What Did the Future of Learning Look Like 100 Years Ago?

At School in France in the Year 2000The Public Domain Review presents “a series of futuristic pictures by Jean-Marc Côté and other artists issued in France in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910. Originally in the form of paper cards enclosed in cigarette/cigar boxes and, later, as postcards, the images depicted the world as it was imagined to be like in the year 2000.” While some of the images seem downright absurd now, others offer surprisingly accurate predictions, mostly revolving around the theme of efficiency through technology, including video phone, voice-to-text, factory farming, and machines for construction, agriculture, and housekeeping. But this schoolroom image (above) fascinates me the most.

The teacher, a pleased-looking man with spectacles, feeds books into a machine that appears to grind them, as one student turns a crank, into knowledge in the form of electricity. Wires from the machine run up the wall, across the ceiling, and over the students, where they hang down and plug into contraptions on the students’ heads. The idea seems to be that in school in the twenty-first century, knowledge will be piped directly into students’ brains. Other than the installed machine, the schoolroom remains unchanged. The students sit in straight rows. The teacher oversees the room. The students and the teachers are all well-dressed, white males. A map hangs on the wall. Books sit on shelves.

What does the image say about cultural views on education in late 19th-century and early 20th-century France? What does it say about the artist? Does it represent an earnest attempt to predict a plausible future? Does it represent a fanciful guess, just for entertainment, intentionally absurd? Does it reveal assumptions about what learning is and means? Is the image a warning about what the future of education looked like at the time? Is it a political satire?

I initially guessed (almost assumed) that the image must be satire. First, as one who lives in the early 21st century, the idea of literally wiring information directly into students’ heads seems obviously ridiculous (even though scientists recently implanted a false memory in a mouse’s brain). Second, as one who studies teaching and learning, the desire to wire information into students strikes me as representing an obviously and deeply flawed understanding of the purposes and processes of the human act of learning. But now I doubt that interpretation. For one, it’s probably an anachronistic reading. Also, none of the other images in the series seems satirical.

So what should we make of this image? How might it speak to education today? Here’s another possible reading. The educators behind this then-future classroom want students to learn. In fact, they were so unsatisfied with how students were learning that they went through a lot of trouble to try innovative ways to get them to learn more or, at least, more quickly. But their care and effort are wasted—not just wasted but positively counterproductive—because the solution attempted completely ignores what learning means and how it happens. I have to say, that certainly sounds familiar.

But, in the end, I’ve settled on this. While the image may or may not offer any particular commentary on education, it does raise questions for us to ponder:

1. How can technology contribute to teaching and learning? Can we (as in the image) just add new technologies to what we’re already doing? Or do we need to change what we’re doing in light of what new technologies could enable us to do?

2. How much can technology contribute to teaching and learning? Can new technologies (as in the image) bypass the brain’s normal processes for struggling for understanding? Or can they, at best, help us engage more productively in that struggle?

3. What do teaching and learning mean? Does teaching (as in the image) simply mean feeding information into students’ brains? Does learning simply mean holding it there? Or do they mean more than that?

4. What roles should teacher and students play? Should teachers (as in the image) select from the available information what should be put into students’ heads and then put it there as efficiently as possible? Should students sit there compliantly and try to retain the information as long as possible? Or should they both do more than that?

5. Why does education look so much the same today in many places around the world as in France in 100 years ago? Of course, there are important exceptions, such as more inclusive student demographics. But why do we hang on to ideas and practices so long after we should already know they don’t work? John Dewey was already writing when this image was created! And, for that matter, how did the artist so unnervingly and correctly guess that we would not reform our schools in meaningful ways in 100 years’ time?

6. Where did the dream of “knowing without learning” originate? That false dream (as in the image) that students might become meaningfully educated without going through a meaningful educational process involving not just the collecting of information but intellectual involvement? Why does this dream persist?

7. What will education look like 100 years from now? Most importantly, what can we do to make sure that it will be better than now, not simply in terms of newer technologies but in terms of more reflective ideas and effective practices, in terms of still greater inclusiveness, and in terms of increased depth and quality of learning?

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14 responses to “What Did the Future of Learning Look Like 100 Years Ago?

  1. Excellent!
    Learning has never been about technology.
    Learning is about thinking and hard work. No more, no less!
    Teaching is no more than motivate for learning the hard and only way.

    • Good point. I wonder if that was actually the student/teacher ratio then/there, if it’s a stylistic decision on the part of the artist, or if, maybe, it’s a delusion idyllic vision on the part of the artist.

  2. Prhaps the wires pacify the students, keeping them in a state of manufactured indifference, so the teacher and his student apprentice can destroy subversive literature? :-)

  3. Very interesting. How funny it is that we still are in the same industrial format and trying to cram as much information into students brains as possible. There also seems to be a lack of personalization in this picture as well which also happens today.

  4. Would you say that how people perceive the future of learning today has changed much from Jean-Marc Côté’s perception? (inputting a computer in place of the crank-machine)

    • It certainly seems like some people would like to input a computer in place of a crank machine. But I think that a growing number of people understand learning as more than the transmission of information.

  5. Kind of a spooky feeling. If learning were to look like that nowadays, it would be absolutely crazy! I guess we really have to be reminded of our past teachers and learning systems to see where we can adapt and improve.

    • Well, I kind of think that teaching does sort of look like that nowadays, at least, in more ways than I’m comfortable with.

  6. Technology is not the source of learning but it is a tool for information. Information that is implemented or integrated into a student’s life=learning. So how much of the information flooding our minds through technology is truly learned? Could it be that students today are wired to find instant answers to questions and thus bypass the necessary steps that are required for understanding which leads to learning? I believe that learning absolutely requires a process. It isn’t instant, and it means work. so dumping does not=proper teaching. Instead, instruction that leads students to think hard for themselves=proper teaching.

    • Absolutely. Understanding, process, and effort are essential. As far as technology comes it, I’m interested in how it can help support those things. Information dumping doesn’t really help, though it might make us feel like we accomplished something by covering a lot.

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