Transformation In Education Through The Time: What’s Changed?

“If you’re a traditional teacher, the students won’t like you. You have to implement some modern educational techniques in your approach, so you’ll get to their level and engage them.”

How many times have you heard this tip?

It’s in online guides on how to become a better teacher; that’s for sure. You also see it in guides on how to support your child throughout education. Is there any parent who wants the kid to go to an outdated school? It’s a rhetorical question, I hope.

But what’s traditional and what’s modern education? What’s the difference? How has the educational system changed over history? Is it better now than it used to be?

As it looks like, we all have a lot to learn. The good news is that this is a fun history lesson!

How Did Education Start?

Let’s say there are no schools. No desks, no notebooks, no textbooks, no classmates, nothing. How would kids learn?

Exactly the way kids have been learning since forever – through intuition and instinct. Just observe kittens or puppies. They learn through play. They just follow their instincts. They have valuable knowledge encoded in their genes. People have that, too.

There’s a book called The Intuitive Compass. It’s great for everyone interested in the psychology of learning. Francis P. Cholle, the author, defines instinct as:

“Our innate inclination toward a particular behavior (as opposed to a learned response,” and intuition as “a process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and nonconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.”

Instinct and intuition bring us closer to the true nature of our mind. Believe it or not, our distance ancestors knew things that we, modern people, don’t know.

Fast forward from the age of purely instinctive humans, we enter the dawn of civilization. At that point, people had actual teachers. They got knowledge through direct teachings, passed on from person to person. It kind of resembled tutoring. Pretty simple. Pretty effective.

But society got more complex, so somehow people figured out that they need a standardized system. In Egypt and Babylonia, in particular, people found it necessary to start accumulating and preserving the knowledge, so it wouldn’t get lost. It did get lost and it’s a huge irony, but that’s not the point now.

The point is: that’s how the history of writing started – with the purpose to preserve knowledge. It occurred independently in ancient Sumer around 3100 BC, in Egypt around 3100 BC, and in China around 1200 BC.

So who do we have to blame for schools? Egypt and Babylonia!

Those were the places that introduced the first schools – places exclusively devoted to educational processes. No fun, no play. Just learning.

The first methods of learning were based on memorization. You know; you repeat something until you know it by heart. It’s boring, but the students had strong motivation… the strict physical discipline. Just imagine the teachers beating the students until they learned well.

You get the point, right?

The Dark Ages of Everything

Centuries ahead, let’s take a look at the start of the medieval times.

In this era, children were not being treated like children. A child and a grown man was the same thing. Before you start blaming me for saying man, let me assure you that it’s not because I want to insult women, but because only men had access to education. So that’s clear and out of the way. Please don’t mention it in the comments.

Back to my point: the medieval educational system did not categorize the students in grades. A 7-year old child shared a bench with a 15-year old teenager. It’s a pretty bizarre sight if you think about it, but it used to be normal. This schooling system was more like the vocational school we know today.

But they were hardly learning to become something they wanted to be. This was the medieval era; so clearly, school was intended for priests and clerks.

Medieval education sounds harsh. It was. But let’s give it some credit: women started attending schools by the end of the 12th century. Kudos to that! It was not all rainbows and unicorns, though. It took a long history of fight after medieval times for them to make progress.

It took a very long period of progress. At this point, people were not even close to the model we consider “traditional education” today.

What Does Traditional Education Mean?

So that was quite some background. But trust me: it was necessary. Now, we get to the Renaissance, and that’s when all the difference was made.

It’s when we get to the concept of liberal education. People were tired from the darkness of the Middle Ages. They realized they had a greater intellectual capacity than they were allowed to explore.

They decided to unlock the true intellectual, physical, and spiritual capacity of the human being. Let’s all take a moment of silence to appreciate that, shall we?


So instead of something the students had to learn whether they liked it or not, lessons were finally presented as something that’s fun and important for their future. Vittorino da Feltre was an Italian humanist and teacher, and basically a genius.

What we consider “modern education” today is a concept that he practiced centuries ago. He based his teaching on practical lessons. He is considered to be the greatest humanist schoolmaster of that era.

That was all cool, but why did we lose that model? As it usually happens with great ideas, they were distorted throughout their development. Schools started shifting the emphasis from content to form. So frightening discipline came on stage once again.

During the Reformation, the degeneration continued. We had something great and we managed to ruin it. At that point, Protestants started emphasizing the concept of universal right to education, which would extend to the children of the poor. Shall we say thanks?

Now, we come to a truly important point. Possibly the most important point of all. It was not just the poor who deserved the right to equal education; it was women, too! Women finally got to attend universities in the 18th and 19th century. Before that point, their intellect was considered to be inferior. Two centuries ahead, and we still have people prone to chauvinism. Shame.

How Modern Education Is Different

While I’m at the 18th century, I have an important person to mention. That’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who set the foundations of the educational system that we label modern today.

He started from the belief that all children are good, but society spoils them. His intention was to guide children towards natural development of their intellectual potential. As I may humbly conclude, the idea that the child should be guided, not instructed, does not originate from what we now know as “modern” education. The sprouts came out a long time ago, but we needed a lot of time to see the ideas in action.

During the 20th century, the system had the form we now label as traditional. The system was not as rigorous as it used to be, and it definitely didn’t use the method of physical punishment. But it was still uninspiring to the learned and it placed the teacher in an authoritative position.

Some of you may come from this system. Do you remember being forced to be quiet all the time? Do you remember the teacher lecturing and you listening? Do you remember the teacher asking and you answering? Do you remember not having a voice? It’s no wonder why I hated school so much.

What’s the difference now? What makes modern different from traditional?

Traditional education was mostly characterized with a teacher-centered environment. The students were expected to show high levels of discipline, and disobediences were not being tolerated. We’re not talking about physical punishments here.

But let’s be honest: most of us who grew up in the 20th century remember being yelled at and threatened by their teachers. Plus detention.  

Have you watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity?

It’s a good one. The traditional system was educating students out of their capacity. The tragedy is that we’re still seeing the same mistakes being made.

But nowadays, we’re finally seeing a more liberal approach towards education. It’s student-centered instead of teacher-centered.

The students may not be aware of the blessings. It’s the parents who notice the biggest difference. When you compare the way your child is learning to the system you came out of, you’ll notice it’s not the same.

Maybe you’ll argue that students today are not learning enough. You’d be wrong. They are still learning a lot, but they are not learning the same things that you were learning, Finally, we’re seeing progress in the concept of learning useful things instead of gaining imposed knowledge. It’s not about accumulating useless knowledge.

Be honest: how much of the chemistry lessons do you actually remember today? You were studying a lot, but you remember nothing and you used none of that knowledge.

Is the modern educational system ideal? No. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re moving in a better direction.

Teachers are also in a good position to talk about the differences. Steve Isaacs, computer technology teacher from New Jersey, made an interesting statement for Business Insider:

“The idea of bringing games into the learning and gamifying the classroom have become more mainstream, providing opportunities for greater student engagement. We can’t prepare students for jobs that exist, but rather prepare them to be flexible and adaptable to jobs that don’t yet exist.”

That’s a good point. That’s what makes the modern educational system so revolutionary different from traditional schooling: it makes students flexible enough to prepare them for future jobs.

With technology developing with the speed of light, you better believe that the future job market won’t even resemble the one we now have.

Is Traditional Education That Bad? Is Modern Education Necessarily Better?                                                                                                                                                                    

Now let’s see the other side of the coin. As I said, the current system is far from ideal. It has its flaws, and they need serious attention.

  • There are serious challenges ahead of teachers. The fact that they have to experiment with different curriculums and methods is too much.
  • There’s no one program that fits all, and each new administrator requires the teachers to adopt a new program.
  • The “learn at your own pace” concept is questionable, to say the least. Yes; it’s possible through online programs, but let’s face it: the classroom still has to follow a curriculum. Can can we limit children to online programs and retire classrooms once and for all? It seems like we’re not quite there yet. The classroom system is effective from the aspects of socialization and discipline. Online education still has its problems with procrastination and lack of contact between the student and the teacher.
  • Speaking of lack of contact, let’s talk about online lessons. I love Khan Academy. It teaches anything someone would like to know. The clarity works. But what’s with the robotic language? There’s no emotion here. Can you argue with me on that? To me, it looks like a lesson for robots. I tried this with my students… it doesn’t engage them. I like the lessons, but they don’t.

  • The current system involves too much writing. That’s part of the “learn at your own pace” approach. The student is required to pick a topic, conduct thorough research, and convey that knowledge through a paper written in academic style. That’s a good thing, but the assignment comes as a burden because most students cannot fit it in their schedules.

To make things worse, it doesn’t prepare the students well for the writing practice. A study from CollegeBoard showed that most employees did not possess the needed writing skills to do their jobs, and that fact costs billions for businesses.

Although colleges impose a huge load of assignments, they fail to teach students how to write. Since they don’t get the instructions they need, most students rely on the cheapest essay writing service to get their coursework written.  

  •  Technology really does have great potential, but it also imposes the risk of distractions. The teacher needs much more patience and a high level of authority to control a technology-driven classroom.
  • Information is everywhere! If a student wants to find out how white people came to America, they can simply use Google and get the trivia. Try teaching an entire lesson about that point in history, and you’ll see a room of students who lack interest. In some situations, it seems as the modern educational system is a thriving idea, but the institutions that serve education remain blissfully unaware of the trends.

In near future, we’ll see students interacting with each other remotely. We’ll see much more technology in the classrooms, and we’ll change our perspective on degrees. The students will have a voice that we’ll have to hear. The current model is driving us in that direction, but we have to be careful. Remember how the liberal approach failed after the Renaissance?

Let’s agree on something: we won’t allow that to happen again. Okay?  

No matter how much I research the concept of education, the slow development of the system never seizes to amaze me. Why aren’t we making progress quickly enough? Why do some teachers still prefer old-school methods when it’s clear that they don’t work?

Fortunately, the changes already started. The current educational system is flawed, so we have to be aware of its disadvantages. We have to keep developing it in a direction that leads towards improvement. We have to start providing the education that children deserve. The time has come! Finally!     

To wrap it up, I’ll leave this here: Sal Khan’s TED talk. The guy has a point.

Let’s teach for mastery; not test scores! That’s the biggest change we still have to make.

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Todd VanDuzer

Co-Founder & CEO at Student-Tutor
Hello! My name is Todd. I help students design the life of their dreams by ensuring college, scholarship, and career success! I am a former tutor for seven years, $85,000 scholarship recipient, Huffington Post contributor, lead SAT & ACT course developer, host of a career exploration podcast for teens, and have worked with thousands of students and parents to ensure a brighter future for the next generation. I invite you to join my next webinar to learn how to save thousands + set your teenager up for college, scholarship, and career success!
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