THE FORD MODEL SCHOOL
One way of looking at the traditional classroom model is to equate it to a factory or production model in which the philosophy of the assembly line with its inherent efficiencies dictates the look and feel of the school. The assumption of such a design is that students are empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, like widgets on a conveyor belt, proceeding along a production line over the course of years (in the case of elementary schools) or day after day (in the case of secondary schools). Hence the ‘Ford Model’ name.
One of the defining features of the Ford Model, in whatever field it is applied to, is that the inputs are standard, and the outputs are standard. The Ford company, to begin with, made just one kind of car – the Model T. But that business model didn’t last long. Diversification and then customization of factory-built products quickly became the new standard, as manufacturers realized that the same products did not work for everyone.
Around the same time as the Ford factory model was established and began to evolve, the school models we are so familiar with today also became established. But unlike the continually evolving, highly adaptable and purpose-built factories that quickly became sites for producing diverse products, school design stalled in the Ford era. This was despite it being painfully clear that students were not identical widgets to be molded in identical ways for identical outcomes.
Assumptions of the Ford Model:
• All students are ready to learn the same things at the same time in the same way from the same person.
• Learning is passive.
• One teachers can be all things (mentor, guide, lecturer, subject matter expert, caregiver) to 20-30 students simultaneously.
• Learning happens under teacher control.
Under the original classroom-based model of a school, it made sense to regiment several classrooms next to each other and place them on long corridors that could be easily supervised. This was efficient from the standpoint of space and provided the adults with the most “control,” since students leaving classrooms had nowhere to go but into the easily-supervised corridors from where they could move to the other learning spaces like science labs and art rooms – also preferably set up along a double-loaded corridor.
The classroom model worked best from a control standpoint if the day itself could be broken down into neat little segments (45 minutes being the preferred period after which one activity would shut down and another would begin) and if the segmentation could be announced by bells that, over time, literally programmed the students to switch gears on command. Thus the term “cells and bells” was born.
We now have abundant evidence from the frontiers of brain-based research that learning is not linear, but holistic, and that it is not unidimensional but multifaceted. As we move into the post-knowledge economy, we should be looking beyond the “knowledge worker” who is now a global commodity. Our most valuable export as a country will be creativity and innovation and these skills are not developed in the cells-and-bells model of school. Under the new learning paradigm, we are looking at a model where different students (of varying ages) learn different things from different people in different places in different ways and at different times.
Prakash Nair, Randall Fielding, Jeffery Lackney
The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21 Century Schools