The Ford, the Flip, and the Future of Teaching


I’m always cautious when examples of best practice from the business sector are applied to education. The two sectors have much that is comparable and yet much that isn’t. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this post I’m going to dabble in it. Years ago I took a social studies class on an excursion to a (sadly now closed) Ford Motor Company museum. It was here that I first learned that the famed model T assembly line was a little more complex than I’d always assumed. I haven’t been able to confirm all of the following detail so I apologise if some of it turns out apocryphal but I’m going to run with it. After all, we’re all good friends here and no harm can come of it.

To begin.

The story goes that Henry Ford was searching for a way of lowering the cost to the consumer of his cars. The Model T was already competitively priced but he wanted to drop it still further so that it was within the budget of middle America and not just upper middle America. To achieve this he reasoned that he needed to make the manufacturing process more efficient but not sacrifice quality of labour or materials. To achieve this he needed to stop production. Ford ceased operation, sacked his workforce (with a promise they’d be offered their jobs back when he was back in business) and hit the drawing board.

Pause here.

Here’s where I explain why I’m relating all this to you. Presently, there is an enormous popularity in education to ‘flip’ the classroom. Some of the rhetoric around the flipping phenomenon reminds me very much of the story of Henry Ford and his company’s stunningly successful development of the assembly line. For most schools things are generally running well and keeping up with the expected standards. The same could have been said for the model T. Yet it is undeniable that we can all do things better – in fact most of my recent posts have been about how I personally feel the need for self-improvement. To this point, the idea of going back to the drawing board and redesigning the model of teaching delivery a la Henry Ford seems pretty good.

To continue,

Ford identified how many process stations for a car, being dragged along on a conveyor belt, needed to pass through in the process of being constructed. He had borrowed the idea from the meat industry that used a ‘disassembly line’ for processing carcasses. In Ford’s version skilled workers waited at each station and, proficient at that stage of assembly, would complete their tasks within a prescribed time. In this way the time it took for a single Model T to be constructed was slashed from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes.

That’s why customers had to buy them in black – just one paint on the market at the time dried fast enough to keep up with production and it only came in black.

The efficiencies he made in speeding up production meant he could better orchestrate three 8-hour work shifts and so work at the purpose built factory in Michigan went around the clock 24 hours a day (5 days a week). Production reached dizzying heights, the cost to the consumer dropped so that the working and middle classes could afford to invest in a car.

Pause again.

It all seems so simple and obvious doesn’t it? Seek out new but existing technologies. Apply them to what is already done. We can do this in schools. Students use computers and the internet in their own time (which they’re already on anyway) and free up classroom time for more effective teaching and learning activity. Flipping a classroom should be easy!

It’s not though. I assure it’s not. Setting up a curriculum that expects students to do work outside of the classroom will only work if students actually do work outside the classroom and if that was easy, we’d have done it by now, believe me. This is the problem with looking at things conceptually but superficially. The Ford experience helps to illustrate this.

To continue.

While the conveyor belt assembly line idea was obviously crucial it was not the real driver (sorry couldn’t resist that pun any longer) of the model T’s success. In fact, assembly lines had been used before by other motor companies with less fanfare. What really drove the project were far less sensational elements of the process. The car was already a good product. An effective, reliable vehicle, with a look and performance that made it suitable for town and country. Its parts were as standardised as practicable which made it easy to maintain also. Most importantly though, the teams of engineers that oversaw it’s construction were constantly amending and improving the process according to some fairly fundamental principles. These principles are as follows:

  • Put the men and materials in a sequence that means the car travels the least distance towards completion.
  • Always put the tools and equipment in the same place, always in the most convenient place, always close to hand.

Even then it was not as smooth as history, or Henry Ford would like to suggest. Gone, for example, was the heavy lifting but in came hours of standing still and repeating the same actions feverishly. If credit is to be given for ushering in a new age of industrial achievement, would it be unkind to also point out it brought with it RSI? Clearly the job was not yet done. There were still more improvements to be made…

Stop there. Time to summarise.

I think there’s a lot to like about the concept of flipping a classroom. The concept has merit and probably has a long future ahead of itself in mainstream education. But it’s something that will require a very high level of research and development by those in the classroom as to how it works best with their students and even then it will require regular modification from class to class, year to year. In whatever form it takes though, recognition of core principles should keep everyone on track.

Whatever you do, you do for the purpose of increasing the student’s engagement, proactivity, and ownership of their own learning.

My flipped classroom sketch

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 11.21.36 AM