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Erica Carle
April 14, 2003

Did Florida voters really believe a constitutional amendment to reduce class size to 25 students or less would improve education? They should have known better. The price tag will run into billions, and in most cases class size has little or nothing to do with the quality of education.

Years ago our public school classroom had six rows of seven desks--all of them occupied. Frequently there were two grade levels in each classroom: 2A and 2B, 4A and 4B, etc. Some of my Catholic friends learned in classrooms of sixty students. And consider the case of Londoner Joseph Lancaster. In the first half of the 19th Century he started a worldwide revolution in education with his monitorial system whereby one teacher could supervise the education of 500 to 1000 students.

The students learned to read, write, and figure so rapidly that one parent feared witchcraft was involved. No, it was not witchcraft. It was Lancaster's exceptionally efficient and orderly teaching methods. Among his mottos were: "A place for everything and everything in its place." and "Let every child at every moment have something to do and a motive for doing it."

The English royal family and many other prominent individuals contributed to Lancaster's work. The British and Foreign School Society was formed to support education worldwide. DeWitt Clinton and a group of New York businessmen opened private monitorial schools in that City. Lancaster helped open schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Canada. In the winter of 1816-17 Emperor Alexander of Russia sent four Russian youths to London to learn the system. In 1822 Egypt became involved when the Pacha, Mehemet Ali, had kidnapped the most intelligent lads of good family and sent 30 of them to Paris and 20 to London to be trained so they could bring their skills back to Egypt. In 1825 President Simon Bolivar invited Lancaster to Caracas where he spent two years. Workers from many countries opened monitorial schools of their own: Italy, France, Spain, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Greece, India, Madagascar, Peru, etc. Education was inexpensive and efficient.*

In view of past successful efforts to teach large groups of children, why do today's education leaders and curriculum planners believe a teacher can handle only 20-25 children? It is because in the 20th Century, especially since WW2, the goal and methods of education have changed. The goal now is for social control rather than individual excellence. This change requires more teachers for less knowledge. Teachers must learn how to limit knowledge as well as impart it.

A 1947 book, Education For What Is Real, by Earl C. Kelley, Professor of Secondary Education at Wayne University in Detroit is an example of the educational thoughts of many 20th Century education professors and bureaucrats. It was Kelley's belief, in agreement with John Dewey who wrote the foreword to the book, that children in school be given what he called concrete experiences. Teachers should not attempt to store bits of knowledge against later need because fragments of knowledge are not conscious experiences. Instead of teaching a child of six to read because he will sometime need to read, Kelley taught that teachers should let the need for reading come out of what the child is doing. In other words, don't teach a child to read until he has an experience that requires reading.

He also wrote that special bits of knowledge such as science, language, mathematics, history, geography ought not to be separated out by themselves, but situations should be contrived as wholes, with all the elements involved. Mathematics, for example, should be taught through its use in projects involving many elements. He confessed it might be difficult by this method to teach twelve-year-olds to invert the divisor and multiply in order to divide one fraction by another. But then, he reasoned, maybe a twelve-year-old does not need to know how to divide one fraction by another. Even if he might need it sometime, Kelley doubted that the student can truly learn it, and so should not have his living clouded by it. When we make children learn that for which they see no need, he explained, it is doubtful that learning goes on at all.

Rather than acknowledging the importance of facts and skills that are necessary for advancement of learning, the 20th Century professors claimed that education must be child centered. Since children are different they learn in different ways and therefore must be taught in different ways. Teachers must discover what learning pattern suits each child and contrive appropriate situations.

If such a problem exists, Joseph Lancaster solved it in his schools nearly two centuries ago. All the senses were stimulated. The children saw words written by the monitor and read them aloud as they, themselves wrote; then all held up individual slates for correction. His method was certainly much faster and more efficient than expecting teachers to contrive problems and projects in order to teach facts. Lancaster did not have to worry about justifying the importance of knowledge. Both he and his students knew it was important.

But to Kelley and the 20th Century education professors, learning for its own sake is not enough. Children must be convinced that what they are learning solves problems. Problem solving and decision making are still the central themes of the government's education system. Kelley said that in true problem solving the problem must be real. Then he explained that it must be so CONTRIVED that its solution becomes important to the learner.

However, it is the task of the teacher to contrive learning experiences, but not to coerce outcomes. By this he meant the teacher should not direct the children toward the correct solution, but allow them to make mistakes along the way. Doing things wrong, with its attendant frustration, he asserted, is the essence of growth.

The following are direct quotes from Kelley's book. It appears that to him and his associates limiting education is more important than opening the door to a world of knowledge.

"No piece of subject matter, no fact of human knowledge, is bad in itself. Neither is any fact good in itself. It is good or bad only in relation to the person learning it, and to the possibility of his learning it. The question becomes one of asking who the subject matter is for, whether or not he has the purpose and experience to acquire it, what its acquisition will do to and for the learner, and why it should be learned."

"While there is no parcel or fragment of human knowledge that is bad in itself, neither is there any item without which some person could not get along...Knowledge is not power in itself, but knowledge which enables the individual to function more effectively adds to his power. The particulars of subject matter must be those for which the learner can find functional use in his own concrete world."

"This type of teaching is so difficult that it cannot be done with the number of students now commonly met by teachers in a day. That is one of the reasons why expenditures for education will have to be greatly increased. We must not ask a teacher to teach more students than he can."

So you see why education is so costly, why good teachers are frustrated and parents exasperated with curriculum planners, lawmakers and uninformed citizens who vote mindlessly for one failed educational experiment after another. Watch as Floridians pay more and more for less and less, all the time believing they have done something wonderful for the children.

Information on Lancaster's system is from A Century of Education 1808-1908 by H. Bryan Binns; J. M. Dent & Co.; London, 1908.

2003 Erica Carle - All Rights Reserved

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Erica Carle is an independent researcher and writer. She has a B.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin. She has been involved in radio and television writing and production, and has also taught math and composition at the private school her children attended in Brookfield, Wisconsin. For ten years she wrote a weekly column, "Truth In Education" for WISCONSIN REPORT, and served as Education Editor for that publication.

Her books are GIVE US THE YOUNG--$5 Plus $2.00 P&H WHY THINGS ARE THE WAY THEY ARE--$16 PLUS $4.00 P&H BOTH BOOKS -- $25 Total. A loose leaf collection of quotes titled, SIX GENERATIONS TO SERFDOM is also available--$15 Plus $2.00 P&H. Mailing address: Erica Carle; PO Box 261; Elm Grove, WI 53122.










"Rather than acknowledging the importance of facts and skills that are necessary for advancement of learning, the 20th Century professors claimed that education must be child centered. Since children are different they learn in different ways and therefore must be taught in different ways. Teachers must discover what learning pattern suits each child and contrive appropriate situations."