Positive Visions for Education – End Learning Factories

This is an opinion piece written by a NCAFC activist who wishes to be named as Flavius McFlavourdale. To contribute to NCAFC’s discussions building a vision for a National Education Service, take a look here and get in touch!

An illustration of the “monitorial education model” where older students instruct younger students and the teacher monitors the whole class at the back. The history of public education is often symplistically told as a story of the Prussian public school system being extended throughout the world although despite their being competing models. However, this model was developed by a British priest and a Quaker in the 19th century and became very widespread.

An illustration of the “monitorial education model” where older students instruct younger students and the teacher monitors the whole class at the back. The history of public education is often symplistically told as a story of the Prussian public school system being extended throughout the world although despite their being competing models. However, this model was developed by a British priest and a Quaker in the 19th century and became very widespread.

Education everywhere, all the time.

When it comes to radically changing our education a really significant issue is how our education system works as a place of social reproduction1 and a place where people are filtered for obedience. In many ways it works as a factory. Not in the sense that students and those engaged in learning are workers in the same way as workers in factory or production line are – students don’t produce things that are then sold in the market. Instead students are trained in various tasks: calculation, deconstructing texts, writing essays, programming, regurgitating “facts”. Students are put through curricula, made to learn things off by heart, learn a certain methodology for solving problems or writing an essay and are subsequently tested. Learning is done as a 9-to-5 routine. Your classes on certain subjects (whose divisions are in many ways arbitrary) begin and end at certain times. Moreover, the criteria for progressing through the system depends on how well you do on a marking scale and whether or not you can adapt to these routines and metrics or see much point in doing so. Of course, there is some “support” to help you through this but it is altogether quite marginal and tends to just reinforce the status quo. This is a rough description of what our education system is like. It’s not totally bleak and not everyone’s experience is the same – you can find amazing teachers who do great work or a subject and ideas that really change your perspective but these are exceptions not the norm.

What needs to be questioned and what was put really well in the previous NCAFC article is that our education system as it runs today is not this way through rigorous scientific research into education or some “natural progression” of society but it is very much this way by design and put together by those who have an interest in maintaining the economic and social status quo. Our education system is put together so that we become obedient workers and citizens and that we have the skills that business and elite interests require. Schools and universities have intellectual monopolies and try to give the impression that the people who go to these places and do well are “intellectually significant people”. Moreover, the education system is alienating and reinforces whatever hierarchical structures already exist with regards to marginalising people of colour, disabled people, women, queer, trans and non-binary people. The many aspects of the current education that need to radically change, however in this short article I will look mainly at how grading and routinisation of learning filter people for intellectual obedience.

The problem with grades

The practice of graded assessments and testing are both nonsensical and have really bad effects on people’s self-esteem and psyche. They are nonsensical because human beings are so complex and your abilities are some much more than something that can be ranked on a scale of A to F or 1 to 10. To put it into perspective, I remember having a maths tutor in my first year of university who refused to grade our work (he’d still give feedback and say what was correct and wrong). He put it this way. In physics one of the simplest systems is a pendulum, however, if you wanted to measure the period on a pendulum by taking one swing or even just a couple any scientist would just laugh at you. However, with humans this is basically what we do. Of course this is not to say what we need to make more tests and measures. It just exemplifies that any endeavour to measure a human’s ability to learn is far too complex. Importantly, this grading system has a bad effect on our psyche because we internalise this grading system. For example, I tried for a while not to look at my grades for university. Consciously what I think is “what should really matter when I am learning something is the ideas that I come across, the discussions I have and to have my views and perspectives challenged. I should question and think about things in a critical and creative way.” However, I find this difficult to do in practice – especially if I am worried whether I have passed or failed my course. I know consciously that how I do in an exam or essay doesn’t reflect on my value as a person but it nevertheless ends up being a source of validation or failure and this has an effect on my self-esteem. This grading system pervades our whole working and education lives. It is so much a part of our lives that in many ways it is difficult to imagine an education system without it. How many times have you sat around with friends at school, college or university comparing grades and coming up with rough calculations of what to focus on.

This grading system also results in bad intellectual approaches. The most important thing in a university, the thing that the institution either praises or fails you on, is how good your grades are. If you write something that is outside of the norm, that is not liked by your given examiner or simply styled in an unorthodox way you risk doing “badly”. As a result, many people will be put off exploring and writing about something that is outside of the academic norm or that you are less knowledgeable about. Zoomed out and looked at on a larger scale this dynamic of grading, routinisation of learning and regular disciplining ends up being a filtering system of intellectual obedience.

Despite all this people may think okay, yes there drawbacks for having a grading system, but we need them because (a) we need a way of assessing how well someone has mastered something, and (b) whether you like it or not the current economic system requires. In response to (a) I can only really say that there are many other ways to give people feedback than just a grade, the most obvious being narrative feedback – that is you give people learning constructive feedback in words to show what they can improve on and what they are doing well. Many teachers observe day-to-day the bad effects of graded assessment and many teachers try to avoid and get rid of it being used in their classrooms. In many ways getting rid of grades is a positive step in and of itself, because grades do more harm than good. Grades set up an artificial stratification of ability between children (which often serves to make children who are “failing” not engage with learning anymore), they damage our self-esteem and we end up internalising an attitude to learning where you are taught to be motivated by high numbers rather than wanting to be creative, critical, sociable and have fun by learning. In response to (b) (we need a grading system because our economic system requires it) I would say that we need to seriously rethink the way economics works and if the result of it is that systems of education get set up that undermines people’s internal motivation to learn and turns them into automata then that’s just another reason to resist it.

There are more subtle, and arguably more significant ways, that the education system filters for intellectual obedience. This is through the way the educational system crushes people’s ability to think independently. Children are taught what things are important to learn and important to say and what things aren’t. The examples that come most immediately to mind is the way in which history and politics, especially in the way it is whitewashed. Not many of us were taught the way in which Mahatma Gandhi very much supported the caste system (many of us are taught that he was someone who fought against caste) and that he supported racial apartheid in South Africa. And in many ways Winston Churchill is hailed as a hero, despite his racist, sexist and homophobic views and the his responsibility of over 1 million deaths in Bengal in 1943. Britain and Europe’s violent and bloody colonial history is conveniently sidelined in the curriculum and as well as working class and indigenous people’s resistance to state violence and oppression. The histories of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill, etc. are now taught in such a way that coheres with an anti-socialist and pro-nationalist framework – histories of resistance are whitewashed or left out, and simplistic narratives where those in power call the shots are emphasised. When it comes to less ideological subjects such as maths and the sciences these are often taught in a very formulaic and standardised way and they end up being some of the most disliked subjects as a result.

Looking forward…

Activists in Germany scaling buildings to put up a banner. The banner reads: Träume brauchen Freiräume statt Lernfabriken (“Dreams need free/liberated spaces not learning factories”)

Activists in Germany scaling buildings to put up a banner. The banner reads: Träume brauchen Freiräume statt Lernfabriken (“Dreams need free/liberated spaces not learning factories”)

It’s this sort of disciplining through routinized, monotonous learning, and arbitrary metrics that mark out the way the education system operates as a factory – where it is students and the skills they are trained which are the products. In German they have a word for it called “Lernfabriken” and in Germany they also have a movement opposing the reality that education runs in this way called “Lernfabriken meutern” (mutiny to learning factories). The main slogan of their campaign is “Selbstbestimmt Leben und Lernen” which roughly translates as “self-determined living and learning”. In Germany there is current push by the government to reinstate tuition fees which were abolished in 2009 after large-scale student strikes and actions. The movement of Lernfabriken meutern advocates a positive vision of education where it is free at all levels, where those in working and learning in kindergartens, schools and higher education and people in the local community have a democratic say and place in the way education is structure.

The wave of occupations in the UK since 2010 have been as much about trying to resist neoliberal2 education reforms as trying to create spaces where we engage in education in a totally different way. Groups like the Free University of Sheffield and the Free University movemet in London a couple of years back as well as Warwick For Free Education’s occupation point to ways in which we can reclaim our spaces that are becoming increasingly privatised and only accessible if you take on large amounts of debt.

Education should not be seen as something that is done at a specific place by specific people and which starts and ends at specific years in your life. It should not be seen as something that can be put on a scale and graded and people’s continued access to it stopped or continued depending on this scale. It is not something you can neatly divide up into 50 minute chunks or even in age-cohorts. A radical positive vision of education, and by extension a National Education Service (or even better an Anti-national Education Service3), needs to include the abolition of graded assessment (or at least a large scale abolition of it), it needs to question the very idea that we have specific spaces where education is done (school, FE, HE). It should work as a place to liberate minds and to engage with the world and with people in a creative and sociable way. Good well-resourced education and places for learning should be available everywhere, all the time.


1 “Social reproduction” refers to the way in which current inequalities and structures are transmitted to the next generation.

2 Neoliberalism: an economic ideology that sees democratic choices as being best exercised through consumers buying and selling and which holds that privately run services in a competitive market based system are the best ways of running the economy.

3 I will try to expand on what I mean by this in another article but if other people feel like doing this that’s also great.

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