Striving for the top in the old classrooms

 

A friend enthusiastically told me about finding, on a visit back to what was once his home town in England, the British Schools Museum. It was housed in a set of old school buildings, not just any old set but one that had housed the first “Monitorial School”[1]

The idea of the school started in 1808 following a discussion on the education of the children of the working poor between Joseph Lancaster and a landowner William Wilshere, a local lawyer and land-owner. At that time it was considered unnecessary for them to learn – it was likely to give them ideas above their station! And furthermore there was no government funding, and very few private schools of any worth.

A group of like-minded people clustered around Wilshere and an old malt-house was converted in the town of Hitchin into what came to be known as a Monitorial, or Lancasterian, school.

Children were taught by the methods developed by Lancaster. One teacher taught a number of the older and more able children; they then passed onto other children what they had learned. The school taught both boys and girls (another revolutionary idea) but they were taught separately. It became very popular and in 1837 the Lancasterian Schoolroom was built to accommodate the numbers of boys who flocked there to learn. Over time additional classrooms have been added to the site including the Infants’ and Girls’ school.

The site is now extremely important to the history of elementary education that it portrays. We have yet to find another schoolroom built to Lancaster’s specification, with the supporting pillars marking the teaching aisles still in place, surviving anywhere else in the world.

The Museum describes the classroom thus:

The room was built in 1837 to enable one master to teach 300 boys with the aid of 30 monitors by the Lancasterian method. It is the only known complete example to survive in the world. The pupils sat facing the master on benches at narrow desks and were taught by the monitors at semi-circular ‘teaching stations’ around the walls.

That captures the model. Older children taught the younger children. The “monitors” (hence the “monitorial” school) would receive instruction which was then passed on to groups of students. One bright spark, an inspector who visited the school had an idea, why not have the floor rising on tiers that reflected the standards reached. He was Matthew Arnold the poet.

I am sure that I have seen a photo of a classroom in New Zealand that was tiered to reflect the standards and we certainly made use of pupil-teachers. In order to supplement the numbers of teachers in a school, the older children, while still pursuing their own learning, taught the younger ones under the supervision of a teacher. In New Zealand they received a small wage for doing this.

I am not sure that we attempted to teach 300 students in one classroom as happened under the Lancastrian Model! Of course New Zealand was small and we might have been struggling in the middle of the 19th century to find 300 young people in one place! But multi-level teaching is common in small rural schools still. There are examples of single sex classes within co-ed schools in New Zealand.

What we have inherited is the fixed views surrounding educational progress and while our classrooms seem flat we still make pupils climb the tiers from one standard to the next. The word “standard” used to describe the levels in New Zealand primary education only disappeared relatively recently. And I speculate that the use of the word “form” for a class level or year level in secondary schools is a hangover from the fact that the students were seated on forms according to progress.

Much that we have and do in schools is the result of previous practice and often is a reflection of thinking at the time. It is not entirely arbitrary that the word “grade” is used in systems that rely heavily on testing or that “year level” is used in systems that uncritically fire people onwards and upwards as year-end ticks by. And the tiered classroom lives on in so many ways.

What anaylsis would we make of some of the new schools being built if we expect their physical characteristics to reflect a way of working as, once, the schools of John Lancaster did?

[1]  www.britishschoolsmuseum.co.uk

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