The Development of the One Room Schoolhouse


The history and development of the American schoolhouse is symbolic of the influence of societal forces mainly social, economic and political factors. These from the early times have determined the various forms of architecture and layout of the school buildings. This is in addition to the educational philosophy and goals, curricular objectives, teaching methods and the value systems of the schools. In this regard, the one room school house was appropriately designed to serve the basic educational and social needs of the American society a majority of which lived in the rural areas and depended on agriculture as their main economic activity (Thattai, 2007).

The one room schoolhouse would define the American educational system for nearly two centuries starting from the colonial period. This system of education was forced to undergo transformational changes as a result of the social problems which came along with the Industrial revolution in the mid and late nineteenth century. There arose the need to expand the education systems so as to accommodate more members of society. A more educated society was necessary for the sustenance of the industrial revolution as this would provide labor for the industries. This paper therefore is focused on the development of the one room schoolhouse from the colonial times up to the onset of the industrial revolution when it was forced to undergo transformation.

The development of the one room Schoolhouse

The early American society was characterized by village settlements with the use of land being limited to agricultural uses. Agriculture was therefore the main economic activity which affected all other aspects of society including culture, politics and governance and family structure. The economy was highly decentralized and localized as a result of the village settlements. Each village was headed by a single individual who exercised immense power or a small group of the village’s elite.

The village settlement patterns were defined by semi-autonomous communities where life was organized in a manner which would provide social support of the village and therefore guarantee its existence. Consequently, settlements were developed around a central public meeting point such as a church or a social hall. This particular characteristic of the early societies is believed to be behind the development of the one room schoolhouse (Butts, 2002).

The family structure in the early society was multi-generational and extended so as to support agricultural activities from which society derived its livelihood. The entire household would work as a single economic unit by tilling the land and looking after the home. This therefore implied that the needs of the family as a group or the community superseded the individual needs of the family members. People rarely went beyond the borders of their village and thus human interaction was minimal.

The level of illiteracy was therefore high in the early society as there was little or no need for education. Agriculture, the main economic activity, did not need any formal learning for it to be practiced. The spoken word was relied upon for the purposes of communication and the oral traditions where the history of the society was narrated to the younger generations for posterity purposes. Very few people could read or write as this was seen as not being necessary for survival in society.

Education during this time was mainly informal and for the sole purpose of survival. Learning took place on the farms where children were taught how to plough the land as their labor was necessary for the survival of the family. The required skills and knowledge were passed on to the younger generation by the parents and the older members of the family. Therefore, formal education was not recognized as being necessary for occupational success or economic development. Craftsmen and tradesmen would pass on their skills and knowledge of their expertise to the younger generation through apprenticeships (Johnson, Collins, Dupuis, & Johansen, 2005).

The arrival of the English settlers in New England saw the initial introduction of formal education. They established Latin grammar schools and colleges but these were reserved for the elite in society as this would further enhance their survival in a class based society. Education at the village level was mainly focused on promoting Christian values through the teachings of the Bible. Young children were taught how to read the Bible and this was recognized as a basic component of the formal education.

The first schools were established in either private homes or churches on the New England colonies. Home schooling was therefore a common feature of the colonial times in America. This was used by the elite who hired private tutors to come and teach their children from their homes. The dame school represented the informal schooling system for the ordinary folk. These schools were run by unmarried, widowed or older women who held teaching sessions from their homes.

In 1647, the government of Massachusetts passed into law the establishment of a school system where structures would be put up and used solely for learning purposes. This led to the development of the one room schoolhouse which is recognized as the main educational facility of the colonial period. The one room school comprised of students with different ages learning together in one setting. The schools were usually presided over by a single teacher who would perform all the main tasks in the school.

The one room schools were characterized by simple furnishings, poor ventilation and lighting. Oil lamps were used for lighting and wooden stoves used to heat the rooms during winter. Besides being used for learning purposes, the schools were the social centers of the community where town meetings, fund raisings, voting and all major events took place. Together with the church, the school played host to activities which brought all the members of the community together at various occasions.

Nevertheless, education was highly valued by the community. This was demonstrated by their collective efforts in developing and maintaining the one room school house. For instance, farmers supplied wood and fuel for the stoves so as to ensure that the schoolrooms were kept warm during winter. The members of the community built the furniture which was used in the schools such as desks and forms. The teachers were hosted by the local families on a rational basis with each household taking its turn.

Characteristics of the one room schoolhouse

The one room schoolhouse was quite distinct form the modern school setting. In spite of this, the modern school system has borrowed heavily from the one room school. This is seen through the various features of this school which are still part of the modern school. These include blackboards, books, furniture, discipline, slate and slate pencils and tests. These are further discussed below.


Blackboards were initially developed in the late eighteenth century. The early blackboards were made from pine which was then pasted with a mixture of egg white and carbon from charred potatoes. Thicker chalks, from the modern ones, were used and cloth rags used to erase the blackboards. This made them cumbersome to use as the chalk dust affected both the teachers and the students (Sateren, 2001).

Nevertheless, the blackboard was a vital instructional educational equipment. This is because it facilitated the teaching process as through it, the teacher would capture the attention of the entire class. The teacher always stood at the front of the class and use the blackboard to teach as is the practice of the modern school.


The issues of religion and morality were of great importance in the early schools. In this regard, the first book in the classroom was the Bible which was the main educational material. It was instrumental in learning as it was used in the development of skills besides being used to teach valuable lessons. The typical day in school was dedicated to memorizing and reciting passages in the Bible (Sateren, 2001).

Other books were later developed besides the Bible and used for further learning purposes. These include the New England Primer and the Mc Guffey Reader which were developed between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. The Mc Guffey Reader was a set of six books which was used to teach literacy in addition to key virtues such as honesty and generosity. The Reader enhanced the flexibility of the teaching process thus enabling the teachers to more easily teach a class of pupils of varying ages and intellectual capacity


The students in the one room schoolhouse sat on three–legged stools or long benches and used narrow tables which were made from either pine or oak. Individual desks, which were fixed to the floor, developed much later as testing became an important part of the entire learning process (Johnson, Collins, Dupuis, & Johansen, 2005).


As the early schools began to take root in society, student enrollment increased and it was therefore felt that there was the need to incorporate discipline in the learning process. A wooden cane was therefore used during the eighteenth and the nineteenth century to enforce discipline in the one room schools. This was later changed top the leather strap and finally the wooden paddle. However, in the current school system, corporal punishment is banned.

Slate and slate pencils

The main form of writing materials used in the one room schoolhouse was the slate and slate pencils. Each student had a book sized writing slate covered with a wooden frame. The students wrote on the slate by scratching it with a slate pencil which was a cylindrical rock. The slate pencil was replaced by soft chalk and this made it easier to write (Engelhardt, 2008).

Students in the early schools did not preserve their school work in the form of notes as in the current case. The learning process was therefore highly dependent on the ability of the students to memorize what they had been taught in class. Memorization was enhanced by collective recitation led by the teacher. A good student was one who had a sharp memory.


Test and quizzes were developed in the nineteenth century. These were characterized by oral stand up quizzes at the end of the school day. The first significant standardized test was introduced in the 1870s. This was used to assess one’s qualification of advancing to the next level.























Butts, R.F. Public Education in the United States: From Revolution to Reform. Holt, Rinehart and Winston Publishers, 2002

Engelhardt, N. L. Planning the community school, American Book Company, 2008

Johnson, J.A., Collins, H.W., Dupuis, V.L. & Johansen, J.H. Introduction to the Foundations of American Education. Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 2005

Sateren, S.S. Going to School in Colonial America, Capstone Press, 2001

Thattai, D. A History of Public Education in the United States,2007 Retrieved June 9, 2009 from



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