The Marble Sorting Factory Model of Education


It seems to be in vogue to describe public education as the “factory model” having sprung from the “industrial revolution.” That’s a vague and unfair way to characterize a factory, and insinuates that nothing of value happens at factories. Some factories have a purpose; Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory was even fun. “Education” as an industry is a very specific kind of factory. I liken it to a marble sorting factory. Students come in for six to eight hours a day and sort marbles by color, shape, and size, package them, and watch as they leave the factory floor. Never mind that no consumer has ever bought a package of just yellow marbles, or that the triangular marbles are likely going to the incinerator…none of us actually has any idea what the factory is for, as in why are we sorting marbles at all, except some foggy notion of student-preparedness.

What happens to the marbles post-sorting is not the kid’s business, nor is it ours. We the experts with the degrees and the expertise and the unions and the respectable publications with interesting articles on leading young marble-sorters will tell these students where to sit and how to sort. The very best factories have experts who don’t have to say anything at all – they just look at the students and the students know where to go and what to do. Ovals with the ovals, pinks with the pinks, 2 pounders with the 2 pounders, all in perfect sync. When the bell rings they’ll switch their station for more bell-to-bell sorting, as the experts make tick-marks in their evaluation books.

You think I’m being dramatic? Is this hyperbole? Yesterday, I had kids find textual evidence to support what they believed the tone was of a short passage. It took most of class, 42 minutes. Why did I have them do that? So they could know where the tone came from. What if they couldn’t, if they just said it sounded angry but they didn’t know why? Well, then someone might come along and challenge them on it. That tone wasn’t angry, someone might say. The speaker was clearly satisfied with the subject. Then the poor kid would be in a pickle, because they’d have to argue for angry. Well, without my class they would have balled up in the fetal. Now the next time they find themselves playing tug of war with someone over the interpretation of tone in an eight hundred word excerpt, they can find textual evidence.

A kid stayed after school for help with their math, and as an English teacher I enjoy a good challenge. Sometimes it’s easier to see the marble sorting factory for what it is when you sort on a different floor for a few minutes. She had to set a trinomial to zero. I asked why, and she said so it could be factored. And I asked why we should factor it, and she said because that was the homework. I asked if there was any other reason – some practical reason like learning how to use a tire iron or preparing a meal, or a good “purposelessness” reason such as learning a dance, tossing a baseball around, or writing a poem. She smiled because she’s polite, but she was getting annoyed. This is due tomorrow and I still need to do my Social Studies homework. We pushed some numbers and letters around on the paper for fifteen minutes, and then she left. Sadly she was grateful.

There is a simple (but not easy) solution to the marble sorting factory model. It would take a considerable amount of trust, flexibility, and an ability to challenge assumptions. These are not small orders, but it can be done. If drama, robotics, hiking club, video editing, anime club, choir, math club, chess club, all sports, etc…were our primary programming, students came to them of their own volition or formed them themselves, and that 42 minute “classes” were held as optional afterschool activities, then we would see a change in the type of student we produced. The reason why is as simple as the solution itself: if students chose the activity and furthermore have the option to quit it, then they are exercising their free will (and without that option we are slaves); students who engage in these kinds of activities have a shared purpose; and lastly, the entire mind, body, and soul are engaged in the activity, not just the sliver of humanity that’s required to locate tone or to factor trinomials. When you train and test a sliver of a student’s humanity at a time, you wind up, in the end, with a sliver of a human. Someone who is good at sorting marbles but who has long since stopped asking or caring about why someone would do such a thing.

How would we grade students using this model? I don’t know. I don’t really care. I don’t think it’s important. Not important? But how would we hold students accountable? How would we hold teachers accountable? They get to stand behind whatever it is they accomplish. Or not. I don’t know. Again, it’s not really important. What I described above is how to make schools good for kids. I can’t promise we can do that and also make schools good at being schools. You either get to quantify some specific, arbitrary set of standards through a series of meaningless activity, or you get to have the kind of palpable energy that is formed when a group of teenagers consent to a project and throw their entire being at it. You don’t get both.

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