The Lancastrian Method

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The Lancastrian Method


Origins . The Lancastrian Method, named for Joseph Lancaster, actually began with Anglican missionary schools in Madras, India. Under this method one teacher could supervise hundreds of students by dividing them into groups often to twenty each and putting them under the direct supervision of a class monitor, a somewhat more advanced student. These monitors, selected for their deportment and attention to studies, were rewarded either by weekly tickets, which could be redeemed for money, or with room and board. The system was brought to England in 1789 by Dr. Andrew Bell, an Anglican minister. Lancaster, a Quaker, learned the method from Bell and by 1805 was conducting his own school in London using this system, having one thousand students enrolled under his and the monitors direction.

Success . Lancaster and his protégés were able by 1809 to open twenty schools, educating nearly ten thousand students at a cost of four shillings each every year. This system was seen by many as a miracle, one that would allow all the poor to be educated at a minimal cost. In 1805 visitors from New York were struck by Lancasters

method, and the New York Free School Society, founded in that year, strictly adhered to it, hiring one of his protégés, William Smith, as its first teacher. DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York and founder of the New York Free School Society, was a passionate advocate of Lancasters method, which he said created a new era in education. The system operates with the same efficacy in education as labor-saving machinery does in the useful arts.


Few Americans were as involved in reform movements as Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor. Rush saw the American Revolution as important not only for securing independence but also as the beginning of a general movement to regenerate mankind. The United States would be an example to the rest of the world, and Rush was keenly aware that everything the Americans did would have profound consequences for the worlds future. He particularly interested himself in educational reform, actively supporting the establishment of schools and colleges in the new country. Here he advises on the proper role of teachers and the ways Americas educational system should be different from Europes:

In the Education of youth, let the authority of our masters be as absolute as possible. The government of schools, like the government of private families, should be arbitrary, that it may not be severe. By this mode of education, we prepare our youth for the subordination of laws, and thereby qualify them for becoming good citizens of the republic. I am satisfied that the most useful citizens have been formed from those youth who have never known or felt their own wills till they were one and twenty years of age, and I have often thought that society owes a great deal of its order and happiness to the deficiencies of parental government, being supplied by those habits of obedience and subordination which are contracted at schools.

I cannot help bearing a testimony, in this place, against the custom, which prevails in some parts of America, (but which is daily falling into disuse in Europe) of crowding boys together under one roof for the purpose of education. The practice is the gloomy remains of monkish ignorance, and is as unfavourable to the improvements of the mind in useful learning, as monasteries are to the spirit of religion. I grant this mode of excluding boys from the intercourse of private families, has a tendency to make them scholars, but our business is to make them men, citizens, and christians. The vices of young people are generally learned from each other. The vices of adults seldom infect them. By separating them from each other, therefore, in their hours of relaxation and study, we secure their morals from a principal source of corruption, while we improve their manners, by subjecting them to those restraints, which the difference of age and sex, naturally produce in private families.

Source: Benjamin Rush, A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools in Pennsylvania (1786), in Theories of Education in Early America 16551819, edited by Wilson Srnith (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973).

The Sand Table. The Lancastrian schools met for five hours each day, from nine until noon and from three until five in the afternoon. Most schools of the day used dictation and memorization to teach reading and had the students learn to write by copying texts. In the Lancastrian system children learned the alphabet by practicing writing in sand: several times a day the younger children would gather around a table fifteen feet long, six inches wide, covered with a small coating of sand. Each student had a stick, about four inches long, with which to practice letters in the sand, which could then be smoothed

over and used again. Doing this work at the sand table both perfected the students knowledge of letters and was also a pleasing relaxation. Each classroom had an alphabet board twenty-six feet long and three feet high, placed near the ceiling, showing the upper- and lowercase letters as well as the numbers 1 through 9. To ease their learning, the Lancastrian method divided the letters into groups according to shape: perpendicular (I, H, T, L, E, F, i, and l), triangular (A, V, W, M, N, Z, K, Y, X, v, w, k, y, z, and x), and circular (O, U, C, J, G, D, P, B, R, Q, S, a, o, b, d, p, q, c, g, m, n, h, t, u, r, s, f, and j). Students would practice making these different shapes, becoming comfortable with writing each individual letter. Once students were sufficiently comfortable with writing on sand, they would be allowed to write on paper.

Comparison with Boston. Under this method thousands of children could be educated at a low cost, and Lancaster became highly regarded among educators. In 1815 a writer in the Connecticut Courant noted the improvements in American society of the past few years, and listed along with vaccination, the Humane Society, and the movement to abolish the slave trade, The Lancastrian system of education, by means of which thousands of children are yearly taught the rudiments of learning, and accustomed to read the bible; who, but for that invention, must have been brought up in ignorance. While many regarded the Lancastrian system as a profound educational reform, others were skeptical. Bostons schools did not adopt the Lancastrian system; in 1818 a copy of New Yorks Free Schools report reached that city. Noting that the same number of pupils had been enrolled in New Yorks Lancastrian schools and in Bostons traditional schools, the figures for each were compared. In New York, of 1, 800 students trained under the Lancastrian method, 220 had learned to write on paper; in Boston, of 1, 800 students, 1, 800 were writing on paper. In New York only 138 pupils were reading the Bible, while in the Boston school all of the students were reading the Bible. The success rate for New Yorks pupils, according to this report, trailed off dramatically, with only five able to multiply to the rule of three, as compared to 200 Boston pupils able to do so. The Lancastrian system had its most success among students with no previous exposure to literacy. It did offer quick results in acquainting students with letters and the rudiments of learning. But with so much of its instruction resting on monitors, rather than on trained teachers, its usefulness quickly faded.

Sad End. Lancaster himself, as an educational reformer, proved disappointing. He came to the United States in 1819, appeared before the House of Representatives, was lavishly praised by Henry Clay and others, then was invited to Caracas by Simon Bolivar to establish a school. Lancaster, successful in running a large school in England, training teachers in his method, and generating publicity for his reform, proved unable either to begin a school in Caracas or to account for the $20, 000 Bolívar had given him for this purpose. In 1828 he left Venezuela in disgrace, returning to New York, the American city most enthusiastic about his method, where he died in poverty in 1838.


Vera M. Butler, Education as Revealed by New England Newspapers Prior to 1850 (New York: Arno, 1969);

A. Emerson Palmer, The New York Public School (New York: Macmillan, 1905).

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The Lancastrian Method

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