The Standardized Classroom (Part 1)

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.



No fairy tale this origin story of the age-graded school (see here and here).

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:

Probably the object is to produce a standardized American by the use of new,
standardized desks, in a standardized room with standard air at a standard temperature,
under standardized teachers…. Until a perfect form has been evolved, to standardize is to stifle further development.

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.

What about classrooms in the 1950s? 1970s? Now? Have classroom physical dimensions and furniture changed over the past century?
Yes, they have. Another piece of evidence to rebut those who say schools have never changed. But those aspects of the school’s “hidden curriculum” that instill cultural values,  workplace compliance, and civic competence convey have remained stable.

*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.




Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

8 responses to “The Standardized Classroom (Part 1)

  1. Couldn’t the standardize classroom be the optimized classroom? Putting 20-30 people in a typically sized room causes some major limitations. To be able to move around the room restricts arrangements; usually pods or rows. The design on the furniture/desks is also restricted. Need a flat surface and has to occupy a minimal square footage so 20-30 desks will fit in the that limited space room. The obvious solution is to not put 20-30 people in a small room. But now more rooms are needed. New problem. Reality sets in and we are back to desks in rows with a teacher desk squeezed in somewhere.
    If we start talking about ability vs age grouping then we have the issue of deciding what defines the ability level. Tests? Teacher assessment? Parent decision? Tracking in its own limited manner is ability grouping. Some kids want the “easy” track and will deliberately under achieve to get in it. The standard age grouping has issues but it is an easy solution that sometimes works.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting, Garth. And yes, reformers over the past century have basically answered “yes” to your question: Couldn’t the standardize classroom be the optimized classroom?

  2. Gayle

    My father (b.1926) attended a one-room schoolhouse in rural Nebraska. He said it was great. As a first-grader, he got the first-grade lessons, then heard the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade lessons as well. As a second-grader, he heard the first-grade lessons reviewed, got the second-grade lesson (which he had been exposed to the year before), and heard the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade lessons as well. As a third-grader, he had already been exposed to the third grade lessons for two years, and heard the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade lessons as well. As a fourth-grader, he had been hearing the fourth-grade lessons for three years, and heard the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade lessons as well. And so on. By the time he was in eighth grade, he had already been hearing the eighth-grade lessons for seven years, plus heard all the other grade lessons as well, so eighth grade was a breeze. The no-pressure daily reviews and previews allowed absorption of the other grades’ lessons by osmosis and integration of the learning in the various grades. Hearing all of the history lessons, for example, allows more of a sense of integrating history. Hearing the reading lessons of grades ahead of you makes you realize you can already do a lot of what will come. Hearing the math lessons constantly reviewed and previewed, and the teacher answering questions from kids in the earlier and later grades, allowed for greater comprehension and integration of the math concepts. This is part of what has shaped my own vision for education, although in my own vision, not in his school, older kids would help tutor younger ones, because explaining a lesson to someone else is an extremely effective way of learning it oneself.. You are one of the only education thinkers who questions age-segregation at all, yet that is important. And another aspect of age-segregation is socialization, giving kids the opportunity to be in the same classroom with kids younger and older is more effective socialization than teaching kids only how to socialize with kids their own age.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Gayle, for describing what your father experienced and your comments on that kind of schooling. While there are age-graded schools that have multi-age classrooms, they are few and far between.

      • Montana still has a number of one-room schools. Multi-age classrooms in Montana are not uncommon. In the mid 80s my wife taught 3/4 in one room. Most of the elementary grades were doubles due to student numbers. We were at a small school, 100 students K-12. Of the 180 schools in Montana 23 have 22 or fewer students in the high school. Most of these are part of equally small K-12 buildings. Even some courses are doubled. I taught physics and precalc at the same time one year. One physics student, three in precalc. Having 3 or 4 kids in a class really changes the standard classroom. I think in the rural states this is not uncommon.

      • larrycuban

        Hey, thanks for your describing one-room schoolhouses in Montana, Garth. Appreciated that.

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