industries, within which will flourish an educational machine technology that will provide tools such as the individually selected and articulated two-way TV and an intercontinentally net-worked, documentaries call-up system, operative over any home two-way TV set.”

    Education Automation (1962) by R. Buckminster Fuller,
    being the transcript of a speech/presentation given in 1961 to a University planning committee of the University of Illinois

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul, thanks for a deep, thoughtful and very well referenced comment! I hope you keep on accompanying this conversation+exploration! Do you have yourself a blog somewhere on education?


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