Foundations of Education


Explores the origins of the common school and what it was like to teach and learn in a 1800s 'one room' school.

Key Concepts

  • one-room school
  • common school

Graded Tasks

  • prepare for your seminar this week

Focus #1: The Common School

The Earliest Schools

Ontario's public educational system - with its 72 school boards, 3948 elementary schools, 880 secondary schools, over 128 000 teachers, and over 2 million students () - has humble origins going back some 150 years.

Prior to the mid-1800s, there was no formal school system in Ontario, then known as Upper Canada. The vast majority of children lived in rural communities, on farms or in small villages. Knowledge, skills, and values were passed down from parents to children in households. At an early age, most children would begin a life of work, assisting their families on the family farm. Some children apprenticed in jobs outside the home. A few wealthy children were privately tutored.

The few schools which did exist were mostly church run. Their primary purpose was to instil in children strict moral and religious values. In these schools, the primary reason for promoting literacy (i.e., the ability to read) was to ensure that students could read the Bible.

Origins of the Common School

The mid-1800s saw major changes to society in Upper Canada. Work began taking on more technical requirements. There was a growing sense that the informal education approaches communities relied on were insufficient in preparing children for adult life. Gradually, communities banded together to build and run schools for their communities that the children in the community could attend for minimal cost (or sometimes free-of-charge).

St. John's One Room School

In the history of Ontario education, the Niagara Region (where Brock University is situated) holds a special place of distinction.

In 1804, in the small community of St. John's (about 20 minutes south of Brock University), the first non-denominational (i.e., non-religious) common school in Ontario that children could attend free-of-charge was opened by the community.

This one-room school still stands today and is a frequent stop on elementary school visits to the site. When they visit, a class of young students often participate in a lesson, just like their peers did more than two centuries ago. (Over the years, the developer of this course website has led hundreds of teacher candidates on field trips to the St. John's School.)
Photo of St. John
The St. John's one-room school, Ontario's first non-denominational school for children who could attend free-of-charge. (Photo credit: Magnolia677)

Photo Analysis

Look closely at the photo above. What are some of the features of the exterior of the school building which stand out?

Do you notice the school bell? It was run at the beginning of each school day and at the end of each recess break to call the students back to class.

Pay close attention to the material makeup of the building (i.e., it is constructed almost entirely from wood which was plentiful in the area).

How does the size of the school - which served between 15 and 30 students at various times - compare with the sizes of the elementary and high schools you attended?

Note the chimney in the background of the photo. One of the core responsibilities of the teacher during the winter months would be to arrive well ahead of the students each morning - trudging through the snow alone to school at 7 am or so - in order to light the wood stove inside which provided warmth and protection from the cold weather outside.

Finally, this photograph was captured in 2017. Look deeply into the photograph (including the areas surrounding the exterior of the school). Note any evidence of modern amenities that would not have existed in the early 1800s.

Teaching and Learning in a Common School

What was it like to teach in a common school? It was often a high-stress experience. The age of the students ranged widely from 6 to 17. The number of students in attendance on any day also varied. Foremost, teaching in a common school was a highly individualized (sometimes even lonely) experience as teachers generally worked alone, the only adult in the school.

Why Shoot the Teacher? is a 1977 Canadian film which captures the experience of teaching in a common school. (Although it is a fictional film and set in 1935, its representation of teaching is generally comparable to the experiences of teaching in a one-room school in the late 1800s.)

Here is a plot synopsis of the movie from Wikipedia:

"The plot is set in 1935, during the Depression. Max Brown (Bud Cort) is an urban east-province Canadian fresh from college who travels to Western Canada to accept a teaching position at a one-room rural schoolhouse in the fictional settlement of Willowgreen, Saskatchewan, because there are no other jobs available.

He decides to live in the school's basement, having to adapt to teaching in the Depression-era rural setting, especially given the bleakness of the settlement. His students at first are rebellious, but [the mood] eventually changes to a connection between student and teacher as Max gets into a love [affair with] Alice Field (played by Samantha Eggar), [who goes] to him for emotional support.

Max barely gets paid and he suffers through the paltry winter of Willowgreen, especially suffering given his physical and emotional isolation in the town, only finding solace in Harris Montgomery (played by Gary Reineke) and Alice Field, who both try to use him to solve their problems of political socialism and [Alice] being a war bride of Britain.

Max eventually begins to understand Willowgreen and the rural struggles, as the inspector (Kenneth Griffith) comes in to look at his work, which does not end too well. The school year ends as Max is getting on a train back east, but before the credits roll, he tells us he returned the following September to teach another year at Willowgreen."

Watch a short four minute segment from the movie below. Navigate to the time below (or instead choose to watch the full movie):

  • 15:50 - 19:41: On his first day at the one-room school, the new teacher conducts a student roll call. Note the wide range of grades.

In preparation for your seminar this week, write out an answer to the following question. Your TA may call on you to share your answer in the seminar:
Q6.2: Imagine you are a teacher working in a 1800s one-room school. You are keeping a personal diary in which you chronicle your experiences. Write a single diary entry which briefly describes something interesting that happened to you on this day. (Answer Length: 150 - 200 words | Format: Sentences)
Potential Seminar Question