What is something that almost all of us spend at least 20,000 hours of our lives on? You guessed it, schooling.
Schooling is something which has become so widely accepted, so commonplace that it is almost seen as a gospel truth. Universal primary education is one of the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations. Governments enforce compulsory schooling. Let’s also not forget the voices of our parents ringing in our ears telling us “School is important. Without school, you won’t be able to get ahead in life”
However, the more I read about schooling the more I was surprised to find out that schooling hasn’t always been like this. In fact, schooling is an extremely recent idea in the grand timeline of humans’ existence on this planet. Compulsory schooling only began…here.
To understand the education system in place today, we have to rewind the clock hundreds of years into the past and see how our system came to be. Only history holds the answers to the future.
The Grand History of Formal Education
Between 400-300 BC, Plato and Aristotle started the first forms of formal education in Greece, “The Academy” and “The Lyceum”.With the rise of the Roman Empire, more people became educated in Europe. However, as the Roman Empire fell so did the ability to read and write. Even some priests could no longer read the Bible. The churches felt that all priests should at least be able to read and write and hence founded schools within the churches. Throughout the Middle Ages, a large part of schooling was based on religious studies and were carried out in religious institutions. Priests, monks, bishops became the teachers of this era. However, only the children of rich families could afford this formal education.
It was only around the 1500s where formal education became more widespread, with more schools being built in Europe, India, Japan and the United States. These schools were still mainly started by religious denominations but slowly progressed away from being religion-based over the next 300 years. Formal education remained generally exclusive to the aristocrats of society (the rich guys) until 1837 when one man changed the future of schooling forever – by creating the first tax to support the idea of public schools in the United States.
Horace Mann’s idea of public schools sparked a global revolution, with many other countries following suit. Japan, France and Russia adopted the idea of public schools over the next couple of decades and made schooling compulsory. He is often referred to as the “Father of the Common School Movement”. Basically it was Horace Mann’s idea that we should all go to school and become educated young boys and girls.
But making such a complex system like education into a “one size fits all” system is no easy task. What subjects were necessary for an all-rounded education? How long should a formal education last? How should students be categorized?
Horace Mann who was newly appointed as the Secretary of the Board of Education in the United States was tasked to create an education system for the Americans. During his appointment, he visited schools in England, Scotland, Belgium, Holland and other parts of Europe to find inspiration. He found his answer somewhere in the depths of Europe, in this small little kingdom called “Prussia” (It was actually really huge. In modern day countries, it would consist of East Germany, a part of Russia and Northern Poland). The Prussians created a system to organize formal education into a systematic way known today as the “Prussian Education System”. This system would soon be adopted by institutions all over the world and become accepted as the norm. It went something like….
THE PRUSSIAN SYSTEM
The Prussian System has a few key defining features, which can all be seen in today’s education system – education based on age, wide range of subjects being taught, and a fixed syllabus for each of these subjects. The Prussians thought that the best way for children to be educated in an orderly manner was using a concept which had recently become very popular during the that time period – mass production.
Children of different ages are organised by batches and moved along a fixed route. These children are organized by age – the easiest way to classify them. As these batches of children are moved along from grade to grade, different levels of knowledge are imparted onto them; more advanced math, more complex science, more profound literature. This conveyor belt system moves at a fixed speed and children remain in their predetermined batches. To cater to the different types of children, a whole load of information is fed to them hoping that the children will be passionate in at least one of the subjects taught. There was no freedom for a student to choose not to do mathematics nor was there freedom for a student to pursue quantum physics whilst in primary school. There was a very little option to personalize one’s education in school. Because how could governments possibly provide personalized education for each individual student? Teachers were limited, schools even more so. This system of mass production of education seemed at that time to be the most efficient way of organizing the country’s youth – and Horace Mann liked it.
Mann and a group of educators in the United States known as the Committee of Ten set out to standardize the system by creating the k-12 system (kindergarten through twelfth grade) and selected the core subjects which should be taught to all students: Mathematics, Sciences and English. With the imposition of this new system and compulsory schooling in the US, literacy rates quickly increased. Everything was going well for Mann.
With Mann actively lobbying for the use of this system in the United States, other countries took notice as well. The Prussian System seemed to captivate leaders in education from all over the world. This was the first time where education could be available to the masses, the first time where the country’s youth could be fully literate. Combined with the booming industrial revolution of the 1800s, people fell in love with the idea of mass production, even in education. Soon enough, many countries had adopted this system and it had changed the path of humanity for years to come.
What made the Prussian system so viable in the 1800s that almost every government in the world readily accepted it? It was its ability to mass educate its people. No other system in the world was able to educate children as quickly and as broadly as the Prussian system. However, that does not mean that the Prussian system was perfect. In fact, it was far from it. This system lacked the ability to cater to each individual child’s ability or preferences, but governments were willing to overlook this in exchange for higher literacy rates or other political agendas.
The Prussians created this system with the main intention of improving economic stability. Prussia faced a heavy defeat in the battle of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806 where Napoleon’s army destroyed the Prussian forces. They lost vast territories and had drained its resources in the war. The country was certainly not in a healthy state. With this severe loss came many social and political reforms; one of these reforms was the Prussian education system. These reforms were made with the aims of attaining economic recovery from the suffocating loss. In Prussia, the education system was more rigid than the system adopted by Mann. Public schooling was provided with the purpose of cultivating the youths to be:
- Obedient soldiers to the army
- Obedient workers for the farms, factories and mines
- Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function
- Well-subordinated clerks
- Citizens who thought alike on most issues
- National uniformity in thought, word and deed
Pretty scary, right? The Prussians seemed to instate this system to brainwash the future generation of children. This is however understandable because with uniformity in purpose and in thought, economic progress is much more efficient. With the entire nation’s population having a similar vision, disputes are less likely to occur and the government can more easily decide on the direction of the nation.
The governments were willing to forgo the element of personality for the sake of other agendas. Parents who felt that the system was not able to cater to the specific needs of their children decided to try homeschooling. However, most parents believed in this system and surrendered their children to the public schools in the hopes of educating their children. As generations passed, the Prussian idea had spread across the entire world and was accepted by the vast majority.
Because which sane parent would withdraw their children from a system which is so widely accepted, right?
Fast-forward 150 years to the 21st century, the core system of education hasn’t undergone any radical changes. Students are still grouped by age. Students still follow a fixed syllabus for the subjects offered in schools. Education is still impersonal. Despite a progression from the industrial era to the technological era we are in today, the education system has remained untouched. Understandably, it was an almost impossible task to give every child the education which would best suit him in the 1800s due to a lack of infrastructure and manpower. However, with the power of the internet is a personal education really impossible?
Times have changed; technology has evolved. We have progressed from the first 12 second flight by the Wright Brothers to landing on the moon within 66 years. We have created computers thousands of times faster and tens of thousands of times smaller. We have created bombs which can almost instantly destroy entire cities. And yet we haven’t seen changes in the field of education for 150 years despite these advancements in technology.
With the invention of the internet, information is so easily accessibly to anyone on this planet. Online resources like Khan Academy, Coursera and edX are testament to the potential of learning of any individual using the internet. We can learn almost anything without requiring physical teachers like the ones needed to teach in schools during the 19th and 20th century.
However, this isn’t saying that schools are totally redundant in the world today. There are other aspects to schooling such as social growth and character development which cannot be taught over the internet. Instead of ignoring one or the other, schools should take advantage of the systems available in today’s technological era. Salman Khan from Khan Academy predicts that by 2060 most learning will be done from home and classrooms will be used for active discovery such as building things, creating things and active discussion with teachers. Instead of lecture-style lessons where a teacher imparts information to a group of students and they take notes, students will be able to learn things which interest them at their own pace and on their own time. This will spur an increase in innovation in the fields of science, math, and art where students who are truly passionate about these subjects are driven by their own curiosity and will not be limited by the fixed system which is currently in place today.
Other than a reversal in the method in which information is acquired, it is also a possibility for fixed routes such as the k-12 or the primary/secondary education system to be abolished. These systems use standardized tests like the SAT, A-levels or the O-levels to grade students after they finish their education. However, these standardized tests do not show a student’s capability in one area where he or she may be leaps and bounds further than the rest of the students. Achievement-based grading will be more effective than standardized tests in assessing a student’s level of understanding or competence in any subject. In the past, it was virtually impossible to set tests of different difficulties for every subject to assess students’ capability, but with the internet this is definitely much easier to do administratively. For example, a student could take a test on Further Calculus and Further Statistics to show that he is extremely *competent in mathematics instead of scoring an 800 for *SAT on the math paper. This allows a more accurate representation of a student’s competence than current standardized test systems.
It’s already 15 years into the 21st century and the education system has remained stagnant since more than a hundred years ago. We don’t want to get left behind by the ever-accelerating bullet-train whizzing past us which is technological progress. Adaptability has always been one of human’s greatest qualities and we need to adapt to the technology which is available to us today for us to progress even further – to infinity and beyond.