Foundations of Education


Explores the educational implications of economic shifts throughout the 20th century.

Key Concepts

  • agricultural economy
  • industrial economy
  • knowledge economy

Graded Tasks

  • prepare for your seminar this week (2 tasks)

Economic Change and 20th Century Ontario Education

In so far as the history of Ontario education during the 19th century can best be summarized as a century-long effort to guarantee a tuition-free basic education for all children in the province, then the history of Ontario education during the 20th century might best be summarized as a century-long effort to closely align schools - especially secondary schools - to the fast-paced economic growth and change that occurred throughout the century. ()

Most notably, economic change throughout the 20th century was demarcated by a century-long shift from an agricultural economy (at the end of the 19th century) to an industrial economy (by the mid-20th century) to a knowledge economy (by the end of the 20th century).

Agricultural Economy

Up until the early decades of the 20th century, most Ontarians lived in rural communities and small villages. Farming and its ancillary industries (e.g., lumbering, milling, farm equipment manufacturing, and the construction of railways) were predominant throughout this period. Most people lived and worked in rural communities and small villages.

Selected educational implications:

  • refer to the course content for Week 6 which provides a 19th century snapshot of education in rural Ontario.
📌 Ontario's agricultural sector remains an important economic driver today, but it is no longer the primary employer of workers as it once was through its heyday up to the end of the 19th century.

Industrial Economy

The early decades of the 20th century saw a gradual shift from a largely agricultural economy to an industrial economy by mid-century. Dramatic increases in urbanization and immigration led to the growth of large industrialized city centres (such as Toronto). By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, nearly half of the residents of Ontario lived in cities. Major technological inventions (e.g., the car) and efficiency improvements in industrial processes (e.g., the assembly line) underpinned major economic and scientific progress throughout the century across a wide range of sectors. A rising middle class created new emerging markets for the development, production, and purchasing of a growing diversity of goods and services, further growing the industrial economy and a vibrant service sector.

Selected educational implications:

  • new mandatory school attendance laws which required students to complete more years of schooling
  • broadening of the educational skill set beyond the 3 R's (I.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic)
  • a growing public sentiment that the primary role of schools was to serve the economic needs of society and prepare young people for the world of work
  • new specialized school programs which equipped graduates with unique job-related skills
  • construction of high schools to include speciality learning spaces closely tied to industry (see photo below)
  • development of trade schools which directly prepared students for jobs in the broad-based technologies and service sectors
  • development of home economics programs which taught life skills (e.g., cooking, sewing, and budgeting)
Photo of a school-based auto body shop classroom.
By the middle of the 20th century, Ontario's high schools included separate learning "streams" for so-called 'academic' studies and the applied trades. To support the latter, specialized learning spaces were constructed in high schools (and some elementary schools) to support the teaching of broad-based technologies. The auto body shop classroom shown above is one such example. (Photo Credit: David Hutchison)

Knowledge Economy

The mid-20th century invention of the transistor-powered mainframe computer, and later the smaller microcomputer, ushered in a post-industrial Information Age economy centred around the collection, processing, storage, and transmission of digitized data. In the new knowledge economy, 'data' itself became a central commodity, transforming virtually every sector of the economy, ranging from the computerization of records to the development of robotics to the deployment of fibre optics. Whole new industries emerged to support the hardware and software requirements of the ensuing personal computer revolution. The emergence of the Internet in the final decades of the 20th century led to a worldwide telecommunications transformation that continues to unfold.

Selected educational implications:

  • deployment of new educational technologies to support teaching and learning in schools (e.g., televised lessons)
  • use of calculators in math classes
  • integration of computers, laptops, and (more recently) tablets into classrooms
  • installation of computer labs and later Internet connectivity into schools
  • implementation of new computer literacy programs in schools
  • broadening of the literacies taught in schools to include media literacy and new media production (e.g., desktop publishing and video production)
  • development of adult retraining programs for mid-career employees whose careers were disrupted by rapid economic shifts (e.g., the loss of industrial jobs to cheaper labour markets overseas)
  • growth of the educational software sector
Photo of a school computer lab.
Banks of computers, housed in dedicated computer classroom labs, were common in the 1980s and 1990s. By the 2000s, computer labs were increasingly integrated into school libraries (notably decreasing the amount of space allocated to books). Most recently, computer labs have largely been replaced by tablets (e.g., iPads) and BYOD (aka bring your own device to school) initiatives. (Photo Credit: David Hutchison)
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:
Q8.1: The "Economic Change and 20th Century Ontario Education" topic page chronicles the shift from an agricultural to an industrial to a knowledge economy throughout the 20th century. What do you think the next economic shift will look like and what might be its implications for K-12 education? (Answer Length: 100 - 150 words | Format: Sentences)
Potential Seminar Question
Photo of a variety of antiquated educational technologies.
A collection of now antiquated educational technologies that were commonplace in schools during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. (Photo Credit: David Hutchison)

Photo Analysis

Look deeply into the photo above. Focus both on the foreground and background. Draw up a list of all of the educational technologies you can identify in the photo.

(Scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page for the answer.)
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:
Q8.2: Think back to your earliest years of school in the early elementary grades. Share an example of an educational technology that you remember using, but which is now largely anitiquated and rarely used in schools. (Answer Length: 25 - 75 words | Format: Point Form)
Potential Seminar Question

Photo Analysis (Answer)

The list of technologies in the above photo include:

  • film projector
  • audio head sets (I.e., head phones)
  • audio switcher (to switch between the head sets worn by different students)
  • record player
  • film strip projector
  • slide projector
  • first generation IBM PC computer (in background)
  • video cassettes (in background, above computer)
These (now antiquated) technologies pervaded teaching and learning in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The audio technologies were eventually replaced by CD players (now streaming audio over the Internet). The video technologies were eventually replaced by DVD players (now streaming video over the Internet).