The Evolution of the Classroom: A Look Back

4 min read
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher

When you think about the word classroom כיתה (kee-tah), what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Maybe it’s your high school teacher? A lesson שיעור (shee-oor) you’ve hated? Or maybe it’s the feeling of the wooden chair כיסא (kee-seh) beneath you, your elbows resting on the desk, staring blankly at the back of your friend’s neck? But classrooms haven’t always been this way. They’ve changed a lot and evolved throughout history for ideological and political reasons. The earliest schools בתי ספר (bah-tehy seh-fehr) were founded around 2000 BCE in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, educating only royal offspring and sons of the very elite. The public education system, as we know it, started to develop in ancient Greece.

Schooling For Democracy 

Around the 5th and 4th centuries BCE in Athens, children of local families could receive relatively low-cost education חינוך (chee-nooch) that was meant to prepare them for citizenship. The perception in ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, was that good citizens are not born – they are being created. So, to achieve this feat schools focused on oratory skills and ethics, in addition to physical education and music lessons. The word “school” comes from the Greek word “skhole” – “leisure”, which shows how school was perceived as a privilege: you needed free time to attend it. Education in ancient Greece was not state-funded but paid for through tuition fees to private tutors. Also, it was only granted to those who could potentially participate in the democratic process, meaning athenian boys בנים (bah-neem), excluding girls בנות (bah-noht) and foreigners.  

Rhetorics in the Roman Empire

Moving from ancient Greece to Rome, we can see a continuity in educational practices: the Roman school system also focused on rhetoric and oratory skills while removing physical education and music from the curriculum. The good news is that unlike in Greece, girls could receive some education. Roman schools were divided into three levels: a ludi magister (“schoolmaster”) would teach boys and girls from age 7 to 11 the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic חשבון (chehsh-bohn). Then, from age 12 to 15, they would learn grammar and literature ספרות (seef-root) with a grammaticus, and finally, only boys over 16 would move to a rhetor to master rhetoric. Girls wouldn’t move on to this level since they could not practice public speaking. The word “student” comes from the Latin word “studere,” which means “to be eager” or “to take pains”, which is quite an accurate description, don’t you think?   

The Middle Ages: Rise of the Church  

During the middle ages (500-1500 AD) the primary educator was the church כנסייה (kneh-see-yah). Students could attend a monastic or cathedral school in order to become a member of the clergy. We can see during this period the shift in society’s values ערכים (ah-rah-cheem): from an emphasis on public life and civic virtues, to an emphasis on christian values and the afterlife. Students were taught to read and write in Latin – not in their native tongue – and they would spend their time copying religious texts. In the 11th and 12th centuries, cathedral schools were unable to cope with the increasing demand for education in the big cities. As a result, groups of students and teachers began to congregate in Paris, Bologna and Oxford, and form independent learning facilities. These were the first universities. 

The Industrial Revolution: Molding the Modern School 

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century changed the world completely: it made agrarian and craft based economies transition, within a few decades, to industrial manufacturing ones. Mass production techniques accelerated the ways goods were produced, and there was a growing need צורך (tsoh-rehch) for skilled and disciplined workers to operate the machinery. Schools were therefore mobilized for that purpose, and many characteristics of today’s modern school stem from that era: being punctual and arriving to class on time, following written and oral instructions הוראות (hoh-rah-oht), learning to respect authority (all children sit in one direction facing the teacher), and understanding hierarchical structures (the principal, teacher and student are mirroring the manager, supervisor and worker).  

Classrooms of the 21st Century: What Should We Expect?

Starting in the 20th century we can see a change in schools’ approach towards students: from allowing them to acquire knowledge solely through memorizing texts and passively listening in lectures, to allowing them more freedom and independence through hands-on experiential learning. The integration of technology – computers מחשבים (mahch-sheh-veem), smart boards, and tablets – turned the classrooms into an active learning environment, where students can research different topics on their own and solve real-world problems בעיות (beh-ah-yoht). Being overly technological could have its downsides – if you’re unable to detach from it – but never in the history of humanity has knowledge and skill learning been so accessible. It’s our responsibility to harness it for good use.          



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