Prepared by Terry Ryan for the International Conference “Media and Education” in Poznan, Poland in April, 1998.


Having been a teacher in a Polish Liceum in Gora, near Leszno, in 1990-1991, and again at a Liceum in Warsaw in 1994-95, I was constantly amazed at how similar the schools were to those I attended in the United States. The system was pretty much “the same 180-day year, six-hour day, pencil driven technology, grade-by-grade, textbook-by-textbook, one-teacher-per-classroom notion of what school should be”1 that I knew from my home town of Springfield, Illinois 5000 miles away. In Gora there was a primary school from which students either advanced to a technical secondary school or to the Liceum depending on how good they were in academics. In Springfield most of my friends I grew up with went on to high school to continue studying academics, but several went to the Area Vocational Training Center to learn certain vocational skills. When I first went to Poland in July of 1990 it had just embarked on its market revolution the previous January, and in fact was still under the Presidency of General Jaruzelski. Yet, its system of schooling was almost identical to the private schools that I had experienced in the “democratic capitalist heartland of America.”

It wasn’t until 1994 when I was working with Wiktor Kulerski (former Vice-Minister of Education in the Mazowiecki Government) at the Foundation for Education for Democracy in Warsaw that I started to appreciate the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between education in a communist society and that in a democratic society. But what I couldn’t get out of my mind was that the systems – the actual structures of education – were almost identical. How could this be, when Poland and the United States had had such different historical experiences over the course of the 20th century? The one common thread both countries shared was that of massive industrialization, albeit under radically different political circumstances.

I participated in an International Conference sponsored by The Polish Ministry of Education and the Foundation for Education for Democracy in Bialobzegi in September of 1995. It was at that conference, while I listened to American, British, Polish and German educational leaders speak about their respective models of education, that I began to see for the first time the incredibly important role economic factors have played in the development of school systems. Schooling has played a vital role in helping young people find their places in the economy. This was true for both a relatively laissez faire economy like that of Illinois and a state-dominated economy like communist Poland. Subsequently, school systems have reflected the management practices of the workplace. In this century the workplace, for most, has been in a factory or a bureaucracy that had well-defined hierarchies of management. A small cadre of people at the top would make all the important decisions and then tell all the mid-level and floor-level workers what to do, and over the course of time (in a successful organization) these workers would become specialists at their little bit of the productivity process and the whole organization would benefit and grow.

The thesis that follows is that education has been modeled on the work paradigm of mass production, and that throughout this century in industrialized nations the management practices of factories have been directly applied to the management of children’s learning in schools. This was a model of education well-attuned to the needs of a mass-production-based economy. And in fact, such a model has played an integral role in improving the standard of living for tens of millions of people over the course of the 20th century. But, as I will show in the following paragraphs the age of the mass production of goods and services (and the large centralized bureaucracies that supported such production) is fading into the recesses of history.

What does this mean for the industrial model of education still predominant in most of the world’s countries? The last part of this paper will argue that in light of recent research into human learning, the brain, new models of management, and the potentials of information and communication technology our current systems of education are largely “upside down and inside out.”

A Computer-Based Economy

Economies around the world are undergoing dramatic changes. Once ruled and managed (to varying degrees) by centralized decision makers working for national governments, national economies are now increasingly coming under the rules of global competition, deregulation and privatization. “We are leaving behind a remarkable half-century in which governments, communist and non-communist alike, sought to control the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy (a phrased coined by Lenin in his New Economic Policy five years after the Russian Revolution and adopted by the British Labor Party after World War II). We are now moving rapidly back to the unfettered trade of a century ago…In what might be called the biggest sale in the history of the world, governments are disposing of trillions of dollars in assets. Everything is going on the auction block – from steel plants and electric utilities, to phone companies and airlines, to railroads and hotels. In the United States, federal, state and local governments are turning over many of their long-held responsibilities to the marketplace. Elsewhere, socialists are promoting capitalism, while countries that kicked out multinational companies are now wooing them back.”2

At the core of these changes is the increasing acceptance that “government knowledge” (the collective intelligence of decision makers at the center) is inferior to “market knowledge” (the dispersed intelligence of private decision makers and consumers).3 A key factor for this movement away from centralized market intelligence to dispersed market intelligence is the increasing speed at which opportunities and threats now emerge in most markets, and the simple fact this creates: no one group (no matter how brilliant) can possibly have all the information necessary to manage all these opportunities and pitfalls successfully on an ongoing basis.

Walter B. Writson, former Chairman and CEO of Citicorp/Citibank, wrote recently in the American policy journal Foreign Affairs that “great new forces are at work in the world, and if we are to master them, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the world is changing dramatically and at unprecedented speed. We are in the midst of a revolution. A revolution by definition causes old power structures to crumble and new ones to rise. The catalyst has always been technological change.”4 According to the eminent Harvard Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., capitalism and technology are “the two most dynamic – that is to say, destabilizing – forces loose in the world today. Both are driven ever onward by self-generated momentum that strains the bonds of social control…In the 20th century, scientific and technological innovation increased at an exponential rate…The law of acceleration now hurtles us into a new age. The shift from a factory-based to a computer-based economy is more traumatic even than our great-grandparents’ shift from a farm-based to a factory-based economy. The Industrial Revolution extended over generations and allowed time for human and institutional adjustment. The Computer Revolution is far swifter, more concentrated, and more dramatic in its impact.”5

Increasingly in the advanced economies of the West, “we are entering an era of man-made, brain-power industries, for this revolution has replaced natural resources with human skills as mankind’s most productive asset. The symbol of this new era is at hand: today, for the first time in history, the world’s wealthiest man, Bill Gates, is a knowledge worker and not a petroleum magnate, as had been the case for the past hundred years…New, custom-designed materials and intelligent, computer-controlled machines are rendering traditional production processes obsolete. Microelectronics and the computer are revolutionizing every sector of the economy.”6

The leaders of today’s most successful businesses are “emphasizing the importance of knowledge, harnessing it, and speedily integrating it across the organization – these become the ways to strengthen the firm in the marketplace. Information technology is driving the process; and as a result, the way that companies are organized is undergoing a massive change. The high rise pyramids of hierarchical corporate structures are being transformed into the low-rise of the flatter organization – less bureaucracy, more teamwork, and greater dispersion of responsibility, information and decision making.”7 “Some companies, including MCI, Xerox, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett Packard and Motorola, have fully decentralized “bottom up’ structures. These firms are in turbulent industries rife with change, so they organize knowledge workers into self-managed units that are held accountable for performance and are given wide operating freedom to choose their co-workers, hours, methods and all other aspects of their work.”8

In this new economic environment, when considering the traditional three factors of production (land, labor and capital), one quickly sees that the critical factor is now labor. “But it has not shifted simply to labor. Instead, knowledge has displaced capital as the scarce production factor. What now gives business a competitive advantage over their competitors is employees who are capable of being innovative without being told how to do it. Employees must be learners for their whole lives, not just specialists.”9 Geoff Armstrong, director-general of the (UK) Institute of Personnel and Development, recently noted that the “ability to manage knowledge and to foster continuous learning is going to be a key differentiator of successful companies in the coming year.”10 This is a radical departure from the skills and attitudes businesses have wanted from workers for most of this century, and which schools were designed to instill.