Deskilling Essay

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Deskilling, as it pertains to the teaching profession, refers to the reduction of the teacher’s role in the classroom to that of a conveyor of information. The teacher is expected to iterate assigned information to students, and the students are merely to reiterate this information back. Tests are employed to determine the degree to which a teacher has prioritized this process, and a teacher is rewarded depending on how well his or her students produce the information on the tests. In this process, the teacher is seen as a laborer, a nonvariable in the classroom, one who simply follows the prescribed curriculum without input. Pedagogy becomes irrelevant. Pedagogic skill not only is not required, but is not undesirable. The result is the deskilling and de professionalizing of the teacher and teaching.

Joe Kincheloe has explained how the phenomenon of deskilling the factory worker and the teacher are comparable. He has pointed out that the deskilling of teachers and de intellectualizing of the curriculum occur when teachers are considered receivers rather than producers of knowledge. In this arrangement, information deemed important by school or government officials is simply given to teachers to distribute. Just as the factory worker in many ways became an accessory to the machine, teachers are an accessory to the curriculum in that they are bound by what the predetermined curriculum allows. This entry looks at how the deskilling process was first initiated and examines current practice for deskilling potential.

Historical Background

The notion of deskilling the worker comes from the growth of industry of the nineteenth century, and in particular, from the model for industry laid out by Frederick Taylor. Like many of his contemporaries, Taylor believed that there was one best way to do any job. He devised a process to find this one best way by comparing how the quickest and best workers would complete a task and then making this method the standard required of all workers. Taylor also devised a bureaucratic, hierarchical chain of command to optimize productivity. The worker would perform small tasks as directed by superiors, a manager class would coordinate workers, middle management would be the liaison between the floor and upper management, which in turn would report to the factory owner.

Joseph Mayer Rice, a doctor turned educator, promoted this model for industry as being advantageous for school in order to assure a standard, consistent quality of teachers and education. To the many in power who venerated the ideals of social efficiency (a belief that schools should serve society and the economy by “socializing” and “Americanizing” immigrants to the norms of American society and produce a docile workforce), this approach was very attractive. As a result, schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries adopted Taylor’s model for industry. In this approach, the superintendent became the controller of schools and under him fell a bureaucratic system of supervisors, principals, vice principals, and teachers. The teacher was seen as a worker expected to run the classroom with military order and ensure the imposition of assigned tasks.

Ivan Illich saw this process also being implemented to society at large. What he called a “radical monopoly” was the aim of making individual skills less useable through schooling that deskills the individual. The result is a society where people are less able to translate their personal understandings and skills into valuable attributes.

Today’s Practice

Many believe that the corporate-friendly 1980s marked a return to seeing teachers as workers rather than educators. As evidence, they assert that standards based education policy discourages teachers from engaging in constructivist, child-centered education in favor of strict adherence to a prescribed curriculum. The increase in standardized testing since that time is viewed as an effort to ensure teacher compliance with prescribed curricula, thus deskilling the teacher.

Under the system established by the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers are provided with a prescribed distribution of what may be fragmented and decontextualized pieces of information, fragmented so that they may be easily quantified and assessed through positivistic testing methods. Such multiple choice and true or false tests further reduce the role of the teacher as a decision maker in terms of grading. By basing judgments of the teacher’s competence on how well his or her students perform on standardized tests, teacher compliance is encouraged, if not assured.

Opponents of the standardization movement see the teacher who behaves as a nonvariable, distributing information without discussion or question, is most highly rewarded in this system. The deskilled teacher is not asked to be a creative, nurturing teacher striving to instill a love for learning and the ability in students to understand and shape the world around them, they argue. Rather, the deskilled teacher is asked to distribute information and tasks as prescribed by the school hierarchy without interruption.


  1. Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row.
  2. Kincheloe, J. L. (2001). Getting beyond the facts: Teaching social sciences in the twenty-first century. New York: Peter Lang.
  3. Kincheloe, J. L. (2003). Teachers as researchers: Qualitative inquiry as a path to empowerment (2nd ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  4. Kleibard, H. M. (1992). The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893–1958. New York: Routledge.
  5. Kohn, A. (2000). The case against standardized testing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  6. Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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