Far from being a thing of the past, the methods employed in the old one-room schoolhouse are making a comeback today. Modern educators have discovered the benefits to be derived by students from being a part of multi-age classes.
By Earl Hunsinger
Imagine sitting in a classroom with students of all ages while the teacher outlines a project that will incorporate various subjects and levels of difficulty, so that all can have a part. Such a description could well describe the one-room schoolhouse of the 19th century. Yet, the same teaching methods are being used now in the 21st century, with good results.
Since one-room schoolhouses were common well into the 20th century, many today can look back with a sense of nostalgia at their own education in this kind of school. Perhaps, like me, you have heard stories of those days and marveled at how far we have come. As an example, my mother's experiences attending a one-room schoolhouse in New York state include riding to school in a one-horse open sleigh and huddling around a wood stove to keep warm.
However, this icon of early America is more than just a source of nostalgia; it is more than just an interesting and primitive part of our history. Rather than hindering their ultimate success in life, most students found attending this kind of school to be a beneficial experience. This number includes many well-known people, such as the first American in space, Alan Shepard. The Ohio-based architect firm of Steed Hammond Paul Inc. has extensively researched solutions in educational architecture and the impact schoolhouse designs have on the ability to learn.
The current, modern, method of grouping students by age is based on efficiency, copying the factory model of producing the largest output with the least input of time and expense. It might be argued that this arrangement is artificial or unnatural. Society in general is not divided in this way; neither are families or the work environment. Eventually, children must learn to cope with the variety inherent in the world, including differences in age and ability.
Of course to be fair, the method of dividing students according to age has many benefits and works well for the majority. At the same time, there were some drawbacks to the one-room schools of the past. However, the old one-room schoolhouse concept was better than the modern method of age separation in many ways. This isn't a secret.
Educators today recognize the benefits of the older method, and have tried to duplicate it in various ways. These programs are usually referred to as ungraded, or nongraded. Students still have their progress reported by letter 'grades' or some alternative method. The term 'ungraded' refers to the fact that students aren't labeled by strict 'grade' divisions. Classes contain students of different ages and abilities, and these students benefit from staying with the same teacher, or teachers, for more than one year. Coupled with the more relaxed atmosphere in this arrangement, this allows the teacher and student to get to know each other better, thus enabling the teacher to give more personalized attention. It also allows individual students to progress as individuals. This means that gifted students are not held back because of their age. At the same time, students that may take longer to grasp a point are not pushed ahead because everyone else is moving forward, or left behind to repeat everything when it may be only a few things that are giving them trouble. This arrangement also lends itself to an integrated curriculum, with students learning things in a variety of subjects from a single project.
Another natural result of this structure is that older or more advanced students assist younger or less advanced students. This assists the teacher and reinforces the lesson in the mind of the student giving the assistance.
Along with the need to interact with students of various ages, the more relaxed and family-like atmosphere even benefits the students socially. This also leads to an increase in job satisfaction among the teachers involved. So while these modern programs do not normally use single room structures, the methods and advantages of the one-room schoolhouse of our nostalgic past lives on in this modern world.