KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So what’s the cocktail-party answer to what “the new school” is?
GLENN REYNOLDS: Both higher and K–12 education in America are based on models imported from 19th-century Germany. In 21st-century America, those models are woefully out of date.
LOPEZ: How is education like the newspaper business?
REYNOLDS: A decade or more ago, I used to have conversations with journalists who reflected that their industry’s business model was collapsing, but who somewhat sheepishly hoped the collapse wouldn’t come until they reached retirement age. Now I have the same kind of conversation with academics.
LOPEZ: Why is it “dumb but popular” to say, “Let’s give every kid an iPad”? What’s dumb about it, and why is it popular?
REYNOLDS: It’s popular because iPads are cool. It’s dumb because the tech is the easy part. Getting the software right — and by that I mean social software, in terms of teaching methods, student expectations, etc. — is a lot harder. So there’s a temptation to focus on cool gadgets and hope the hard part will somehow miraculously come together.
LOPEZ: How can thinking about blacksmiths help us with education reform in 2014?
REYNOLDS: Before the industrial revolution, we had blacksmiths, running essentially one-man artisanal operations. They worked when and how they liked. If you wanted ten times more blacksmithing done, you hired ten times more blacksmiths.
With the industrial revolution, this artisanal approach was replaced by division of labor and an assembly-line approach. There was less creativity, and less freedom for the producer, but you got a lot more product a lot more cheaply.
In education, we did much the same thing, going from the one-room schoolhouse — much like a blacksmith shop, where the teacher taught as he/she pleased, and students learned as individuals — to an industrial-model school where students were separated by age and moved along what amounts to an assembly line. Students come in at one end as kindergartners, move step by step along the assembly line getting standardized instruction, and emerge at the other end as graduates. In the industrial era, it worked pretty well, turning out lots of future assembly-line workers, already familiar with following instructions, standing in line, and starting work when the bell rang. But this isn’t that era anymore.