Friday, September 15, 2023

What "traditional" education is not

Like clockwork, when September rolls around, memes begin flooding social media with a consistent message for homeschoolers: Dear homeschooling families, please stop trying to do "school at home" and just enjoy learning. 

I see these message and think of all the people who, after brick-and-mortar schools went to the virtual model during Covid shutdowns, were frustrated as they tried to understand lesson plans and help their children complete schoolwork...and decided that homeschooling was not a good fit for them. 

I think of the new homeschooling parents who feel exasperated as they try to force their young children into a rigid schedule and curriculum to fill several hours a day because "that's what school is." 

This is a problem. 

Homeschooling isn't always a good fit for every child at every stage, and I'm grateful that there are some good schools in this country. I'm also grateful for the amazing teachers who work selflessly to help their students; they do tremendous work. However, we can't make our educational decisions based off of dramatic assumptions about what education necessarily looks like. A variety of factors contribute to our conclusions, including the terms that we use. 

Specifically, I'm thinking of how we pair the word "traditional" with education. 

For the past several years in America, we've acted like a specific model of schooling is "traditional education": a model that involves students from around the age of six to eighteen years old, segregated by age, staying in buildings from around nine a.m. to three p.m., five days a week, nine months a year, to learn a variety of preselected subjects. This is "traditional education." This is normal. This is necessary for the proper education and development of children. 

When we embrace this model as "traditional education," we then assume that any method of schooling which deviates from this schema is "nontraditional."  These other methods may be good for some kids, but they are abnormal--and treated as such. 

However, what we think of as "traditional education" is not exactly traditional. In fact, this whole business of segregating students by grade, for thirty-ish-hours each week in a building, is a relatively new innovation in America.  

America is a young country, and our educational system in America is even younger. The early iterations of education in America were a far cry from our modern conception of "traditional school." 

For example, the Puritans in 17th century North America educated their children in a variety of ways that included handiwork, manual labor, and moral formation. In fact, a strong impetus for the Puritans to create schools was the ability to read the Bible for oneself. The Old Deluder Satan Act in 1647 states: 

"It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures [...], it is therefore ordered by this Court and Authoritie therof; That every Township in this Jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty Housholders, shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read." (source)

In the years following this legislation, some children went to schools, but education continued to soar beyond the bounds of the classroom. Children learned at home, as apprentices in a variety of businesses and trades, at church, and when going about their daily work. 

As time went on, one-room schoolhouses sprang up across rural America, particularly in the 19th century. In these schoolhouses, teachers taught children, academic subjects, the older children helped teach the younger children, and the whole community would gather at the schoolhouse for events. 

Ashland Township, District #38 Schoolhouse, Minnesota.

A pivotal moment in education occurred less than two hundred years ago, in 1837, when Horace Mann helped establish the Massachusetts State Board of Education. Shortly after this, in 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to pass school attendance laws.  As people began to move into heavily industrialized and populated areas, schools began to look different from the one-room model. Larger, more centralized schools developed. 

Yet, simultaneous to the development of these schools, the one-room schoolhouse model continued to be used throughout rural America. In fact, in the year 1919, it is reported that nearly 200,000 one-room schoolhouses operated in America! (source

The historical reality of education in America does not align with our modern conception of "traditional education." 

"Traditional education" is not a thirty-hour school week, for nine straight months, where children are required to stay on the school premises all day long. 

"Traditional education" does not consist of separating children into different rooms based on their age for an entire day. 

"Traditional education" is not an irreligious environment where purely secular views and ideologies are foisted on children. 

Instead, traditional education encompasses a wide array of learning environments, skills, and teaching methodologies. It goes far, far beyond our own narrow, modern conception of education. 


Dorothy Canfield Fisher's 1916 novel, Understood Betsy, highlights contrasting views towards education. When the story opens, nine-year-old Elizabeth Ann lives with her aunt in a city, where she attends school at a building where students are sorted by age. When Betsy is sent to live with relatives in rural Vermont, her perspective about education is turned upside-down. 

During her first day at school, Elizabeth Ann (also known as Betsy) is surprised to experience a one-room schoolhouse. In the city, she had been stuck in a large class of students and forced to work at the same subjects and levels as the other kids her age. In Vermont, her teacher immediately moves her to different grade levels for each subject, based on her comprehension and skill level. Needless to say, this young girl is incredibly confused. 

“Why—why,” said Elizabeth Ann, “I don’t know what I am at all. If I’m second-grade arithmetic and seventh-grade reading and third-grade spelling, what grade am I?”

The teacher laughed at the turn of her phrase. “you aren’t any grade at all, no matter where you are in school. You’re just yourself, aren’t you? What difference does it make what grade you’re in! And what’s the use of your reading little baby things too easy for you just because you don’t know your multiplication table?”

“Well, for goodness’ sakes!” ejaculated Elizabeth Ann, feeling very much as though somebody had stood her suddenly on her head.

“Why, what’s the matter?” asked the teacher again.

This time Elizabeth Ann didn’t answer, because she herself didn’t know what the matter was. But I do, and I’ll tell you. The matter was that never before had she known what she was doing in school. She had always thought she was there to pass from one grade to another, and she was ever so startled to get a little glimpse of the fact that she was there to learn how to read and write and cipher and generally use her mind, so she could take care of herself when she came to be grown-up. 

Every mode and era of education has its own problems, downfalls, and challenges (corporal punishment? No thanks). However, if we try to erase the diversity of education in America and only consider the modern school system as "traditional education," we do not serve our children well. When we internalize the idea that "traditional education" looks one particular way--and try to force every child into that model--we fail to address each child's own gifts, needs, and struggles. Referring to the school building down the road as "traditional education" is a misnomer. It may be a "full time, Monday through Friday school," but this model should not be upheld as the one, authoritative, traditional method of education in America. 

If we release ourselves from a narrow view of "traditional education," what could happen? 

Will we eagerly welcome the different gifts and struggles of children and creatively discover ways to address them? 

Will we look beyond the preexisting educational "systems" and freely find ways to offer rich opportunities to children? 

Will we look worldwide and throughout history to offer our children a vast array of experiences to learn from? 

Will we rethink what a "school day" looks like, and realize that it does not take six hours a day to educate a child?

Will we realize that some parents rely on schools for childcare, but not every family needs or wants their children to be in a classroom all day? 

Will we observe the self-directed learning that our children conduct each day? 

Will we offer our children the chance to experience restful learning as they gaze upon the world with wonder? Will we embrace a restful lifestyle of learning and wonder, too? 

The possibilities are endless. 

One day, I sat in a chair at the library and looked up from my book. I gazed at my children, scattered throughout the nearby area. My three-year-old worked in a play kitchen and periodically walked over to present me with pretend food. My baby stood at a train table, happily grinning. My kindergartener and second grader huddled together between shelves of books, their blond heads close as they read a Curious George book together. I sighed, content. This is education, I thought to myself. My kids, able to relax and play and read at the library, "just because." 

Journalist Rudolph Chelminski once visited a one-room schoolhouse with a group of elderly people who had formerly been students there. Reflecting on this experience, Chelminski notes: "The school was more like an extension of the family than an institution. Little kids learn from big. How simple. How normal." (source)

Indeed. How simple, and how normal. 


  1. This is one of your BEST writings!!! I'm going to save it to share it with others when they ask about my philosophy of education with homeschooling.

    1. Oh wow, thank you so much, Laura! I'm really glad you enjoyed this. I've been talking about this with anyone and everyone who will listen ;) This is such a huge topic, and it's been neat to research, discuss, and ponder different aspects of the education system. (and it also very much reaffirms my desire to homeschool my kids haha!)

  2. Wow this is really good and I can tell you put a lot of effort into the resbitch I was just having a conversation with my dad about where school boards came from and was shocked when he told me they had not always existed in this country

    1. Thanks, Ellen! I'm glad you liked this! That's neat you were recently having a conversation along these lines with your dad. It has been wild to learn just how "new" some of the aspects of education in America are.

      I also think it's really interesting to learn how education requirements vary across the states (a whole other topic I didn't get to in this post). There are charts online that show how many days and hours of school are required across America, and there's a bit of variation! For example, in Oklahoma where I live, kindergarten is required-so kids ages five and up all go to school (unless those families choose to homeschool). Most of the kindergartens here are full-day programs (even though supposedly they are only "required" to have a half day). But I've learned that other states either do not require kindergarten, or they at least offer half-day programs. Age cutoffs for grade levels is another area where there's some variation across the country. The whole realm of education is just fascinating, with so many different elements that can change depending on where you live.

  3. Very nice article, thanks for sharing. Children in Greece go to kindergarten for 2 years, kindergartens have now become very creative. At the age of 6 they go to the 1st Primary School.

    1. It's interesting to learn about education in Greece. Thanks for sharing that!