Course Handout - Education Timeline

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First published online 09:00 BST 16th June 2004, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [HT.1 - transfer of copyright] dated 18:00 14th January 2010


1 - Introduction

Most analyses of educational history date the modern era to the publication of Ralph W. Tyler (1902-1994)'s "Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction" (Tyler, 1949). Prior to Tyler, there are surprisingly few qualitatively distinct stages in the history of education before we find ourselves back beyond the Bronze Age. In the following timeline, we have identified six main stages in all, separated by more or less precise transition events .....

2 - The Timeline

2.1 Ancient Education (to 387BC)

This period goes back to the beginnings of recorded time, around 3000BC. It begins with the dynastic civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and then progresses through the Homeric and Spartan phases of Greek history into its Athenian phase. It was not a time of education for all, by right. Rather, it was a time of apprenticeships, when scribes taught scribes, masons taught masons, and physicians taught physicians. Nevertheless, the period managed to produce such names as Hippocrates, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato, and there were schools of a sort by the fifth century BC, if only for the sons of the elite. Plato was an Athenian Greek, and despite his own military service would probably have been regarded by the Spartan Greeks as effete and degenerate. This is because the Spartans made far more of discipline and deprivation, and far less of the niceties of life, as the historian Plutarch explains .....

"As for learning, [Spartan children] had just what was absolutely necessary. All the rest of their education was calculated to make them subject to command, to endure labour, to fight and conquer. They added, therefore, to their discipline, as they advanced in age; cutting their hair very close, making them go barefoot, and play, for the most part, quite naked." (Langhorne and Langhorne, Plutarch's Lives, 1823, pp37-38.)

The period also eventually produced the archetype of one-to-one dialectic education, namely the Platonic tradition of the essentially conversational pursuit of reasoned out truth, especially between a younger and an older party. The period ended in 387BC, with the formalisation of the Platonic tradition in what many regard as the first university .....

2.2 Classical Education (387BC to 799AD)

Plato's prototype university was founded near a grove dedicated to the earlier Athenian hero Akademos (whence the word "academy"), and marked a high point of classical Greek education. This was the period which gave us Plato's student Aristotle, Archimedes, and Euclid, and which saw the founding of the Ptolemaic library and research institute at Alexandria, arguably the first of only two wonders of the educational world (the other being the Internet). The curriculum at the Academy consisted of 15 years' study aimed at raising the capable scholar all the way from childhood to a genuine understanding of goodness, truth, beauty, and justice, whereupon he became fit for public office [see the discussion of areté in Section 2.4 below, and in our e-paper on "Experiential Learning"]. During this time, curricular activities included gymnastics, military drill, oratory, and debate. Much the same pattern was adopted by the Romans as their empire gradually outgrew the Greeks, and again the highest education - that provided at Orator School - was reserved for those families who could afford it.

The classical period finally declined as Rome declined into the so-called Dark Ages, and, until the first stirrings of renaissance were felt in 800AD, education withdrew into monasteries and convents. The Christian monastic movement probably began as a group of huts clustered around the home of an acknowledged holy man, and slowly evolved into a purpose-built place of worship, sanctuary, and learning. St. Benedict (480-543) was probably the single most influential figure in the process, founding the Benedictine Order at Subiaco in Italy in the early years of the sixth century. Monasteries were not schools as such, but because they took the monks for life were de facto the source of scriptural learning and of whatever went with it. One senior monk, the cantor, trained choirboys in the chanting, and often ended up also as librarian and archivist. Another, the novice-master, kept a watchful eye over the trainees, exercising them daily in their calling, and enforcing St. Benedict's personal teaching that "the first grade of humility is obedience without delay" ("The Rule of St. Benedict", ca530AD; para 5).

2.3 Renaissance Education (800 to 1664)

On Christmas Day 800, following more than 30 years' military campaigning, Charlemagne took the throne of the newly unified Frankish empire. This comprised most of modern Western Europe, and would later be called the Holy Roman Empire. This date is another major breakpoint in the history of education, because it ushered in a tradition of renaissance which lasted in total close on a thousand years. Indeed, the first discernible period of rebirth - the Carolingian Renaissance - was brought about by the new Emperor personally, in that he surrounded himself with scholars and established Latin schools to improve his bishops' grammar. Later periods saw the birth of the modern university movement with the creation of universities at Bologna (1088), Salamanca (1218), Padua (1222), Oxford (1249), and Cambridge (1284). The curricula at these new institutions was initially theology and philosophy, but gradually grew more secular.

For education in general, the next key date was 1511, when Erasmus of Rotterdam (146?-1536) published De Ratione Studii (1511; translated as "On the Method of Study"). This Dutch priest-tutor took as his starting point the very nature of knowledge, arguing as follows .....

"All knowledge falls into one of two divisions: the knowledge of 'truths' and the knowledge of 'words', and if the former is first in importance, the latter is acquired first in order of time. They are not to be commended who, in their anxiety to increase their store of truths, neglect the necessary art of expressing them." (source.) <<AUTHOR'S NOTE: Erasmus's analysis is largely borne out by scientific research into functional brain lateralisation. What he called "the knowledge of truths" may upon further investigation turn out to be the "right brain skills" identified by workers such as Geschwind, Sperry, Gazzaniga, and Gardner, and much if not all of what he called "the knowledge of words" has been recognised as "left brain skill" ever since the days of Broca and Wernicke [see neuro timeline]. There is a lot of evidence, in other words, pointing to a creative non-verbal right hemisphere forced to express itself (and not always totally effectively) via a more verbally competent, but distinctly less inspired, left hemisphere.>>

The importance of words in the genesis of ideas led Erasmus to base his curriculum on the study of Latin and Greek, but his approach - and it was decidedly innovative in its time - was not to hammer the rules of grammar into children's heads by rote, but to encourage its creative usage by guided experience with it. Mere knowledge of linguistic rules does not of itself bestow command of language - that can only come with daily conversational use thereof. Erasmus also spoke out in favour of physical education and against severe discipline. His approach is summarised by Rorty (2001, p6) as "present both sides of controversies fairly, admit ignorance, and claim no more than you can prove".

For religious education, the key date was 1548, when the Jesuit school system was founded in Messina, Sicily, by Ignatius of Loyola (later Saint Ignatius). This system spread rapidly throughout the Christian world, and remains to this day a model of strict Roman Catholicism. Its educational principles were recorded after Ignatius' death in the Ratio Studiorum (Society of Jesus, 1599). The curriculum was summarised in 1883 by Fr. Luis Martin as requiring (a) that students be active, and (b) that "insistence be placed on the genuine formation of the human faculties rather than on the amassing and learning of facts" (cited in Ely, 1980). As for the methods of achieving this: "[Students] often wrote imitations of speeches they were studying. They engaged in exercises in composition, in disputations, in contests, in giving speeches, and acting in plays" (Ely, 1980). However, though the Jesuits regard themselves as progressive, we would classify them as conservative (a) because much of their source literature was "scrupulously controlled for its orthodoxy" (Rorty, 2001, p5), and (b) because the organisation's role in life was as proselytisers (ie. converters to a new faith) of that orthodoxy.

2.4 Enlightenment (1665 to 1869)

With the growth of experimental science in the 17th century (1665 saw the first issue of the first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) came more deliberate reflection upon method. This was the period when natural processes - physical and biological - started to be (a) understood, and (b) ever more effectively investigated. Fortunately, some of the new thinking rubbed off on education itself, and there were several early examples of reflection upon the purposes, structures, and techniques of education. In Britain, one of the most notable figures was the "British Empiricist" philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), developer of the now famous view that the mind of the newborn infant was a tabula rasa, or "blank slate", a place onto which to record the lessons of life, from the smallest to the biggest.

Now in any "nurturist" philosophy such as Locke's, it becomes the task of the educator to write things on this slate, slowly and minutely preparing children for "the age of reason" when they would finally be able to control the acquisition of knowledge for themselves. Locke promoted workhouse schools for pauper children aged 3-14 years, where they could be taught a practical trade. As for developing the character of the learner, Locke mentioned four requirements in the following order of importance: (1) virtue, (2) wisdom, (3) manners, and (4) learning per se. The fact that knowledge was thereby relegated to the bottom of the list was for its time a radical position, because it shows how the mediaeval concept of scholar was beginning to be rolled back in favour of the Platonic concept of areté ("excellence" or "virtue"). With ordinary schoolmasters, the test of knowledge was the power to reproduce it verbatim, but for Locke it was the power to support the reasoning process (Quick, 1893).

The next major British innovation was the "monitorial" system of classroom organisation and control, the joint brainchild of Andrew Bell (1753-1832) and Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838). Bell was a Scottish clergyman who had served for some time as army chaplain to the East India Company in Madras. His duties there included educating soldiers' children, and this took up so much of his time that around 1791-2 he devised a clever way to improve his own productivity. This involved setting older children - he called them "monitors" - to teach the younger. The method worked well, and he returned to England to try it there. Again the monitor system worked well, and he published a full account of his experiences in "An Experiment in Education" (1797). These successes duly earned him a strong reputation as an educational guru, and allowed him to found two schools of his own in St. Andrews and Cupar, Scotland (Madras College, St. Andrews, survives and thrives to this day). Lancaster opened his first school in Southwark, London, in 1798, and more or less independently re-invented the Madras methods. He, too, would cascade his lessons down through the various ages via a selected group of older children. Again the method proved popular with the public, and in only a short time he had a thousand pupils on the roll. He recorded his early experiences in "Improvements in Education" (1803). Mueller (2001) attributes the method's success to nothing more complicated than its cost-efficiency, citing the fact that in Philadelphia in 1819 the monitorial system allowed a staff-student ratio of 1 teacher per 284 pupils!

Another early progressive was Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746 - 1827), who, from 1774 onwards, developed a system of education based on the principle that teachers should do for their pupils what their parents had failed to do for them. What really mattered in the battle against poverty, he reasoned, was "not that [the poor] should know what they did not know, but that they should behave as they did not behave" (undated quotation in Quick, 1893, p296; emphasis added). It was thus the teacher's job to help children develop, not to teach them for teaching's own sake. This new system then earned its subsequent renown by the fact that it was based ultimately on requiring children to make observations of their own, and that meant giving them activities to be getting on with.

The Greek ideal of areté then reappears strongly in the writings of the German educational theorist Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841) (most importantly, Allgemeine Pädagogik, 1806; translated as "The Science of Education" by Felkin and Felkin, 1885/1906). For Herbart, the primary aim of the new science of education - for which his term Pädagogik has since been universally adopted - was to develop the mind of the student in all its glories, and everything - including the first sparks of interest in a subject - came from knowledge and experience gradually accumulating into an enormous mental network in which, by the process of reflection, old ideas could breed new ones.

Pestalozzi's work was then further developed by the German educational reformer, Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852). He studied for a while under Pestalozzi, before developing his own elementary curriculum and founding the world's first kindergarten in 1837. We see his interest in practical curricular activities in the fact that his approach was based around "a graduated course of exercises modelled on the games in which he observed [the children] to be most interested" (Quick, 1893, p393). Games were played with toys - Froebel termed them gaben [German = "gifts"] - such as building blocks, balls, and modelling clay, and included developing a sense of rhythm by singing and reciting verse.

In France meanwhile, Jean-Marc Itard (1774-1838) had been pushing the new techniques to their limits. He was the senior physician at the French Imperial Institute for Deaf Mutes, who in 1800 was fortunate enough to get to work with the "wild boy of Aveyron", a 12-or-so year old boy found naked, parentless, unsocialised, and unable to speak in the Aveyron forest of France [further details]. He named this feral adolescent Victor, and took full advantage of what was a rare, and scientifically priceless, natural experiment. Although Victor had initially been assessed as an idiot, and therefore unteachable, Itard had other ideas. He believed that it was through culture and education that the highest attributes of mankind emerged, and that it was language above all other abilities which Victor lacked. If he could teach the boy to speak, all would be well, and teaching the mute to speak was what his employers already had him doing for a living! For the next five years, he managed the boy's therapy and remedial schooling, and in so doing he developed techniques such as encouraging and correcting vocalisations using rewards. He published his progress in Mémoire sur les Premiers Développements de Victor de l'Aveyron (1801) and Rapport sur les Nouveaux Développements de Victor de l'Aveyron (1807), and whilst there were many isolated improvements the boy never achieved natural phonology, vocabulary, or grammar, nor seemed at home in even the most rudimentary social interaction.

Itard's work was pursued by his student Edouard Séguin (1812-1880). Séguin began as a student of Itard's in the 1830s, and went on to specialise with a class of mental defectives officially classified as "idiots". He, too, pioneered new techniques. These presumed a close relationship between the senses and higher cognition, and therefore focussed on training the one explicitly to support the other. Things therefore had to be handled and manipulated, or shaken and listened to, or tasted or smelled. And decisions had to be taken based upon the resulting sensory input. Séguin called this the "Physiological Method". He emigrated to the US in 1850, where he subsequently founded the American Association on Mental Retardation. In 1866 he recorded his methods of classification, diagnosis, and treatment in "Idiocy: And its Treatment by the Physiological Method", and this in turn was a major influence on Maria Montessori when she came to develop her own pedagogical system 40 years later (see below). Above all, the approach required that the then prevalent assumption that little could be accomplished with special needs children be challenged. "Does not the idiot," he wrote, "in making his silly gestures, tacitly say, 'See what I am doing; if you knew how to teach me better and more I would do it'" (Seguin, 1866/2004 online, p12 of the online extract; emphasis added).

As far as university education was concerned, the early 19th century was the era of Scotland's George Jardine (1742-1827), professor of philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1774 to 1826. Jardine reflected at length upon how best to remove the tedium from the learning process, and gradually rejected a curriculum framed only to support "the disputes and wranglings of divines, and of little use to the lawyer or physician" in favour of one which cultivated "all the powers of intellect" and gave them "appropriate subjects for their exercise" (Jardine, 1818, cited in Gaillet, 1998). He is therefore a good example of how educational reflective practice can consciously generate changes to the student experience.

Unfortunately, the Victorian age [strictly 1837-1901] was a period of serious fundamental division, for despite the many steps forward there was no shortage of educational conservatives willing to rule by "rod and regulation" (Smith, 1957, p13). At the beginning of the 19th century, for example, we have John Keate, headmaster of Eton College from 1809, managing to birch 100 boys on a single day, but claiming in his defence that he was giving dedication and purpose to what had up until then been an insubordinate rabble (indeed, Russell, 1932/1977, argues that it was men schooled by Dr. Keate and his ilk, aided by "a complete incapacity for intellectual doubt" (p22), who went on to build the British Empire). Two more enlightened practitioners were Samuel Butler of Shrewsbury School and Thomas Arnold of Rugby. Butler was headmaster at Shrewsbury from 1798 to 1836, and in that period raised the school from obscurity to a position of national prestige. Perhaps not coincidentally, he is reported as having had a healthy recognition of the immaturity of youth, and enforced a strict code of discipline, even to the point of rebuking the young Charles Darwin for preferring chemical experimentation and specimen collection to studying the classics! Arnold became headmaster at Rugby School in 1828, and rejuvenated it along lines described in the not-entirely-fictional work "Tom Brown's Schooldays" (Hughes, 1857). Among his innovations were modern history in the curriculum, the prefect system, and an emphasis on the need for students to think for themselves. After his death, he was described as having elevated the profession of schoolmaster "to the rank of hero" in a battle for the "mental emancipation" of the pupils (from an 1845 review of "The Miscellaneous Works of Thomas Arnold").

By the mid-19th century, progressives such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) ("Education", 1861) and Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) ("On Medical Education", 1870) were trying to cultivate critical evaluation and practical creative problem solving as the norm. For his part, Spencer followed Froebel as one of the first to realise the importance of what would today be referred to as "discovery learning", thus .....

"Children should be led to make their own investigations. They should be told as little as possible and induced to discover as much as possible." (Cited in Birchenough, 1914, p290; emphasis original)

Spencer was in fact referring to primary education, but the same argument raged also in higher education, where, following Jardine, Huxley was writing of the "singular unreality" of rote-learned knowledge, and complaining that when one looked for "real, precise, thorough, and practical knowledge of fundamentals", one all too often found "large, extensive, and inaccurate knowledge of superstructure" (Huxley, 1870).

Finally, perhaps the greatest single victory for the educational conservatives was the introduction in 1855 of the "civil service examinations" .....

ASIDE: Examinations had been adopted as the standard method of selection for the Chinese bureaucracy by the Tang dynasty [618-907AD]. The system was then emulated by the East India Company in 1832 as a way of attracting literate local employees to support Britain's trading empire, and it worked so well that the practice was extended to public employees in the home civil service in 1855. The US followed suit in 1883 following the Pendleton Civil Service Act [detail].

The civil service examinations transformed educational publishing, and resulted in a boom in "crammers", that is to say, textbooks designed to support examination preparation and little else.

2.5 Early Modern (1870 to 1949)

The second half of Queen Victoria's reign is rightly famous for the move towards free compulsory primary schooling for all. In the UK, the instrument of this revolution was the Education Act of 1870. The only problem was that compulsory education, being expensive, was delivered in large classes. The new schools did their best, but were too heavily influenced by the model provided by the civil service examinations. Their social betters crammed mercilessly, and so they would, too, spending far too much time delivering factual learning by rote in the (usually vain) hope that the necessary thinking skills would automatically follow.

The universities, meanwhile, retained their exclusivity and were doing their best to include the necessary elements of mind-expansion in their curricula, despite the rote learning going on everywhere else in society. The problem is well illustrated by the experiences of the London chemist Henry E. Armstrong (1848-1937), who, upon becoming a lecturer at St Bartholomew's Hospital in 1870, was immediately concerned at how dull his first year medical students were. Thus .....

"They had no critical spirit, they did not challenge his statements or require proofs of assertions; they were unable to interpret simple laboratory results and could not make satisfactory notes of their laboratory work. Their sole aim was to learn facts, definitions, and whatever could be stored in the memory in order to pass examinations." (Van Praagh, 1973, p2.)

In his search for an explanation, Armstrong visited the schools which provided him with his undergraduates, and so appalled was he with the shallowness of that preparation that he began a 20-year crusade to improve things. With the cooperation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Chemical Society he lobbied examination boards across the country to have greater emphasis placed on practical experimentation, problem solving, and intelligent questioning, and his legacy can be seen in the laboratory and project work on the modern science and technology curriculum. It is debatable how far this has actually taken us towards creating the sort of critical minds Armstrong was looking for, because there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence that 21st century undergraduates remain on the whole sadly lacking in critical spirit.

Another distinctly modern approach was the "Montessori Method", the brainchild of Maria Montessori (1870-1952) in pre-WW1 Italy, to which many schools worldwide now subscribe. The method itself was derived from the earlier experimental work of Itard and Séguin (see above), and emphasised practical skills, progressively taught. The first school was a one room affair in a run-down tenement, and was opened in January 1907 in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. It was designed to serve the families who lived in the block, and was referred to as the casa dei bambini (ie. "children's house"), and was based on giving even the smallest children practical skills and then fostering their freedom to enjoy and work beyond them. Thus .....

"Any pedagogical action, if it is to be efficacious in the training of little children, must tend to help the children to advance upon [the] road of independence. We must help them to learn to walk without assistance, to run [etc., etc.]. We must give such help as shall make it possible for children to achieve the satisfaction of their own individual aims and desires. All this is a part of education for independence. We habitually serve children; and this is not only an act of servility toward them, but it is dangerous, since it tends to suffocate their useful, spontaneous activity. We are inclined to believe that children are like puppets, and we wash them and feed them as if they were dolls. We do not stop to think that the child who does not do, does not know what to do." (Montessori, 1912, p97; italics original, bold added.)

Basically, the Montessori method requires the teacher to create an atmosphere of calm, order, and joy, and to be there to encourage children in all their efforts, allowing them to develop self-confidence, concentration, and "joyful self-discipline" (Association Montessori Internationale website, 3rd August 2001). Practical activities are emphasised at all ages. At ages 3 to 6 years, for example, children will use simple hand tools and kitchen utensils, and during ages 6 to 12 years this will be extended to include planning and cooking meals, public speaking, sewing, woodworking, animal care, gardening, etc. Another of Montessori's secrets was to ensure contact between children of different ages, so that they could learn from each other. Birchenough (1914) explains how a number of organisational and environmental changes in early 19th century primary schools secured better discipline with less resort to enforcement, and the Montessori approach to discipline is in fact one of the strictest of them all, albeit voices are seldom raised and fists never. One of the Montessori secrets seems to be that every inch of a Montessori school breathes ground rules, clear and consistent behavioural requirements (such as tidying up after oneself) which promote self-control and forethought over impulsiveness. Children are taught independence with respect, by being encouraged from the outset to behave independently and by being repeatedly shown what mutually respectful behaviour looks and feels like. The Welsh philosopher Bertrand Russell gave the following account in 1926 .....

"I had always understood that Madame Montessori dispensed with discipline, and I had wondered how she managed a roomful of children. On reading her own account of her methods, I found that discipline still held an important place, and that there was no attempt to dispense with it. On sending my little boy of three to spend his morning in a Montessori school, I found that he quickly became a more disciplined human being, and that he cheerfully acquiesced in the rules of the school. But he had no feeling whatever of external compulsion: the rules were like the rules of a game, and were obeyed as a means of enjoyment." (Russell, 1926/1985, p25; emphasis added.)

The progressive movement was continued in the early 20th century by the American educational philosopher, John Dewey (1859-1952). He wrote a number of books on the subject of thought, and in "How We Think" (Dewey, 1910/1997) he followed Herbart in emphasising the importance of mental reflection in allowing present knowledge to suggest new ideas. Anticipating later theorists like Piaget, he described in particular detail how an accumulation of simple concrete ideas are needed before a student becomes capable of abstract theoretical analysis. He was also very clear as to the duties of the good educator in facilitating this process: "in some educational dogmas and practices," he wrote, "the very idea of training mind seems to be hopelessly confused with that of a drill which hardly touches mind at all - or touches it for the worse. [.....] 'Covering the ground' is the primary necessity; the nurture of mind a bad second." (Op. cit., p52; italics original). For Dewey, indeed, rote learning reduced the skill of the teacher to nothing better than the level of animal training! Echoing Locke, Jardine, Spencer, Huxley, and Armstrong, he argued vehemently throughout his life that wisdom was what students needed, not information. [For more about Dewey's views on the primacy of experience in education, see our e-paper on "Experiential Learning".]

The period ends with the Education Act, 1944 - usually referred to as the "Butler Act", after its sponsor, R.A. Butler - the act which established free state secondary education, but which largely traded off freer access to higher education in return for strict streaming in the grammar schools which fed it [the processes, incidentally, which gave you the present author]. 

2.6 Modern (1949 to date)

We date the modern age of education to 1949, and specifically to the publication by the US educationalist Ralph W. Tyler (1902-1994) of "Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction" (Tyler, 1949). Tyler summarised his arguments into four principles of curriculum development, often referred to as "the Tyler Rationale" .....

Tyler's First Principle: The curriculum development process should begin by defining appropriate objectives.

Tyler's Second Principle: Corresponding educational experiences should be developed.

Tyler's Third Principle: These experiences would then need organising into a programme.

Tyler's Fourth Principle: The programme would need to be complemented by systems to evaluate and improve upon the end result.

Tyler's approach, and especially its emphasis on objectives, went on to become the backbone of the modern educational model, onto which all subsequent modifications up to and including the 1997 Dearing Report [detail] have been grafted, and it may fairly be described as "experiential" thanks to the explicit emphasis provided by the second and third principles, coupled with the fact that three out of Tyler's five chapters directly concern learning experiences.

The approach received an even greater boost in 1956, when Benjamin Bloom published his equally influential "Taxonomy of Educational Objectives" (Bloom, 1956). Heading a team of 34 experts (including Tyler himself), Bloom drew up a detailed classification of what knowledge was, and therefore of the fundamentally different ways human beings could improve under instruction. This classification was a valuable enough epistemological analysis in its own right, but its deepest value lay in its provision of a common framework for the specification of educational objectives. The resulting combination of objectives and experiences gave us modern experiential learning [see separate paper], GCSE project-work, problem-based learning, and "graduateness". Rote learning, however, has never entirely gone away.

3 - References

See the Master References List