Kids These Days

What was the relationship between students and technology in the 19th century? Did teachers have the same concerns about students using new media in disruptive ways? Or becoming distracted by the latest gadget snuck into the classroom?

In 1812, Joseph Lancaster introduced a revolutionary technological shift to the classroom, promising a brave new world for teachers.

A group of young boys stands around an older boy teaching from a poster
Older boys were responsible for teaching younger boys in the Lancasterian system.

In Patricia Crain’s “Children of Media, Children as Media,” students themselves become part of this technology revolution in early 19th century schools. Lancaster’s brand new model for the classroom would almost do away with the need for teachers and books. Instead, older boys would be responsible for teaching younger students, while referring to large posters around the room illustrating basic concepts. A “telegraph system,” consisting of projected symbols at the front of the classroom accompanied by a ringing bell, alerted the students that it was time to change activities.

In Lancaster’s system, one teacher would supervise from the front of the classroom at the bottom of a slight incline, leaving older boys in charge of each small group while always keeping watch.

Crain demonstrated how this process effectively made children into cogs in a machine and stripped them of their individuality, making the Lancasterian classroom ideal for mission schools attempting to assimilate nonwhite populations into the Anglo-American system.

Lancaster’s system raises a lot of concerns about the way we see children, even to this day. In the United States a student takes, on average 112 standardized tests over the course of their K-12 education. Parents, teachers, and students alike worry about the stress and burnout children feel from constant testing. What will the long-term effects on students be when we constantly take away instruction time (especially in the arts and music) in order to test them yet again?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a set of standards, meant to be nationally implemented, with common goals for students at each grade level to achieve. The idea behind Common Core was that all students across the country would have equal educations, and that this would raise the level of achievement in general in the United States. However, it has been broadly criticized by educators, in particular, who argue that the standardization of curriculum doesn’t motivate students or make them excited to learn–it saps the creativity and fun out of school.

In both Lancaster’s system and the 21st century classroom, children have lost a piece of their individuality as we have become obsessed with children more as a set of statistics to measure achievement than individuals with unique and diverse interests. Our contemporary models of education still contain vestiges of the colonialist and paternalistic mindset implemented by Lancaster and his contemporaries. However, contemporary media also allows teachers to push back on these models, as well.


5 Replies to “Kids These Days”

  1. I love how you connected a very complex historical concept to ongoing issues in education! Your blog is super easy to read and understand. You give so many opportunities to start discussions and continue discussions through your writing and your hyperlinking to appropriate articles. I agree that children have lost their individuality; I am hoping that one day you could elaborate on the contemporary media that allows push back to these ideas.


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