September/October 2000 // Commentary
Returning to the One-Room Schoolhouse
by Bethany M. Baxter
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Bethany M. Baxter "Returning to the One-Room Schoolhouse" The Technology Source, September/October 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Many people see technology as an answer to the problems in our schools. Information technology certainly can help us solve some of the dilemmas we face in preparing students for the 21st century; however, we will never fully optimize our investment in technology unless we stand back and completely redesign our approaches to children in the classroom. Before we rush to embrace technology, we should look not at teaching but at the ways in which children learn and how technology can enhance that learning process.

State legislatures appear to expect colleges of education to spearhead technological reforms based on student learning patterns, but most schools are unprepared to do so. Until very recently, when forced to change by NCATE and state requirements, most colleges of education used little or no technology in their own teaching. In fact, colleges of education have been the last academic area to integrate technology into the teaching/learning process. The standard curriculum has continued to include a myriad of methods courses, taught in a traditional fashion, with the addition of a single survey course that exposes students to a variety of hardware and software. Thus, the application of information technology in the general learning environment has been limited so far. It is not surprising that most teachers say that they are uncomfortable with computers!

Why have teachers, at a time when most secretaries have mastered the computer, been so reluctant to use this tool? Part of the reason for this reluctance has been the very nature of the field of education itself. By concentrating on the teacher rather than the learner, education has been naively searching for the "magic bullet," the one approach that will reach all children. Furthermore, when an approach does not prove to be universally applicable, it is systematically discarded even though it may have been effective with many students. As a result, unlike other disciplines, education is not an inclusive body of knowledge that has grown over the years. Instead, educational theory continually reinvents itself, disregarding and forgetting earlier approaches. As a consequence, many teachers, having been presented with one ineffective "magic bullet" after another, have become reluctant to adopt new ideas. To many teachers, technology is just another "magic bullet" that, if ignored long enough, will die of its own accord.

Of course, these "magic bullets" are actually techniques to address different learning styles, and there is a need for multiple approaches in any classroom. Furthermore, promulgating the concept that there is a single "best" approach has produced useless political battles, such as those between parents who debate whole language approaches to reading versus phonics or social promotion versus retention. The continual reinvention of educational theory has eradicated from memory the facts that not all students learn to read phonetically and that retaining students often produces more failure. Technology can permit a new approach to a child who is failing; it can allow that child to move on with his or her class and still study unmastered concepts/lessons. It offers a better alternative than having a child spend an entire year covering material in the same fashion and at the same speed in which it was originally presented.

Technology offers the potential for remarkably efficient individualized learning, but this learning model is by no means a new concept. Nineteenth-century American schools, generally one-room schoolhouses, featured students of many ages and skill levels working on a variety of lessons in a single classroom. Based on the experiences of my grandmother, who taught in a one room schoolhouse; my father and aunts and uncles, who attended these schools; and my own experience in 1962, teaching in a rural high school where the students had attended one-room elementary schools through seventh grade, I am convinced that the one-room schoolhouse model meets the needs of individual students in a way that our modern schools typically do not.

During the days of the one-room schoolhouse, a teacher—with one year of normal school and no other adult support—was able to effectively reach 30 children ranging in age from 5 to 16 because each child's education was based on an individualized lesson plan. Mastery learning was the norm; children did not move on until they mastered the topic they were studying. Progress may have been slow or even non-existent, but no one expected children simply to move at a pace set by the teacher. Today, technology gives teachers the ability to again offer every child an individualized learning plan and to implement mastery learning using an abundance of resources. It allows teachers to find materials that motivate individual students, to have those materials immediately at hand when they are needed, and to devise activities that match students' unique learning styles.

Technology can bring back the model of the one-room schoolhouse in a way that will allow instructors to reduce failure and teach in different ways in the same classroom. However, this model will fail if teachers do not identify how individual children learn best; have a great enough understanding of the content area to be able to use multiple approaches in one classroom; or become familiar with the many learning resources available through CD-ROMs, interactive software, and the World Wide Web.

Role of Colleges of Education

In order to address educational problems prevalent today, colleges of education that lack experience with technology will need to collaborate with those who have it. This collaboration must unite three groups of people: content area faculty who have been integrating technology into the learning process for several years, researchers in neuroscience and psychology who understand how children learn, and business school faculty who have experience in implementing organizational changes.

Historically, there has been little communication between education and other academic fields. Even though psychology and the neurosciences have built a solid body of knowledge on learning processes, most colleges of education still concentrate primarily on teaching about teaching. Rather than collaborating with programs in fields such as psychology, social work, business administration, and mathematics, education programs offer their own degrees in educational psychology, counseling, educational administration, and math education.

In order to take a leadership role in integrating technology into the teaching/learning process, colleges of education must collaborate with programs that have the requisite experience. Moreover, in order to assure that technology-driven reforms do not fail, colleges of education must move from teaching about teaching to teaching about learning—from promoting techniques for managing classes to promoting techniques for managing the learning of the individual child, and from focusing on how to teach a subject to identifying all the approaches and materials available to help students learn that subject.

Furthermore, the greater community must move from associating content with time (thus expecting students to learn regardless of how the material is presented) to expecting mastery from individual students. It must place the responsibility on teachers to provide students with appropriate learning experiences. Utilizing a collaborative approach, colleges of education can lead public schools by showing how technology will allow the return to the era of the one-room schoolhouse, when every student had an individualized lesson plan.

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