I’ve always been fascinated by the old one-room schoolhouses. I think it all started when my younger sister and I would walk up our country road and play for hours on the site of an old school, long since abandoned. That school must have educated every boy and girl for miles around, and those children grew up to be postal carriers, soldiers, bankers, farmers, and teachers.
In that school and others like it, students from multiple age groups and grade levels worked and learned together. In many instances, older students taught younger ones, with the teacher providing guidance as needed. Classics frequently served in the place of textbooks, and students applied what they were learning in the context of what was relevant to their lives. They developed a body of knowledge, but even more importantly, they learned how to apply that knowledge to solve problems.
It was a simpler time, and yet many of the methods found in those one-room schools were ahead of their time. Today we often hear about new techniques and methods for helping students learn. We talk about concepts such as competency-based, proficiency-based, and personalized learning. I would argue that besides a homeschool environment, one-room schools were the birthplace of individualized instruction. And the new performance assessments that are gaining so much attention? Students in one-room schools often had to demonstrate what they knew through projects such as planting an herb garden appropriate for local soil; raising goats for meat and dairy; making apple butter; building a machine shed that could stand up to wind; or providing first aid. Like the competency-based educational model, Simousek points out that most one-room schools adhered to the “time is variable/learning is constant” mantra, whereby learners worked on topics and skills until they could successfully demonstrate their proficiency before moving on. In other words, what students learn is more important than how quickly they learn it.
There are actually still a few hundred one-room schools in the United States today, many located in very rural and remote areas. However, a charter school in Gainsville, Florida was started in 1997 specifically with the one-room school model in mind. Focusing on meeting the needs of high achievers, the One Room School House Project (ORSH) serves students through eighth grade. In addition, some modern-day homeschools are perfect venues for the one-room schoolhouse model.
While I recognize the benefits of larger schools today, I have to wonder if perhaps it might be worth having a conversation about the benefits of smaller schools designed around the one-room schoolhouse model. Even in our fast-paced, mobile society, I believe there is still a need for schools that serve as community anchors; that can truly provide individualized instruction and support for all learners; and that prepare students to interact with others in a positive way.
Dr. Roberta Ross-Fisher is a national leader in education transformation, teacher preparation, and academic quality assurance. An accomplished presenter and writer, she currently supports educational institutions and non-profit agencies in areas such as educational systems design, online learning experiences, competency-based education, and accreditation. Roberta also blogs about academic excellence and can be contacted for consultations, webinars, and on-site workshops through her site (www.robertarossfisher.com).