If you’re a fan of Little House on the Prairie, you’re probably already familiar with the concept of the “little red schoolhouse,” or the one-room school. But if you’re not familiar with this piece of Americana, the one-room schoolhouse was exactly what it sounds like: a school with one room, one teacher, and students of different ages learning together.
Homeschoolers will immediately spot the similarity between the home school and the one-room school. And here’s another way the home school and the one-room school are alike: despite its vocal detractors, the one-room school was a success by every measure—even becoming a treasured symbol of education!1Leidulf Mydland, “The Legacy of One-Room Schoolhouses: A Comparative Study of the American Midwest and Norway,” European Journal of American Studies 6, no. 1 (2011), https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.9205.
So what can we, as homeschoolers, learn from one-room schoolhouses?
What Was a One-Room Schoolhouse?
In the 1800s, these schools were found in rural areas, where students were fewer and teachers rarer. Picture a wood, stone, or red brick building with a steeple and a bell—rather like a small church! Inside, imagine a single classroom with a potbelly stove right in the middle for heating and cooking lunch.2Leight, Robert L., and Alice D. Rinehart. “Revisiting Americana: One-Room School in Retrospect.” The Educational Forum 56, no. 2 (1992): 133–51. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131729209335191
In a one-room school, a single teacher would teach students of different ages together in a single room. Typically, the one-room school teacher, who frequently would’ve had only two years of higher education, only taught the first stage of the trivium: grammar. Students would learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion throughout the primary years before moving on.3Heald, Bruce D. One-Room Schoolhouses of New Hampshire. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014.
So . . . What Is the One Room Schoolhouse Approach?
The one-room schoolhouse approach is grounded in community.
A teacher in one of these schools faced the significant challenge of educating a classroom full of children with different needs and abilities and at different stages of development. And keep in mind that these schools were located in rural areas—which often meant the teacher had limited resources!
And so cooperative learning came to define these types of classrooms. Everyone would work together. Older students would assist younger students. Meanwhile, the teacher would circulate through room, helping one student at a time or breaking them into groups for focused and differentiated learning.4Johnson, Roger T., and David W. Johnson. “Cooperative Learning: The Best of the One‐room Schoolhouse.” The Teacher Educator 27, no. 1 (1991): 6–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/08878739109554992.
This approach takes this spirit of cooperative learning, borrows techniques for differentiated learning, and then applies them to a modern context.
The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and His work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
How Would I Describe this Approach?
Messy and somewhat frustrating but also rewarding! That is how I would describe our early attempts at practicing a one-room schoolhouse style of learning.
I remember one Tuesday morning in particular.
It was 9:00 a.m. and the six of us were in the school room. Math books were strewn across the table and the twelve-year-old was at the chalkboard. The twins, now four, could be trusted to play on the rug nearby with the Cuisenaire rods without putting them into their mouths—at least most of the time.
These small colorful wooden blocks come in different lengths to teach counting, fractions, and other mathematical concepts. The twins had watched their three older sisters play with the forbidden colorful blocks and were quite pleased they were now “big enough.”
Resource: Math Manipulatives
The lesson was on variables and the twelve-year-old had been tasked with showing a problem on the board while talking it through with her younger sisters. She spoke as she wrote, “8 + x = 15. 15 – 8 = 7, so x = 7.”
The eight-year-old concrete learner protested, “Yesterday you said x = 11 and now it is 7? That doesn’t make sense!”
“Anna,” replied her oldest sister with a tone of impatience, “15 – 8 = 7. that’s is why x = 7.”
Anna was not satisfied. The ten-year-old, ever the peacemaker, stepped in, “Anna, ‘x’ can change. You have to search and find out what it stands for, like hide and seek.” This cheered Anna since she loved the game of hide and seek.
From the floor, one of the twins announced, “Look! I make a blue X!”
After solving a few more problems together, we reviewed memory work from the Foundations Guide, followed by the oldest two girls writing their multiplication tables while I sung skip-counting songs with the eight-year-old.
The twins always liked to be held for this part, and we would bounce or dance as we sang.
The last thirty minutes were quieter as the three older girls worked their own math problems and I stayed nearby with the twins, counting and coloring.
What Was My Routine?
Gradually, we figured out how to make this model successful for other subjects.
Most mornings, we would start a few subjects together, working in one-hour blocks (and with designated breaks in-between). The schedule was highly flexible. We would practice a new concept, review memory work, and then the older girls would complete their copywork for that subject while the younger girls would get to play with some related activity.
I moved about the room answering questions and changing activities often with the preschoolers.
For language arts, I used Spelling Plus. As I spoke dictation sentences and wrote them on the blackboard, my eldest would copy the sentence, trying to spell the words correctly without looking at the board. Meanwhile, my ten-year-old watched me write the sentences and then kept up as best she could, and my eight-year-old felt encouraged to keep going until the time was up (though moving at a slower pace, she might only get through the first sentence). For the final fifteen to twenty minutes, the girls would work from their own grammar books as the twins and I started lunch.
Fast forward a few years—where did the time go?
My children are grown up now, and we look back with fondness on those years of schooling together. We all treasure my journal full of funny things the girls said, things they did, and the otherwise “sanctifying” experiences.
The Benefits of this Approach
Looking back, I see three benefits this schooling approach brought us.
1. A Rich Learning Experience
The one-room schoolhouse approach offered a rich learning experience.
The siblings heard the questions of others and learned to formulate better questions for themselves. They observed the teaching and learning styles of not only me, but of each other. The process forced them to slow down and think more deeply about ideas rather than to complete the task as quickly as possible in order that they might “check it off their list.” The material was covered thoroughly because each lesson began with a review of material for the older students and ended with a preview of what was coming for the younger students.
2. A Character Building Opportunity
This approach developed character in us, the parents, and in the children.
Oh, the pains and joys of sanctification!
By being in close proximity, we learned to serve each other and treat each other with kindness, and there were numerous opportunities every day to serve others above ourselves, to ask forgiveness, and to forgive.
3. A Community Building Adventure
This model helped my husband and I build community in our home and brought us together as a family and allowed us to practice having conversations.
This approach gave the children insights into how their siblings thought and, overall, served to nurture their relationships.
In their high school and college years, the girls would collaborate, gleaning ideas from their sisters on everything from poetry and essay assignments to debates and science projects. Our oldest daughter, who became a science teacher, would often FaceTime with her sisters to talk about their assignments.
As we each listened to one another, it sometimes brought clarity to our own understanding, and sometimes we were able to offer clarity to others.
The Ultimate Goal of the One-Room Schoolhouse Approach
If you are currently practicing this approach in your home, or should you decide to begin, here are a few points of caution.
Let the form serve you; be careful not to force your family into serving the form.
Mothers typically have a strong desire to bring order into our home. This desire must yield to servanthood.
We should aim to listen to, understand, and validate the needs of our children, respecting their boundaries as individuals made in the image of God.
We must keep before us the truth that our primary calling is to serve Christ in our home and not a particular method or form of education.
This truth will manifest itself when our goal is Christ in all and over all.
As we strive to put first things first, we will find that all else will be ordered properly, and only then will the one-room schoolhouse approach find its proper place in our homes.