Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/History/17th Century

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What are the markers of the 17th Century?

We are now in the 21st century yet the markers, those items that influenced the advancement of education, and ideas of education are the same as the 17th century with only slightly different instruments. The teachings and technological advances have changed drastically, but the ideas and concepts that have led us to this place are what the educators of the 17th century also fought for. As you begin your career as a teacher, do not think that you are alone in wanting to change the way society views education because it has been a battle for centuries. The concept of education reform was very much alive during the 17th century when educators developed new ways of thinking about education. Many of these ideas were born in Britain and carried over to America during the 1600s. These ideas can still be seen today across America only with advancements. The concerns and desires that you have for your classroom are the same as the educators of the 17th century. The markers of the 17th century were the changes in education to the areas of secondary education, teaching of young children by means of sight and senses, broadening of curriculum, and the teaching that knowledge is power. With these markers came the advancements in many areas that are still being advanced upon today. The desires of the 17th century educators are the same that teachers of today possess, or we would not have signed up to teach the “power of knowledge”.

Knowledge is Power[edit]

The movement that taught “knowledge is power” is Empiricism. Wikipedia describes empiricism as a theory of knowledge emphasizing the role of experience. This experience comes from experiments and observations using the senses. This is definitely a change from past education when strict memorization and structure were the basis for teaching. Empiricism allowed a child to play an active role in their own learning and learn from their experiences using their senses. John Locke was an advocate for empiricism and wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, where he explained his views on human learning. Locke wrote that we are born with a blank mind and therefore must gain all knowledge and the only way to gain this knowledge is through experiences (Uzgalis). Locke claimed that “There is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses”, and this belief that experiences taught children knowledge lead to education by nature and the real world (Carlile). Locke also introduced the idea that one must first learn the simple ideas and then combine them to gain the more complex ideas; to gain these simple ideas as children in the form of reading, writing, and math gradually and cumulatively (Gutek). Locke desired for each student to search after truth rather than simply accepting the opinion of others (Uzgalis). Is this not the real power of knowledge, for teachers to give students the basis of learning and then watch them discover on their own the complex ideas of knowledge? Francis Bacon also supported the empiricist movement and is given credit for coining the phrase “Knowledge is power” and agreed with Locke that the senses were the only way to search into and discover truth (Landry). Bacon felt that the importance of man was directly rooted in nature.

Expansion of Curriculum[edit]

These teachings were more readily available thanks to another important marker of the 17th century, the printing press, which allowed the expansion of printed materials including textbooks. If knowledge is power, then the printing press helped give power to the people. The printing press of the 17th century was a less expensive type-face that reduced the cost of production. It not only resulted in a variety of printed material but preceded the Civil War in England (Griscom). This knowledge gave the people power to question their own government and publication laws were relaxed. This new found freedom allowed the printing of more material and resulted in many more textbooks during the later 17th century, the New England Primer being one of them.

Education Acts[edit]

The expansion of curriculum and educational sources did not stop at textbooks; the Education Acts of the 1600s were a large marker of education. The Acts required that a school be established and a suitable teacher found for each area, and later required a schoolhouse and wages for that teacher. Mathematics also became a large part of education during the 17th century and had such advocates as Isaac Watts and Philip Dodderidge and was taught at universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. Watts believed that mathematics should have a place in the curriculum (O’Conner). It seems that the educators of the 17th century fought for textbooks and mathematics the way educators of today fight for computers and technology in each classroom.

Appealing to Student Senses[edit]

To learn more about Orbis Pictus and see the methods used to revise it click here:

Educators of today introduce technology into the classroom through computer videos and programs to open a child’s mind to learning by appealing to their senses. John Amos Comenius did the same thing in the 17th century by introducing the first picture textbook, Orbis Pictus. Comenius, called the Father of Modern Education, felt that children should be treasured and taught on their level by uniting words and pictures to appeal to the child’s physical senses and to present new information from the simple to the complex (Kytka). Comenius’ modern view of the education of children is highly accepted today evident in the teaching of children through the physical senses. The video or clip art used in today’s classroom curriculum is obviously used to appeal to a student’s senses and heighten their interest in a subject. It is no wonder that Orbis Pictus was used for over 200 years.

Secondary Education[edit]

As the education of children grew so did secondary education and a big marker in America was when the Pilgrims established new schools on new soil. This growth brought about the establishment of Harvard, “the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States”. In 1636, Harvard opened the doors to nine students and a single instructor. John Harvard, for whom the school is named, left half his estate and his library to the school. Harvard claimed in 1643, to exist “to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity” (

Harvard was established “to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity”. I wonder how the founders would feel about this video clip. Enjoy!

With the opening of Harvard the growth of education exceeded the basic principles and sought to teach students at a higher level. The 21st century brings us to a point where there are a number of different colleges and universities with a multitude of offered classes. The beginning of higher learning in America started with ten people striving for more knowledge.


The 17th century was a time of individuals striving for more knowledge, and all with the belief that with this gain of knowledge meant power: power of mind, power of self, power of country. As teachers, this is the power we wish to give to our students, the power of knowledge. To teach students to use their senses in searching out the interesting simple ideas, allowing those ideas to grow into complex ideas, and going on to higher forms of education wishing only for more learning. The uses of markers such as: the picture textbook, the printing press, the laws of Education, and the establishment of higher learning led the 17th century into a reform of education. Let us hope that we strive to secure markers in order to allow our students to gain power through knowledge the way the reformers of the 17th century did.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

When a ninth grade science teacher uses video conferencing and an aquarium field trip to teach his students about marine life, he is not far from the teaching methods of _____________, known in his time as the "Father of Modern Education"?
A. John Locke
B. Francis Bacon
C. John Amos Comenius
D. Isaac Watts

C. John Amos Comenius

When a sixth grade language arts teacher wants to empower her students by teaching them knowledge, she is using which movement to teach them?
A. Empiricism
B. Education Acts
C. Radicalism
D. Memorization

A. Empiricism

The Education Acts of the 1600s helped advance education and benefits for teachers in all but which of the following areas?
A. That a school was built in each area
B. That schoolteachers were to be paid wages
C. That Latin was no longer to be taught
D. That each school was to have its own school teacher

C. That Latin was no longer to be taught

All teachers wish "to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity". Which school was established for just that purpose?
A. Oxford
B. Harvard
C. Cambridge
D. Yale

B. Harvard

Using videos to appeal to the senses of students is an advanced form of the first picture textbook called _____________.
A. Knowledge in Pictures
B. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
C. New England Primer
D. Orbis Pictus

D. Orbis Pictus

As an educator of the twentieth first century, you would like to see innovations in education. In attempting to implement change you are imitating educators in the _____________ century?
A. 15th
B. 16th
C. 17th
D. 18th

C. 17th

As a mathematics teacher you owe your place on the faculty indirectly to _______________________________.
A. Locke and Watts
B. Dodderidge and Locke
C. Watts and Dodderidge
D. Comenius and Locke

C. Watts and Dodderidge

Teachers encourage students to brilliance using a variety of methods that the use of textbooks, internet, video encourage. The man responsible for this linking of word and picture was ___________________________, the Father of Modern Education.
A. John Locke
B. John Amos Comenius
C. Issac Watts
D. Philip Dodderidge

B. John Amos Comenius

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

In what ways can a teacher appeal to a student’s senses the way Comenius did with Orbis Pictus using the resources available now? How would this benefit the student and/or teacher?

Using multi-sensory information to enhance the learning process is a wonderful tool for teachers. Many students are visual learners and will retain information better if they can see something that is related to what they are being taught.

Pictures are always a good tool to use. Whether it is a sciences class or an English class, pictures can enhance and reinforce what is already known. Audio clips can be used as well. In a history class, pieces from famous speeches can bring the students much closer to the material being learned. Excerpts from famous musical compositions can be invaluable in a music classroom. Video is another resource that can have wonderful benefits. The ability to see something as it happened or is happening can bring a whole new dimension of understanding to the classroom. Many companies and websites offer full videos and clips of everything from DNA synthesis to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

The benefits of using these resources are vast. For a teacher, using materials like pictures, videos, and audio clips allows them to create a more diverse learning environment for their students. It also aids them in engaging the student rather than standing and delivering endless pages of facts. It will also help the teacher to substantiate what they have taught and allow the students to learn the material through more than one sense.

For the student it gives them another avenue through which to experience the material. It can reinforce what has been taught, clarify an unclear point, and enhance the learning experience all around. These aids also help to keep the student’s attention by giving them something to focus on and possibly to think about. —Heidi Spargur