July 30, 2004
One room schools

My good friend Adriana is sending me a lot of useful links at the moment, to all manner of interesting blogs and blog postings I would otherwise not have noticed.

Here's another, from Canadian Robert Paterson, who lives in Prince Edward Island, to the north of Nova Scotia.

He's writing about the "one room schools" that used to abound, in that part of the world and in a lot of other places, but no longer:

None of these schools had more than 50 students. Most had closer to 30. They had a wide range of ages and abilities. In practice, the teacher acted as a learning facilitator. Much of the teaching was done by the older students who helped the younger ones. So while the teacher was an authority figure, she was not the sole talker. Most of the teaching was in the form of a series of conversations between the students themselves. She did not claim to know everything either and called on the wider resources and knowledge in the community to help if needed or pointed the child to the library.

School was integrated into the full life of the community. All the students lived in their community and walked to school. The teacher lived in the community. Marion Reid had retired from teaching when she started her family. A group of parents came to her house one day and made her a deal – they would bay sit her younger children if she would return to teaching their children.

School was augmented by work and life in the community. Children were not excluded from work or their full responsibility for the community in which they lived. All the children had work to do at home or on the farm and learned a great deal of practical things about how the world worked from all the other adults in the community. They were not apart from the work of their families or the community. While there were always naughty kids – they were naughty in the context of a community that had their eye upon them and where the consequences of doing the wrong thing were immediate and powerful.
Very clever kids found that the community got behind them in their efforts to do well - this is part of the story of Anne and Gilbert of Green Gables.

But you say – this was not a very effective school. That is why we needed to consolidate. The kids need the physical resources that come with scale. Not effective?

The kids were fully engaged in their learning and in their full community. Literacy was very high. Now nearly 40% of Islanders cannot read effectively. Next time you watch Ken Burns' film on the US Civil War, think of the literacy of the private soldiers whose letters are featured. I am sure there was bullying of a sort at times but not what we see so often today. It is inconceivable that a community would suffer the mindless vandalism that we see so often today. By walking to school and by participating in the work of the community, kids were in much better shape than today.

This may be a somewhat utopian and rose-tinted view of the past. That's what some of Paterson's commenters argue anyway. But as a possible vision for the future, I think this has real merit. After all, by the nature of the idea, it needn't be attempted on a huge scale. And how could it be worse than what is happening now?

We have isolated our children from a social environment where learning happens as a result of conversation. We have isolated them from those other children who are both younger and older than them. We have isolated them socially from their families and from their communities. We have isolated them from the work of their households and their communities. We have isolated them from adult life. We have isolated them from their bodies. And this is better?

Paterson makes a particular point of the fact that pupils didn't only learn from the one teacher who ran places like these. They were encouraged to study in libraries and to learn from one another. So …

Could we not experiment with a few new/old one room schools again. Imagine what they could be like …

And then comes the inevitable rider, with which I entirely agree:

… especially in an internet world.

A few places like this would be well worth a try.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:46 PM
Category: History