History of Educational Architecture


The history of the American schoolhouse reflects the history of education that in turn mirrors a plethora of contextual societal forces including social, economic and political. Architectural form, aesthetics, symbolism and layout of the school building should be directly influenced by the evolution of educational philosophy and goals, curricular objectives, instructional methods, and cultural background and value systems of the schools’ governing boards. The architecture of the small one-room country school building was an appropriate design response that served the basic educational and social needs of small rural communities for well over two hundred years starting in the Colonial period of the United States. As the social problems associated with the Industrial Revolution grew in the mid and late 19th century, the need for educating larger groups of immigrants in urban centers became a necessity. The Common School movement and large multistoried classroom buildings provided the necessary educational and architectural response at that time. After World War II, societal changes created by the baby boom created a need for school construction never before seen. The rate of building demanded new methods of school building construction that allowed for further experimentation in flexible and adaptable space for education. Along with innovations in educational delivery suggested by the Progressive Movement lead principally by John Dewey, school architecture soon responded with more child-scaled, flexible and open environmental settings.

Studying the relationship between architecture and education over time provides an instructive lesson in the theory of change in social institutions. The general acceptance of various innovations and paradigms in educational design usually occurs many years following a specific innovation, and not without some social and political resistance. Many Colonialists did not see the need for a separate schoolhouse when they could teach their own children at home, since the objective was to learn how to read the Bible or be apprenticed in the family trade. The Progressive Movement in education beginning in the late 19th century did not significantly influence education or school architecture until the middle of the 20th century. A relevant comparison the receptiveness of new ideas may be seen in the acceptance level of distance education and computer assisted instruction. Today, the social resistance to distance education and asynchronous web-based learning will more than likely subside once children who have been raised using the computer as a form of communication take over the leadership of the educational system.

This chapter presents a history of educational architecture that follows three general periods of American social, economic, and political history: the agrarian Colonial period (1650-1849), the Industrial Revolution (1850-1949), and the so-called Information Age (1950-present). The focus is on general trends in education as they relate to educational architecture. Similarly, looking at the architectural design of schools over time can provide us an opportunity to infer what may have actually happened in the classroom and reveal the essence of the pedagogy that influenced educational practice in the past (McClintock & McClintock, 1970).


Educational Architecture in the Colonial Period

Societal Influences on Education in the Colonial Period

Early American society consisted of village settlements where land was cultivated for agricultural purposes. Land was also the primary basis for the economy, life, culture, family structure and politics. In the US, until 1750, the first settlers out of necessity adopted an agrarian, egalitarian agricultural culture idealized through the concept of Jeffersonian democracy. Settlers quickly pushed westward building subsistence farms and agricultural villages and dispossessing the indigenous populations further into the interior of the continent and eventually to the Pacific Ocean.

         The economy was decentralized and locally based. Politically, the village was typically under the control of a single authoritarian or a small group of social elite. Community life was organized around the social support of the village settlement pattern of semi-isolated communities. Houses were typically grouped around a central public meeting space containing public structures such as the church acting as a meeting hall and sometimes a school.

Agricultural life required the family structure to be multi-generational and extended. Work life and home life were intermingled. Work was performed in fields or the home with the entire household toiling together as an economic unit. The imperative of group survival required an individual’s personal needs to come second to the group. People rarely left the confines of their own village. When they did, they were limited to walking or traveling on horse and wagon, or sometimes by boat.

Illiteracy was high with the spoken word being relied upon for day-to-day communication and oral traditions kept the collective memory of the community alive. Even as the written word was available at this time, many people relied on others to read aloud the material to benefit the whole community.

Education during this period could be characterized by two words – survival and informal. The most informal process occurred in the farm families where children needed to contribute labor in order for the family to survive. The necessary skills and knowledge were learned from parents and older siblings as the child participated in the work of the family. Before the Industrial Revolution, there were very few Americans who viewed schooling as relevant to occupational success or economic development (DeYoung, 1989). Through apprenticeships, craftsmen and tradesmen would pass on their skills and knowledge of their trade to the next generation. While the young person’s learning occurred in an informal setting, there was a formal structure through which the young person progressed from novice to apprentice to skilled craftsman.

       When English settlers arrived in New England, they took little time to establish Latin grammar schools and colleges (Herbst, 1996). The most formal structure involved the academy and university. Harvard College was established in 1636, while William and Mary followed in 1688. These opportunities were reserved for the elite and, to some degree perpetuated the survival of the elite in the classicist society. State mandated public education did not exist prior to the nineteenth century, but rather was run by parents and trustees (DeYoung, 1989).

The need for literacy in the village focused almost entirely on exposure of Christian morality and the teaching of the Bible. This was evidenced by the passage of the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1635, a Massachusetts law, the first educational legislation in the United States, requiring parents to teach their children how to read the Bible. The Sunday School Movement in the early nineteenth century was one of several precursors to the Common School (DeYoung, 1989).

In the New England colonies, the first schools were set up in either private homes or churches (Graves, 1993). Home schooling and informal education was very common in colonial America. One form of informal school was the originally English institution known as the ‘dame school’ (Johnson, 1963). Unmarried or widowed older women often held classes in their own homes, while wealthy parents hired tutors to come into the home to instruct their sons in the classics. As the population increased in the colonies, subscription schools evolved, with support for these schools coming from subscriptions, tuition, land rental fees and taxes (Gulliford, 1984). In 1647, the government of Massachusetts Bay enacted the first statue in America providing for the establishment of a school system requiring for the provision for building school buildings (Gulliford, 1984).

The One-room Country Schoolhouse

The one-room schoolhouse best characterizes the typical educational facility of the Colonial period (Figure 1.1). This school was multi-aged by necessity due to the relatively small size of the village community. One teacher would preside over instruction emphasizing recitation and direct supervision. Learning was by rote but self-paced depending on the developmental level of the student. One-room schools often had very simple furnishings, poor ventilation, and relied on oil lamps for light and wood burning stoves for heat. Schoolhouses in urban areas were variations on the theme of the country schoolhouse often containing two, four or six self-contained rooms, often with their own entrances.

Figure 1.1. Bear Creek School (c. 1870), Iowa, (Iowa State Historical Society). SOURCE: Courtesy and permission of author Andrew Guildford (1984). America’s Country Schools. National Trust for Historic Preservation.


Along with the church, the school was the social center of community where town meetings, voting, fund raisers and celebrations of all kinds took place. In essence the entire community, not only school age children, was served by the school building. The school housed the activities that integrated people into their community and provided an identity that to this day is linked with the school (Gulliford, 1984). For example, in 1991, a New Hampshire school superintendent proposing to close a one-room schoolhouse dating back to 1840s was criticized by parents who opposed children being moved to a more "impersonal school setting" (Graves, 1993; 22).


If you have an interest in the history of school architecture, you are invited to click here to experience a comprehensive treatment of how educational architecture has developed in the United States.