Feb 24, 2014
I bet you didn’t know that I taught in an honest-to-goodness One Room Schoolhouse. Well, ok, I wasn’t a stereotypical colonial or frontier schoolmaster. I was an interpreter at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village in the Williamsville Schoolhouse Building. It was a fascinating look at the bygone days of my vocation and to compare it to the life of the modern teacher.
It seems that many people see the One Room Schoolhouse (ORS) as archaic; something on par with Classical Education.
I know what you’re thinking.
‘Mr. S, students don’t learn anything with all the confusion and chaos of multiple classes going on.’
‘One teacher can’t teach /every/ subject.’
‘Where’s the teacher accountability?’
‘Do you really expect 400 students in one classroom?’
‘Rote and recitation? How gauche!’
No, the ORS most likely isn’t coming back on a large scale. Before WWII, over half of American students attended an ORS. By the 1960s, less than 1% of students attended. The American education system, combined with the unrelenting drive into cities eliminated any efficiency of the ORS.
And that’s what we want, right? ‘Efficiency.’ In modern America, we have this perception on efficiency and production. Every occupation needs a tangible product, and a teacher’s product must be a student. Modern public education is designed to be more precise and specialized. Education done according to tested methods and standards.
Personally, I counter the nay-sayers by pointing out that the ORS offers more freedom. The student in a small school is not just a statistic on a chart at StateEd. He receives individual attention and recognition and can work at his own pace. He can be assessed, not by a state- or federally-mandated test, but in a manner which best matches him. The student is not a product, but a client.
In the ORS, the community had control over the affairs of the school. They hired the teacher and said, ‘Go to it. Teach our children.’ From then on, everything was in the teacher’s hands. They were the School Board, Administrators, Teachers, and Custodians. They knew each and every student who walked through the doors. They knew how that student learned, they knew what their interests were, and they knew how to motivate them. The teacher was free to develop his (more often her) lessons and schedules. If a teacher felt that the class was benefitting from a particular activity or lesson, the teacher was free to keep it going. The teacher was responsible directly to the students and their parents. If the teacher was doing a poor job, the parents sacked her.
Students, for their part, learned to be self-sufficient and work more independently without having their handheld by the teacher. With multiple grade levels being taught, students would listen to older classes and learn from them. This allowed upper-level students to participate in older classes, and slower students to work at their level.
As I said, I don’t expect that we’ll be going back to an ORS. That doesn’t mean that we can’t use the ORS Model to some extent in schools today.
Teaching a class that has both high-end and low-end students is a difficult challenge for most teachers. Given the choice, most teachers would prefer to have all their students at one particular level because, when teaching for a standardized test or to meet a mandated curriculum, teaching one level of students is easier than teaching for students who are all over the map. That being said, most teachers aren’t afforded that luxury.
In the ORS, students of all abilities are able to learn faster than they would in a modern classroom. The environment forces the students to be independent learners and they are not required to learn at the same pace. Struggling students with aren't frustrated by being pushed along faster than they can learn. Conversely, students who learn more quickly aren’t frustrated and bored having to wait for the rest of the class to pick up. In the ONS, student focus is on learning and mastery is the goal, not letter grades. The ORS Model that I’m thinking about would strive to generate an academic structure that meets the needs of the student, not the wants of the state.
The ORS give teachers and students the freedom from State and Federal mandates and expectations – the freedom for teachers to serve their students and the freedom for students to not be treated as a ‘product.’ In all serendipity, who knows the student better and understands what she needs? The parents and teacher who spend time with them, or a random bureaucrat in the capital who may or may not have any real background in education?
In a future article, I’ve been planning on going into students as clients and expanding my thoughts about this model.
Resources for Social Studies Students & Teachers