A Brief History of Education

5 minute read

Education today feels more outdated and out of touch than ever. Despite the efforts of many well-intentioned people, our current system largely ignores psychology and struggles to move the needle in meaningful ways for students. Here’s how and why this happened and how it led to our purpose at STRIPES.

The Origins of Public Education

From the 14th century Aztec Empire to 18th century Prussia, there are different theories on when and where universal education began. Most would agree that public education, as we know it today, emerged between the 17th and 18th centuries. The greatest impact public education had was on literacy rates. In the mid-17th century, the literacy rate in England was roughly 20%. By the mid-18th century, the rate had nearly doubled.

While public education continued to expand, there was no consensus on what students should learn. In the US, standards varied greatly between states. Some curricula included components of moral development, good behavior, and elective subjects that took student interests into account. Other approaches emphasized standard classes such as history, mathematics, and English. By the mid-1800s, significant student achievement gaps began to manifest themselves between the states.

Setting “The Standard”

In 1892, the headmasters of 10 US institutions were appointed to unify the direction for the country’s education–and to resolve this achievement gap. This committee would become known as the Committee of Ten. There was disagreement within the committee: some members favored learning through rote memorization while others valued inquiry. Some favored the inclusion of trade subjects while others preferred college preparatory subjects. Some favored differentiated paths while others wanted one track for all students.

Here is what was established:

    • A twelve-year education: 8 elementary and 4 secondary years.
    • The purpose of elementary school was to prepare students for high school. The purpose of high school was to prepare students for college.
    • Core subjects of mathematics, English, history, and science (physics, chemistry, and astronomy) were to be taught in all high schools.
    • Equality of instruction: all subjects should be taught to every student in every school.

The course structure and many of the standards we see in schools today can be traced back to this Committee of Ten.

An Alternative View

By the early twentieth century, advances in psychology began to shape perspectives on education. Two of the most notable psychologists to emerge in education were Jean Piaget and John Dewey. Piaget laid the groundwork for cognitive psychology (i.e., the psychology of how the brain processes information). Piaget asserted that children are naturally curious and that learning is driven by the interplay of this curiosity and searching for the answer.

Dewey would extend this thought to establish the learning cycle: the process by which the mind seeks, acquires, and utilizes new information. Dewey emphasized the importance of engagement in student learning and stated that the amount a student can learn is limited by their motivation [to learn]. He also emphasized the importance of open exploration in this process – that students learn best and are most engaged when they are allowed to explore and discover new information on their own. Both Dewey and Piaget believed that students learn best when they have experiences that directly connect with the curriculum.

The Rise and Fall of Tracking

The Great Depression had a transformative impact on the US education system. Education budgets were slashed, resulting in many schools having to shut their doors. College attendance also dropped significantly. It was during this period that the practice of tracking emerged. The idea was to identify and “track” students who would flourish in postsecondary schools and students who would excel in trade schools. College-prep tracks taught students grammar, Latin, advanced mathematics, and science. Vocational schools taught students practical skills aimed to prepare them for common vocations.

Student tracking was the standard in most US schools until the 1960s when it came under increased scrutiny. As part of the United States’ relentless competition with Russia, a disproportionate amount of funding was being directed toward the sciences. Parents became increasingly concerned that vocational school students wouldn’t be afforded the same opportunities as their college-track peers. Eventually, tracking was phased out and a single universal track was reinstated for all students: the college-prep track.

Fast Forward to Today

The last 50 years have been punctuated by a “trial and error” approach to education: from increased homework to no homework, from Head Start to No Child Left Behind, from traditional classrooms to flipped classrooms, from direct instruction to inquiry-based learning, and from textbooks to text-limited lessons. While perhaps good-intentioned, many of these ideas were born out of frustration with a pendulum that had swung too far in a direction and had little grounding in psychology.

An Alternative View – Revisited

Effective education should account for what Piaget and Dewey discovered a century ago what we intuitively know to be true. That is, students are at their best when:

  • They are engaged by content that has meaning and relevance to them, fueling their innate curiosity to learn.
  • They are given meaningful challenges and genuine opportunities to explore, fail, and grow from their failures.
  • They are building relevant and useful skills that set them up for success in school and beyond.
  • They are guided by someone who understands their learning potential and can take them to the frontier of that potential.

These simple yet powerful principles are the keys to fueling a continuous growth mindset in students that is authentic, useful, and purposeful. They are also key to perpetuating our collective growth so, like our ancestors, we empower future generations to accomplish greater things.