Without question, one of the greatest innovations in American manufacturing history came when Henry Ford employed an assembly line to make his Model T. It had some tradeoffs, but it made automobiles affordable for the average person.

Innovation will soon lead to a massive shift in the world of education too and I believe that one movement in particular will have an impact similar to that of the assembly line on the automobile industry. The irony is that this educational innovation is actually a departure from an assembly line education. It’s called the “Flipped Classroom,” but it’s really a return to the idea of apprenticeship.

Our current pedagogical paradigm is relatively new.  The modern school system came about in the late nineteenth century along with the great industrial boom. The massive influx of immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led to overcrowded cities, child labor problems and an undereducated populace. This in turn led to compulsory education, which began in Massachusetts in 1854, but was not instituted in all 48 states until 1917 – less than a century ago.

Until this point education came in the form of one-room schoolhouses, private institutions, mentoring, apprenticeship programs, and even learning on the job as an indentured servant. But none of these could serve the mass number of children that compulsory education would require. For that, they relied on the hottest trend of the day, the factory system.

Led by the new Carnegie Foundation, a sort of education factory was created. Instead of a one-room schoolhouse, kids moved along like they were on an assembly line and they were given grades just like you would give lumber and other raw materials. They also developed the idea of the “Carnegie unit” or “credit hour.” It was supposed to be like baking bread; if you sit in a classroom for a certain amount of time, you will ultimately be a fully baked student.

As it turns out, this is a very efficient way to process a large volume of students. It works exactly as intended. On the other hand, it also turns out that this isn’t the best possible way to educate an individual student or even subgroups of students. Public education is critical for a well-ordered society but when it comes to educating your own son or daughter, it’s not so great. Unfortunately, children are not raw materials. Each is unique. We can group them by age and ability and discourage their individuality and creativity as much as possible, but the net effect of the one-size-fits-all education is to regress to the mean.

At this point I could delve into endless statistics, but most have political agendas attached and could be interpreted numerous ways. For the sake of discussion though, let’s assume that the system results in the majority of students clustering around the mean, and that intellectual ability could be plotted on a bell curve. In short, it should be self-evident that the average student will receive an average education.

Well, no one is satisfied with that, so the factory system is under constant reform. We’ve tried all sorts of things like new math, after school programs, magnet schools, bussing, No Child Left Behind, school lunch programs, school breakfast programs, school dinner programs, all day kindergarten, differentiated learning, Race to the Top, and on and on. We continually try to make those in the bottom quartile average, which statistically speaking is complete nonsense. In order for everyone to be average, no one could be brighter than the person with the least intellect.

In practice, we discover that students are like light bulbs. Making the inherently dim, brighter requires energy, but making the bright, dim is a lot easier. Thus it becomes necessary to ignore or even impede the best and the brightest, in order to lower our idea of what average is. This has been blithely dubbed “reducing the achievement gap,” and for some reason this is considered a good thing.

I know this will sound like hyperbole but I’m quite sincere about this. It is easy to check the statistics on the dwindling number of dollars put toward gifted education, and the given reason is that the money must go toward the remediation of lagging students. Further, the best and brightest are often prevented from accelerating to a higher grade because they are needed to buoy scores of the at-level students. If all of the smart students accelerated to the point where they were challenged, then there would only be challenged students at every level. Of course when you think about it, every child should be struggling in school. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? If you only teach students what they already know, then they’ll never advance.

With this in mind, it isn’t difficult to see why despite pouring more dollars into the system, we get worse results. We’re spending money to actively lower what we regard as average so that we can be fair, but we do it at the expense of our best and brightest. And while it may be construed as “fair,” it’s literally a “dumb” idea.

Well, industrialization got us into this mess and I believe that technology can get us out. Henry Ford famously said in 1904, “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it is black.” Today, Ford Motor Company embraces mass customization. Not only can you get an array of colors, but you can now order many “aftermarket” features such as custom wheels, electronics, and trim packages direct from the factory. Would it be possible to apply mass customization to the education factory as well?

Yes, I think it is. The key is the flipped classroom. In the traditional classroom the teacher lectures and sends the pupils away to do homework. But what if it were the other way around? Suppose the pupil attended lectures at home and went to the teacher to do their practical work?


Let’s look at how the system works now. Suppose a student is taking Algebra 1. He goes to school and he is taught in class how to solve a quadratic equation. He is then given a dozen problems to solve for homework. The next day he turns in the homework to the teacher and the teacher begins a new lesson on a new topic.

This system works fine as long as the student is keeping up. But what if he’s struggling? When he turns in his homework, it won’t be graded until the next day and the teacher will have moved on to the next subject. So by the time the student, who has probably already spent hours in frustration at home, gets his homework returned with all of that red ink on it, it’s too late.

In fact, the teacher must move on in any case because the teacher is on a schedule. The teacher must complete all of the material by the end of the year. Even if the entire class did poorly on the homework the teacher must continue to move the students down the conveyor belt. Shutting down the factory line would foul everything up. It seems like the best solution in this case is to have a really slow conveyor belt with quality control checks all along the way to make sure that no child is left behind.

On the other hand, what if the student is taught at home via an interactive book or an online video lecture? Instead of sitting quietly in class with the other students, he could chat with his fellow classmates to discuss what he’s learning. And what if when he got to school he was able to work on the problems with the teacher, other students, or by himself? If he were struggling the teacher would be immediately available to answer questions and work with him. He would be able to review the lecture or book again and again and even utilize supplemental material. Further, if a student were having no problems, he could speed ahead to the next lesson or even do work for another class.

So this is where the humanity is! People often challenge me by saying that online videos and educational web sites and chat boards could never replace a real teacher and it would be an awful idea because there would be no humanity. (I’m not sure there was a lot of humanity in the factory system in the first place.) Well, it turns out that the teacher is not being replaced at all. In fact, (take note teacher unions) the efficiency of the system will likely lead to cost savings, and more teachers being hired. More teachers mean more one-on-one contact with students and ultimately more humanity.

Henry Ford only offered the Model T in black because the system wouldn’t allow for anything else, not because people only wanted black cars. It took a hundred years of innovation, but that’s completely changed. While the concept of the flipped classroom is very appealing, putting it into practice isn’t a simple matter. It has some extraordinary advantages and a few significant obstacles. Next time I will move beyond the theory of the flipped classroom and examine the realities of making it happen.

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