Then and Now: Progression in Education

I’ve always found the history of education quite interesting. For centuries humans have shared knowledge with each other including passing on values, traditions, methods and skills to the next generations. Formalized learning techniques, however, have only been developed recently in the past 150-200 years. How have we progressed over the centuries to the modern educational system we have today? 

We see influences in modern education today based on events in our history. Public schools for instance are run based off of the standards of factories in the industrial revolution. Chimes and buzzers tell students to switch classes, a study environment of orderly rows of children working on similar problems that are graded against a single answer in a mass-production of knowledge, and teachers working double roles as both guides to literacy and managing taskmasters.

Despite this basic structure keeping its fundamental shape for the past 200 years, there have been very radical changes in what is considered to be the norm for students today, usually owing to attitudes towards gender, curriculum and the rights of the child shifting over time.


In 1913, boys and girls were taught different skills in early grades based on what was considered appropriate for their gender. Women learned how to do things like needlework and cook, and boys were taught woodworking and similar subjects. The idea of an “elective” wasn’t around during this time, and roles were more rigorously prescribed to children. Most schools were one-room institutions and students of different genders and ages were grouped together to learn at different levels depending on what was taught on any specific day.

Social Class

Often a solid education required a certain social class status. Children of upper class parents would learn to read, write, math and prayers in school usually in private academies. Poor children were either put to work, educated through apprentice programs or taught in public schools with high student to teacher ratios and teachers were stricter on the poor children.

Today public schools are available for all races and social classes, however it’s been shown that those in higher social classes are more likely to receive higher educational attainment, more able to provide educational advantages to children and some higher education facilities give preference to “legacy students” (the children of alumni).

Rights of the Child

It wasn’t uncommon in the early 1900’s for a student’s misbehavior to be dealt with using corporal punishment. This trend continued into the 80’s and still exists in certain private schools today. Schools at this time were often segregated, with separate facilities for white students and black students. Desegregation of public schools only happened after a long period of struggle and turmoil, despite several standing presidents’ great distaste for segregation, including Teddy Roosevelt.

Children are given more authority today than previously in terms of choosing what they are going to learn. Students are now given a larger selection of courses to choose from, as opposed to the one-size-fits-all style of the early 1900s. Lesson plans now include more instructions to captivate children and inspire wonder about their subject matter, rather than using threats or fear of physical punishment.


A formal education often involves an ideal planned curriculum prepared to instruct students, develop materials, and resources for a learning environment. It’s often guided by an institution or a teacher individually. The concept of curriculum was first shared in 1918 by John Franklin Bobbitt. His book The Curriculum was the first textbook published on the topic.

Today the power of curriculum development is often in the hands of larger bodies of scholars. In the U.S. each state and its individual school districts establish the curricula taught. National academic institutions such as the Department of Education are also involved. This group determines the range of courses for study and a specific learning program. Spiral curriculum, the position that students should learn basic ideas and build on them until the student grasps the full concept, is a process of discovery learning often taught in classrooms today. Jerome Bruner’s The Process of Education and Toward a Theory of Instructors first introduced this concept of curriculum development now widely used today.

Tools for Learning

One hundred years ago, the standard equipment for a classroom would consist of a blackboard and desks. Now schools are filled with educational supplies and parents receive notification of any child-specific supplies their kids will need for the upcoming school year. This change in terms of what is considered necessary for the education of a child has allowed for a greater breadth of projects available to students. Even something as elementary as a textbook was once considered to be something of a luxury. Most teachers in the early 1900s would not have had access to books to fill holes in their knowledge.

Teachers and students now have access to find information on different electronic resources like online textbooks on mobile devices, educational apps and PC games. Having access to learning tools while not in the classroom setting has helped students advance far greater than ever before. Cloud computing in education and access to information on the go has helped students learn faster and more efficiently today.

Congress has spent billions to give students access to educational technology. Technology can improve literacy development, motivate students and even enhance self-esteem. Computer technology truly does provide limitless opportunities for students to expand their knowledge and provides for rich experiences in the education sector.


Changes in subject matter and materials are all wonderful examples of tweaks that evolve, but do not revolutionize, a process. Discovery learning and advanced curriculum development are too! Education is fundamentally the same as it was a hundred years ago, but has been transformed over time into a much more effective version of its past self, with a greater emphasis on the needs of individual children.

The educational system has progressed to become a system that provides for the current learning needs of students. However, continued progress is always needed to keep up with the needs of learners today.

For a detailed examination of how schools changed over time, visit PBS’s timeline as it provides a valuable set of specifics you might find as interesting as I. 

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