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Horace Mann’s One Big Mistake

traditional classroomAs you know, Horace Mann is credited with creating our current system of public education. He was known as “Father of the Common School” because he wanted to ensure that every child in America could receive a basic education. Mann believed that political stability and social harmony depended on education. http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/horace.html

I have disparaged Mann’s system often enough, calling it a “factory model” that was invented to create factory workers. But the truth is, that system was created at a time in our history when we were shifting from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. So preparing factory workers with a basic education and understanding of democracy was meeting a need. And it was very innovative at the time.

It was the first time in WORLD HISTORY that the idea of educating EVERY person in a country was ever thought of, much less implemented. And it was free to students; paid for by taxes. Before that, people thought that only leaders and other important (read wealthy) people needed an education. The common people didn’t need to know much.

Bur Horace Mann persisted. He sold his radical idea first to Massachusetts (via his position as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education.) Soon, the rest of the states embraced the idea. Not only that, but Mann was influential in developing teacher training schools to professionalize teaching. That was a new concept too.

Horace Mann made one mistake though. Unfortunately, it was rather a BIG one. He chose the Prussian system for his model of delivery (mainly because it was cheap and easy to implement). The Prussian system seemed to be exactly what was needed at the time.

The problem was that Fredrick the Great had created the Prussian system to teach obedience and solidify his control of his nation. Frederick wanted to indoctrinate his people from an early age. To that end, he focused on “following directions, basic skills, and conformity.” He isolated students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms, “intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.” No one cared what students thought. They were there to soak up the information Frederick thought they needed. thenewamericanacademy.org

So, today we have an educational system where public education is free to every citizen from Kindergarten through Grade Twelve. We have a system of training teachers who are viewed as professionals. That’s all good. But many people are questioning our Prussian-based educational delivery system.

We are no longer in the Industrial Age. We have entered the Information Age and we need to change our public education system to reflect that seismic shift. We need citizens that can think independently, work collaboratively, and create solutions to the problems we face now as well as those we haven’t yet encountered.

“The Information Age has facilitated a reinvention of nearly every industry except for education. It’s time to unhinge ourselves from the many assumptions that undergird how we deliver instruction and begin to design new models that are better able to leverage talent, time, and technology to best meet the unique needs of each student. In doing so, we can put Mann’s innovation in its proper context: as the foundation for our commitment to a public education but not as the blueprint for how to deliver it.” Joel Rose, The Atlantic, May 9, 2012

I agree with Mr. Rose. We have a commitment to public education. But it is time to change our educational delivery system. The factory model doesn’t fit our needs anymore. The good news is there are many people working to change it.

Groups and institutions have sprung up all over the country whose focus is updating our educational system. Individual schools and districts are working to create educational models that meet the needs of all students and include students in the design their own learning. Philanthropists are funneling large amounts of money into technology and promising educational programs. Coalitions of like-minded educational organizations are being formed.

This is all very encouraging, but there is much work to be done. As another of our early educational innovators, John Dewey, famously wrote in his book Schools of Tomorrow in 1915, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Let’s not rob our students of tomorrow.