Category Archives: history of schooling

A Century of the Standard Model of Schooling

Mal Lee

2020 marked a century’s use of the standard model of schooling.

Standardised across the developed world from around 1920 the core elements of the model adopted by schools then remain largely unchanged a 100 plus years on –  it long being accepted as the norm globally.

It is very easy to forget how long the model, and its core attributes have been in place and universally employed by the world.

Schooling is one of the few common concerted experiences shared by most of the world’s people, with near 7.5 billion having a working understanding  and expectations of the standard approach.

Indeed it is that universal acceptance that makes it so important that all educators better understand schooling’s heritage, the evolution of standard model, the concerted, on-going but largely ineffectual efforts to sustain significant change, and the lessons to be borne in mind by all contemplating major change.

Suddaby and Foster (2017) in their research on sustained organisational change underscore the imperative of all organisations, public and private sector factoring a historical perspective into the change process. 

That need is ever greater in those organisations lacking corporate memory; a reality in many schools, and particularly education authorities, where career public servants are invariably the decision makers. 

The history of schooling in the last century has seen billions spent on major school organisational change. Remarkably few of the structural changes have been sustained. Most rarely survived the change of head, or government. Those that sustained the change for more than 25 years remain a rarity. Look and you’ll find that virtually all the often considerable structural changes made post Sputnik in the 1960’s and 1970s have disappeared and the schools returned to the standard mode.

Notwithstanding the quest for school change continues unabated, at every level. Governments, education authorities, education reviews, individual schools, the idealists and the futurists all continue the quest. Invariably newly appointed ministers of education and superintendents seek to make their make their mark with substantial investment in a ‘revolutionary change’. Seemingly every new head must begin tenure with a set of organisational changes, even if it is only a return to old ways.

Teachers globally rightly complain of continual change but as Fullan and Stiegebauer (1991) rightly noted

The more things change the more they remain the same…(Fullan and Stiegebauer, 1991 p345)

The COVID-19 pandemic spawned a fresh batch of calls for major structural change.  The shift to a near fully digital operational base was seen to open the way to a host of new modes of schooling.

What most of the calls failed to do, including the more recent, was understand schooling’s heritage and appreciate why the standard model had weathered a 100 plus years obsession with change. 

History provides four key lessons;

  1. Major school structural change is incredibly difficult to achieve, and then sustain
  1. The standard school model has stood the test of time for very good reasons – despite its significant shortcomings
  1. That model, embedded as it is within contemporary society and modern economies, will remain the norm for many generations to come
  1. Major sustained school development and evolution can, and likely will only occur within the existing school structures. 

It is time to drop the obsession with structural change. History and experience says very strongly that far too much time, effort and money has been wasted on that quest. 

The existing structures are a given to work within. 

100 years says very strongly – before embarking on any quest for structural change adjudge the likelihood of achieving sustained enhancement and the degree of disruption of teaching that will occur, possibly needlessly if the change is implemented. 

In brief cease tilting at windmills and concentrate on where the likelihood of sustained enhancement is achievable.

History of standardisation

History informs us that the current model of schooling was standardised in the western world around 1920.

While the model had been existent for years it took until the 1920’s to standardise the approach.

The political skirmishes of the previous 50 odd years, the recognition of the need to better educate the young, the growing influence of a burgeoning middle class, the lessons of the Great War and the concerted efforts by a body of ‘educational experts’ combined to see developed nations like the USA, England, Scotland, Australia and Canada adopt a remarkably similar model of schooling (Campbell and Proctor, 2014) (Curtis and Boultwood, 1962), (McClure, 1971) (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). 

The ‘education experts’ within the new education bureaucracies – aided by the emerging education faculties – took charge of the schooling, deciding the mission, the structure of the schools, their location, organisation, curriculum, testing regime, staffing and operations (Tyler, 1971), (Tyack and Cuban, 1995.

They also took charge of teacher training, and teacher remuneration and working conditions.

The previous stakeholders, the community, parents and invariably the church, were eased out of the decision making.

The schools the experts created are those you know well.

The students attended a physical place called school, at set times, within state determined term dates, with the students organised into age cohorts and taught in class groups, invariably by a solitary teacher.

They moved in a lock step manner through their years at school, all taught using a common curriculum prepared by the ‘experts’, all assessed by paper based exams, with the major exams externally set.

The focus was strongly academic. Success equated with academic performance.

They were schools where the socially economically advantaged families of the society were further advantaged, and the marginalised, the labourers, indigenous, coloureds and migrants further disadvantaged. 

Core to the model was the sorting and sifting of the students, the schools charged with identifying the perceived future leaders while filtering out the lower quality and non-compliant students. 

The nature of the school buildings, with their corridors of teaching rooms, was much the same as today. Indeed, most schools built in the 1920s remain in operation today. Think of the schools in the older parts of the cities and the country towns, and note how many were built around the 1920s or earlier.

Structurally the schools were linear, strongly hierarchical organisations, that drew heavily upon Industrial Age manufacturing thinking and processes. The high/secondary schools particularly were segmented, loosely coupled (Weick, 1976), with a strong division of labour, where the subject teachers taught their speciality to students moving along the ‘production line’.

The principal was all powerful, using ‘his’ position and the hierarchy to unilaterally control every facet of the school’s operation. Teachers of that period were part of the educated elite, their word carrying immense weight in a poorly educated societies.

A century on most of these features still hold – now globally.

In 1995 Tyack and Cuban, in an aptly titled history of US schooling, Tilting at Utopia commented on what they termed the ‘grammar of schooling’.

The basic grammar of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. Little has changed in the ways schools divide time and space, classify students and allocate them to classrooms, splinter knowledge into ‘subjects’ and award grades and ‘credits’ as evidence of learning (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p85).

……Established institutional forms come to be understood by educators, student and the public as necessary features of ‘real’ school. They become fixed in place by everyday custom in schools and by outside forces, by legal mandates and cultural beliefs, until they are barely noticed. They become just the way schools are (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p86).

25 years later those observations still hold true of most all schools worldwide.

Indeed if anything the COVID – 19 experience has reinforced the standard model. The world has had underscored the critical social, economic and educational importance of the nation’s young physically attending a place called school most working days of the year. While significant strides have been made in the use of the digital, and opportunities with it abound, parents globally likely more than ever expect to send their children off to school in the morning safe in the knowledge that they can get on with their life and work.

It is time to better understand that reality.

Revealingly there are remarkably few publications that address that reality, which provide the historical perspective, and give school leaders the macro understanding of the evolution of school organisational structures needed to shape an effective change strategy.

There are thousands, likely millions of publications on the theory and practise of school change, and all manner of courses and post graduate programs which purport to provide the elixir to sustained change but few that address why a century on the standard model that emerged around 1920 remains the norm in near every country in the world.

Much of that research and analysis has yet to be done but the stress testing of the standard model occasioned by the pandemic already provides important insights.

Strengths and expectations

Unwittingly the pandemic has heightened our understanding of the models strengths – and shortcomings, what society expects of its schools and the opportunities the emerging digital technologies provide to enhance the model’s workings in the contemporary world.

The great and enduring strengths of the traditional model relate in the main to its facility to simultaneously develop and care for most of the nation’s young in a secure, safe physical site, for much of the year. The importance of face to face teaching and social interaction became increasingly apparent as the studies were undertaken, particularly for the very young and the already disadvantaged.

It frees young parents to work, to make a significant contribution to the national productively, while also providing families the monies to live their lives.

The importance of the latter was highlighted when economies worldwide were obliged to operate in a holding pattern until the physical places called school could re-open.

Tellingly the model performs that role relatively efficiently, combining as it does educational development, care, social growth and increasingly personal well-being.

The related strength is that the model continues to give society what it expects of schools. It is a politically and socially acceptable model. It is the model, with all its practises, rituals, ceremonies and traditions that generations have come to know, 

and importantly expect.

While the core structures might be difficult, if not impossible to change what occurs within them can, and does, in often significant ways. Some of the change will be a natural response to an evolving society but other can be readily school or system initiated. 

Today it would be impossible to move away from the northern and southern hemispheres school holidays or the expectation that the kids can be dropped off and picked up at set times most days of the year. That said schools can if they desire readily change such things as the learning environment and the culture, the nature of the teaching and the relationships with the students within the existing structures.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the fore  globally those schools which had been moving to a digital operational base. With all the staff and students ‘schooled’ in the art of using the digital astutely those admittedly exceptional schools were able to thrive and grow in full and part lockdown, and sustain the collaborative, all pervasive use of the technology on return to normal operations.

The key was that those schools understood they had to work with their parent expectations and the structures of the standard model.

Conclusion.

Understand the standard model is not about to change, and will continue to be used by the world for many generations to come.

Despite a century plus of crystal ball gazing and ‘futurists’ proclaiming dramatic change most schools will remain remarkably similar to that which you and your parents attended.  

That said it is possible to make and sustain significant changes within the existing structures if approached astutely.

One of the great, unheralded strengths of today’s digital technology is the facility to use it in teaching anywhere, anytime, be it in a heritage listed Victorian era building, an aged outback two teacher establishment, a school without walls or a modern flexible space complex.

  • Campbell, C and Proctor, H (2014) A History of Australian Schooling. Sydney. Allen and Unwin
  • Curtis, S.J and Boultwood, M.E.A (1962) An Introductory History of English Education Since 1800. London. University Tutorial Press
  • Fullan. M and Stiegebauer, S (1991) The New Meaning of Educational Change. London. Cassell. Second edition.
  • McClure, R.M (1971) The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect. The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago. University of Chicago Press 1971.
  • Suddaby, R and Foster, W.M, (2017) ‘History and Organizational Change’. Journal of Management.Vol.43. No. I 2017
  • Tyack, D and Cuban, L (1995). Tinkering Toward Utopia. Cambridge. Massachusetts. Harvard University Press.
  • Tyler, R.W (1971) ‘Curriculum Development in the Twenties and Thirties’. In McClure, R.M (1971) The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect. The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago. University of Chicago Press 1971.