Can You Answer These 25 Questions About the Origin of Modern Educational Trends & Practices?

How Well Do You Know Modern Education?How much do you know about the modern education system? Why do we have letter grades, report cards, compulsory school, and schools broken up by age/grade? How long have we had 1:1 programs, academic standards, online learning, and high stakes testing? Where did these originate? What about buzz phrases learning styles and differentiated instruction? How did they find their way into our schools? There are so many contemporary trends and practices that have deep roots in history. Without a foundation, it is difficult to make sense of what is happening today. Not knowing the history also gives us a lack of context. Getting that context can help us navigate the debates, trends, and constant change. With this in mind, I invite you to test your knowledge by trying to answer the questions below. Some questions focus on K-12, others on higher education, and almost all apply to both. I also included a resource or two to help you explore potential answers to the questions as well. These are all free online sources, making them not always the ideal source on the topic, but they are still helpful. I should also point out that not all the sources represent neutral or unbiased perspectives, but I trust you to sort that out for yourself.

By the way, this is certainly not an exhaustive list. It is not even a list of all the most important issues. For example, I only have one question that addresses topic of race and education, which is obviously no small area of importance today. However, I have picked topics that relate to various “hot topics” in the news and blogosphere, and this should give anyone a great start to understanding this modern Wild West Era of education. Enjoy!

  1. What is the origin and history of the modern letter grade system and why was it instituted?A Short History of Grading, The History of Grading Practices (1971)
  2. How long have we had multiple choice tests? When and why were they created?The Dark History of Multiple Choice Tests
  3. How long have we had learning objectives and why were they created?The History of Learning Objectives and a Glimpse of Post-Objective Education
  4. When was grade-based schooling instituted and what was the rationale for it?Age Grading from the Encyclopedia of Educational Reform and Dissent
  5. What is the origin of “academic standards”? When were they instituted and why?Standards, Assessments & Accountability or Standards-based Reform in the United States
  6. When were bells instituted in schools, why were they added, and what need were they created to fill?I haven’t found a good free online source for this one yet, but will find that it is tied to age grading and similar movements.
  7. What is the history of the Carnegie Unit / credit hour? Why was it initially created?History of the Student Credit Hour , A Brief History of the American Academic Credit System, and The Slow Death of the Carnegie Unit
  8. Why is school required today? Where did that come from? Why do we (in the United States) have compulsory education? Why is the history and original rationale of it?A History of Compulsory Education Law in the United States
  9. Why do most schools have summer breaks? What is the history and purpose of summer break?Agrarian Roots? Think Again: Debunking the Myth of Summer Vacation’s Origins
  10. When did we start using report cards? Did they always look like the ones we remember or see today?A Brief History of Report Cards
  11. What was the Civilization Fund Act of 1819? What was the purpose and impact of it?The Campaign for Civilization or Removal
  12. How has the role and requirements for teachers changed over time?Only a Teacher: Teaching Timeline
  13. Why do we have teacher unions? Where did they come from?Teachers Unions’ Rise: A Look at the Impact Over the YearsThe Effects of Teachers Unions on American Education (con)
  14. What was the original purpose of Bloom’s Taxonomy and how is current usage similar or different from that original purpose?The Need for a Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy
  15. What is the origin of modern talk about teaching according to student learning styles? What researchwas used to support them? What does current researchindicate about learning styles?Learning Styles: An Overview of Theories, Models and Measures; Learning Styles Fact or Fiction: A Literature Review
  16. What is the purpose of education? How have people answered that questions similarly or differently throughout the history of the United States? Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals
  17. How long have schools used textbooks? Why and how did they become a standard part of many schools?History of Textbooks
  18. How long have 1:1 laptop programs been around and what does the research say about them so far?Understanding Parent Perceptions of a 1:1 Program (beginning includes a short history), What Does the Research Say About 1:1 Computing? (2012)
  19. How long have we had distance education and online learning? How has it changed / developed over that time?The Origins of Distance Education, History of Virtual Learning Environments
  20. How long has the idea of differentiated instruction been around? How has it changed/developed/influenced?A Snapshot of Differentiated Instruction, Adjusting the Program to the Child (a 1950s article), The History and Reauthorization of IDEA
  21. What is the origin of the single most influential educational philosophy of modern education, progressivism?Progressivism: Schools and Schools of Education, Getting it Wrong from the Beginning, One to One Computing Initiatives: Ten Considerations for Funding or Implementing Programs
  22. Where did we get this idea of high-stakes testing?A Short History of High Stakes TestingCorporate Control on Public Schools
  23. How did we get all these regional accrediting bodies in higher education? How did the concept of accrediting bodies cometo be and how have they developed?Accreditation in the United States: Origins and Developments
  24. How as business and corporate influence impacted American Education?A Short History of Corporate Influence, Corporate Domination of School Policy and Business Influence on Schools at the Local Level
  25. How long have we had different academic disciplines (content areas)? How did we get them and how have they changed over the years?Organization of Knowledge: The Emergence of Academic Specialities in America, What are Academic Disciplines (long but excellent if you are an education geek like me!)

A Shocking & Brilliant Interdisciplinary Math Curriculum

How about math that matters? While visiting family in Northern Michigan, I came across a fascinating math curriculum by Smith, Lusse and Morss. Following is part of the preface to the curriculum:

In the teaching of mathematics, the end of the sixth year is a critical point. By that time the pupil has completed the learning of the fundamental operations and processes of arithmetic, so that, unless square root is studied, there are no further processes to be learned. There have been many experiments to determine the type of of work that may most profitably be given in the next two years, either in schools organized on the junior-high-school plan or in those in which the elementary organization continues through to the senior high school. In most cases there is general agreement that a thorough training in arithmetic should be the major objective.

This emphasis upon arithmetic does not, however, imply in any way a return to the type of arithmetic of a generation ago in which, with formal computation as a the sole end in view, the problems had almost no relation to the daily lives and interests of the pupils and but little relation to the ways in which the average adult uses arithmetic in life situations. Through coordination, modern education brings out the social significance of such subjects as history, geography, civics, and everyday science. The course in arithmetic can, if developed along similar lines, present a large amount of valuable information about our American daily life, our vast resources, our modern business organizations, our great industries, and our local, state and national forms of government. With all these topics, or at least with the larger features pertaining to each, our future citizens, ­­- the boys and girls now in our schools, -must be familiar if they are take their places as intelligent members of a community.

Can you guess the date of the curriculum? It was published in 1930 as a shared project between David Smith of Columbia Teachers College, Eva Luse of Iowa State Teachers College, and Edward Morss (a textbook editor). While some of the wording hints at the date, it reads with a strange relevance for today as well.  It is an applied math text organized around real world themes. Here are some of the chapters and themes:

  • Computations that People Use in Everyday Life (earning money, spending money, making money, saving money)
  • Percentage Applied to Simple Mercantile Problems (short cuts and checking, buying and selling on commission, discounts on wholesale purchases, the merchant and his problems, borrowing money, and review of percents)
  • Computation Used by the Individual in Banking and Investing Money (doing business with a bank, interest and notes, general nature of corporations, protecting investments)
  • Study of Useful Geometric Forms, with Practice in Drawing (geometric forms in nature, familiar solids, geometric forms in art, drawing geometric figures)

Part two of the curriculum includes topics like math and our food supply, power supply, clothing supply, transportation, and building industries. It also includes things like stocks and bonds, the cost of government, reading graphs and statistics in the real world, what the government does for us, measurements, everyday science and the metric system.

This is not just a curriculum that answers the “why are we learning this?” question of students. The entire text is built around that question. It would be nearly impossible for a student to go through such math education without having a rich understanding of why math is important for the rest of life. If you hope to one day own a car, take out a loan, finance a new idea, figure out your taxes, buy or sell something, or buy a large-ticket item. In fact, the curriculum is not only focused on the uses of math in the future lives of the students. It spends significant time exploring how math is useful for students in the present.

Note that the purpose of this curriculum is to review or teach the application of math to real world contexts that will be relevant and valuable to most any citizen. It is interdisciplinary in that it touches on business, government, science, home economics, art, and social studies. And it is deeply applied. There is not a single math concept that is taught or introduced apart from the real world contexts where it might be used. There is repetition of math concepts, but not a repetition of the concepts in a single domain of life. In other words, it provides review and repetition without promoting boredom and monotony. It further talks about math as a tool for life, and reading through it I can’t help but think that most learners would readily recognize this fact. In an era where there is frequent focus on teaching math as preparation for the next level of math (in high school or college), this struck me as a wonderfully fresh, creative and promising model. It also offers examples of how math can be learned and reinforced amid self-directed learning projects, project based learning, problem based learning, case-based learning. In fact, I see hints of those approaches in this 80+ year old curriculum.

I found this curriculum (as two thin bound books) in a small used bookstore in Alpha, Michigan, a town of less than 150 people that is celebrating its centennial. Somewhere around the late 1960s, the school closed, and the beautiful but slightly dilapidated building is now used to house a small town library, a used bookstore, a handful of shops, and a small restaurant. I couldn’t help but wonder if these books were not once the curriculum used at the school. So, standing in the hallways of a once vibrant but now closed school, I discovered that the teaching and learning continues…even if it is just through the serendipitous discovery of a brilliant and cutting edge curriculum from 1930. As much as I enjoy looking at the emerging and future possibilities for teaching and learning, I continue to discover rich and valuable examples from the past.

What Schools Can Learn from the History of Mr. Potato Head

The first ( of what I hope is an annual) Online Home School Conference finished on Saturday, August 24 with an excellent lineup of speakers. It was an action and content-packed event with a wonderfully and unusually diverse group of speakers and attendees.  There were unschoolers, faith-based homeschoolers, world schoolers, learners of a types, free and democratic school advocates, teachers and leaders of traditional and alternative schools, researchers, faculty, authors, consultants, and community activists. It was also encouraging to see such diversity of perspective represented.  My understanding is that they plan to run the conference a second time in January, so keep your digital eyes open for announcements and a call for proposals. You can check the web site, or my guess is that new information will also show up on Twitter under #homeschool14.

While I appreciated and learned from many excellent presentations, the one that provided me with largest aha! moment was with Elliot Washor of Big Picture Learning. More specifically, it was his comparison of schools to Mr. Potato Head. I should note that Elliot’s comment informed and inspired this post/article, but his comments are mixed with my own commentary.  Elliot explained that Mr. Potato Head was originally sold as a box full of pats with push pins that you could insert into an actual potato (or perhaps a cucumber, banana, orange, or even a pumpkin). It was up to the individual to decide what and where to add the items, and my guess is that young people often improvised by adding their own self-made items from around the house. That is how it started.  As noted in the Wikipedia history, there was push-back about the idea in the earliest days because of the food rationing that occurred in the previous years during World War II. Nonetheless, it started as a toy in some cereal boxes. Not much later, as it became a stand-alone toy, it continued to be just the parts, with the users contributing the potato.

(Note: I did not do much fact checking on this.  I’m largely leaning on the Wikipedia article and the sources cited in that article, but I verified the general concept with a couple of people who experienced these early toys firsthand as kids.)

Things changed in the 1960s due to government regulations.  Those push-pins were too sharp so they required the makers to do something about that, and the small parts were a choking hazard.  In response, the next iteration of the toy included a plastic potato body with holes that allowed the add-on parts (with dull edges) to be inserted in the pre-determined locations. Then there was a third version.  This was similar to the last, but the parts were all larger (to decrease the choking hazard and/or to minimize the need for some of the fine motor skills, perhaps?). The shapes of the holes in the plastic potato body were also changed so that parts could only be inserted in certain holes and in certain ways (Although I think that changed back as the last time I played with a Mr. Potato Head with my kids, we were free to add the parts as you saw fit.).

Elliot Washor used this as an illustration of our school system.  We have regulated and industrialized the system.  There is even arguably good cause for some of the decisions (e.g. safety).  Nonetheless, what did we lose in the process? As I reflect upon this illustration, I can’t help but think about alternatives to the highly regulated and increasingly standardized approaches to standards and curricula. As shown at the Homeschool Conference, The Alternative Education Resource Organization and many such events and communities, the possibilities are nearly endless and there are many exciting and promising communities in place, ones that seek to offer learners an environment that is characterized by discovery, experimentation, and self-directed learning.

As I often note on this blog and elsewhere, and as I was reminded during this conference, we are in the Wild West Era of education today, and that is exciting. I am honored to live, take part in, and learn from the many promising possibilities for learning and community in the 21st century.  How about you?

Cultivating 5 Perspectives on Educational Change & Innovation

5 Perspectives on Educational Innovation

We are in an era of educational experimentation, and it is hard to argue against the fact that the digital revolution fuels much of this experimentation.  Many aspects of traditional schooling are being questioned, some abandoned in search of new possibilities for student-centered, customized, high-impact learning experiences with the hope of equipping students for the unique challenges and opportunities of the contemporary world.  Some, like myself, get excited about this experimentation.  Others are skeptical, exhausted by the seemingly constant influx of new educational trends.  Just when you get comfortable with one, another arrives to replace it.

Wherever one is in this spectrum of emotional or intellectual responses, I am confident that the educational systems of today will not return to the dominant models and metaphors of the recent past.  There have always been educational experimentations, but they have been in the minority for the past seventy years.  Today, educational experimentation is becoming mainstream.

Regardless of where each of us stand on the topic of today’s educational experiments, I suggest that there are six perspectives that have much insight to offer us, insights that will help us to avoid the warnings of William Inge when he wrote, “He who marries the spirit of the age will find himself a widower in the next.”  These are not perspectives intended to slow educational innovation, but ones that have great promise to help us shape the innovations that we choose to embrace.  They may even help us decide which ones to embrace, or inspire us to come up with innovations of our own.

The Historical Perspective

Looking at the history of education allows us to gain new insight into changes and innovations of the past.  Things that we consider central attributes of schooling might turn out to be relatively new when we look at the broader historical perspective.  Grade-based classes, bells, letter grades…these are relatively new.  People still learned before letter grades and traditional schools existed.  They are not the essence of an education.  Similarly, looking at the history of education, we find that today’s innovations are sometimes similar to models and methods of the past.  We also discover that certain aspects of contemporary education do not seem to have an historical equal.  In addition, looking at the history of educational change and innovation, we can learn about why things changed.  We may discover that the changes that we now embrace did not occur to improve student learning.  They may well be innovations of necessity or efforts to increase scale or efficiency.

When I talk about the historical perspective, I am not referring to some broad introduction to the history of education.  For this to have value, it requires historical thinking, asking specific questions and exploring what history can teach us about them.  What is the history of letter grades and report cards? What is the history of distance education (including forms that existed before the Internet)? What about the history of childhood?  Has childhood always existed or is our contemporary notion more of a social construct?  What about the history of grade-based learning, where students study alongside people of their own age?  How old is that? What about the history of the book?  How did that change education?  What other educational models existed in the past?  Asking historical questions give us a depth of insight from which we can experiment or resist certain experiments today, but only if we do this deeply and honestly.  This is not about finding historical ammunition to win our personal educational battles.  For this perspective to help us, it requires us to strive for insight, even if the insights challenge our positions or educational preferences.

The Global Perspective

While some have opportunity to experience different educational systems around the world, many do not.  And yet, reading about, networking with, and visiting educational systems around the world provides us with rich insights into diverse educational models, metaphors, and methods.  Striving to understand these different perspectives offers us a renewed appreciation for some of our own educational traditions as well as those from other parts of the world. We can ask what “education” and “learning” looks like in different parts of the world. Looking beyond school buildings, we can gain new insights into the role of family, community, geography, and culture in education.

The Ethnographic Perspective

Ethnography is a research method that we sometimes use to study cultures, communities and people groups.  It involves cultural artifacts, interviews, and lots of observation…even participant observation.  Ethnographic research is experiential, collecting data with one’s own senses, but also testing one’s perceptions when possible.  Whatever the case, the ethnographic approach to studying education requires that we get out and do some interviewing and observing, asking ourselves and others questions that will allow us to have a deeper understanding of different types of learning communities.  This is the approach that I use to study innovative schools, and I can personally attest to the joy of learning that is possible through these experiences.  It is a great way to get informed about the diverse models of education at work today.  Charter schools are a great place to start, given that many of them have clear and distinct differences (e.g. project-based learning or game-based learning) from other schools.  Of course, not all of us have the time and resources to visit these schools in person, but the digital world gives almost all of us remote access to these people and places. Simply browsing YouTube videos and schools web sites give us a taste of this “ethnographic” learning experience.

The Autobiographical Perspective

Each of us has a learning history (it started with our conception), and exploring that will help us to better understand our own beliefs, biases, values, and perspectives.  Exploring educational change and innovation in view of these learning histories allows us to gain new perspective on some of our moral, emotional and intellectual reactions to the changes around us. This is does not mean that we always need to change our beliefs or values.  It may well be that this perspective grounds us and gives us a sense of where we will and will not budge.  Nonetheless, the examined life of learning has much to offer.

The Scientific Perspective

Biological, psychological, and sociological research today is exciting.  Consider the educational possibilities that emerge from the recent developments in brain research, positive psychology, organizational psychology, and the sociology of education.  These findings give us an opportunity to examine and re-examine schools and education with new understanding.

To what extent do our current systems, structures and methods align with what we know about how people learn?  This perspective invites us to ask new questions.  How can we design schools and learning organizations that respect and/or maximize the design features of our brains and bodies?  How can we cultivate positive strength-based learning communities? How can we use current research in psychology and sociology to create safe schools?  Of course, it is important to remember that research findings are tentative, and premature efforts to apply scientific findings to educational design are dangerous and misplaced.  At the same time, ignoring the blessings of such research is equally mistaken.  That is where comparing and contrasting scientific findings has great promise for shaping educational innovation.  This is no easy task, and the scientific perspective is inadequate on its own.

The Philosophical Perspective

Questions about ethics, truth, and the nature of reality may seem esoteric, but they matter when it comes to education (and pretty much all of life).  There are philosophies that inform the many methods and models at work in education, and ignoring them does not reduce their influence. Ignoring them does risk minimizing both our influence and our understanding of why things are happening the way that they are.

The philosophical lens helps us to develop an understanding of things like homeschooling, religious education, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, direct instruction, differentiated instruction, the concept of the community public school, the classical education movement, the open learning movement, distance education, and much more. There are philosophies at work in each of these, and simply analyzing educational movements by the sum of their observable parts would leave us with a flawed and incomplete understanding.  Like it or not, we can’t avoid exploring the philosophical side of things.  However, like the historical perspective, it is easy to abuse this, philosophizing to prove our pre-existing positions or educational ideologies.  Instead, consider the benefits of using this perspective in the genuine pursuit of truth.

I’m sure that there are many more perspectives that could benefit our experimentation and discourse about education today, but these are a good start, and I contend that many are critical to pursuing educational innovation of substance and long-term significance. In an age of for-profit education, edtech startups, constant innovation and unprecedented educational experimentation; the field of education desperately needs people who are more than technicians.  We need thinkers and designers who embrace the importance of these five perspectives.

Note: For those of you who come from a faith tradition (I, for example, am deeply proud of the Lutheran distinctives that inform my educational thought), for the sake of this initial proposal, I put that in the category of philosophical perspectives, although I appreciate the argument that a “theological perspective” would be an appropriate and worthwhile addition to the list.