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Modern Education in Small Rural Schools

by Fannie Wyche Dunn - 1931

Two misconceptions are widely held and commonly expressed in published articles, especially by writers with but superficial knowledge of the rural field. The first is that the small school is a sort of educational dodo, practically extinct or at least a museum specimen. The second is that the small rural school is a hopeless situation for the expression of modern educational theory, and only by combination, or consolidation, of several small schools to make one large one, is it possible to afford education of modern type to rural children.

TWO misconceptions are widely held and commonly expressed in published articles, especially by writers with but superficial knowledge of the rural field. The first is that the small school is a sort of educational dodo, practically extinct or at least a museum specimen. The second is that the small rural school is a hopeless situation for the expression of modern educational theory, and only by combination, or consolidation, of several small schools to make one large one, is it possible to afford education of modern type to rural children.


The latest available statistics are for 1927-28. In that year there were in the United States 153,306 one-room schools. Illinois alone had over 10,000, the largest number of any state in the Union. Iowa had only about 500 fewer, or over 9,500. Kansas, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania each had oven 7,000. Nearly four-fifths of the teachers of South Dakota were in one-teacher schools. So were over 50 per cent of the teachers of North Dakota, over 40 per cent of the teachers of Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, and Vermont; over 30 per cent of the teachers of Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming; over 20 per cent of all the public school teachers in the United States; and about 4,000,000 rural children, or approximately one-third of the total rural school enrollment, and nearly half of all the farm children who were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools.

True, we have every year fewer and fewer one-teacher schools. In 1917 the Federal Bureau of Education estimated their number to be 195,000. Apparently 42,000 have been eliminated in eleven years. But at the rate of approximately 4,000 a year, it would be close to forty years before the present assumption of dodoism would be true. Of course nobody knows whether we shall maintain that rate. We may accelerate it with the increasing improvement of roads and of airplane transportation; we may decrease it with the increasing sparsity of farm population. What we do know, however, is that we now have at least as many rural children in one-teacher schools as in consolidated schools—indeed, probably more—and that so far as those particular children, or the vast majority of them, are concerned, the quality of their elementary education depends upon the quality of the instruction given in small rural schools.

It would be a sad case indeed for these millions of children if the second assumption of the impossibility of modern education in small schools were a fact. On the basis of ten years of experimentation, I am glad to be able to say quite positively that I am sure it is not a fact. Given the kind of teacher who can do a progressive type of educational work anywhere; given equal provision in length of term, educative equipment, and supervision; and given an enrollment of between 20 and 40 pupils, or a few more or less, and a high grade of education as we conceive it to-day may be had in these schools. Consolidation is steadily to be promoted, because administratively consolidation contributes to the provision of the essential conditions —good teachers; adequate supervision, terms, and equipment; and a pupil group large enough for socialized activity. But where sparse population, topography, or climate militates against consolidation, there is for those who would afford modern education to all children, another means at hand in improvement of the facilities in the one-teacher schools.


Education as conceived to-day, indeed, reveals itself as the catalytic which enables the characteristic elements of the small rural school to organize themselves into a desirable whole. The great handicap of the traditional type of one-teacher school is the large number of "recitations" required for many subjects in many grades. The progressive conception of education, however, replaces verbal recitation with socialized activity. Integration of subject matter is effected through large units of work developed around genuine life interests and experiences. Children are not classified in closely homogeneous groups on a basis of achievements in skills or factual knowledge, but work together, as people do in life outside the school, on enterprises of common interest in which each participates according to his ability. Some are clever with their fingers, others show peculiar ability in finding and bringing in interesting objects for group use, others contribute clippings or pictures, others search the library and report what they have read. Some paint and draw, some contrive mechanical devices, some write poems or plays, and still others take the lead in the organization and conduct of school clubs or group games. The groups cut across one another, and the child who is the admired and respected leader in literary activities may become the humble follower of an erstwhile school dullard when there is a sand table to be constructed or scenery to be painted for a school play.


Individual differences in respect to the tool subjects are also recognized in the school of to-day, and provision is made for them, not by crude attempts at classification in assumedly homogeneous groups, which prove, when organized, still to be composed of widely varying members; but by replacing group with individual instruction in matters which each needs to learn, but which each must learn at his own rate, and which each can best learn in his own way. So in the new school there is equipment for individual study, which any child may be guided to use just when he needs it, instead of having it formally assigned, whether he has at the time any use for it at all, because his teacher or his supervisor believes that he will need it one day. It is a reasonably safe assumption that if any knowledges or skills are genuinely minimal essentials, that is, are sure to be needed by everyone in the practical conduct of his life, they will prove necessary in the rich range of activities which the modern school conceives to compose education. That a check list is desirable may be freely granted, but its chief use should be to make the teacher inquire of herself whether she is truly utilizing all the potentially educative opportunities of the child's enriched environment, rather than to drive her back to the old subject-matter-set-forth-to-be-drilled-upon conception of education.


For the hardest lesson we have to learn—we who are stumblingly working out our techniques in the new mode of educating which we believe in, but which we have not yet learned perfectly to employ— is to see the educative experiences that lie in the child's environment, and to realize from each potentiality the best that is in it. A group of rural teachers were reading with their supervisor one of the charming reports of the Country and City Day School. They read of the interest of the children of that school in boats, and the range of activities growing out of that interest, which led those children into far countries, and into reading, writing, music, and a host of other worthwhile experiences. And they wailed: "If only we had such an environment as she, we too could have our children do interesting things. We have nothing but trees!"

As a matter of fact, the school they envied was set in a crowded city street, near wharves which an unperceiving teacher might have seen as sordid and ugly, while she envied the trees and birds and lovely old colonial homes, full of suggestive relics of the past, which the rural teachers had all about them, and which they came in time to see and to use, in excursions and art, dramatization and verse.

It is no narrowing intensive acquaintance with a limited environment which modern education in small rural schools seeks for its children. In the end, for all our children, we desire the fullest and most complete appropriation of all the world's goods and all the social heritage that is desirable for the best realization of each individual capacity. In the beginning, for each child wherever he may live, country or city, north, south, east, or west, the place to begin is where he is. In each case we begin with the home life and surroundings, and discover the child problems and needs that there arise; then turn for solution or satisfaction to the experiences of the race, as preserved in history, geography, arithmetic, or language.

The country child, because he lives in the country, because his experiences are country experiences, will have somewhat different problems or interests from those of the city child. His early lessons will be based on country conditions, and his thinking will be in country terms. But his needs and problems will sooner or later lead him to the same sources of information as are used by the city child, and will be satisfied by the same racial accumulations of which he and the city child are coheritors. His problems of number may arise out of familiar situations with poultry, lumber, corn yields, or the work and play activities of his home and school—indeed, they should so arise; but they must be solved, in the end, by the fundamental processes, fractions, or percentage. His need for the power of expression which language supplies, or for the interpretation of human experiences which is the poet's gift to mankind, may be a genuine outgrowth of his acquaintance with nature; but it can be satisfied only by the English language and literature which he shares with the city child. His problems of sanitation and hygiene may be based upon the safety of the farm well or the necessity of so caring for house and stable refuse as to prevent the breeding of the typhoid fly, but they will find their answer in the same biology and the same laws of health as those which apply to the city dweller.

Like all other children, the child of the country craves companionship, recreation, and esthetic gratification. It is these longings and desires, which, if unsatisfied, often drive him to the city streets in search of thronging crowds, movies, glittering shop windows and glaring lights, museums, picture galleries, theaters, and music halls. But the country school may see in these natural desires for companionship and recreation leads to a wide range of activities—social organizations, play fests, athletic meets, active sports, social centers, bands or glee clubs, and the privilege of acquaintance with the master minds of literature. As for the craving for aesthetic gratification, where is there finer, more varied beauty than woods and fields afford? Where is there greater pleasure than the nature lover finds in traversing the swamp and pasture with field glass or camera? Out of excursions like these there develops in the country boys and girls a perception of the beneficence and beauty of the world about them, and interests that all their lives they may find pleasure in satisfying, so that for them there may be indeed sermons in stones, books in the running brooks, and good in everything. Henry Turner Bailey once wrote:

When we know enough, we wiseacres who superintend and supervise measurements and tests and platoon systems, we shall have the buses of the board of education taking children out into the country, instead of bringing them into the most congested parts of the city.

In that blessed time there will be observation areas, woods and meadows with brooks and pools, pastures with cattle, and fields with men at work, where the children now starved in cities will be taken for nature study at first hand—to lay a foundation for an intelligent appreciation of folklore, history, literature, poetry, music, and all the fine arts.

Nor are the esthetic experiences of the nature environment the only potentiality the small rural school has to use. In the social and economic life about it are to be found, in simple and accessible form, examples of all the great institutions and occupations of the world. The home, the store, the village post office, or the rural route; the roads and their makers, the vehicles of many kinds which travel over the roads and the destinations to which they go; the production of food and its transformation in the home and perhaps in a local creamery or mill, the milk hauled daily to the railroad station to be sent to city homes far away; sheep shearing or cotton picking, old spinning wheels or looms in occasional attics, or some neighborhood grandmother who still quilts or weaves rag carpets; the tax assessor, the town meeting, the state police, or the fire warden; the school with its local trustee, the county nurse, or the book truck; the county or state fair; the local election, held perhaps in the schoolhouse itself—all these and many more such examples may afford experiences educative in themselves, and rich in leads to the wider and more remote environment beyond the neighborhood bounds, to be increasingly experienced through books, pictures, and radio.

Probably there are few educators who do not agree that the range of genuine life experiences which rural children may know at first hand, in which, indeed, they may actually participate, affords unrivalled materials for education of modern type. But many teachers doubtless question the possibility of realizing these potentialities in the small rural school. Let us admit at once that a school with an unqualified teacher, meager equipment, a short term, and little or no supervision is not capable of the type of education we are envisaging. For that matter, such a school is a travesty on the name, for neither is it capable of a good quality of formal or old type schooling. It Is one of the most cruel pretenses and shams in civilized society to-day. But a small school need not have a poor teacher, or niggardly supplies, or a short term. It is here that we have let ourselves be blinded by a confusion of issues. The small school does have certain intrinsic characteristics that make it a peculiar educational problem, but none of the aforementioned handicaps are intrinsic or essential. By adequate legislation and financial expenditure they can be removed from a small school as effectively as from a large one, and their common occurrence in small schools is the result of a short-sighted policy of frequently deliberate neglect.


The two peculiar and inherent difficulties of the one-teacher school—and, to a slightly less extent, of the two-teacher school—are the wide ranges of age and ability levels and of subjects to be taught by one teacher, and the small size of a single grade, resulting in deficient social stimulation. But when subjects become integrated in units of study or activity, and when several grade levels participate in a common enterprise, both these difficulties are removed or lessened to the point of practicability. For ten years in our experimental rural schools we have found it possible to organize our school in three groups, rather than in eight grades, thus giving the teacher time to be a genuine guide and helper, and making possible for each child a group with which to work or play that is sufficiently large to be interesting, stimulative, and productive of genuine social experiences of give and take, leadership and followership, cooperation and control.

Such an organization, it is important to note, requires a curriculum of the same shape, and therefore is not entirely possible in small schools so long as we continue to provide them only with courses of study made to fit the organization which best meets the needs of the city schools, with their multitude of children on a fairly common level.

But there is no small rural school that cannot take some steps toward activity and integration of experiences. And there is no small school that cannot begin to put its emphasis on the child's needs and growth rather than on subject matter and formal learnings.


In a certain group of small rural schools which I know, the teachers have been consciously working toward making their schools "child-centered," and have set before them five aims harmonious with that main objective:

1. An atmosphere of real friendliness, companionship, and cooperation between the teacher and the pupils and among the pupils themselves.

2. An atmosphere of creative self-expression through the medium of language, music, drawing, modeling, and other types of handwork.

3. Enough freedom and informality to allow children to develop naturally; to be unaffected and unselfconscious.

4. An atmosphere of orderliness and attractiveness of the building and grounds, through the sharing of responsibilities.

5. More careful consideration of the child's physical, social, and moral development as well as of his mental growth; the development of personality.

Another group of teachers of similar schools, with the same large aim in mind, suggested as goals for their forthcoming year’s work the following:

1. A definite effort to foster pupil initiative.

2. Each class period a discussion period with children leading.

3. Encouragement of appreciation of the beautiful in nature, literature, and art.

4. A civics club in every room through which the children develop habits of good citizenship and a feeling of responsibility for the welfare of the school.

5. Every room providing for and encouraging individual differences through a variety of types of work.

6. Music in every school.

I wish you could see those schools with their variety of educative activities. A big farm is laid out on the floor of one, with last year's doll house for the farmhouse, and a model barn constructed from a disused dog house. The day I saw it, the barnyard was spread with fresh alfalfa which the children had brought to feed their cows.

In another school there is a growing museum—native woods, cut and polished to show the grain; stones of the neighborhood; mounted insects; a collection of Indian relics; a cage which on the day of my visit held a mole which had been just brought in, and two days later housed a rabbit which one of the boys had caught in the hayfield; a big chart mounted with drawings of birds the children had seen; a collection of fungi. On the walls, too, are maps of the individual woodland spots which each child claimed for his own, and in which he watched for new phenomena to report to his group. A series of large pictures, on wrapping paper, show the farm field adjacent to the school, as it appeared in spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

The primary groups in all these schools were studying life in other lands and other days. A fiord in Norway with the surrounding mountains built of rocks from the children's own fields; the story of farm tools from the early days when plows were crooked boughs and hoes were clamshells fastened to a stout stick, to the present time of tractor-drawn machinery; a neighboring truck farm, carefully reproduced in every detail, even to the rich black earth the children had brought in pails to cover the ground—these were some of the representative scenes built on sand tables or in a corner of the floor. In every school there was something of the kind to be seen, but no two were alike.

One little rural school drew a large part of its hygiene course from its very well-organized and well-conducted hot lunch; another developed a school citizenship club to an unusually effective degree; a third organized a poetry club and wrote such lovely verses that Hughes Mearns incorporated several of them in a talking moving picture which he recently made; a fourth visited old homes and antique shops in its New England neighborhood and made a delighted study of furniture and homes of colonial days; and still another developed a charming primary band, the little leader of which was trained chiefly by his fifth grade brother, who had spent all his school days in a rural school which was seeking education of modern type.

The kind of work which I have described does not require a large amount of class time or teacher direction. Children work on these various activities at all hours, whenever they have time. Occasional periods with the teacher are used to report progress, to plan and initiate some new phase of the enterprise, or to get individual help along a variety of lines. An industrial arts period conducted mainly on an individual basis, in an experimental one-teacher school, will serve as an illustration of this type of class meeting.

The fifteen children of the intermediate group were doing as many different things, for they were in the midst of preparing the annual Christmas box for the orphanage, and this was the period for the teacher to help them with whatever they were planning to do in their later free periods. First, Edna wanted to know how to start crocheting the edge of her handkerchief; then came Alfred saying that the boys in the hall needed help with the toy animals. There were too many boys in too small a space, and a conference then and there settled how many could work comfortably at once, who would come next, and how long each could work. That done, the teacher demonstrated to the entire group the method of making the stands and wheels and promised to help them paint the finished toys the next week. All but those whose turns came next returned to the classroom with her and soon were interested in some other Christmas present. The girls were ready for her. They were making stuffed cloth animals; they had their transfer patterns pinned to the cloth and their irons hot, and were waiting for the teacher's approval before going any further. The teacher saw that all was being done properly; she discussed with them what should be done next, and left them to help each other until the end of the period. By this time a small group who had previously made patterns for birch-bark gifts had the bark cut and were ready for instruction in the next step. The teacher secured needles and raffia and showed how to buttonhole-stitch the pieces before they could be fastened together. She then worked individually with them until she saw that all understood the process and were working carefully. In their seats the rest of the children were working on calendars, blotters, book bags, or other work which had been started at a previous period.1

The same general technique is applicable to arithmetic, English composition, silent reading, or any other needed tool subject. The commercial individual instruction materials, or others made by the children themselves, are useful in such supervised drill periods. One child who needs to master certain addition or multiplication combinations may test himself by means of a pack of cards, another may be filling blanks in an effort to master some language usage difficult for him, several may be correcting compositions, others using map exercises to master certain location facts, still others engaged in silent reading with self-checking tests, or outlining a history reference. The essential thing is that each child shall be doing the thing that he needs to do at the time and that he wants teacher-help in doing, or that he desires to have tested by the teacher before he passes to another level of work. Since the needs are individual, it does not matter whether the children thus engaged are all of one grade, or whether they are scattered through six or eight grades. Whether all work simultaneously in one subject field also is a minor matter, conditioned by the nature and extent of the children's needs at any time.


There is no question that the teacher who would successfully pursue a program of modern education in a rural school must be master of certain definite techniques. It is generally recognized that techniques are essential to any teacher. What has not been equally recognized is that certain special conditions of teaching require special techniques, and that the small rural school is one such special condition. Techniques appropriate for formal work in a graded school will fit very poorly, if at all. Techniques suitable for progressive work in a graded school come nearer fitting, but certain adaptations even of these are desirable.

One of the most important techniques required of the teacher for present-day education in the small rural school, and indeed in any school, is that of participating in group discussions as a member of the group, taking the lead only when or as the group's need for guidance requires, but surely taking it then. This technique most of us, wherever we teach, probably need to continue to perfect throughout all our teaching days.

A second technique of special importance to the teacher of the small rural school is that of handling a heterogeneous group of children as one class. I have seen skillful rural teachers do this again and again, but the ordinary training in class teaching will never develop the technique. I recall a country teacher whom I watched as she conducted a geography lesson with all grades from fourth through eighth participating. They had a common problem, but pupils of differing advancement had different shares in its solution. The upper grade pupils had used advanced geographies in preparation for the class discussion; the younger ones had used the first geography book. Some had read in supplementary geographical readers, others had found pictures in the National Geographic Magazine or the illustrated encyclopedia, and still others had referred to government bulletins. Sand table work had been going on, also outlining and the making of booklets. Every child was participating, even—and as a matter of fact, especially—a very dull and backward boy who had been classified as fourth grade solely on account of his size. "Harold found something for us in the Agricultural Atlas," the teacher would say, calling on her one eighth grade pupil for his contribution. Or, "Fourth grade, you can tell us about this. You are helping to show it on your sand table."

A third important technique consists of the subordination of the so-called "recitation" to the independent study of the pupils. In the country school much of the pupils' study must go on at times when the teacher's attention is demanded for class work with another group. Under these circumstances, class periods are too valuable to be wasted in mere recitation. Perhaps the city teacher can afford to spend them in this way, but the country teacher certainly cannot. There are too many other things needing to be done, if the study periods are to be profitably used. Selecting a group enterprise, formulating the purpose or the problem clearly, setting up plans for work, criticising plans, distributing responsibilities, and reporting progress; practice under teacher oversight of desired habits of work to be later pursued unsupervised; guidance in the use of encyclopedia and dictionary, of indexes, tables of content, and card catalogues; instruction in outlining and notebook work, or in use of individual practice materials; introduction to tools and training in their use; discussion of school conduct and development by the pupils of plans and regulations for self-control .and group control—these and many similar matters must be given right of way in the precious periods when teacher and pupils meet.

A fourth important technique is concerned with organization of the school management in such a way as to make it definitely educative. In the care and beautification of school grounds, in the essential housekeeping duties and sanitary provisions, the responsibility for which in the small rural school devolves mainly upon the teacher and pupils, in organization of the play activities for all groups, in the school lunch, in the protective care of the smaller children, and in the government of the school, there are potentialities for genuinely progressive education, provided the teacher sees the opportunities and knows how to use them.

And a final technique involves recognition of times when individual instruction is more serviceable than class work on a common problem, and the provision as needed of a period or periods when each child is engaged in the work which is of most concern to him at the moment, while the teacher passes about the room, giving a word of advice here, a brief criticism there, sitting down by this child to help him over a difficult place, or calling these two or three to her for assistance on a point which is troubling them all.

With these techniques, and with the ever-dominating concept of the school as a place for helping each child to grow along his best lines and at his best rate, the small rural school becomes an organic agency of high type for wholesome child development. The chief essential is a teacher qualified for the desired type of work, though space, library provision, handwork materials, an adjusted curriculum, and constructive supervision are all important. With our present situation of an overcrowded teaching profession, we are more favorably situated than we have ever been in the past to select the persons who shall be admitted to the high calling of teaching, and to require an amount of educational preparation adequate to the task. With the advance of modern educational ideals, and their concrete exemplification in hundreds of situations, suggestions and materials are increasingly available. Have we not reached the time when we are justified in expecting that every rural school, however small, shall be a place of genuine education of high quality?

1 Dunn, Fannie W., and Everett, Marcia A., Four Years in a Country School. Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, 1926.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 32 Number 5, 1931, p. 411-423
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 6457, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 12:39:37 PM

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