Adam Laats is an educational historian at Binghamton University, State University of New York. A former teacher, he is currently at work on the Lancasterian system of schooling in early 19th century America. Laats had read a post by Audrey Watters, “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade.” He then wrote this post for his blog.
What have been the top ed-tech goofs of all time? The top choice from my current research is pretty clear, c. 1804. [My readers] are probably sick of hearing about Joseph Lancaster. And I’m sorry. But his plan was such a perfect mix of tech-naïveté and Zuckerberg-level hubris that I can’t stop marveling over the 21st-century feel of Lancaster’s tech-obsessed school system.
If you’re just joining us, Lancaster was a young man who opened a school for poor kids in London in 1798. He tried some new tricks, including banishing corporal punishment and using students as teachers. He really believed technology could solve all the problems of education and therefore of society.
For example, he dreamed of new systems of “reading telegraphs,” “alphabet wheels,” and benches with holes for hats. His assumption—like that of so many of his peers—was that the right machine could eliminate traditional problems with school organization.
None of those failed ed machines, however, gets my pick as the top ed-tech goof of 1804. No, by a landslide, that (dis)honor goes to Lancaster’s “basket.”
The basket was a device that Lancaster used to discipline unruly boys (it was only used for boys) without resorting to lashes. If demerits failed, and other efforts didn’t work, boys would be suspended above the schoolroom in a basket. The other kids were encouraged to mock the “birds in a cage.”
A truly “terrible” way to humiliate a child, to be sure. But did it work? According to one enthusiastic Lancasterian, the “cradle” worked like a charm. As he wrote to Lancaster in 1812,
When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.
There was a cost, however. For understandable reasons, students did not like the cradle/basket/birdcage. They eventually stopped coming to Lancaster’s schools and their parents didn’t force them. Why? As one outraged African-American parent from New York wrote in 1827, their children should not be subjected to cruel teachers who only harped on the students’ “dulness and stupidity” all day.
Perhaps as a result of such gripes, Lancaster got rid of the basket. Though it plays a prominent role in early editions of his manual, by 1817 he had excised it. Like so many of the other ed-tech goofs we see in our decade, this technology came in with a blast of trumpets, only to exit with a whimper.