The first public school was opened over a hundred and fifty years ago. The model was simple: group children together according to their age, and have them all taught the same things, in the same room, by the same teacher. 

Above is a photo of such a classroom. 

Sadly, although we’ve advanced scientifically, technologically, and socially over the past century… our classrooms still look nearly the same as they did a hundred years ago. 

Children are sitting in rows listening. The teacher transmits the knowledge. 

At the height of the Industrial Age, “assembly line” thinking was useful in scaling the manufacturing and widespread distribution of products. 

In order for this effort to work, though, societies needed compliant individuals – people who would do as they were told, with a few people at the top directing their activities.

Developing obedient and compliant children, then, was the bigger goal of the Assembly Line Model of Education. 

A “good” student was a compliant student.

Children were to be seen and not heard. They talked only when asked. 

Flash forward to today’s (relatively unchanged) classroom.

Clearly, the Assembly Line Model is still in play. It is widely believed that…

  • An effective teacher has a quiet, obedient classroom.
  • An effective teacher has students walking without talking in straight lines. 
  • An effective teacher produces compliant children. 

For those of us who understand the science behind child-led, play-based as the gold standard of education, this is a chilling scenario.

In the Assembly Line Model of education, it’s just another day at school.

The hallmarks of an Assembly Line Model education include four key traits, and carry with them some heavy implications for children and adults alike.

Trait #1: The Assembly Line Model sees the child as an empty vessel waiting for the educator to fill them with all they need to be successful in academic learning.

Like a mold on the factory line, a child is seen as not bringing anything to the process of education. 

The teacher needs to “pour” knowledge into the child, so the child can leave as a shiny replica of all the other children who’ve passed through the system.

We’ve seen that this is an impossible scenario – and the implications are nothing short of tragic for the many children who must suppress their own genius in favor of allowing themselves to be filled with the “right” kind of knowledge.

These are the assumptions baked into the “child as empty vessel” belief:

  • Children should do their work without questioning and with no resistance.
  • Obedient children are neat and efficient.  
  • Children have no say in what they are asked to do. 
  • Children who do resist are considered “failing.”

Trait #2: The Assembly Line Model holds that all children are to achieve the EXACT same outcomes at the EXACT same age.

The implications are tragic for the child – and also for our society. True innovation, through the honoring of the unique genius every person contributes to the world, can never happen inside this model.

There is no room for children to follow their interest in the Assembly Line Model. Instead, they need to be learning according to their age group – and that learning must be demonstrated so that we know everyone is ready to go to the next grade level.

Since children are seen as empty vessels, they enter the classroom each year, are input the requisite facts and information by rote, and are then expected to leave that classroom with the “right” test scores to show that teaching has been effective.

This means that:

  • Children do the same work at the same time.
  • Children are educated in “batches” by age. 
  • Children are taught and measured by standardized curriculums.

Trait #3: The Assembly Line Model assumes (and has created a culture of) “sooner is better.”

In the Assembly Line Model, time is of the essence. As with a factory belt that must keep churning along at a certain speed so that all of its products turn out identically and on time – children are seen as needing to keep pace with arbitrary markers that are not based in the science of learning.

The sooner a child walks, the better.

The sooner a child talks, the better.

The sooner a child is potty trained, the better.

The sooner a child knows the alphabet, the better.

The sooner a child reads, the better.

This “sooner is better” culture leads to a cycle that is counter to learning and growth. 

As you can see from the diagram, when children feel pressured to meet expectations – and then inevitably fail to meet some of these arbitrary markers – the result is personal shame, and a culture of competition.

Rather than developing their own unique genius, children are caught up in comparing themselves to others and trying to “win” or feeling shame about their perceived deficiencies.

Trait #4: The Assembly Line Model assumes (and has established) that age and achievement are inextricably linked.

For decades, parents have been indoctrinated to believe that their children should be achieving certain milestones based on their age.

This has damaging, and sometimes even devastating, effects on both parents and children.

For example, as a young mother I was asked if my baby was crawling. My children were late crawlers and walkers. Friends and family would comment that their children crawled or walked much earlier. 

This left me wondering, “Am I doing something wrong?” Parents like me feel pressured that their children should be hitting milestones sooner than later. 

Parenthood is one of the most challenging roles of a lifetime to begin with. Adding the pressure of age-based milestones affects parents in untold ways (and can have an obvious trickle-down effect on their children, too).

As play-based educators (or those who have an inkling that the prevailing academic environment must change), it’s important to understand the roots of the Assembly Line Model of Education.

It’s important that we see that it was based on an outdated belief that society would be better off if everyone were in lockstep.

It’s important to acknowledge that we have all been subject to it in one way or another – and to see how it has impacted Early Childhood Education.

Our prevailing educational system is outcome-based, plain and simple.

Its underpinnings foster competition and shame, with children simply being the products in a system of outcomes.

Children who “succeed” according to standards can be seen as superior by their teachers and parents – while the sense of competition and pressure never let up, and those children who are not seen as a “success” can spend a lifetime doubting their own worth.

Educators, too, have been impacted for multiple decades. They are expected to have all the children in their class meet or exceed benchmarks.

Parents expect “school readiness.” Educators who “prepare” children can become the “favorite” among parents, thus fostering the same sense of competition and pressure among their peers that they felt as children.

The cycle must end. And we are the ones who can do it. 

By arming yourself with the brain science of play, and developing the skills and confidence to powerfully demonstrate play as the gold standard in education – you can make a difference not just in the lives of the children in your care, but to the future of our world.


Godin, Seth (2016) Stop Stealing Dreams

Robinson, Sir Ken (2015) Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, Viking Press.