19th Century Education: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

The school year in the 1800s was scheduled around the planting and harvesting schedule and had two terms running from May-August and November-April. The schools had one room, where students of all ages would learn. The typical arrangement would be for younger students to sit in the front and older students to sit in the back, but this wasn’t always the case because students were grouped by ability. Students would move towards the back (~equivalent to moving up a grade level) when the teacher decided they were ready.

In school,  the students would focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. This lead to the common saying the 3 R’s. However, there was a fourth R, recitation. During this time period writing utensils and paper were harder to come by, many schools would make due with only chalk and a blackboard. Since students couldn’t record information on paper, memorization was prioritized. Recitation came about because it was an effective way to test what students had learned using the available (minimal) resources.

As every student was in one room, the teacher needed to come up with strategies for classroom management. Some of these were punishments. A more proactive method was the Lancasterian System (Monitoring System). This involved having more knowledgeable students teach those who were less knowledgeable. There were two primary benefits of this strategy. It reduced the number of teachers needed, saving communities money. And it gave every student a task, reducing misbehavior.

However, many parents were not pleased that their child was losing instruction time teaching a weaker student. This lead to the pupil-teacher movement. A child who wanted to become a teacher would begin a 5-year apprenticeship at age 13 under the head teacher. Some of the more successful schools using the pupil-teacher approach went on to become normal schools (Teachers Colleges).



The Late Nineteenth Century One Room School, by Oak Hill School Teacher’s Resource and Curriculum Guide