Once upon a time in a nearby land there were one-room schoolhouses.
These one-room schools worked well enough for farm families but in towns and cities, they did not. Too many children to school and too few schoolhouses. Also it was too hard for the teacher to get four year olds and 13 year-olds in one room to learn the entire curriculum.
What made the situation worse was that many people from other lands came to this country who wanted to send their children to school–after all it was free for the youngest ones. Also many rural families migrated to towns because there were jobs that paid far more than they earned on the farm. So more and bigger schools were needed because the leaders of the land believed that public schools were essential to build a patriotic populace, a strong nation and a job-rich economy.
Then a band of reformers found a new kind of school that had worked well in another country and brought it to this nearby land. This kind of school had eight rooms in one building, When children came to the school they were sent to different rooms in the eight-room building according to their ages. Six year-olds in one classroom and nine-year olds in another. For the few older students who wanted more schooling, there were high schools. And that is the beginning of the age-graded school in this nearby land.
The structure of the age-graded school contained separate classrooms with one teacher for those of a certain age who was responsible for covering one portion of the curriculum tailored to that age group. And this change–a structural reform that has lasted until now–from one-room schools to that graded school is the beginning of the standardized classroom.
What do I mean by a standardized classroom in the late-19th century?
In creating the structure of the age-graded school, reform-minded policymakers sought consistency in how schools should be built, operated, and–within classrooms–what teachers should teach and how. To policymakers, creating uniformity in schooling meant both efficiency (saving taxpayer dollars) and effectiveness (achieving goals). Thus, the structure of the age-graded school made it possible to create uniform furniture, curriculum standards, norms for children behavior, and similar ways of teaching young children and youth in every classroom.
So between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, standardization in schooling spread across the nation (see here and here). Architectural designs of school buildings standardized the size of classrooms, the number of windows in them, the arrangement of student and teacher desks, the circulation of air, and heating. All became uniform as school reformers sought consistency across an entire school (except for those children of color who went to segregated, dilapidated, under-funded schools in these decades)–see here and here.
Regularity in buildings sought homogeneity for both children and adults. Qualifications for who became teachers were raised and before a person could teach they had to meet minimum standards of knowledge and skills to teach. Such standards for the physical dimensions of the school, the curriculum, and for those who instructed children promised equality to those who attended tax-supported public schools
And standardization within the classroom occurred as well. Early to mid-20th century visitors to American classrooms would see a U.S. flag, paintings of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a wall clock and rows of bolted-down desks.
So what has the physical design of standardized classrooms including the arrangement of furniture and artifacts meant for both students and teachers over the past century?
*Rows of bolted down desks facing a blackboard and teacher desk and common textbooks for each academic subject communicate to those who inhabit that room who does most of the talking and who does most of the listening.
*Wall clocks mean keeping to a schedule of classes (e.g. 45 minute to hour long lessons) signaling changes in subject and moving to another room. Schedules are important because school is seen as a preparation for the adult work world where white-collar and blue-collar employees either punch time cards or are punctual. Clocks also mean that learning is measured by how long students attend classes during the school year.
*The American flag and the daily reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance are clear signs that loyalty to country is a primary obligation.
All of these artifacts become part of the “hidden curriculum” in age-graded schools and classrooms for transmitting to the next generation cultural values of obeying authority, adhering to institutional rules, independence, cooperation, the importance of time in the workplace, patriotism and pride in country (see here and here). Academics called this political, economic, and cultural socialization of the young.
Even so, there were architects who railed at such school designs. Here is William Greeley’s view of such schools in 1922:
Not all policymakers or architects agreed with this critic but Greeley recognized that a building housing age-graded classrooms has plans for those adults and children who inhabit it. This is the case with schoolhouse design.
*Movable chairs, desks, and tables introduced in the 1930s in many urban and suburban districts.
*Introduction of specialized rooms and space for school curriculum and after-school activities (e.g., art, music, science and computer labs, athletics, community services)
Amid changes, stability in classroom design, arrangement of furniture, and political and workplace symbols continue (e.g., clock, American flag)
Thus, the origin, spread, and frequent changes in the standardized classroom.
What about teaching? Has that become standardized also? Part 2 answers that question.