A History of Educational Change


Education has a history that spans from origins of human beginning. As a practice it is essential to survival. Without fail education has passed along valuable discoveries, knowledge, skills, cultural practices and values. Over time experience helps to change the perspectives of teachers and students so that information that is passed down from one generation to the next evolves and shifts.  For example, learned behaviors that were once of value in one generation, may be discredited as experience change, their practice lost, and so not taught to the students of the following generations.

In this way I see education as both a changing and consistent means of orienting a child or student in this world or specific practice. The custom of teaching has proven itself to be indispensable as a tool for training people. As such it takes shape in so many different configurations, formal and informal. As such I see education as a broader form of sharing something learned; education is the process of learning. We are always being educated in some form whether that be, alongside the guidance of a teacher, through our own experiences, or within the context of our greater social environment. Modern education takes an ordered approach to learning, constructing an efficient way to educate children on how to function in today’s society.  A complex cultural understanding, as well advanced levels of skill are necessary. We live in a transient world, future-focused and everything is always changing. Education must prepare its students how to appropriately take on an independent life in today’s fast paced world. I agree with Paulo Freire that education should also guide people to “develop a critical consciousness that empowers them to engage in self-liberation” (Ornstein, 2011, pg 121). In order to develop in such a way that we continually grow, can teach ourselves, and learn to gauge the worth of our experiences, it is essential that we learn to think critically. This is vital in a continually changing society, and without it we remain passive members. Education is not only a way of sharing knowledge, culture, and skill, but a way of teaching members of society how to function and think independently. Along this train of thought, my thoughts on the purpose of education are much in line with John Dewey’s theory on progressive education, experience and education are not co-dependent, the quality of an experience is important because although it may improve a particular skill the end result may be a dead end, landing the learner in a “groove or rut” from which he cannot move further. In this manner education should provide us with appropriate experience that allow us, as I mentioned earlier, to continually grow (Dewey 1938). It is important to not abandon the past ways of teaching but to reevaluate their effectiveness, and use these observations to make effective, meaningful changes.

Education as an institution has a shorter history than it’s less tangible counterpart. Looking back to it’s very beginning education began not as regulated body of trained professionals, but as a systematic approach by community members to raise and train young children in the ways of a specific culture. Survival skills, myth, ritual, and ethical laws were passed down through experience, observation, rites of passage and perhaps training by older community members (Orenstein, 2011). In this setting views of societal members were reverentially ancestrally based; focus was not on the future, but how to look the past as a means of survival. Over time these perspectives grew and evolved with such events as the agricultural revolution, leading up the period of enlightenment. This was a time marked by scientific discovery, and the change resulted in a shift of cultural paradigm. As such mythology became less important in the passing of information, lessons became categorically organized, and society began looking to the future for new scientifically based discoveries in search of proof based accuracy (Armstrong, A short history of myth). In this way education began its vast changes as an institution; However, remained unchanged as a means for transferring information from the older generations to the younger. As such the style of teaching and subject matter has continued to evolve with the industrial and technological revolutions. Education has grown into an industry available to the public as a whole. Regulatory matters have changed unequal opportunities throughout our recent past, and education has become a means of preparing the young for a future training them in vital skills, also teaching of histories past.

When looking to the past, there were a great number of philosophers, theorists, and educators that transformed, or at least impacted the course of education. As early as 600 BCE Lao Tzu had formed a theory in rejection of Legalism on education promoting self-reflection and an abandonment of regulatory means. In later years the theory of Confucius in response to that of Taoism, endorsed a hierarchal approach with set standards and required tests, in many ways this is similar to education in America today as testing becomes a more important means of measuring success (Ornstein 2011). In more recent years, reformers such as Horace Mann sought to improve the quality of America’s educational institution. Mann used his position in politics to establish a state board of education in Massachusetts, working to improve quality of buildings and teachers (PBS). John Dewey, a later theorist had a profound impact upon modern education, his theorieson traditional education as ineffective in fully educating the individual, and forcing adult ideas upon children has shifted modern approach to education so that it has become more experiential and discovery based (Dewey 1938).

Education as a method for transmitting survival skills and culture, as a way of celebrating the past is in its origins experientially based. We learn through our experiences, but every experience does not offer the opportunity to learn (Dewey 1938 pg. 26). Our approach to education has certainly changed over time with inventions and revolutions of new kind. New experiences have prompted educators to suggest new approaches to teaching and enhanced learning. Culture has played an important role in the interpretation of various subjects, emphasis has changed and evolved. For example, with the rising popularity of computers, handwriting has taken a backburner to typed text, as many schools eliminate lessons in cursive. These students will experience education in a new way from past generations and so on. Education as an experience has and always will be integrated with culture, politics, and the society. Student learning will continue, experiences will change as societal values evolve and what is considered pivotal material will be modified alongside this.


Dewey, John. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Touchstone.

Ornstien, Allan C., Levine, Daniel U, Gutek, Gerald L. (2011). Foundations of Education (11th Edition). Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth.

Photographs are from the following sources, in order of appearance:



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2 Responses

  1. jconlon says:

    Hi Hannah,
    It’s funny because as I was writing my blog post this week – your photos were exactly what came to mind. When I was thinking of educators and classrooms of the past – I thought of meticulously-placed desks, chairs, and chalkboards. The photos alone will present countless differences between schools of now and then. It makes me wonder how students perceived their education then, and how students might perceive their education now. Do they even realize that they are not learning how to write cursive? It is a shame and, at the same time, I have to wonder how students will prosper from contemporary learning techniques.

  2. sstanfar says:

    Your definition of education as learning and as a means to orient children and students in a specific practice, and a tool to train people is great, and I agree with you. I also agree that past ways of teaching shouldn’t be abandoned, but instead learned from and either changed or made more effective…

    As time goes on new methods of teaching and learning are sure to develop and be built upon, which means that education should continuously be evolving.

    Looking back at ancient times, and times not that long ago, women, such as ourselves, and lower-class males were not allowed to be educated in some cultures. Even Aristotle, the father of Science, believed, “women were intellectually inferior to men” (Ornstein, 2011). Although Aristotle made many contributions to education and science, some of his views were reevaluated and changed.


    Ornstein, A. C., Levine, D. U., & Gutek, G. L. (2011). Foundations of education (11th ed.). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.