Robert Slater: The McDonaldization of Education

Robert Slater: The McDonaldization of Education
(Translated from R. O. Slater, “La MacDonalizacion de la Educacion,” Educacion Vol. 8, No. 15 (March 1999:21-37)


The McDonaldization of Education

I first went to Peru for five months in 1996 as a scholar with the Fulbright Commission. My mission was to teach and speak about education and democracy. I traveled throughout the country but I lived in Lima, in Miraflores.

One of my favorite places in Miraflores is the Café Haiti. I am not particularly attracted to the cuisine there, though there are a few things on the menu that I do like. I am more intrigued by the people and by what, compared to the United States, is a relaxed atmosphere. Here one can sit outdoors, drink coffee, write and read, and observe the steady stream of middle-class Peruvians that frequent the shops and the cinema nearby. For me, as an American, the Café Haiti represents a of life that is difficult to find in my own country. It is one of the places I always go when I am in Peru.

But on a recent visit to the Haiti I was both surprised and dismayed to discover that a McDonald’s restaurant has been built right next door. A McDonald’s of all things! All of the qualities that make the Café Haiti attractive to me, the qualities that take me away from my own culture, that enable me to experience another place different from what I have come to know in America—all of these qualities, to repeat, are exactly the opposite of those one finds in a McDonald’s. This juxtaposition of McDonald’s and the Café Haiti represents for me what has happened and is happening to our two countries, especially to our educational systems.

The McDonaldization Process

It is important to understand that McDonalds is not simply a fast-food restaurant. It is more importantly a symbol, a symbol of a process of transformation that has changed and is changing the world order. The word that the German sociologists Max Weber used for this process was “rationalization.” Rationalization refers to the process of making life—not only work but all of life—more efficient, more predictable, more calculable, and more controlled. McDonalds is probably the best example of this process. It applies four principals of rationalization—efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control (through technology)—to satisfy one of our primary and primordial needs which is, of course, hunger. For example, McDonald’s almost always delivers our food quickly and efficiently. We can always count on our hamburger being the same no matter which McDonald’s we go to. For its part, McDonald’s can calculate exactly what is required to make our hamburger. Moreover, through technology, it can closely control how our hamburger is made and therefore does not need to hire (and pay) highly skilled workers. Finally, with its small and usually uncomfortable seats, it can control us and how long we are willing to sit and occupy a space, which it wants us to vacate as soon as possible to make room for more customers.

Max Weber used the term “rationalization” to refer to these qualities of efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. But I prefer the term “McDonaldization.” More and more each day, the world in which we live is being transformed through the process of McDonaldization.(1)

To those of us interested in development and competing in the global markets, McDonaldization may not appear as a bad thing. What is wrong with making life more efficient, more predictable, more controlled and more measurable? To some degree, nothing is wrong with it. Some efficiency, some predictability, some control, some ability to measure and calculate is both desirable and necessary. But it is in the very nature of McDonaldization that it takes these processes and practices to an extreme. McDonaldization accepts no boundaries or limits and it is, as we have learned in America, very difficult if not impossible to constrain or limit. McDonaldization has an insatiable appetite. It is everywhere, not simply in the restaurant business. Most importantly, it is in our educational systems.

Let me emphasize here that I am not proposing that we go back (in the case of America) to an earlier time. Nor am I advocating ( in the case of Peru) that things stay as they are. My critique of McDonaldization comes from looking to the future not to the past. What we must fear from the McDonaldization of education is not that it will take away our past but that it will keep us from moving into the future. My point is that in some contexts, particularly the context of education and schooling, McDonaldization can have the opposite effect of what we intend. It will make our schools less efficient not more efficient, less productive not more productive, and will make us, in the end, less competitive.

Is this not a contradiction? Does not McDonalds represent the future? I think it represents one future among a number of possible futures. In some contexts it may be the kind of future we want and need. In others, it is the wrong future. I think it is especially wrong for education and the educational context. The McDonaldization of education will not, in the long run, enable us to achieve what we say we want from our educational systems, namely, economic and political development.

Because of our advances in education and technology, we have reached a stage where more of humanity has the potential to be more thoughtful, skillful, creative and well-rounded than in the past. The point I am making here is not simply a humanistic one. It is just as importantly a point of economic development, of human capital formation. Today we have the knowledge and the means to democratize human capital formation. Throughout history, human capital formation—the development of the knowledge and skills essential for economic development—has been confined to a relatively few people. Now we have the ability, through advances in educational research and communications technology, to extend human capital formation to large numbers of people. Given the pressure of global competition in the markets, the democratization of human capital formation is not only desirable but also essential for any country that wishes to compete in the 21st century. But—and this is the point—the McDonaldization of education is not the best way to extend human capital formation. In fact, in the 21st century, It will increasingly hinder and impede this effort and will not, as many think, contribute to it. Why?

The McDonaldization of Our Schools

While I was in Peru one of my goals was to visit as many schools as possible. Thanks to the kindness of many people I was able to do this. What struck me most during these visits was how much Peruvian schools are like American schools in their basic design and organization, and how much both have been built according to the principles of McDonaldization. Every school has classrooms. In every classroom there were 30 or so children and one teacher. The classrooms and children were separated according to age. The children sat in desks that faced the teacher. The teacher lectured and controlled instruction from the front of the room. The knowledge to be conveyed was broken up into small, predictable units. This, save for perhaps fewer children in each classroom, is the same model we use in the United States.

This model of school, this way of doing instruction, of organizing education is a model designed with the same principles that underlie McDonaldization—efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control. Knowledge is to be broken up and fragmented into small units so that it can be efficiently delivered in 50 minutes or an hour. Learning is schedule and the compartmentalized so that administrators and planners are able to predict what will be taught hour-by-hour, when, how and to whom. The knowledge that is deemed most important to teach is that which can be measured on a pencil and paper test. The teacher controls the instructional process. The administrators control the teachers. Students have only to control themselves which, in America, seems more and more difficult for them to do.

These principles, which have guided the organization of American schools since the late 19th century, have served the United States pretty well throughout the 20th century. It is these principles that underlie most of the educational systems throughout the world, including those in Peru and other South American countries. Many assume these principles will continue to serve us well. But as we move into the 21st century it will become increasingly obvious that they will not do so and will in fact work to our disadvantage.

Inquiry and Creativity

I think there are two important reasons for this. The first has to do with inquiry and our capacity for inquiry. The second deals with creativity and our capacity for invention. The McDonaldization of schools and classrooms nurtures neither inquiry nor creativity, two skills that will be essential for success in the 21st century global markets.

Inquiry and inquiry skills will be among the most important human capital assets of the next century. The nations that will succeed will be those that manage to teach children how to inquire and do research. This is simply because of the nature of the information age and knowledge explosion. The work of the future is more and more knowledge work. And as more and more knowledge and information is produced, the more we will need skills that help us sift through and make sense out of it. Simply put, without better research and inquiry skills, the information explosion will overwhelm us.

The growing importance of inquiry in education is perhaps most visible now in higher education in the United States. Our higher education institutions are the envy of the world. And if you look at the best of them, the top 70 or so universities in our country, they all have one feature in common. They emphasize research and inquiry.

The best secondary schools in the U.S. today are beginning to see the value of inquiry. They see that a student today cannot succeed in the best American universities without highly developed inquiry and research skills. They are therefore changing their curricula toward a more inquiry type of instruction. But most of our secondary schools are still stuck in the 20th century. They do not teach children to ask questions and to follow lines of inquiry. They teach them, instead, to memorize answers and to follow directions. In this last century this strategy worked pretty well. In the next, it will not.

The second reason why the schools we have to today will not serve us well tomorrow is that they do not teach our children how to be creative. On the contrary, they do everything to teach them how to imitate others. I am usually saddened and depressed when I walk down the halls of American elementary schools and see on the walls the art that the children have done. Each child’s work is almost exactly like the next child’s. One can see where the children have tried to resist the conformity forced upon them, and have manage to add a detail here or there in effort to make their work distinctive. But on the whole the pieces are the same. They look as if they have been stamped out from a machine. This is not creativity; it is imitation!

Not only, however, do our schools not emphasize creativity. They also—and this is the worst failing—do not see any connection between creativity and inquiry. Even those schools that take the arts and art education seriously, and they are relatively few, do not make any serious effort to use the arts to reinforce science education. This is a mistake. There is in every good scientist a bit of the artist; science is not simply logic but it is also intuition. Any good scientist will admit to this and many have. The problem is that modern societies place so much emphasis on reason and logic (McDonaldization) that they tend to neglect the role of intuition and artistry. But as we do more research on science and science education, we find what practicing scientists have known all along, namely, that both cognition and emotion play a significant role in scientific discovery and invention.

The practical educational problem is how we design curricula and educational environments that systematically link science with art, inquiry with creativity. We need to redesign our schools so that we use creativity to reinforce the learning of science, and the learning science to improve our capacity for creativity and invention. What might such a school look like? What would be the main features of schools for inquiry and creativity?

Schools for Inquiry and Creativity

Lines of Inquiry

Among the ideas that influence and inform the design of a school for inquiry and creativity is the idea of a line of inquiry. In traditional schools students study “subjects.” In schools for inquiry and creativity they pursue “lines of inquiry.” A line of inquiry is essentially a series of questions that students ask about a particular topic or thing, something that is usually studied within a traditional subject. A line of inquiry often begins with a very general question. But this soon leads to further, more detailed questions. These more detailed questions then lead to further research.

Several things differentiate a line of inquiry from the traditional study of a subject. First, a line of inquiry may quickly lead students out of their original subject matter and to other related but different subjects. For example, students might begin a line in inquiry that has to do with the Amazon river. A topic such as this might typically be studied in a biology class. But as students begin to ask questions about the Amazon, they may soon find themselves asking questions about the people who live along the Amazon. Following their interests may then lead them to a study of a particular tribe that lives and depends on the Amazon. Further questions about this tribe may then lead them to inquire about the Spanish and so on. A line of inquiry, therefore, is not constrained or bound by traditional subject matters but can (and should) quickly become interdisciplinary.

Anyone familiar with the world wide web and the internet has discovered what are called “hypertext.” These are words and phrases in electronic texts that have been linked to other texts on the internet. By clicking on a hypertext, one is immediately taken to another text which more fully explains and elaborates the point with which one began one’s inquiry. It is equivalent to having a hundred books, each containing passages that are relevant to passages in other books, and having a system whereby one can easily move from one passage to the next. The hypertext keeps us from having to make notes in the margins of the “book,” from using pieces of paper to mark relevant pages, and from having to lay one book and pick up another. With a click of a button we can move from one electronic “book” to another and go directly to the passages that we need.

A line of inquiry is analgous to a hypertext and, in fact, electronic media, the internet and the world wide web suit this method of learning perfectly. In the future, as we manage to put more computers in our schools, they will become more and more like schools for inquiry. I am simply here suggesting that we not wait. A school for inquiry (and creativity, which I will come to next) is most efficient if instruction involves computers. But it need not depend on computers. Inquiry itself is not dependent on technology but only on the proper use of our minds.

Education Based on Felt Need

A second thing that differentiates a line of inquiry from the study of traditional subject matter is that it depends, to some degree, on the interests of students, on what they feel a need to know. A traditional curriculum is not concerned about what the student wants to know when he comes to school. It is simply interested in what they should know. But a school for inquiry and creativity is designed with the philosophy that education is most efficient when learning is based on not only what students must know but also on what they feel a need to know, on felt need. The art of teaching in this type of school consists of combining what the students feel a need to know with what they must know. In this sense, the curriculum of the school for inquiry and creativity is constructivist.

An education that has suffered from McDonaldization ignores felt need. It looks to be efficient but is actually inefficient. It is inefficient mainly because it relies on extrinsic instead of intrinsic motivation. Allan Bloom says that all real education, all authentic education, all education that is not simply trifling display must be based on “felt need” (necessidad sentida). If we do not feel a need to know something, the knowledge that comes from our efforts to learn will only be superficial knowledge. It is the kind of knowledge that results when we learn not for ourselves but only to please others.(2) If our education is to make difference, if it is to be life-forming, it must be based, Bloom says, on our feeling a need to know.

To explain what he meant by “felt need,” Bloom used to ask us to imagine ourselves late at night, having awakened with a stomach ache because we ate or drank too much earlier that evening. We go to the medicine cabinet to search for a medicine to help us. We examine, half-blinded by the light, the bottles before us. All of our attention is focused on finding the right bottle! We have a felt need to know what is in those bottles.

The crucial term for Bloom is “feel.” Efficient education, Bloom suggests, is not built on an intellectual but an emotional base. The critical element for the development of reason is not reason itself but emotion. We learn best not when we think we should know something but when we feel we should know it. Feelings, not reasons, are the fundamental motivation for learning.

In making this point about the primacy of feeling in education Bloom is not being soft-hearted as many in education are want to do (There was nothing soft-hearted about Allan Bloom). On the contrary, he was being quite hardheaded. He is simply recognizing what Hobbes, Nietzche, Weber and Heiddeger and other philosophers had already discovered: the Enlightenment project which promised that men could use reason alone to give order and meaning to their lives was a failure. Men need more than reason to act. Even if men succeed in doing away with God, with a capital “G”, they still need gods. As Bloom says, “Reason cannot establish values, and its belief that it can is the stupidest and most pernicious illusion.”(3)

We only have to reflect on our own educational experiences to understand the point that Bloom is making here and the role of felt need in our own learning histories. Each of us has had the experience of having to learn things in order to please others as opposed to pleasing ourselves. We have had to learn things not because we have felt a need to know but because others have felt a need for us to know. Compare this situation with those occasions when we have learned something because we have genuinely felt a need to know it. In these latter cases our learning has been more efficient and enduring.

Shifting Responsibility for Learning from Teacher to Student

It follows from an education based on felt need that students must take some responsibility for their own learning. To say that a school for inquiry and creativity pays attention to the knowledge and interests that students bring with them to school does not mean that students can study anything they like without regard to what they must study and learn. It means, rather, that students must take responsibility for their own learning. They must be able to say what they are interested in, and then they must be able, with the help and guidance of teachers, to pursue these interests with a series of questions that enable them to cultivate the skills of reading, writing and thinking required of the traditional curriculum. Inquiry is not a substitute for the development of basic skills but a method by and through which basic skills can be developed.

Since I have mentioned responsibility I should like to emphasize the importance that self-discipline and self-control plays in the school for inquiry and creativity. One of the imbalances of the modern society, the society which is symbolized by McDonald’s and the McDonaldization process, a society which we are constructing and which, in turn, reconstructs us—one feature of this society, to repeat, is an imbalance between rights and responsibilities. Nowhere is this imbalance more obvious than in the United States. The rhetoric of rights has been strong in the U.S. Much weaker has been talk about corresponding responsibilities. As a result, our young people have grown to be quite clever in asserting their rights but quite reluctant to accept the responsibilities that go with those rights. One of the aims of the school for inquiry and creativity is to correct this imbalance. Children are taught to take responsibility for their own learning. This is what a line of inquiry does. It shifts responsibility for learning from the teacher, who takes on the role of a learning guide, to the student who acts not as a passive receiver of information, as in the old school but as an active researcher and investigator.

Thus a line of inquiry has just as much if not more structure than traditional study. The difference is that structure and discipline come from the inquiry itself and from the student as much as they come from the teacher. The job of the teacher in the school for inquiry and creativity is to guide inquiry so that the basic tasks of reading and writing are done in the course of the inquiry itself.

Learning How to Learn

A school for inquiry and creativity differs from a school that simply encourages children to ask questions. The difference is that the school for inquiry and creativity pays a considerable amount of attention to the process of asking questions. In this way students not only learn. They learn how to learn. It is this focus on second-order learning activity that is one of the distinguishing features of this new school. Time is devoted to organizing and discussing the questions themselves. For example, of all of the questions that have been raised about a topic, which question should be answered first? What other questions must be addressed in order to answer this question? What must be done to answer this question?

Thus, a line of inquiry is not simply an effort to answer some question or even a number of questions. It is also an effort to understand the nature of questioning itself. It aims to provide not only substantive information about topics but also to teach about the process of asking questions.


At the same time, however, that students are pursuing one or more lines of inquiry they must also, in a school for inquiry and creativity, explore ways to express this line of inquiry in some artistic form. If, to stay with our previous example, they are doing research on the Amazon river, they must find some way to express the results of their inquiry. This mode of artistic expression may take many forms. Where technology and access to the internet is available, students, working in teams, could assemble a short presentation for other students. Their presentation could be constructed from images and text taken from the world wide web. These could be organized into a coherent narrative, and then this narrative could be then projected in a slide-show format using the computer.

Again, here I must emphasize that, while it may be helpful, a school for inquiry and creativity does not have to depend on high technology. It is not absolutely necessary to have high technology to pursue a line inquiry or to express it artistically. For example, students can systematically attempt to answer a series of questions about, say, the Amazon river, without the aid of computer. Much of what we know about the Amazon can be conveyed without the aid of a computer. Similarly, this knowledge can be expressed artistically without the aid of a computer. Students can paint, write poetry and songs, and make photographs without the aid of a computer. Therefore, while the school of the 21st century, the inquiry-creativity school, will tend to be high-tech, it does not have to be.

Cooperative and Team Learning

I have mentioned, in passing, that students in schools for inquiry and creativity will work in teams but I should emphasize that this will be a common instructional strategy in this school. We are already seeing today that the most economically competitive companies are so partly because they have managed to build effective teams within their organizations. The work of the 21st century will not only be knowledge work, it will be team work. The individual, individual work and individual competition are the hallmarks of the 20th century organization. But this dinosaur is already becoming extinct as more and more companies, in their efforts to compete on a global scale, build effective teams within their organizations. Accordingly, we must have schools that teach our children how to function effectively in groups as they engage in inquiry and creativity.

The research on teaming and cooperative learning suggests students should be organized into teams of different sizes depending on the nature of the learning task. Sometimes students should work in pairs. At other times, larger groups are called for. My own view is that this is a matter for experiment.

One experiment that I think should be tried is to have learning teams of 5 students each. The purpose of each team would be to work together to produce some knowledge product that they could exhibit as a team to the other students, perhaps on a bi-weekly basis. Careful attention would have to be given to the composition of the team. In this case I think that it would be interesting to have one slightly older or mature student, two slightly younger or less mature students, one noticeably younger student, and one special education student. The older or mature student could provide leadership to the group. The two slightly younger students could help and assist this leader and prepare themselves for leadership positions in the future. All three could take responsibility and serve as role models for the younger student, and the special education student both of whom should benefit from their tutelage and mentorship. All four of the “normal” students might benefit from having to work with a student who was not blessed with the body and mind they take can take for granted.

This little learning team of 5 would not have to be the only grouping used for instructional purposes but it could serve as one of the groups in which the students would periodically work during the course of the school week. Moreover, these little learning teams could be combined into larger teams that multiples of 5.

The Teacher as Learning Guide

Obviously, in the school for inquiry and creativity, the role of teacher will not be what it is today. In the schools we now have, the teacher controls everything. The teacher, following the guidelines and policies of the state, answers all of the basic questions of curriculum and instruction: What is to be learned? How is it to be taught? Who is to learn it? When? Where? As we have schools organized today, the teacher is in total control. He or she is the ultimate authority in the classroom.

In contrast, in the school for inquiry and creativity, the line of inquiry itself will exert some of the control and authority now exercised by teachers. The teacher, in this situation, becomes less of a dictator of knowledge and more of a learning guide. Once he or she manages to get students going on a particular line of inquiry—and this is both the trick and art of teaching in this school— the research activity itself will serve as a source of discipline. In other words, the more that students become engaged in their research, the more they become interested in answering the questions that they themselves have raised, the more that they will discipline themselves.

School Size and Physical Space

The optimum size for a school for inquiry and creativity is about 175-200 students. Most schools today, operating on the principles of McDonaldization, are far larger than this (While in Lima I visited a school that had more than 7000 students!) In all but the extremely large schools it is possible to divide the school up into “schools within schools.” Four or five traditional classrooms for example, could be transformed into a little school for inquiry and creativity.

If this were done, roughly half the classrooms could be devoted to the study of the various sciences and half to the arts. For example, one classroom might consist of supplies and materials for painting and drawing. Another might be devoted to the physical sciences only and contain rocks, plant specimens, and visual aids related to the study of geology, biology, and related matters. Students in the school would move from room to room depending on whether they were pursuing a line of inquiry in one of the sciences or find a way to express their line of inquiry in an artistic form.

Again, it is important to emphasize that this is not simply a school in which children learn how to inquire in one class and in another class, quite unconnected with the first, study and practice art and attempt to be creative. This approach has all of the fragmentation characteristic of the modern, 20th-century society, the McDonalized society. It is this very disconnection between science and art, the fragmentation and separation of science and art, that the school for inquiry and creativity is designed to overcome.

In the school for inquiry and creativity each child pursues one or more lines of inquiry and systematically works to express this line of inquiry--the concepts and ideas associated with it—in artistic form.

A Cautionary Note

Obviously, one cannot simply take an existing school and try to make a school for inquiry and creativity out of it overnight. The result would be confusion and chaos. Neither teachers nor students would understand what was wanted of them. Teachers would first have to be instructed as to the nature and demands of this kind of school. Only those committed to its development should be involved in its planning and implementation. Students, also, will have to understand what a school such as this would demand of them. This is why it might be useful to begin with slightly older students and, once they have learned how to function in this new educational environment, have them help train younger students by working with them in the teams that I have already described.


The school for inquiry and creativity is an attempt to address, in the educational sector, one of the central problems of modernity, a problem which has found its fullest expression in the 20th century. This problem is none other than the distortion of reason (science) to the point that it becomes self-destructive. This imbalance is manifest on many different levels in our societies, our institutions and ourselves. I have tried to suggest how it plays out in our schools. It results in an overemphasis on some things and under emphasis on other, equally important things. In our schools today, for example, we over emphasize science and under emphasize art. The consequence of this is not that we produce fewer artists, though we do, but also that we produce fewer scientists. There is in every good scientist an artist. In every artist there lurks a scientist. Logic never operates alone but always in tandem with intution, and intuition always relies on logic. Any scientist and artists will tell you this is true.

If we want to produce not just a few but many good scientists in our societies, then we must also nurture the artist in them. But our schools today are not designed to do this. As a result, we mass produce neither good scientists nor artists. The relatively few scientists and artists that we do produce are inspite of our education not because of it.

From a purely economic perspective, all of this amounts to a great and tragic inefficiency. The tragedy is that much human capital is wasted and we deceive ourselves in thinking that a process (McDonaldization) which seems to work in other sectors to make us more productive works in education as well. It does not but has precisely the opposite effect in the educational sector.

(1) In prefering to use this term I follow the lead of George Ritzer in The McDonaldization of Society (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1993.

(2) See Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987, p. 19.

(3) Closing, p. 194.