Dare to be Different: Teach C17th Skills not C21st Fads

It’s becoming harder and harder for independent schools to stand out from the crowd. Unless a school is truly a place that is clearly defined by a unique mission – and has the program and lived values to bolster the claim – it risks sinking. Either a facilities arms race will outpower it or lower price alternatives will undercut the market.

Check out a bunch of school websites and have your eyes glaze over with life-long learning, caring teachers, nurturing environment and teaching 21st century skills. And photos of kids excitedly looking at a laptop is so 1996. Even schools that truly are distinctive often fail to find effective ways to demonstrate that.

Let’s Teach 17th Century Skills

And 21st century skills? What of them? In many schools it seems it means using software to keep kids in their seats getting rewards and badges for an updated version of the worksheet.

It’s time to claim 17th century skills for children. Now there’s a way to stand out from the crowd!

So, what in this instance, would C17th skills comprise?

Clearly there’s a limit to how far you can go with this argument but education in the 17th century i- n England at least – certainly had its merits. Let’s take a look.

This was a time before large-scale land enclosure had completely taken over the shared ownership of arable lands so the concept of the commons – particularly as grazing land – was the accepted norm. It was before the inventions of the industrial revolution made all of our lives easier by depriving people of their ability to be self-sustaining small communities. Children growing up in these communities helped on the land and in the cottage industries but were not in the factories and sweat shops of the industrial cities. Instead – if they were lucky – they learned a craft by working alongside their parents and others in the community and developed the skills to create something necessary and useful.

Although limited in its availability, learning was generally valued. It was in this era that important developments in theory and curriculum took shape. Take Comenius for example. He was a Czech teacher, scientist and writer who championed the idea of universal education. And rather than hive away in divisive religious sects and institutions he argued that teachers and learners should come together in common institutions of learning.

Comenius was the innovator who first introduced pictorial textbooks, written in native language instead of Latin, applied effective teaching based on the natural gradual growth from simple to more comprehensive concepts, supported lifelong learning and development of logical thinking by moving from dull memorization, presented and supported the idea of equal opportunity for impoverished children, opened doors to education for women, made instruction universal and practical. – Wikipedia

The House of Commons was so impressed with his work they invited him to England in 1640. Their idea was to have him help in setting up schools for girls and boys, creating books for them and promoting universal learning. When the Civil War started Comenius left England but his ideas were furthered by Samuel Hartlib during Oliver Cromwell’s administration.

Hartlib had some very interesting and contemporary sounding notions about learning. For example he was interested in developing a “pansophy” – an encyclopedia of all human knowledge (aka the Britannica and Wikipedia.)

And how about this radical idea from the 17th century:

‘A great fault in teaching [is] that children are not made to learne themselves but are always taught’ (Hartlib Ephemerides 1639).

The British Government’s Hadow report on early education was still quoting Comenius as an influence in 1933: 

Comenius had pointed out the educational importance of the first six years of a child’s life and had developed the idea of teaching children of five or six ‘without any tediousnesse to reade and write, as it were in a continuall course of play and pastime’.  – Hadow report P.24 

And play. Let’s not forget play. Now that pre-school is the new first and second grade and recess is frequently curtailed, let’s go back to this 17th century voice for a great description of children at play:

We see Children do delight in Drums, Pipes, Fiddles, Guns made of Elder sticks, and bellowes noses, piped Keys, etc., painting Flags and Ensigns with Elder-berries and Corn poppy, making ships with Paper, and setting even Nut-shells a swimming, handling the tooles of workmen as soon as they turne their backs, and trying to worke themselves. – William Petty, Physician-General in Cromwell’s army. 1647

Ok so we can only take the argument about the value of 17th century skills so far. Most of us would not readily exchange 2017 with any time in the 1600’s.

And I know I’m also guilty of falling into the F.R. Leavis fallacy. He was a prominent 20th century literary critic who had the notion that, back in that day, England was some kind of organic community – a deeply rooted, locally self-sufficient, village-centric set of connected communities that was then destroyed by the machine age and mass culture. Scholars dispute this theory and historians enter into heated battle over it. It’s why we keep them around. It’s why they are useful.

That said – there is something very 17th century about the modern maker movement. Take away the circuits and 3-d printers and there we have adult and student learners side by side creating stuff. And sometimes what they make is even useful.

Featured image: from Bridget Riley, Conversation; 1992.

Andy Warhol:  Are You Different? 1985-86 Warhol knew a thing or two about personal branding. 


  1. Kate Merker:

    Ms. Holford, it has been ages. My wife is running a teaching institute at Spence this summer for career-long teachers and when she described it to me, it made me think of you. I was hoping to put the two of you in touch. If you are interested in the institute or just saying hello, I would love to catch up.

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