School in the past

11 Ways School Was Different in the 1800s

This week, most kids in the United States are returning to school after the summer break … and they’re probably not thrilled about going back. But taking a look at what American schools were like in the 1800s might convince them how much tougher it could be—and just how good they’ve got it.

1. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, one room schoolhouses were the norm in rural areas. A single teacher taught grades one through eight together. The youngest students—called Abecedarians, because they would learn their ABCs—sat in the front, while the oldest sat in the back. The room was heated by a single wood stove.

2. There was no transportation to get to school. Most schoolhouses were built to serve students living within 4 or 5 miles, which was considered close enough for them to walk.

3. At some schools, boys and girls entered through separate doors; they were also kept separate for lessons.

4. The school year was much shorter back then. When the Department of Education first began gathering data on the subject in the 1869-70 school year , students attended school for about 132 days (the standard year these days is 180) depending on when they were needed to help their families harvest crops. Attendance was just 59 percent. School days typically started at 9am and wrapped up at 2pm or 4pm, depending on the area; there was one hour for recess and lunch, which was called “nooning.”

5. Forget Trapper Keepers and gel pens—there were no fancy school supplies in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Students made do with just a slate and some chalk .

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6. Sometimes, students helped the teacher teach. In the monitorial or Lancasterian system, the older, stronger students learned lessons directly from the teacher, then taught the younger, weaker students.

7. Lessons were quite different than they are today. Teachers taught subjects including reading, writing, arithmetic, history, grammar, rhetoric, and geography (you can see some 19th century textbooks here and here). Students would memorize their lessons, and the teacher would bring them to the front of the room as a class to recite what they’d learned—so the teacher could correct them on things like pronunciation on the spot—while the other students continued to work behind them.

8. Teachers sometimes lived with their students’ families. According to Michael Day at the Country School Association of America, this practice was called “boarding round,” and it often involved the teacher moving from one students’ house to the next as often as every week. One Wisconsin teacher wrote of boarding with families in 1851,

I found it very unpleasant, especially during the winter and spring terms, for one week I would board where I would have a comfortable room; the next week my room would be so open that the snow would blow in, and sometimes I would find it on my bed, and also in it. A part of the places where I boarded I had flannel sheets to sleep in; and the others cotton. But the most unpleasant part was being obliged to walk through the snow and water. I suffered much from colds and a cough.

9. Discipline was very strict. Sure, stepping out of line in the 1800s and early 1900s could result in detention, suspension, or expulsion, but it could also result in a lashing. According to a document outlining student and teacher rules created by the Board of Education in Franklin, Ohio, from 1883,

Pupils may be detained at any recess or not exceeding fifteen minutes after the hour for closing the afternoon session, when the teacher deems such detention necessary, for the commitment of lessons or for the enforcement of discipline. … Whenever it shall become necessary for teachers to resort to corporal punishment, the same shall not be inflicted upon head or hands of the pupil.

Not all places had such a rule, though; in other areas, teachers could use a ruler or pointer to lash a student’s knuckles or palms . Other punishments included holding a heavy book for more than an hour and writing “I will not…” do a certain activity on the blackboard 100 times.

10. No lunch was provided by the school, even if families had the money for it; kids brought their lunches to school in metal pails. Every student drank water from a bucket filled by the older boys using the same tin cup.

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11. For many, education ended after just eighth grade; in order to graduate, students would have to pass a final exam. You can see a sample of a typical 8th grade exam in Nebraska circa 1895 in this PDF. It includes questions like “Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications,” “A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?,” and “What are elementary sounds? How classified?” Take the test yourself and let us know how you did in the comments!

by Aimee Harmon

Organized chaos seems like an apt description of the classroom today. Teachers are overworked and under-paid, students are out of control and in control of the classroom environment. Parents drop their kids off expecting them to receive an education and some sort of normalcy in a chaotic world. Today education is taken for granted.

What if schools returned to the way they were a century or more ago? Each town, especially in rural areas, was not guaranteed a school. If the town did have a school, the community would be responsible for the upkeep of the school, and for the hiring and paying of a school teacher. The school year would revolve around the farming seasons. School would be in session from November to March and then from June to August. Spring months would be for tilling and planting the fields and the fall months would be for harvesting and canning. Parents supported the teacher’s decision in how a school ran and any discipline that was awarded to a student.

Transportation to and from the school was the responsibility of the parent and student. Children walked, rode a horse, or caught a ride in a wagon. School began on time. The teacher rang the bell a few minutes prior to the start of school as a warning. Upon the ringing of the bell a second time, school began. If a student was late, he or she could not enter the school until the first recess break. On arrival, the teacher would stand at the door greeting each student, who in turn would do the same. Boys would bow and girls would curtsy to show respect to the teachers. Once inside, the boys and girls would sit on opposite sides. The students sat in age order with the younger students in the front and the older students in the back.

After the last child entered roll was called and classes would begin. The students were all taught in the same room. While the teacher worked with one group of students, the others would work on class work. Each group had a set amount of time to work with the teacher on a subject. When time was up the teacher would move on to the next group. The primer a student used depended on which grade he or she was in. If the student was in primer one, that student would be in 1st grade. If the student was in primer 8, that student would be in the 8th grade.

Two popular books that were used in the school were the Bible and the primer. The Bible was used for reading and the primer was used for all other lessons. The lessons focused mainly on the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic. The primer contained the alphabet, numbers, spelling words and poems. The most popular primer was the McGuffey Primer. It taught reading, writing, basic values of honesty, proper manners, courage and charity; what every child should learn to become a responsible adult in society. There were 8 primers, one for each class; the lessons would steadily grow more difficult as a student moved from one primer to the other. When students were finished with primer 8 they were ready to graduate.

Most town schools began as a one-room school. As the population grew, schools grew into multi-roomed buildings. Schools were added as the influx of people raised populations levels. This continues to happen today. The school system today was shaped by the one room school house in rural America and today’s education system will shape the future’s.

Classrooms have always been chaotic. It is the rare occasion that the public hears about chaos in the classroom. Today, majority of parents do support the teachers, demand their children respect the teachers, and teachers do maintain control over the classroom. So really, how different is the school system today to the school system of yesteryear?

Mimio Educator

In those early years, I felt like I was doing a great job in the classroom—perhaps I was for the time. I was working very hard in my students’ best interest and using all of the resources, including technology, that were available to me. I often received praise from my administrators and parents for my efforts. I even won several awards! However, looking back and reflecting on those early years, I realize my lessons lacked the use of “effective instructional technology.” My lessons were also typically low-level, one-size-fits-all, drill-and-kill endeavors that failed to challenge my students to discover new knowledge, collaborate with one another, interact with content, or create their own work products.

Today’s Classroom Looks Very Different

Today, all of that has changed. Over the years, I have become a much different and—dare I say—much better teacher! My classroom has evolved into a “paperless” student-centered, technology-based learning experience. Students are able to work on technology-based differentiated lessons at their own pace. Each of these lessons challenges students to discover new information for themselves, interact with the content, and create their own multimedia work to showcase what they have learned. Learning thrives in my classroom by providing students with opportunities to collaborate, create, and share what they have learned with others. Today’s students have grown up with technology and are able to use it more successfully than many traditional classroom resources.

A typical lesson in my classroom today begins with students logging onto my website. My classroom website has grown over the years from a way to post information into an interactive learning community. From my website, students can access every lesson and activity online, both inside and outside of my classroom. This provides many opportunities to flip my classroom instruction with ease. Students enjoy working at their own pace on activities and quickly become comfortable with our classroom procedures. When students arrive in my classroom, they typically begin working even before I go over the daily directions. I recently had to attend to an altercation in the hallway and was worried about the students who were in my classroom. When I returned, I found my students working diligently and engaged in the daily lesson!

Engaging Students With Technology

Each one of my web-based lessons is based on a carefully composed learning target written to challenge students to use high-level skills and technology to increase their depth of knowledge. For example, a learning target might say something like: “I can predict the challenges George Washington faced as the first President of the United States.” The learning target requires students to go beyond simple recall in order to complete the assignment. Students then go through the lesson directions found on my website—they are able to utilize links to additional materials and explore embedded multimedia to gather the information needed to reach the learning target. Each student is assigned a differentiated lesson based on his or her aptitude and previous performance.

As students complete the assignment, they create their own multimedia digital notebook. Being able to create their own digital binder to showcase their work forces students to retain a greater depth of knowledge. It also frees students to work within their own strengths, rather than predetermined pathways. Students are then able to share their work with other students in the class. Throughout the process, teachers and parents can monitor student progress at any time. They can also add scaffolding and support to assignments for students with special needs.

Looking Ahead

My current classroom also includes collaboration spaces in which students work together to complete additional material. Students engage in interactive lessons using my interactive whiteboard and touch table. I am also able to push out engaging collaborative activities to students’ mobile devices from my classroom computer. Assignments such as these give me the opportunity to get every student involved in content reinforcement and constant assessment. My classroom setup also allows me to place my students in the center of a dynamic learning environment created to meet each of their specific needs. While in the past I would have spent hours grading such assignments, my software allows me to gather real-time data on student performance during activities and assessments. Rather than spending time “grading” papers, I can now use that time to analyze items of difficulty, create follow-up activities for at-risk students, and contact parents.

Over the past twenty years, many things in my classroom have changed. The infusion of instructional technology has made my teaching more engaging, effective, and dynamic. As the years pass, educators must continue to evolve in order the meet the changing academic needs of our students and our society. I look forward to seeing what the next twenty years will bring to education—and how I will adapt to become an even better teacher!

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Classrooms Then and Now – #EdublogsClub Prompt 36

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Last week, we presented this prompt to our followers.

The prompt generated some interesting reflections from our followers. Let’s try it!

Prompt: What has changed since you were at school?

Think about the classrooms you were a part of as a child and classrooms today. You might like to reflect on:

  • What has changed in terms of the curriculum or subject areas taught?
  • What has changed in terms of materials or tools commonly found in classrooms?
  • How have attitudes and standards changed?
  • What do you think classrooms will look like in the future?

We would love to hear a bit about your own experiences at school.

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Happy blogging!

Classroom design has come a long way in the last few decades. We are seeing a massive shift away from the classroom’s origins as rigid, structured places of teacher-centered learning. Instead, classrooms are embracing technology and more flexible approaches to learning for the benefit of students and teachers. How can you take advantage of this trend for your students?
Read our quick guide on how to update your classroom design (and why you should).

Classroom Design Then and Now

Rows of seats. Instructor front and center. Student eyes trained on the teacher. This classroom model worked well for centuries. Efficient and easy to set up. Old-school classroom design supported the idea that teachers impart knowledge to students. The one-to-many transmission philosophy of teaching.

Traditional tech did this well. The blackboard or overhead projector for the teacher at the front of the room. Pencil and paper for the student to take notes. But education is in a state of rapid change. Traditional approaches are ineffective for today’s needs.

Constructivist Design

The transmission model is being replaced by a constructivist approach. Constructivism is all about students and instructors developing knowledge together. It’s the opposite of the passive student taking notes while the teacher lectured. At its core is the idea that meaningful learning is a creative process.

This shift is both a result of, and further propelled by, technology. There are many influences. The internet. Personal computing devices. Interactive displays. Collaborative software. Even Social Media and YouTube play a part. Within this fluid environment, educators are striving to adapt.

21st Century Design

One important adaptation is the shakeup of classroom design. Schools are creating classroom layouts that support successful 21st century learning. A key to today’s classroom design is flexibility. The ability to rearrange components supports the many faces of constructive learning.

Versatility enables learners to actively conduct experiments. To perform real-world problem-solving. And to gather in groups to collectively process information. Instructors meanwhile facilitate and guide activities to help students expand their knowledge.

21st-century classrooms design trends utilize many new layouts, including:

  • Flexible seating
  • The modular classroom
  • Starbucking the classroom
  • Classroom cribs
  • Next-generation classroom design
  • Evidence-based learning environments
  • Learner-centered spaces
  • Active learning environments

One fifth grade teacher calls her classroom redesign the “Best Decision I Ever Made.” A participant in the CUE Bold Classroom Cribs initiative, Marianne Emery was inspired by a visit to a flexible seating classroom. She talks about her success with next-gen classroom design in her Rockin’ it in 5th Grade blog.

How Classroom Design Affects Student Performance

Research reveals the importance of classroom design. Without a doubt, classroom design has a big effect on student engagement and academic performance. A landmark 2012 study found that classroom design alters academic progress over a school year by 25%. Strikingly, that impact can go either way – positive or negative.

That is, a child in the best environment would do 50% better than an equivalent child in the ‘poorest’ classroom environment. In fact, the best- and worst-designed classroom difference accounted for a full year’s worth of academic progress.

5 Design Factors In Student Performance

The study found five key design factors account for 73% of the variation in student performance. These classroom design factors are:

  • Color: Providing enough visual stimulation around the classroom using color on walls, floors and furniture
  • Choice: Quality furniture including interesting and ergonomic tables and chairs. Furniture should support a sense of ownership
  • Complexity: Providing novel surroundings and attention-grabbing décor in balance with orderliness
  • Flexibility: The ability of a classroom to accommodate students without crowding them. The ability to rearrange furniture for a variety of activities and teaching approaches.
  • Light: Quality and quantity of natural light, and degree of control of the level of lighting

3 Basics Of Classroom Design

Follow up studies provided insight into the relative impact of each of these factors. The authors of this major 2015 classroom design study hypothesized that “Clearly from the literature it can be anticipated that the built environment of the classrooms will have a great impact on pupils’ academic performance, health and wellbeing…”

Their study confirmed the impact of physical classroom features on academic progress. It found three categories that account for the difference in performance:

  • Naturalness. This category accounts for around 50% of the impact on learning. It’s about factors needed for physical comfort. These include light, sound, temperature, air quality, and “links to nature.”
  • Stimulation. This category refers to the vibrancy of the classroom. It accounts for about 25% of differences in learning.
  • Individuality. This category accounts for the remaining 25% in learning differences. Individuality encompasses how well a classroom meets the needs of students by offering:
    • Ownership – how identifiable and personalized the room is
    • Flexibility – how well the room addresses the needs of an age group and variable teaching methods
    • Connection – a measure of how readily students can connect to the rest of the school

Effective Classroom Design Practices

Educators are embracing the need to adapt learning spaces. The specifics of the classroom designs differ due to curriculum, class size, space, budget constraints, and the like. However, two factors are common. One, the flexibility to deliver adaptable, active learning spaces. Two, the integration of technology that fosters collaboration and sharing.

Flexible Furnishings

Flexible classroom design creates learning environments that can be continuously adapted for changing needs. These classroom layouts model the flexibility we want for our up-and-coming generations. In a case study published by Edutopia, the author highlights the key benefits of versatility in classroom layouts.

“Flexible classrooms give students a choice in what kind of learning space works best for them, and helps them to work collaboratively, communicate, and engage in critical thinking.”

The internet is full of tips to help teachers create future-forward classroom design on a budget. Districts can source products from education furnishings makers in lockstep with the trends.

Classroom design pros recommend including the following:

  • Selective seating. Offer a variety of seating options. The goal: enable student choice and support different work styles and activities. Options can include couches, floor pillows, bean bag chairs, traditional chair/desk combos, and DYI seating.
  • Mobility. Look for wheeled bookshelves, chairs and other furnishings. Engage students in rearranging them to open the room or create cozy collaborative nooks.
  • Collaborative configurations. Replace single workspaces with large round or rectangular tables. Put desks together to form collaborative workspaces.
  • Huddle spaces. Take a cue from the business world where huddle spaces reign. These spaces offer convenient seating plus tech like audio, display, and sharing software. They’re ideal for small group work. In education they go by a variety of names: teaming tables, media tables, lounges, hublets, coves, team gardens, learning suites, informal learning environments, or learning labs. By any name they’re ideal for 21st century cooperative learning.

Flexible Classroom Layouts Provide the Environment Kids Need

The experience of Albemarle County Public Schools in Albemarle, VA shows the tremendous benefits of embracing the new. After implementing flexible classroom design, ACPS educators found that:

  • Student grades improved
  • Students seemed happier and more engaged
  • Students were participating more
  • Students were having more invigorating conversations

“We’re really looking at how we support kids working collaboratively. And we can’t do it if they’re isolated in rows and every kid is an island,” said Becky Fisher, the director of educational technology at Albemarle County Public Schools.

Check out this article for more on what made these classroom transformations a success. It includes great tips for funding DIY redesign as well as district-supported projects.

EdTech for 21st Century Classroom Design

Successful active learning spaces include well-matched ed tech resources. The most common ways to leverage tech for constructivist learning include:

Front of Room Display

We’ve come a long way since the humble blackboard. Today’s educators need a powerful, multi-tasking classroom display. They want to easily display online content. They want their students to actively interact with content. They want the ability to annotate on top of any content, from any source. When they can record the content, annotations,and surrounding audio, they can share digital content files. Today that’s a must-have for flipped lessons, test review and keeping absent students up-to-date. Google Classroom integration makes it even easier to educate tomorrow’s citizens.

ViewSonic offers a range of options to fit any budget. Products include interactive flat panels, interactive projectors, and retrofit interactive kits. ViewSonic ViewBoard IFPs are designed to support education with best-in-class Google Classroom integration features and more.

Interactive Software

Add interactive software to amp up the capabilities of existing flat panel displays. ViewSonic® ViewBoard® for Education delivers robust interactive features that bring lessons to life. The powerful software supports direct file saving to Google Drive and encourages active engagement.

Content Sharing

Wireless content sharing makes it fast, easy and efficient for students to display content. The most robust solutions work with any personal or school-issued device. ViewSonic content sharing options include the ViewSync® 3 wireless interactive presentation gateway, the ViewStick 2 wireless HDMI adapter, and collaboration software. ViewSonic offers robust collaboration software from partner Quizdom.

Ximbus interactive presentation and collaboration software enables easy, real-time student-teacher collaboration. Features include instant polling, easy compatibility with Google apps. Seamlessly integrates with Google Classroom, including Google login, contacts, resources, and Google Drive. Oktopus interactive presentation and collaboration software offers a complete blended learning solution. Oktopus combines whiteboarding, collaboration, polling, and self-paced learning, all of which seamlessly integrate with ViewSonic ViewBoards and interactive projectors.

Huddle Spaces/Learning Labs

Call them what you will, these tech-laden spaces foster exactly what 21st-century educators seek: active, constructivist learning. Huddle spaces typically feature an interactive display or smart display. Content sharing capabilities lets students easily display material from their smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

Significant research and educator experience confirm that the traditionally-designed classroom lacks what’s needed to prepare engaged 21st-century citizens. Instructors and administrators are working to apply this knowledge to new classroom design practices. These future-forward classroom layouts leverage flexible furnishings and collaborative technology to create spaces that promote active engagement and meaningful learning. ViewSonic offers a wide range of technologies that bring greater interactivity and collaboration to any classroom’s front of room display, huddle stations, desktops, learning labs, and more.

While parents understand that a lot happens in between dropping their child off at school and seeing them at the end of the day, many don’t recognize exactly what it’s like. Along with the books, tests, and classroom assignments, your child’s world is revolving around actively turning into a little person within his or her classroom community. In order for parents to better relate to their children and understand their daily experiences, one anonymous teacher shared nine things about a typical school day that most parents don’t realize — but should.

They turn into your mini me — for better or for worse.

Why your child acts or speaks a certain way usually all makes sense to teachers come parent-teacher conferences. But your mannerisms and expressions aren’t the only things your little one brings to the classroom; they also share your team spirit, work ethic, and drive — or lack thereof. Your problems also have a way of creeping into your child’s day and teachers as well as their friends definitely pick up on it. The impact of a fight you had that your little one overheard or a chaotic morning can be observed in your child even after you’ve forgotten about it.

Recess means something different for every child.

Most kids love recess, but it can be for two very different reasons. While this time is an opportunity to go outside and run around with friends, some embrace it as a chance to spend time with their teacher in a more personal setting. Sometimes recess is when your child is thriving on the court or making new friends, but it can also be when they are developing confidence and feeling secure in the classroom setting thanks to some extra time inside instead of out.


Just because they do it at home doesn’t mean they can do it at school.

Oftentimes parents are frustrated with tests that are marked incorrect because they know their child can do it — they even saw them answering those questions correctly at home! However, this can be a warped sense of reality and parents need to understand what they see at home isn’t what happens at school because of their involvement. Parents who hover too much during homework time or “help” with assignments are actually hurting their child’s growth because when they have to do the same work at school (and independently), they don’t know how. These kids don’t know how to correctly answer questions in school even though they got them right at home because they don’t know how to complete all of the steps with out some extra help from you. Your involvement outside of school can hurt them in the classroom and leave them struggling even more.

Every child has a role within the classroom community.

Your kids are essentially dealing the same politics that parents experience in the adult world. As kids interact within their classroom community, roles are unconsciously given and both kids and teachers work within these labels. Children know who the kind kid is if they’re having a bad day, the troublemaker, and the good student, and they naturally embrace their own roles while finding where they fit. Where their spot is on the carpet is also a good indicator of their role — teachers often place the kids they can depend on to pay attention in the back or a shy child next to another who has a reputation for always being friendly. This gives students an equal opportunity to learn within those roles.

Hurt feelings aren’t always a bad thing.

School isn’t just about reading and writing; it’s also about learning social skills that are equally important. During their time in the classroom, children are learning how to become people. Kids can be mean — oftentimes because they don’t realize — but when your child’s feelings get hurt during the day, it’s an invaluable opportunity for them to learn how to react in an appropriate way and recover from the upset.

They blossom when you drop them.

Just because your child seems shy or clingy around you doesn’t mean that’s how they still are moments after you leave. Some children really do transform into completely different people when they aren’t guided by you and it’s important for parents to never assume that their child takes on the same role at school as they do at home.

There’s way more joy than you realize.

Despite the dread of homework and agony of tests, school can be a bright area for your child. Kids still laugh and play throughout the day and within that, they are learning how to communicate, be good citizens, and work within a community. They might come home upset about the amount of work or a mean kid, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t smiles and laughter during the day.

You’re probably thinking about them way more than they’re thinking about you.

Separation can be hard for some students, but despite the drop-off meltdowns, kids quickly forget the upset after their tears have dried. While many parents spend all morning thinking about how upset their child was and worrying about how he or she is doing, most kids quickly recover and don’t realize how much they missed you until you are united again. Even if your child was hysterical when you said goodbye, chances are you weren’t the focus of the rest of their day.

Their teacher has their best interests at heart — even if he or she is teaching them Common Core.

Most teachers are just as dedicated to your child’s development as you are. Even if it seems like what your child is doing is a waste of time, you have to trust that your child is going to gain something from it, even if it wasn’t what or how you learned. If your child comes home with what seems like a ridiculous assignment, often it’s because his or her teacher doesn’t have a choice in the matter and is embracing it to make the most of the learning opportunity for your kid.

Image Source: Flickr user Allison Meier

What It’s Like to Study at the Strictest School in Britain

It’s lunchtime at Britain’s most notorious school, but I don’t get to eat much. My plate of fries and a vegetable patty is only half-eaten when an 11-year-old swiftly removes it. In silence, the children sitting either side of me pass their plates to the end. It’s been less than 10 minutes since the school first sat down to eat. On surrounding tables, other adult visitors scramble to finish their meals in the face of outstretched hands trying to take their plates, as teachers time the students’ progress. At this school, “family lunches” aim to develop soft skills; children are expected to make conversation, pour drinks, and clear their guests’ plates—whether they’ve finished or not.

This is just one element of life at Michaela Community School. Based in Wembley Park, an underprivileged area of north London most famous for hosting England’s national soccer stadium, the school has become internationally renowned since opening in 2014—dubbed by the country’s newspapers as “Britain’s strictest school.” The school’s 484 pupils study in an atmosphere of rigid austerity. ‘Demerits’ are given out for the slightest errors: forgetting a pen, slouching, turning to look out of a window during a lesson. Two demerits in one class equals a detention. “That’s another demerit… you’re too disorganized,” an English teacher tells one girl who’s struggled to find her textbook in the allocated ten seconds.

The school day is run with military precision. Everything, from lessons to lunch, is timed to the second, with the aid of large digital clocks placed in each room. Teachers often give their classes a timeframe in which to accomplish a task—“Ten seconds to take out your books and open them to page 32”—before counting down backwards. The transition between classes is also timed, and completely silent. A black line runs down the center of the corridor carpets, and children are expected to silently proceed either side to their next classes. Eagle-eyed teachers stand ready to reprimand those who walk too slowly. Every detail is designed to maximize the amount of learning time. In the student bathrooms, there are no mirrors, lest they distract the students.

Pupils serve each other as part of Michaela’s ‘Family Lunch’ system Courtesy Michaela Community School

Katharine Birbalsingh, the principal or “headmistress” who founded Michaela four years ago, says the school’s emphasis on order and discipline means that “children can be children here, and have real childhoods.” The approach is intended to remove space for the social ills that other schools grapple with—Birbalsingh says the silent corridors almost eradicate bullying, for example (although she admits online bullying is harder to wipe out).

Birbalsingh says with satisfaction that she has had ex-servicemen visit and tell her Michaela reminds them of the British Army. Indeed, just like the military the school has established its own vernacular. “SLANT!” a teacher will shout, and students are expected to sit bolt upright, arms crossed, face turned to the front. Children are also expected to “track” the teacher with their eyes. Such is the range of commands to learn, new pupils joining the school at 11 years old are expected to attend a seven-day bootcamp before term starts. “That’s where we learn how strictness is good for you,” one pupil tells me, “how we’re different from other schools.” “Everything is in control,” another child adds, with a smile.

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Michaela is one of Britain’s approximately 400 “free schools,” which are broadly similar to the U.S.’s charter schools. Unlike the U.K.’s centrally-managed state-funded schools, or “state schools,” free schools are run independently by non-profit groups. They receive funding from government, but operate outside its control. Michaela teachers create their own curriculum, and compile their own textbooks. The school’s pupils are drawn from the local neighborhood, which is among the least privileged in the U.K’s capital city. Wembley Park is a district of London borough Brent, where one third of households are living in poverty, and which has the second-highest eviction rate in London. Michaela itself is housed in an unlovely gray office block opposite a London Underground train station. Birbalsingh says her school’s values are broadly in line with traditional British schooling. “But we have a similar goal to many of the charter schools in the United States… that are trying to change the lives of inner-city children.”

Since their introduction by the Conservative-led coalition government in 2010, free schools have proven controversial for their sometimes unorthodox approaches to education. But perhaps no free school is better known than Michaela, which is regularly the subject of media attention for its dedication to discipline (hiring a “detention director,” for example) and its focus on rote-learning, or memorizing by reptition. Birbalsingh is herself a divisive figure; she first came to prominence when, as a state school teacher, she delivered a tirade against Britain’s “broken” educational system at the Conservative Party conference in 2010, a political speech that raised the ire of her fellow teachers. Her school has been picketed and broken into by protestors before, and in January its Google Maps link was tampered with, so that it temporarily read “Michaela Community Prison.”

“The standard response is to pretend that the children aren’t happy,” says Toby Young, a former Vanity Fair journalist and education reformer who co-founded another Free School in London. “And that …anything that even faintly resembles direct instruction is tantamount to child cruelty.” However, Young supports Michaela’s strict teaching methods: “ was like seeing the ideal school come to life.” He describes a French class he observed as indistinguishable from the level you might expect at an elite private school like Eton.

Katharine Birbalsingh, Headmistress of Michaela Community School in London. Courtesy Michaela Community School

Michaela’s reputation draws visitors from all over the country; plenty of journalists but also teachers eager to see what all the fuss is about. On arrival, guests are presented with a piece of paper with instructions on how to behave, which acknowledges some may have strong feelings about its approach to discipline. The first instruction reads: “Please Do NOT: Demonstrate disbelief to pupils when they say they like their school.” Birbalsingh says this has happened before. “A pupil came to me and said, ‘Miss, what do I do when the guests say I shouldn’t like my school?’” she says. “You know, which is just awful, right?”

The pupils I met showed no sign of disliking their school; on the contrary, they appear extremely proud of it. Half-a-dozen Year 7s, the youngest age group in British high schools aged 11 and 12, extol the merits of attending Michaela. Visitors’ letters are often displayed around the school, one boy says. “Sometimes, when visitors come… they write a little message,” he explains, “saying, ‘Ah, this school’s like a prison nearly,” he says, enthusiastically. At the word ‘prison’, a girl to his right darts a look at him. He ploughs on. “Like, it’s really really good.”

The school does its best to foster lofty aspirations among its students. The group of 11-year-olds I meet each tells me they aim to attend Oxford or Cambridge University. The quality of education was recognized as “outstanding” in a May 2017 report by the government’s independent regulator Ofsted.

But Michaela’s teaching methods have been met with some criticism by education experts. The school stands by rote-learning techniques, or “drills to thrill.” Several poems are learnt by heart and belted out by students before lunch. The idea is that only by memorizing and learning can students later develop an informed opinion. The emphasis is on the teacher inside the classroom, and there’s no enquiry learning or group projects.

George Duoblys, a physics teacher in London, wrote an article for the London Review of Books in October, in which he questioned whether Michaela students are “being taught to think for themselves.” Duoblys tells TIME that, while he admires the depth of factual knowledge the students obtain, he is concerned Michaela is “removing all spontaneity.”

“By trying to control absolutely everything, the teachers maybe deny students the opportunity to get a feel for their own style, their own way of doing things,” he says. The school’s teachers “are really passionate about learning and knowledge, but the way they go about it seems—by any kind of normal, intuitive sense—to not be a very enjoyable experience,” Duoblys says.

Michaela’s Deputy Head Jonathan Porter sees things differently. “I think it’s Britain’s most loving school,” he says. Porter believes the school’s strict rules allow “pupils to be free, to be truly free” to learn. Aged just 28, he is a Cambridge graduate who attended Oundle, a prestigious U.K. private school. Like the majority of Michaela’s staff, he is young, charismatic, and filled with a kind of religious zeal when it comes to Michaela’s ethos. “We’re certainly all evangelical,” Porter says. The school has produced a book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, which sets out the “brave new world” Michaela promotes. Throughout my interview with Birbalsingh, she repeatedly refers to the need to “spread the word.”

The real test of Michaela’s approach to education will come when its first intake of pupils takes their GCSEs, national exams that every British student takes at age 15 or 16. The current Year 10s, the oldest age group at the school, will sit their exams in summer 2019. But in the meantime, they’re unlikely to forget it. “42 WEEKS TO GCSES,” one classroom sign reads.

After plates have been cleared away at lunch, the children are called on to offer “appreciations” to guests, parents and teachers. The process takes longer than the meal itself. Each selected child stands to thank someone who has been particularly helpful to them, before the whole school offers two staccato claps and a teacher rates the child on vocal projection. The teacher overseeing lunch during my visit also asks about the day’s pre-approved topic of conversation: who would the children nominate as TIME’s Person of the Year. Several students, apparently unprompted, suggest Birbalsingh.

These “family lunches” are intended to give the children life skills that will set them up in areas that go beyond education. Birbalsingh, a daughter to a Guyanese academic and a Jamaican nurse, recalls feeling ostracized as a non-white teenager, brought to the U.K. from Canada at the age of 15. “I was one of those children that others didn’t necessarily find very cool,” she says. Her fierce work ethic took her to Oxford University, where she worked on outreach programs with inner-city children and was inspired to go into teaching.

She believes that children from Michaela’s catchment area also need guidance on “skills that you and I take for granted,” she says, such as table manners. “If they are eating Kentucky Fried Chicken every night, well they don’t know that,” she says. “Those silly little rules can act as stepping stones… so that the children can both be an academic success and also a good person in the end.”

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Of course, there are other reasons that Japanese schools are more equitable than American ones—reasons that have more to do with features of the U.S.’s system. Japan has an extremely homogeneous population, which means that the racial segregation that persists in U.S. schools is a nonissue there. Japan also doesn’t track students into gifted programs, which means that all students share the same classroom, and better students are expected to help ones that are struggling. Tracking students may help the sharpest American students thrive, but it can also leave other students behind.

And wealthy students in Japan do hold several advantages over poorer ones. Child poverty is growing in Japan—about 20 percent of kids in Tokyo live in poverty, according to a recent government survey. I visited Kid’s Door, an organization in Tokyo that provides tutoring and after-school programs for children from low-income families. Yumiko Watanabe, the founder of Kid’s Door, told me that some poor students in Japan drop out of school because they can’t afford expenses like field trips or school uniforms. When I asked her about the OECD’s data indicating that Japan’s schools performed well in equally educating rich and poor students, she said that this might be true in elementary schools, but that as they get older, poor children get less help on homework from their parents since their parents are working. These families are also less likely to be able to afford tutors or other outside help. “There’s a natural tendency to fall behind because they are not getting the support that wealthier children get,” she said.

One single mother, Shinobu Miwa, whose 16-year-old son attends programs at Kid’s Door, told me she was frustrated that she couldn’t send him to cram school and worried he’d be at a disadvantage. “He’s in a weak position compared to other families,” she said. He’ll likely face even more problems if he decides to go to college; Japan’s colleges are very expensive, and there are fewer scholarships available to poor students than there are in the U.S.

Japan’s schools can also be extremely stressful places for students, who are sometimes bullied if they fall behind. “As long as I performed well in school, things were okay. But once I started to deviate just a little—they went to the extreme and started treating me incredibly coldly,” one student told Anne Allison, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University who has written extensively on Japan. Japanese students are also expected to belong to after-school clubs for sports or dance, which can keep them at school until 6 p.m. “When they come home, it’s already dark and all they have left to do is eat dinner, take a bath and do their home assignment and sleep,” the Tokyo teacher told me.

Despite these flaws, Japan’s educational system still sets an example for other countries to follow. That’s partly because Japan has different goals for its schools than somewhere like the United States does. “The Japanese education system tries to minimize the gap between the good students and everyone else,” Takahashi told me. That means directing more resources and better teachers to students or schools that are struggling. It also means giving teachers the freedom to work together to improve schools. This could be difficult to transplant to the United States, where education has long been managed on a local level, and where talk of sharing resources more often leads to lawsuits than it does to change. But Japan’s success is relatively recent, according to Schleicher. About 50 years ago, Japan’s schools were middling, he said. Countries can make their schools more equitable. They just need to agree that success for all students is a top priority.

This story is part of a series supported by the Abe Fellowship for Journalists, a reporting grant from the Social Science Research Council and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to [email protected]

Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Connect Twitter

Right now in my state, applications for admission are open and being accepted at several of the state’s public and private universities. As a matter of fact, they’ve been open since late August. This means that before high school seniors even complete one day of their senior year (or one week, or one month for that matter), they can fill out and complete the college application process for a handful (if not more, because many colleges are opening admission early) before they’ve even gotten their new locker combination memorized.

To properly put this in the glaring and insane perspective that it needs, let’s think about this whole concept for a good long minute, and talk about what it really means. And I don’t think it really means that because students can be accepted early, they’re gaining a comfortable jump on their future plans, and it’s actually ideal to have the next very vital chunk of their lives all decided and figured out before the Homecoming dance.

Little Pig Studio/

For many reasons, we can go with those arguments, and support our newly minted seniors when they enthusiastically apply to college this prematurely. But for reasons of which I am about to give, I think this whole system of early applications and early decisions has little to do with the best interest of the students, (actually quite the opposite, and I’ll get to that in a minute), but more to do with the competitive nature of college admissions across the country. We tend to forget that in many ways colleges are a bit like retailers, and use the same “early shopping” tactics that stores use. There’s a reason Black Friday now starts on a Thursday.

But back to the students. Because of the availability of early applications, and in most cases, even colleges not considered to be offering an “early” window, are still opening up applications during the fall semester, this means that by all accounts students really only have three years of high school grades to generate the GPA they’ll be sending to college. Three. Years.

Truth be told I’m not a math person at all, and admittedly winced every time I sat with my sons to start calculating their semester GPAs. With all the bonus points for an honors, AP, or Dual Enrollment class, it was hard to wrap my brain around a GPA that could be over 4.0 because how in the heck is there such a thing as a “super” A? Oh, but there is folks.

If you have a new high schooler and this is fresh news to you, brace yourself because things are about to get bleaker. Insofar as GPA’s can have bonus points to bring them up, they’re also susceptible to the devastating effects of being brought down by one small thing, and that one small thing can be something as simple as one not so great grade in one class in one semester. And that one bad grade in that one class (that was probably an anomaly anyway), has in it the power to do more damage to a GPA than one would ever want to compute.

What all this means is, we’re mistakenly giving as much credit, weight, and value to the grades a freshman makes in their first semester of high school, as the classes they take in the spring semester of their junior year. So why is this such a big deal? Well, have you spent any amount of time with the average awkward, goofy, and disorganized 14-year-old freshman boy, and then met his matured counterpart as an 18-year-old senior? What about your average nervous, shy, possibly dramatic or scatterbrained 14-year-old girl, and then met her as a poised young woman her senior year?

The massive amount of mentally maturative transformations that high schoolers undergo in the short span of four years is an amazing feat to witness. And yet we quantify their semesters in high schools as all equal, when clearly, the child that is taking a final exam his first semester is nothing like the child taking final exams his last semester. We tell freshman to relax and take their time settling into high school and finding their peer group and what types of activities interest them, but then we take their first semester grades – those grades they earned while still green in the gills of high school, and we give them the same amount of weight as every other semester.

We’re essentially telling freshman it’s ok to take some time to get used to high school, except, oh wait, that first semester grade? It means A LOT, because if you end up with a C, D, or F, mathematically bringing up a GPA that has a blemish like that is nearly impossible, because you’ve really only got 5 more semesters to do it in. Why only 5? Because we’re making kids apply to college September of their senior year, that’s why.

We’re just beginning to see colleges make some serious adjustment to their admissions applications and processes – with some even nixing college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT, as they seek out alternative ways to gauge a student’s past and future success not based solely on scores and GPA’s. I hope these types of admissions adjustments and entrance standards change in a away that is more reflective of not only the way it measures the whole student, but the how and when it measures the whole student.

We can no longer assume (or weigh) a bad grade earned as a freshman means that child isn’t bright or lacks potential. That child is still a child, a freshman wading the waters of a brand new environment, who will be something completely different three years from now.

If high school educators and counselors were able to draw up a new kind of GPA computation formula that better amplifies the changes students go through during their high school years, what a difference it could make for both late maturing students, and those with a few early grade blemishes that have the potential to be the only transcript tarnishes they have.

As far as early applying and admissions are concerned, how about we let the seniors actually get a semester under their belts before asking them to join the rat race of early admissions? And what about giving them the opportunity for a chance to buckle down and use those last two semesters to turn things around if need be, and get that GPA up before applications and scholarships are actually due?

Having options for students who unfortunately experience a GPA blip early on, to be able to redeem themselves late in high school shouldn’t be looked down upon, rather it should show gumption and perseverance. And all students deserve those last two semesters to continue to boost up their GPAs if they need to, and not let it be seen as a last-ditch effort or detriment to their applications.

Related: Students are Exhausted and Over-scheduled and We are to Blame

When Did High School Activities Become All of Nothing?

Five Years of High School, By Choice

Apr 06, 2011 • College Prep

High School is typically a four-year commitment. However, an increasing number of teens are choosing to return for a a so-called Victory Lap.

The Victory Lap is a term that refers to returning after graduation for an extra semester or two.

Why would teens want to return to high school? There are many reasons:

• Not feeling emotionally or socially prepared for college or university
• To continue with sports
• To improve grades
• To complete credits
• To increase self-confidence
• To increase post-secondary qualifications
• To save money

Some estimates say that as many as 15-20% of Ontario students return for an extra year. If students don’t feel ready to go to university or college, or don’t have the grades, and high school will allow them to re-take courses, or to take additional courses, then is there anything wrong with staying in high school for an extra year?
But critics say that in terms of the education cost, it’s an expensive habit that is a waste of taxpayers money.

The official government of Ontario position is that not all students learn at the same rate, and if certain students need an extra year to obtain the necessary grades to graduate, then—as long as the student is under 21—this is perfectly acceptable.

Other critics say that it gives students an unfair advantage over others who don’t have the option of taking a Victory Lap—that students who remain behind to take (or to re-take) courses to bring up their averages may be unfairly stacking university admission odds in their favour.

Those who support the extra year of high school say that it helps students better cope with transition anxiety, as the move from High School to Post-Secondary is recognized as one of the biggest life transitions, right up there with marriage and retirement.

Factor in the high cost of post-secondary tuition and the alarmingly high first-year drop out rate, staying in high school to improve grades, and increasing university readiness will help high schoolers be more successful in college and university.

The Gap Year
Are students ready for College and University?

A teacher’s five tips for this year’s high school juniors

(iStock) By Emily Brisse September 10, 2019

For the past 15 years, I’ve taught high school English in both public and private schools, in rural and urban settings, and to kids of every socio-economic background, race, ability-level and motivational drive. Despite this professional variety, one detail has remained constant for me: I’ve always taught at least one class of juniors. And because of this, I’ve written hundreds of college recommendation letters.

It’s an important job. Although I know my letter won’t be the deciding factor in a student’s admittance to an institution, I’ve been told by college counselors and admissions officers that my comments personalize the process and hold legitimate sway. So, I do the best I can. These are four years of someone’s life, after all. Not that long by most adult standards. But for a 17-year-old? I try to remember exactly what my students feel they are entrusting me with.

When my most recent batch of juniors came to me, requesting I write on their behalf, I said yes. And then thought about all the things they either did or didn’t do over the course of their junior year in my class that I either could or could not write about. I wished, 15 years in, I would have placed a quick pause on my introductory lesson for American Lit and instead begun a little life chat. Here are five pieces of advice I’d like to share now:

  • Be present: Physically, sure. Attendance helps. But I’m talking about engagement. Even if you’re not loving “The Great Gatsby,” even if you’re not reading “The Great Gatsby” (you are reading it, right?), show me that you’re thinking about it, searching for its relevance, listening to the connections your classmates are making, asking good questions. Nothing impresses me more than a student who is able to show up to class every day, convinced there is something to be learned.
  • Be courageous: Speak up. Admit you don’t understand, or that you do. Ask another student to clarify — even the kid you’re certain is getting an A. Be honest about what you believe. If you feel those beliefs evolving, try to sidestep fear and pay attention. Even when it’s risky, write what you want to write. Remember, as Emerson insists, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”
  • Be collaborative: Most people would agree that our current political and societal discourse is, in a word, disharmonious. So, it is ever more necessary that people learn to sit with those of differing opinions and backgrounds, listen to one another and work together. Whether you like group projects or not, understand these assessments are microcosms for the world you are about to enter. Extrovert, introvert, leader or follower — whatever you are, be certain you remember the table Hughes describes, and that you make space around it for a variety of voices.
  • Be curious: The easiest letters I write are about kids who are intrinsically interested. They stay after class to keep discussing Cather or they ask for more stories by Cisneros or they want to know — really know — why it is that when O’Brien writes a certain way, they feel like they’re not just reading about the jungles of Vietnam, but actually there, covered in blood and sweat and regret. These conversations have nothing to do with grades or, God forbid, points. They are about wonder. About a quest for knowledge. About all that cannot be seen — yet. Your capacity for awe and attraction to inquiry say a lot about your readiness for higher education, so let your interests lead.
  • Be grateful: The fact that you are even considering college is a testament to your privilege. You can read. You can write. You have been shown how to join the conversation. These are life-changing, life-giving tools. So please, appreciate your school; regardless of your experience in any one class, as a collective, your school has given you an education that many teenagers around the world would risk their lives for. And appreciate your teachers, too. They are not perfect. They are tired on Monday mornings just like you. If their stupid jokes make the top of your head feel like it’s been taken off, I know it’s probably not for the same reason Dickinson describes. But help a teacher out: Laugh anyway.

These tips are not exclusive to students looking for a good letter of recommendation, or even those interested in attending college at all. They are life lessons I wish I had known when I was 17 — that kid who tolerated math and adored English, the one who wanted to do well, but operated mostly on a nebulous instinct. Relax, I want to tell her. The next stage of life will arrive without you racing toward it. For now, for these last two years of high school, in every way you can, show up. Treat each day like the curiosity it is. See what you can learn.

As I return to the classroom this fall, my first year in which I’ll be trading out junior classes for senior ones, I am anticipating a few more requests for letters. But most requests will be for other things: college talk, fresh eyes on an original poem, a little encouragement when it comes to maneuvering through another still-awkward homecoming dance. For the most part, my recommendations will remain the same: Be present. Be grateful. Make it worth writing about.

Emily Brisse, a teacher and writer, is at work on a novel related to education. Connect with her on Instagram at @emilybrisse.

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Allowing college freshman to spread their wings: A guide for empty nesters

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