To Understand EdTech, I Have to Understand the History of Education

Alex Yang
5 min readOct 11, 2022
(TIME)

As someone who’s really interested in edtech, I thought I should’ve been spending most of my time thinking about the future of education.

But this semester, I decided I wanted to dive deeper into education’s past, and I’m taking a class on the history of education and the American Dream. We’re discussing how education has been a vital part of America ever since colonists arrived, and has been closely tied to all sorts of social and economic trends/issues in American history.

Most of the present-day rhetoric about education’s past is overused and fairly negative — education was meant to prepare kids for the industrial workforce…it doesn’t prepare kids for the real world today…it didn’t focus on personalized learning…etc. And while that’s all definitely true, that kind of thinking inherently dismisses the idea that there’s anything to be learned by looking at the history of education, that it’s just an old set of pedagogies and principles that don’t matter anymore.

Instead, taking a class on the history of education has shown me that there’s a lot that I can learn from it.

Why Learning the History of Education Matters

Resurfaces Old Ideas That Are Relevant Today

Something I’ve noticed in class is how ideas in education don’t actually just evaporate into thin air — they constantly resurface. Microschools and learning pods became popular during the pandemic, harkening back to the days of one room schoolhouses and when there wasn’t compulsory schooling in the US. Furthermore, there’s also the increase in parent involvement in education and rise of supplementary learning like Outschool that seem to have ideological parallels to 19th century education.

“In the nineteenth century, schooling was only one of many ways that parents educated their children and school attendance was often casual and intermittent; it supplemented education received in the home, work, church, and community to transmit literacy and basic intellectual skills and build character.

(Steffes, Tracy L.. School, Society, and State : A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890–1940, University of Chicago Press, 2011.)

I think previously I had this idea that we were on a linear progression towards creating the best version of schooling as possible, and tossing away ideas that didn’t work in the garbage dump of history. But now I realize that we can learn from the history of education, resurface old ideas, and potentially reformat them for the present day and future.

Helps Me Recognize the Importance of Accessibility

One of the most striking aspects of the course so far has been learning about how minorities have historically suffered discrimination in education. I was specifically assigned a chapter on Latino Americans and the segregation of schooling after the American conquest of Mexico. It’s frustrating to learn about these kinds of things, but if anything it reemphasizes just how much America values education, if those in control are willing to go to such great lengths to keep other groups from accessing it. It serves a stark reminder that accessibility in education has been a serious issue from the very start of America. Even in the US’s attempt to make schooling the great equalizer in the 20th century, many existing social and economic problems in society were simply shoveled into schooling, creating further discrimination and accessibility issues.

As Tracy Steffes, an associate professor of education at Brown University, says about early twentieth century school reform,

Schools might provide students with vocational guidance and training to make wise choices, for example, but they could not solve the problems of poverty and insecurity that resulted from the large number of unskilled, low-paying, dead-end jobs that industrial capitalism produced. Schools could prepare youths for better jobs, but this did not provide any actual opportunity if racial or gender discrimination, labor market stratification, or family need prevented people from pursuing them. Rhetoric about the democratic opportunity of schooling obscured these barriers and presented schooling as a project of individual effort and merit; failures were individual rather than structural.

You can have the greatest education system ever, with the greatest edtech tools ever created to support this system, but schooling still might not provide opportunity if discrimination is widespread.

Reading this gave me kind of an aha moment: I now finally understood why the most prominent edtech venture funds emphasized accessibility when measuring impact in their portfolio. In my previously idealist view of edtech, products and services would provide benefits to all students equally. But now, having learned a bit of the history of discrimination in education, I know that’s something that can never be assumed, and that there have been many ways to exclude certain groups of students from receiving quality education, even beyond just financial costs.

Forces Me To Think Through Hard Questions About Education

It’s funny to think that when you’re a student looking to get a good education you tend to think about education on an individual level — how do these resources help me or my peers, how does this kind of instruction help me learn, get a job, etc. And then you contrast this kind of thinking with the way America as a nation has historically described the purpose of education — to create moral and just citizens, to protect American individualism, to safeguard democracy. These historical answers to the question of “What is the purpose of education?” have been some of the most interesting parts of my class.

At first, it was a bit weird for me to hear the benefits of education described from a national level. As a student, these broad words sound lame and lifeless. I never truly viewed my education as some part of a grander scheme to achieve a better version of society. And it feels wrong to do so because it seems like for education to progress it needs to address the unique needs of each student, not provide blanket statements about what purpose education should have at a national level.

However, for the purpose of learning more about edtech and understanding what is truly impactful, I think there is real value in asking myself what I believe is the exact purpose of education. I now realize that it’s not enough for me to argue that edtech is important for the progress of education. Because to say that I have to know what exactly is the purpose of education. Once I know that, I can actually find the right ways/metrics to measure the progress of education. And once I know that, I might find what kinds of edtech businesses/products meaningfully move the needle on those metrics or measures of progress that I’ve chosen.

And what’s great about learning the history of education is that you can see how others have perceived the purpose of education, and what kinds of approaches they took thereafter to achieve that vision. Whether they failed or not is irrelevant. What’s crucial is how their defined purpose for education shaped their actions.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! All of these thoughts are a work in progress and I’m always looking to learn more and revise my thinking. Feel free to message me on Twitter, or email me at alexyyang15@gmail.com.

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Alex Yang

How I Decided | Grad Student at SMU | NYU Stern alum