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Education in the 20th Century: A Reflection

Last week, a friend of mine came across a film in the archives called “Stand And Deliver.” This film from 1988 was curious: the schooling system found in the film is radically different from our own system, but as we watched the film, we got the impression that the teacher who was leading change in his classroom was presented by the filmmakers as a radical reformer. My friend wondered what had changed in education over the past seventy years that would make this schooling system seem so foreign, even to a couple of Canadian students. As she wanted to continue her line of inquiry at the time, I decided to take a break from my own studies in Renaissance literature and briefly examine the differences between schools then and now.

In the 20th century, according to my research, schools were a much different place than they are today. A small example of this is that students were arranged in groups according to the years of their birth and sat in rows facing the teacher. This was called a “class.” There were many classes in a single building, sometimes containing as many as a thousand students at a time. Unlike schools of today, teachers stood at the front of a room and spent a great deal of their time verbally teaching students about different subjects: a 16-year-old might hear lectures about World War II, sonnets, geometric proofs, and cloud systems in a single day. Students, especially older students, were expected to write down most of what the teacher said in preparation for exams that tested them on the teacher’s lectures.

It gets worse. As incredible as it seems, students had very little say in what they were permitted to study. Teachers and educational leaders determined what students should learn, often without consulting the students themselves. As you can imagine, this system did not create thinkers who were challenged to think for themselves, exploring problems relevant to their own lives. Instead, it left many students with the impression that they were “bad students” because they couldn’t tell the teacher exactly what the teacher had told them a week before the text.

Parents did little to challenge this system. It seemed as if parents were complacent to send their students to these schools because their own educational experiences were very similar. It wasn’t until the mid-21st century that parents, in conjunction with teachers, decided that enough was enough — but the School Riots of 2055 are familiar to even the youngest students today, and not much needs to be said about them in this document.

The model of “I teach you, you tell me what you learned” led to a curious artifact called “grading.” Students were “graded” on their performance on various activities they performed in school. I must pause to assure you that this system, although reminiscent of the system we use to process livestock in our agricultural sectors, was not originally intended to insult or belittle students. In other words, students weren’t consciously likened to cattle. Rather, whenever a student performed an activity in school, they were given a “grade” on their performance. Such activities included writing stories and poetry, delivering public speeches, creating works of art, speaking in foreign languages, and even playing in “physical education” (what we now call exercise breaks throughout the day).

Grading originally came about because schools needed to quickly differentiate between students’ abilities in discrete tasks. Instead of receiving feedback on a short story from other writers on the global nets, as students of today — and indeed any writer in the world — are able to receive, students in the 20th century created short stories and other written documents based on teacher specifications and were “graded” based on these specifications. A story with incorrect spelling was seen as less valuable than a story with perfect spelling, for example, despite the fact that incorrect spelling was easy to fix. But these grades were so important that often this was the only feedback given to students. Imagine a student today releasing a poem to the global nets and only receiving numbers back from readers! “Your spelling is a 4 out of 5!” “Characterization is only at the 70% level!” The idea today seems not only absurd, but cruel to burgeoning writers.

Moreover, schooling was broken up into distinct units of study. Instead of working on a problem chosen by the student and developed over a period of time with the consultation of experts in the problem’s field, students spent their time in different classrooms primarily studying “English” (the study of language and literature incorporating texts often solely chosen by the teacher), “social studies” (a confusing mix of social ethics and geo-political history), “mathematics” (similar to our current academic discipline but often containing concepts and topics of study irrelevant to most students’ lives), and “science” (classes where students were taught about the scientific method instead of being allowed to participate in the scientific method). Students weren’t given the freedom to pursue a specific topic across these domains, but instead started and stopped their teacher-led “feedings” at the sound of a bell. Imagine a student of today being told that the bell ringing in the background meant that she had to stop working on her personal inquiry question and move on to a different subject. She’d look at you as if you asked her to step outside onto the surface of the sun!

The expectations of distinct units of study came with the expectation that students arrive at a single building together at a set time and leave at a set time, instead of being allowed to pursue their own inquiries at the time and place of their choice. Today we see students of all ages pursuing their education as we work: those in the service industry are familiar with students inquiring about hours of work, the origins of specific articles for sale, or being asked to allow them to test the water in the break room. In the 20th century, students were locked away in massive buildings from early in the morning to the late afternoon. In some cultures, students were expected to spend most of their days in these buildings! Granted, the ubiquity of technology did not exist to the same extent as it does now. Even the word “school” today means something much different than it did back then. “School” was often the name of the building where students were warehoused, unlike its meaning today.

It is hard to imagine a time where students, not adults, were not the architects of their own education, but such a system existed in a time not so long ago. Various reformers in the 20th and early 21st century, including Kohn, Robinson, and Pink, to name a few, advocated for change, and in fact the philosophies brought forth by these individuals were instrumental in the changes in how “school” was done over the course of the 21st century. Still, these voices were largely ignored by other groups of “experts” who wanted to revert schooling back to an even more traditional model. As these industrial models of education were finally shown to be inadequate to the changing needs of individuals in the 21st century, and as the world swung perilously close to the edge of self-destruction, these reformers were finally heard and education slowly changed for the better.

One of my peer reviewers suggested that I add a personal comment to this article detailing my reaction to what I’ve learned. I initially argued that these brief findings spoke for themselves, but as I reflect on what I’ve written, I’ve decided to end this article with a simple comment: I can’t even imagine being a student in the 20th century, nor would I want to.

-Jonathan Janzen, Alberta School (SW Dist.), January 4, 2076

About alanthefriesen

Educational anarchist doing all I can to de-school students.


15 thoughts on “Education in the 20th Century: A Reflection

  1. This is my first post to the Coop, and I’m happy to be here! I’m a teacher in southern Alberta at a small K-12 school, where I teach English 7-12 and primary choir. I give students the autonomy and freedom to choose what they want to study and how they want to show their learning within a loose framework determined by the program of studies in Alberta, but I don’t test and I don’t lecture more than a few times a year. I hope you enjoy the “report” and again I’m glad to be here!

    Posted by alanthefriesen | August 3, 2011, 2:36 am
  2. I was tempted to grade this report, check it out for spelling, sentence structure, and then I realized that I am also a product of my education. We all see the world through our own eyes of experience, and it takes true visionaries to imagine a new world, a new way to interact with a changing culture, a new path that will be forged for our children and grandchildren. It takes visionaries with a pioneer spirit to recreate the future. Visionaries and hard work…

    Posted by abbafriesen | August 4, 2011, 8:22 pm
  3. The cynic in me is waiting for blended learning to deliver us to “The Fun They Had.”

    Great premise for a post. I’d be interested in more catalysts’ takes on the future of schools from their points of view in the present or future.

    It seems to me like this vision implies a turning-away from schooling as assimilation – what role does/should the past play in a radically differentiated society and system of education?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 8, 2011, 3:17 pm
    • >It seems to me like this vision implies a turning-away from schooling as assimilation – what role does/should the past play in a radically differentiated society and system of education?

      At some point, we all need to stop and really think about everything we’re doing. Why do we limit students’ access to the washrooms? Why are desks pointed in one direction? Why am I lecturing to kids as they take notes? Why are students coming in to school buildings at all, when so much about the world can be learned out in the real world? (Case in point: one of my kids learned about leaves and colours in kindergarten using books. Couldn’t this activity have been a lot more interesting and meaningful if they had gone outside?)

      I definitely ascribe to the John Holt model of education: schools should be like libraries where people learn about what they want to learn, period. None of this testing nonsense, or employing legions of teachers, administrators, or (gasp!) education officials to ensure that people are learning what somebody else thinks they need to learn. We’re all born with the innate desire to be curious, and schools stomp that out. I know. I teach in a school, and I see the results first-hand every day.

      Posted by alanthefriesen | August 8, 2011, 4:02 pm
  4. Alan, I read this in a car hurtling from a Holistic Education conference on Orcas Island in Washington (near Vancouver, for y’all non-Canadians) to another alternative education conference in Portland, OR. I laughed out loud, said to my husband, “YOU GOTTA READ THIS,” and remarked with delight that we’ve got you aboard here at the COOP. I’m so so glad, and this really is a standout.

    My only issue is that the Great School Riots of 2055 is historically inaccurate!

    I think you mean the Great School Riots of 2013!

    And how many of those Cooperative Catalyst bloggers were jailed! What fun they had live tweeting their arrest and then filming each other being booked and sent to their holding cells!

    I got to be jailed with Monika Hardy, so we reinvented the entire prison system right there on the spot and had the guards video themselves and their conversions! Adam Burk created a permaculture garden right there in the men’s latrine, and Chad Sansing started a self-reflective round of recriminatory blog posts among the prisoners that he coalesced into a protest that they took before the judge…Paula White re-educated all the guards’ children, and David Loitz created a Tumblr site with myriad historical references to the riots and imprisonment, while John Spenser reflected on his own early prison experiences, and how they affected his capacity to deal with handcuffs now…

    Well, you get the idea.

    Vive the revolution! Bring it on my friend!

    What are you going to do in prison?


    Posted by Kirsten | August 9, 2011, 6:00 pm
  5. Reminiscent of Asimov’s 1951 short story “The fun they had”…see the blog post at

    Posted by keithsawyer | May 18, 2014, 11:48 am


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