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We Learn by Teaching: Peer Learning in the 19th Ce...

We Learn by Teaching: Peer Learning in the 19th Century

Painting of Joseph Lancaster, by John Hazlitt, circa 1818 

This is the fascinating story of how, two centuries ago, a quixotic English schoolteacher designed and deployed an extremely affordable system in which students contributed centrally to each other’s learning.

Joseph Lancaster was born the son of a shopkeeper in south London, in 1778. When he was 20 years old, he borrowed a room in his father’s house, and made desks so he would be able to turn the room into a school that aimed to educate the poor.

In those days, school was not accessible to all. The children of the wealthy were educated by private tutors or attended reputed (and expensive) schools. Children of the poor had charity schools which practically only taught Church catechism. Most poor children never went to school.

Lancaster asked for very little money from his students. Anyone who could pay four shillings a year was welcome. Some students who could not pay at all were let in for free.

The idea of giving access to learning to the poor was actually resisted. For instance, one Dr. Bell wrote that “Utopian schemes for the diffusion of general knowledge would soon […] confuse the distinction of ranks and classes of society on which the general welfare hinges, and the happiness of the lower orders, no less than that of the higher, depends.”

In his school, Lancaster taught reading, writing and arithmetic. He welcomed both boys and girls, rather than only boys as was the custom. Moreover, he did not use corporal punishment (though he did resort to shaming misbehaving students).

Soon the school filled and became overcrowded, so Lancaster and his students moved to an abandoned workshop, which in turn also became too small. The school moved again, twice, to increasingly larger quarters, as it became increasingly popular.

Lancaster found himself with a challenge of scale. The need was simply massive – students were coming in by the hundreds. How could he serve so many of them? Lancaster found an elegant solution: involve the students in each other’s learning, and in running the school.

Docendo discimus” (We learn by teaching.) – Seneca

Thus students who understood a topic were called upon to guide others who needed to learn it. In many cases students were called upon to teach what they had just learned, but in some situations there were no qualified students at all, so Lancaster found ways to enable them to teach what they did not know – for instance, he would work out full descriptions of the steps to follow in carrying out a calculation, to be read aloud to other students who would eventually attain understanding.

Lancaster gave roles to the students that went beyond learning. He invited his best students to become monitors. The role carried prestige – monitors wore a badge of honor. Some monitors were asked to classify newly entered students. Thus a student could be assigned to the first class in reading but the fourth in arithmetic, providing an early form of personalized learning at mass scale. Some other monitors would conduct examinations and promote students. Others maintained order. Another would look after material resources like pens and slates. Yet another would act as librarian. And yet another would actually monitor monitors.

The whole school was basically self-managed, and it was run at a fraction of the cost per student of the other schools of its time. (It is worth noting that a similar system, called the Madras system, was developed in parallel.) Lancaster wrote that “1,000 children could be taught in one school room under the care of one master and a great proportion of them finish their education in 12 months. That education comprising the art of reading, writing and arithmetic.” Because authority was distributed, order did not depend too critically on the presence of the schoolmaster.

“Under my plan, the master leaves and business goes on as usual because the authority is not personal.”

Joseph Lancaster

In addition, Lancaster instituted a system of recognition. He issued paper tickets that students could use to obtain prizes: toys, books, medals, purses etc…

The tickets functioned as a currency, and students were encouraged to make forays in entrepreneurship using those tickets. For instance, the school’s library rented out books in exchange for tickets, and functioned as a concession – students could accumulate tickets and bid to buy out the current librarian-student and take his place running the library!

By 1805 Lancaster was attracting attention from all quarters in England. He was invited to meet King Georges III and Queen Charlotte and garnered support and sponsorship from them. Lancaster became a tireless explainer and promoter of his system. He published a book of instructions explaining how to start a school on his plan. In the space of two years, he had instituted 95 schools in England, together educating 25,000.

Anything that gets traction sooner or later meets resistance. The Lancaster system was no exception, and generated controversy. But even its detractors were forced to recognize its strengths. As David  Salmon reported in The Journal of Education for the Province of Quebec in 1878, one reverend preaching against Lancaster even stated, quite eloquently, “A scheme of instruction has been devised of incalculable celerity and of boundless extent; so cheap that poverty itself may purchase, so easy that dullness itself may comprehend.”

The system propagated to the United States, where Lancaster eventually traveled. He was treated like royalty when he visited the U.S. House of Representatives. He was generally treated as a celebrity (and from several accounts, acted like one).

The Lancaster system had a good run for several decades in the early 19th century. However, most of its salient features disappeared over time, and they are not visible in most present-day educational systems. What happened? According to education historian John Choade, Lancaster’s monitorial system might have been too revolutionary.

In England, some critics thought it horrific that such schools would give people hope and a chance to move out of the lower class and into a self-sufficient existence. A rival system, the Madras, lacked most of the interesting features of Lancaster’s system – notably the entrepreneurial education aspects. However, it was heavily promoted and subsidized by Lancaster’s opponents (including the Church of England) and set up schools in direct competition to Lancaster schools in England, eventually capturing the market.

In the United States, the schools were eventually absorbed into the public school system as it grew; their costs began to rise and they were progressively transformed beyond recognition. Today a single Lancasterian schoolroom remains, that is built to the specifications of Lancaster himself, at the British Schools Museum, in Hertfordshire, England.

Lancaster’s scheme was a workable solution to a problem of its era. It wouldn’t fly today in its original form – the context and defining constraints have changed enormously. But peer learning is enjoying a resurgence. For different reasons, and in a very different form from Lancaster’s pioneering system, people today are again discovering the advantages of learning from, and sharing knowledge with, peers. This is a topic for a further E-180 Magazine article.

E-180 | Labs‘ mission is to transform events, spaces and organisations into peer-learning hubs, through what we call Brain Dates. Learn how here!

Sébastien Paquet

Sébastien Paquet is an expert in knowledge sharing, collaboration, and social software. Since 2009 he has been playing the roles of explainer, connector, and catalyst to help the unfolding of local resilience and a living economy. He has been involved in bringing together and empowering changemakers and transitioners, and is articulating a theory of movement-building based in part on this work. He has hosted and facilitated numerous leading-edge conversations and events, both in-person and online, in addition to playing a role as advisor and connector to visionary thinkers and doers around the planet. He has been involved in research (National Research Council of Canada) and entrepreneurial work, and was a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal from 2007 to 2011.