Webinar Presentation: The History of Classrooms as a Learning Technology

by Gary Woodill on August 10, 2009

Monitorial classroom 6in

Why are classrooms so powerful, and so hard to change? That is my starting question for a webinar I am leading on Webnesday, August 12, from 1pm – 2pm Eastern Time.  In the webinar I look at modern classrooms as a learning technology that was first developed in 18th century Prussia, and then spread out throughout the world. We will look at school architecture before the emergence of classrooms, and see how the classroom is one of several state institutions that developed during the period that Michel Foucault has called “the great confinement.” Like prisons and mental hospitals, classrooms captured and constricted bodies in order to render them as docile subjects. Their purpose was as much disciplinary as educational, developed as part of the new bureaucratic state apparatus that brought unruly people under social control.

The power of the classroom as a technology gave teachers the ability to better regulate large groups of students, in order to inculcate them with a standardized curriculum. Pushed to the extreme, monitorial classrooms of the 19th century could hold over 1000 pupils, all performing the same acts, under the watchful eyes of senior students (“monitors”), and the instructor.

A review of the history of corporate training shows that, with some notable exceptions, classrooms were not widely used in comparison with other techniques such as apprenticeships, on the job training, and “vestibule training”. But classrooms came to be the dominant site for corporate training after World War II, culminating in the “corporate universities” of the 1990s.  Interestingly, classroom use in corporate training may have peaked as e-learning, mobile learning, augmented reality, and gaming start to infiltrate the corporate learning scene.

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