The Lancasterian System of Education
Joseph Lancaster

Source of Economy.

Economy depends on boys being qualified to act as substitutes for ushers, which can alone be effected by simplifying the systems of order and tuition, whereby both may be reduced to the level of the meanest capacity, and rendered capable of delegation to any pupil in the school. The consequence is, that as scholars increase, the expense for each individual decreases, leaving one master competent to govern and teach many, instead of very few pupils, increasing his own salary, providing funds for rewards, and yet on the whole saving a great expense. The author of this book, was the FIRST person who invented and demonstrated this theory. These statements are made, not on speculation, but as the fair result of experiments, confirmed by twenty-two years experience, in the view of nations, and conducted under the countenance of the noble and excellent of all ranks and classes, among the most worthy and virtuous of men. The duty of a monitor, as substitute for an usher, may either relate simply to order, or to instruction; but first to order, as it would be of no service to hundreds of children assembled to receive instruction, in the most efficient modes, were it not possible to keep them in order. In general, on the old plan of instruction, the authority of the master is merely personal; when he comes into school, fear produces silence, pro tempore, at least; when he goes out, all is bustle and confusion, and the ushers are rarely regarded in his absence. This originates in the personality of the master's authority. In the army, authority is vested in the system, more than the person; the station, more than the man, commands obedience, and the subordinate officer, is as readily obeyed as his principal. The officer of today may be superseded by the officer of to-morrow. An old man of three score, or a lad of sixteen, gives the command, and obedience, implicit obedience, follows. This admirable order, usually attached to war, will not become disorder, by its application to peaceful purposes.


On this head, the duty of the master, is to see that each monitor is fully competent to teach the lessons of the class to which he is appointed. This certainly can be obtained only, by actually examining the intended monitor in the lessons he will be required to teach. The master should never appoint a monitor without such examination, yet I have known some persons who pretend to teach on this system, appoint a boy as a monitor, merely because they judge him to be a good reader, or because he might be a good writer. Monitors should not be appointed by guess, when an actual certainty, is so easily attainable, by a due examination in a progressive series of lessons, adapted to the mode of tuition ...

All the monitors should have a written or printed paper of their 'Duties,' which they should learn by rote, and repeat extempore. Those duties are the same in all schools, and apply generally to the mode of teaching. The larger series of papers, on the duties of monitors, should be read for a class-lesson by all boys selected as regular, or auxiliary monitors, in order to prepare them, by a knowledge of their duty, for its proper discharge. ...

Conduct of Teachers.

The teacher's situation is certainly easy, and pleasant, in schools on the Lancasterian system, but that system never allows a teacher to abstract his attention from duty, yet a notion to the contrary has prevailed — a notion which is the child of pride and laziness. ...

Teachers need, first, a knowledge of the theory of the system; secondly, a social, firm, kind manner of acting upon it, including the operation of their own good principles and character; thirdly, a practical acquaintance with the system, so as to have all its parts ready at the moment of application. Now the theory may be soon acquired from its great simplicity; but, is the acquisition of theory sufficient for the attainment of any art or science? Do men learn to be good mechanics, designers, engineers, or chemists, by mere theory, or six weeks observation? If not, why is the most important office of teacher, to be filled by men, who spend less time in acquiring principles of tuition, than women spend, in learning to make straw bonnets? Such teachers only disgrace the system. The name of Lancasterian teacher, is assumed as a passport to popularity, and to cash — the reality is far distant from the mask, and this nation now suffers under the consequence of the basest impositions. ...

Of Order.

Obedience, with large bodies, whether of men or children, must be active and energetic. Tardiness and languor, instead of promptitude in obeying commands, will soon operate as a prelude to disobedience. — Make obedience active, and it will soon become delightful; give children pleasure in it, and they will obey in earnest; what is usually done with murmuring, will then be done with alacrity. Personal obedience will not be found transferable, and this is the case with a master, whose authority is wholly concentrated in himself, instead of being systematically diffused over the school, and capable of delegation, without diminution, to any agent. — Duties that are to be done in concert, are generally simple, and therefore capable of definition. — The exercise of defined duties, prevents the existence of discretional and arbitrary power. The exercise of discretional power, calls for a considerable degree of judgment to direct it rightly; and young persons rarely come to school in possession of a judgment ripe enough for the exercise of discretional authority: but, as it is wrong to expect from them a maturity of talent which they do not possess, the principle of order in school should be of such a nature, as to be adapted every way to its proper end. The definition of authority prevents its abuse; when exercised by a series of commands, adapted to the respective duties to which they relate, the power of habit, once in force, daily gathers strength, and the weight of example operates to increase that force. Attention daily excited, becomes habitual, and any pupil in the habit of attention to order, is half prepared to bestow the same attention on his learning. ...

On a large scale of education, generally commands, and even some apparently of a trivial nature, are unavoidable. In giving these commands, the monitor greatly relieves the teacher. As it is not proper that commands without number, and perhaps of a nature opposite to each other, should be given at random by the monitors, limitation becomes indispensable. It is an important object to secure implicit obedience and prompt attention. — The first of these objects is easily attained; it is only to write down on paper the commands most necessary to be given by the monitor; and it is essential, that he should not vary from the rule once laid down. The practice of giving short commands aloud, and seeing them instantly obeyed by the whole class, will effectually train the monitor in the habit of giving them with propriety. Thus, for instance, 'Front'; 'Right' or 'Left'; 'Show Slates,' or 'Clean Slates'; all indicate things that must be occasionally done, whether commanded or not; without a command, they would be done at random — with it, they are done in an instant.

The classes should learn, silently to measure their steps, when going round the school in close order, to prevent what else would often occur from numbers, treading on each other's heels, or pushing about. In this case, measuring their steps commands attention to one object, and prevents disorderly conduct. It is not required that the measure should be exact, or be a regular step; but, that each scholar shall atempt to walk at nearly a regular distance from the one who precedes him. When a new scholar is first admitted into a class, he is pleased with the uniformity, novelty, and simplicity of their motions. Under the influence of this pleasure, he readily obeys the same as the other boys. None of these commands are in themselves a hardship; and they are well supported by the force of habits, easily acquired, from the circumstance of being congenial to the activity of the youthful mind. The power of example greatly facilitates the establishment of order. Children are imitative creatures: they enter a new school; they see all in order around them; they witness promptness and alacrity in obeying every command; they do as they see others do, under the influence of their example. Before the effect of novelty is worn off, new habits are formed; and the happy children who are trained under the mild and generous influence of the Lancasterian system of education, learn obedience with pleasure, and practice it with delight, without the employment of cos-skin or cane, to bring them to order. The facility with which the authority of a monitor may be delegated, and transferred from one to another, prevents the system of order from becoming non-entity. Were it not on a level with the meanest capacity, capable of this delegation, and yet possessed of so much simplicity, the new modes of instruction, valuable as they are in themselves, would be inefficient. The attempt to promote learning without the principle of order, would be like the efforts of the eastern nations, when Nimrod, in the despotism and pride with which he built the Tower of Babel, only succeeded in producing confusion, and thereby founded the first empire of ignorance.

There is no part of the system more interesting to the eye of a visitor, than the pupils of a large school, in the act of obedience to general commands. Superficial teachers are often aware of this, and evolution, is, by them, substituted for improvement: — what is only an auxiliary, becomes a principal, and being out of its place, for mere parade and show, produces comparative harm, instead of positive good. ...

The telegraph placed at the head of the school, consists of six squares, each square about four inches by three. These squares play on pivots, in the sides of a wooden frame. On each side is a letter as F. front, on seeing which, the whole school face the master: or, S.S. as show slates, on which the whole school show slates. The attention of the school is called to this by means of a very small bell affixed, which does not require loud ringing, but has a sharp clear sound. The reader will perceive that a series of commands may be given in this manner, so as to relieve the human voice. In hot weather, or in times of great fatigue, it is beneficial, and to relieve the voice, it is occasionally of much use but the tones of the voice have so powerful an effect on the human ear, that merely emphasis and manner, will often render a command so impressive, that no silent inanimate substitute can be found. With some teachers the rage is a telegraph for every thing, and if a telegraph could have brains, or communicate intellect, too much could not be said of its importance. Simple as it is, the author has copies of twenty telegraphs, all of which possess different degrees of merit, and on no one article of school furniture, has the attention of teachers been so much exercised. — Some telegraphs have been made foolish and expensive, and not unfrequently has the man who made a new or variegated telegraph shewn as much feeling of importance, as Columbus on the discovery of a new world. Such reasoning seems on a par with the notion, that the most experienced cobler must consequently be the best boot and shoe maker in any nation.


T.S. Turn slates.

S.S. Shew slates.

C.S. Clean slates.

S.S.C. Show slates clean.

L.D.S. Lay down slates.

C. Commence.

H.D. Hands down.

These telegraphs vary in power according to the number of letters on them, and to have numerous letters is nonessential, as few and simple duties often repeated, require few and simple commands to dictate the moment of execution.

Some general duties, performed, either by the word of command, or telegraphic signs, have a powerful effect on the eye; for instance, the master wishes to know if every boy is provided with a pencil, 'show pencils' is the command given, and instantly the whole school hold up their right hands and exhibit pencils, which are gathered up and taken care of by a monitor, previous to dismissing school. The effect on the eye is considerable, but much more so in another instance. It is wished to know that the hands of every boy in school are clean, a command is given 'show fingers,' each pupil at once holds up his hands and spreads open his fingers. The monitors pass between the desks of their respective classes, and each inspects his own class. An examination as to cleanliness is thus effected, over the whole school in five minutes, and the practice of inspection, anticipated by the pupil, promotes habitual cleanliness. In a school of three hundred pupils, three thousand fingers and thumbs will be exhibited in a minute, and the effect on the eye is as singular, as the examination is beneficial.

Source: Joseph Lancaster, The Lancasterian System of Education ... (Baltimore, 1821), pp. 7-11.