THE LANCASTERIAN SYSTEM OF TEACHING
As far as the history of education as a whole is concerned, there was, indeed, a time when education was not a priority at all in the minds of the general public; such was the case during the Early National Period.
The situation was especially grim in England where industrialism was literally swallowing the country's youth. Children were forced to labor under harsh and grueling conditions. Some, even as young as six years old, were made to work shifts that lasted over twelve hours per day, six days out of the week and were not given any breaks in any sense of the word. No consideration was given to their physical, mental, emotional, and least of all, their intellectual well-being. They were treated as machines, as property of those who stood above them on the class ladder and were subject to the whims of those who stood over them.
During this time children had a minimum amount of schooling, if any at all. The church had tried to get involved in nurturing the intellect of the youth, however, they were losing their authority in society and the problems of non-education and illiteracy were widespread and on the rise. Education took a backseat to children leaving the home in order to pursue employment which would hopefully elevate their stations in life. Boys became apprentices to tradesmen and the like and girls entered into domestic service positions. At any rate, in an age where children were seen as objects and education was literally feared because of the chance that certain people would become "overeducated" and step outside the boundaries of their social class, the fact that education made any strides at all is truly amazing.
Joseph Lancaster brought into existence a system of education during this time in which children could be educated very cheaply, however, the quality of this education was questionable at best. It was the job of one teacher (who may or may not have been qualified himself for such an undertaking) to teach large numbers of students in one large hall. Monitors were used as a method of "crowd control," hence the schools came also to be known as monitorial schools. There was an intellectual totem pole that existed within the system that facilitated this type of instruction. More advanced students had the responsibility of assisting in teaching those students below them and so on down the line until virtually everyone within the system had a hand in the teaching process. Lancaster's concept of teaching in this manner was theoretically very sound, however, competent teachers were hard to find during this time. Given the vast number of students that were involved, monitorial teaching did not come to be the success that Lancaster had hoped for.
Even though this system of teaching was considered a failure, it did much to pave the way for future educational endeavors in the realm of public education. Fine-tuning in the way of more competency in the teaching ranks and a smaller teacher-student ratio was on the way.
Prepared by Amy Matzat
For more information see British Schools Museum (links on Joseph Lancaster, Lancasterian Schoolroom, and Galleried Schoolroom)