How did one room school houses work?

The impression I get reading about them is that they had pretty much all the grades together in that one room.
So how did they teach, say, the sixth graders new stuff while they were busy teaching the first graders things that the older students had already learned? What were class discussions like?

Generally, in schoolrooms with more than one grade, the schoolteacher would give each age group a separate assignment, and the teacher would rotate between groups to make sure everyone was on task.

I didn’t attend one for regular school but that is how our Sunday School operated. From what I have read of the historical record and from what I experienced I would best compare it to the “open classroom” method taught and promoted in the 1970s. A name that comes to mind is a Doctor David Campbell who was a professor at Pitt back then; he wrote a fair amount and often related his techniques and ideas to the old one-room approach.

Some activities would be done as individuals, some as small groups, and some by the group as a whole. Geography was often good for that. The secret was a teacher willing and ready to basically come up with different approaches and the ability to switch gears on the fly when needed.

(It also helped that many teachers lead fairly isolated lives and devoted a lot of extra hours to preparation as well - but a lot did come down to personality.)

My first grade was in the Grant School, a classic one-room very rural school back in 1936. This was kind of unique because my mother was the teacher. She had a college degree in English, and was probably a bit overqualified. There were around twenty students, except when it rained hard and Otter Creek flooded - then only seven could make it. As I recall, the education that the students got from that environment was every bit as good, if not better, than the consolidated schools that came later. Of couse, that might have meant that Mom was a good teacher - strict, I’ll tell ya, but good. I vaguely recall that she tended to aim her teaching not completely at a certain grade level, but instead at the ability of the individual student.

This teaching job, back in the very depths of the Depression, paid $45 per month.

An item of interest. The old Grant School, long out of use, burned down sometime during the Korean war, around 1950 or so. About 40 years later, I bought a copy of Chicago Maps map software, and checked out that area. They still had Grant School shown on their maps. I was always going to notify them of the error, but never got around to it. And in the next edition of their program, the old school was missing.

See, I wonder why Montessori, “open plan” or whatever schools have not caught on. Is it because they don’t work, or because TPTB don’t want them to become the norm?

Well, open plan poses major problems when you get reasonably big. One of the high schools in my hometown (and this is still under a thousand students) was built during the open plan craze. Unfortunately, they didn’t realize until after they built it what the acoustics of having that many people in basically a big room were. So now it’s just a very poor building with internal walls. Open plan may work when you have limited students (which is possible for a private school), but not for large, public schools.

I attended a one room school house from 6 to 10 or so. Is as described above, teacher gave assignments and then ciruclated - from what I recall my one had about 15 or so students - the older students obviously needed less supervision

This idea still gets fashionable every few years, and it still doesn’t work with large numbers of kids.

My husband was put in a 1st grade room with 90 kids and 3 teachers–you can imagine the cacophony, not to mention the germs. Several years later, my school built a new junior high that was going to have pods of 4 open classrooms with a teacher in the middle. They built walls after a couple of years.

And now, they call it “Classrooms without walls” and make it sound all futurey.

For small groups and a good teacher, it works fine. But it quickly gets overwhelming when there are more students involved.

The older students also helped tutor the younger students with their lessons. This served a double purpose, as there is no better way to lock in your own knowledge than to teach it.

I went to a one room school house from 2d to 7th grade, The teacher also hauled in the wood and started the furnace, shoveled the snow, and she also did the cleaning after school hours. She taught all 8 grades + kindergarden, and then the older kids helped the younger ones. I learned more there than when we were sent to a large school in town, where there were 80 kids just in 8B. We also had a Christmas program and that was part of our lessons, we had to read our parts and help the little ones read theirs.

There were 60 in our one room school. The teacher also punished the kids who misbehaved, and then the parents also punished them when they got home. We didn’t have home work as we had chores to do when we got home and the teacher understood this, but demanded that all pay attention. She said, “your parents sent you here to learn, and it is my job to see that you do”. She rotated recesses so she could teach some while others played. Lunch hour was all the same and we all were dismissed at the same time(except for some she kept later to give extra help).

Most one room schools were very small. It made teaching to the student and not the grade much easier as the teacher could just assign materials suited to you and where you were in learning not age. The one I attended had us separated by row, 1st row = first grade, etc. In my first year there I was moved twice until I was in the third row, my second year started me in the 5th row.
Then we moved to the “big” city and I was bored to death in the 2nd grade.

Not exactly a one room school house, but when I was in grade school in the 70s, my parents sent me to a very small Catholic school, where some of the class sizes were so small that they decided to have one teacher take two grades at once. So fourth & fifth grade were both taught by the same teacher, in the same room. I think there were maybe 12 kids in fourth grade, and around the same in fifth, so it wasn’t a huge class by any means.

The room was divided up into one area with desks, and another with the teacher’s desk and ~12 seats. The teacher would call out “fourth grade math!” or whatever, and the appropriate kids would take the seats in front of the teacher. She’d teach the lesson to the fourth graders while the fifth graders did homework or read or whatever else they needed to do.

I don’t recall it being a big deal at all.

I went to a Montessori elementary school, and we similarly had different sub-lessons for different age groups. We were not all together in one room; there were separate classes, basically for “older kids,” “younger kids,” and “really young kids.” We had walls, and reasonably sized classes.

Other posters have got some of the reasons and I may repeat a couple but -------

  1. It was hard for the teachers to put the lesson plans down in advance in a form that administration liked. In England, I understand, plans were given more after the fact as a sort of “after action report”. In the US, everything was “plan your lesson and teach your plan” handed over to the principal a week in advance and that gets tedious to do with say 15-25 students.

  2. Physical space. The average American school building just isn’t set up for this type of education and buildings that are make poor “normal” classrooms. Grounds around the building become more important too and not many districts want to pay for prime real estate for the extended classroom/open air classroom.

  3. Security concerns. When I taught using that method, it wasn’t unusual for me and the kids to roam from the gym to the auditorium to outside under this one huge tree to whatever. Drove the principal nuts with worry in case a kid wandered off or something. And this was in the 70s; I don’t want to even think what it would be like today.

  4. Cost. You need a lot of teachers and the ability to hire more at a moments notice should your student population increase. If I remember right, this was what did in Baldwin back then. Then went “open and individualized” and the kids in those schools did great; enough so that families were moving in in droves during the school year. This method works well with say a dozen or so students per teacher - jump that suddenly to the 30 or more we usually had back then and that’s another story.

  5. Teachers willing to actually use the method and follow through. Any district that tries it has a certain number of older teachers who haven’t been trained in it. Or younger ones who don’t believe in the method. It is a hard thing to explain but to really use/do it well, you almost have to be a “believer” of sorts in it and willing to do the extra work that sometimes comes up. Can’t say about today but back in 78-84 there just wasn’t the faith or willpower on the part of administration or teachers to really see it through in most places. There were exceptions but not that many.

Just a funny little anecdote - I grew up in the one room schoolhouse my mom went to. After that school was decommissioned and they built a new one, a local farmer bought the land and used the building as a granary. My parents bought the land from him and renovated the building. Many of the students had etched their names into the old brick chimney and my parents tried to return as many of those bricks as possible.