What Would Thomas Edison Do on an Assembly Line?

Ford_assembly_line_-_1913What would Thomas Edison do if he worked on an assembly line? That is the strange question that popped into my head on Tuesday morning. My first thought was that he would do the same thing as everyone else, because an assembly line does not celebrate expressions of genius, innovation, or individual preference. As far as I know, it doesn’t recognize or reward extraordinary thoughts or actions. It depends upon compliance, conformity, and predictably ordinary actions. There is a narrow scope of what a person can or can’t do on an assembly line. Either you get the work done, or they find another person to do it.

Is there a lesson here for how we think about school, the design of learning experiences and workforce development? Some argue that not everyone can or will be a Thomas Edison, so we need to prepare them for reality. Prepare the masses for jobs with repetitive tasks and a narrow scope of actions. Teach them to listen, follow instructions, and have a strong work ethic. This is a good list of qualities. Followership, listening and hard work are commendable traits. Plus, I don’t want to disrespect the noble work of people of the past and present in factories. Martin Luther King’s famous words about work apply in the factory as much as the board room.

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Why not “Here lived a great assembly line worker?” Yet, factory jobs in the United States are on the decline. While 1 in 4 worked in factories back in the 1970s, that number has dwindled to less than 1 in 10 today. This is a worldwide trend as more factory jobs are automated. When it comes to workforce development, many workforce training companies focus on the fish distribution approach. Give them specific skills for a specific job. That makes for good return customers, because when they need new skills for a new job, how will they get them?

I’m reminded of John Taylor Gatto’s list important abilities for people in today’s world (in Weapons of Mass Instruction). He argued that people need to be able to frame problems without a guide, ask hard questions, challenge assumptions, work alone, and work in teams with little or no direction. They need to be able to create and use heuristics, extract meaning from large collections of data, and discuss important issues and work toward decisions that benefit society. They need to be able to categories and imagine new ways to categories or make sense of information, and to think in complex ways with the goal of solving problems. In other words, people need to be have abilities like Thomas Edison.

The web and education conferences are full of declarations that it is time to leave behind the factory model of education if we want to prepare people for a largely post-industrial world. In fact, we’ve been having such a conversation for 40-50 years in education. Many K-12 schools have changed curricula in response to the challenge, but the processes and environment lags further behind, continuing to reflect the attributes of the factory: bells, scripted schedules; segmented tasks and topics; rating and evaluation of student performance using a system not unlike how we rate milk, meat and bonds; heavy emphasis upon rules, structure and protocol.

Menlo_Park_Laboratory_of_Thomas_Edison_site_of_the_Invention_of_the_light_bulb_in_Dearborn,_Michigan_at_Greenfield_Village_The_Henry_Ford_Museum_from_Menlo_Park,_New_JerseyThere is room for order, system, and rules; but perhaps we are better suited to take a few notes from Edison’s real workplace instead of the assembly line approach to education. As we think about the design of learning communities and spaces, and as we think about workforce development, what if we instead looked to Edison’s labs? His Menlo Park research laboratory no doubt had rules, and there were certainly technicians at work. Yet, it was a place of experimentation and exploration. It was a place with almost every imaginable type of material of the day, everything from screws to sharks teeth, chemicals to silk. It was a place that expected, celebrated and nurtured disciplined, curious minds.