The restrictions under which Mass Education systems were created

Back in the second half of the 19th century, it was becoming quite clear that society was evolving and transforming itself rather quickly. As part of that evolution, the need for evolution, also seen as the right to education, for the unwashed masses was impossible to miss. It could be described as the need for skilled labor, or the necessary next step fater the Enlightenment. In any case, just as organizations were growing, and state institutions were maturing, something new needed to be invented: a machinery to deliver education.

Now, we have to look at what was available in that context: Electricity was barely showing to be practical beyond the lab, with the notable exception of the telegraph. Universities were there, with their professors and training capabilities. There was an increasingly clear sense of where industrialization would be taking us, and this translated into abandoning more and more the craftsman’s practices, and giving space to mass production. Undoubtedly, this was the bright future to hold on to. Something that was quite well established was the printing press. Book creation and distribution systems were in place.

If you were thinking about creating a mass education system in that age, you would certainly usestate-of-the-art technology (for that context):

  • train teachers with a standardized set of concepts
  • make available contents, ie. books, within the constrains of budget
  • equip classroom with visual tools such as posters (recording voice was an eccentricity at best)
  • make sure knowledge transmission would use cutting edge tools such as paper and ink

The key innovation was being able to count on robust printed -instead of hand copied- books’ distribution systems, of course, as the rest had been in use since the days of the renaissance, and even before, as described by Peter Norvig (at 0:39).

One considerable limitation of the 19th century context is that of content transmission. There were strictly 2 ways to massify knowledge distribution:

  1. Inserting knowledge into the teacher, and making him repeat it
  2. Distributing books

But, you see, books were expensive to make. And you need to teach people to read in the first place to really use them anyways.

That’s why one of the main confusions was created in the mass education systems, a confusion that has remained true to this day: The teacher as a content emitter. His mission is to deliver content to the class. Once he has emitted it, he has to make sure that content was received and can be reproduced.

This is true of the way we train teachers, and it is true in most every classroom.

It’s not the only way, Montessori and the Flipped Classroom have shown there are other ways, but almost every classroom you visit responds to that model: the teacher’s job is to emit knowledge, in the hope that the students will catch it and reproduce it flawlessly. [repoducing it is different from making it theirs, by the way]

Of course, if we think of a school that is far from an urban center, where the library was a collection of 20 books, cramming as much knowledge as possible into the teacher, and then having him repeat it was a clever strategy. It was cost-effective. And it did get us where we are.

But is it suitable to remain attached to the limitations of the 19th century to define educational processes for the 21st century? Is that what the creators of the mass education system themselves would do if they had the resources we currently have? In which field of human activity do we ignore (abhor?) innovation to the point that bringing a practitioner from 200 years ago to do his job would work? (i can easily imagine re-training a teacher from the 1800s to teach in a current day classroom in 2 weeks time)