Mass Education and Modern Learning

When considering how schools must change and adapt to new realities, it is useful to explore how they have become what they are today. Of course, it is overly simplistic to say that all schools around the world are the same, yet it is surprising, when we look closely, how strikingly similar they are. Mass schooling is a trend that rose in the 19th century and has developed steadily into the 21st century in countries around the world.

Throughout the work week, more people on the planet take part in “school” than in any other institution on the planet. At the same time, those schools look more and more similar from one culture to the next with very similar goals, structures, schedules, curricula, and even architecture. Though it appears there is a lot of choice and variation when parents, students, or teachers are searching for a school, in reality there is a narrow band of variability on a global scale. Even curriculum is more and more convergent across the globe, with standards in major subject areas following similar trajectories.

Militaristic Mass Education

This curricular convergence is partly driven by comparative measures like the PISA tests from the OECD and other international bodies, usually with an economic outlook. I will write more about the world view of comparison in a future blog entry, as it is actually a very recent development and fascinating in its own right. But the structural convergence in schooling came first. The notion that mass schooling should be standardized, universal, and regimented came from the first models of mass schooling that arose from Prussian military practices. Indeed, students in Japanese schools still wear versions of Prussian military uniforms to school. The underlying message was (and still is, in some places) that students should have the same experience, follow the same course of study, and become very similar in their knowledge and skills. Add to this the structures of bells signaling when it is time to march form one class to another and the “sit and get” drill training that arose in mass education systems, and the similarities between schooling and military training are striking. It is for this reason, I call this type of schooling militaristic schooling.

Monastic Education

Education, before it was adapted for the masses, was previously reserved for the elite (and almost exclusively for males—another salient topic). Students in classical academies (Western and Eastern) memorized and recited ancient texts and, later, learned to read them in their original languages. The goal was not to attain a job or a career, but to refine one’s character: morality, honesty, sincerity, etc. This was also strikingly similar globally—from the prolific philosopher Confucius in China to the Greek Academy, straight through to the founding of universities, some one and a half thousand years later. I call this monastic education; a retreat from the world to refine oneself and probe truths and knowledge. Modern universities brought together the moral, scientific, and (later) occupational goals of monastic and mass education.

The modern independent school must decide how it holds these different goals in balance, how it remains in line with the global convergence of content standards, and how it serves its unique community of learners. This is why schools model themselves, to varying degrees, on some elements of both mass models and elite models. International schools have the added layer of multiple national views on what schooling “should be” all under one roof. I remarked recently to a colleague in a national university that even as universal as education has become globally, ASH has the added challenge of having at least 74 different definitions of education given our 74 different nationalities. He responded, “Only 74? I thought you had more than 1,200 students. I’m guessing you have more than 1,200 definitions.” His point is a very good one. In the modern age, though education policy and practice is remarkably globalized, the goals of education are still paradoxically driven by the importance of the individual. Building together a modern school that responds to the needs of unique individuals is a wonderful challenge indeed.

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