19th Century School

19th Century SchoolMany conferences about education and technology compare doctors to teachers and how medicine has become completely unrecognizable over the past 100 years, but teaching has remained almost untouched over the same period.

Here is a checklist of common 19th and 20th Century teaching practices—how many do you see at your school? And which ones are still relevant to a 21st Century Education?


  • The obvious one: an adult in front of the children. The adult leading, the children listening. Lessons generally tailored to the teacher’s strengths and interests.
  • The teacher would use a large board to explain things to the whole class in one go, and the children would sit with smaller boards, recording what they see and hear.
  • Classrooms were often the place where children could experience new objects and ideas for their first time.
  • Lessons mainly compromised of memorizing key facts or sums or spellings, with rows of children all reciting and tested regularly.
  • The focus of most lessons was to learn (read: memorize) – not to understand, discover, or question.
  • Testing consisted of being asked questions; the more a child got right, the better they were deemed to be.
  • The teacher was the only recognized expert in the room. The higher up the teaching profession you were, the less you were required to listen to the opinion of others.
  • Classes used to be made up of mixed age groups, all learning different, but relevant things.
  • Children would progress to the next class by merit and their abilities at any point during the year. Automatic graduation at the end of the year was not to be expected.
  • Teachers might be very busy with the younger children, and it was often expected that the older children would support anyone younger than themselves.
  • One teacher would be responsible for teaching a range of subjects to their pupils.
  • There were three main subjects taught, and although the names may be different across different territories, children had to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic (the 3Rs). Occasionally, other subjects, such as geography or agriculture, would also be taught, depending on the teacher’s confidence and personal experience.
  • Any alternative subjects taught were at the discretion of the teacher. If they had a personal interest or passion for something, it was likely that it would be taught.
  • The aim of education was to prepare students to become useful members of society, as well as producing the workforce of the future.
  • Children could misbehave by taking advantage of whatever equipment was handy. Talking when not supposed to, writing notes on chalk slates or introducing wildlife into the class were all part of a mischievous day. Getting caught, however, often meant some kind of painful reprimand.
  • Final exams have been a part of schools for since the early 1800s. And ever since their introduction, passing them was required before entering any of the learned professions.
  • Not surprisingly, the requirement for teachers to be certified by the state was also introduced around the same time.


Recognize any of those? What do you think the hallmarks of a 21st Century education should be? How do you think the teachers of the 22nd Century will describe our schools?


Image courtesy of Flickr, Melody Ayres-Griffiths

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