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Unprecedented school closures? Not entirely

Photo of 1930s radio
A 1930s experiment in remote teaching brought lessons home through the radio. (Photo: Jacob Weber/Getty Images)
K-12 | Students | Teaching

Unprecedented school closures? Not entirely

Stanford education scholar Michael Hines looks back at an experiment in remote learning during a polio outbreak in Chicago in the 1930s.

The scale of today’s school closures due to COVID-19 may go beyond anything the world has seen before. But about 100 years ago, schools grappled with similar circumstances brought on by the spread of polio, a highly contagious disease especially dangerous for young children.

On this episode of School’s In, Michael Hines, a historian of education and assistant professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), joins GSE Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope to talk about a 1930s experiment in remote teaching and some of the lessons from the experience that educators might find relevant today.

Photo of Michael Hines

GSE Assistant Professor Michael Hines (Photo: Holly Hernandez)

In 1937, Chicago public schools delayed the start of the school year for several weeks because of the disease. “Students were told to stay at home for their own protection, and parents and educators got really worried about the lost instructional time,” says Hines.

To compensate, school leaders launched a large-scale effort with local radio and newspapers to bring lessons into the homes of the district’s 325,000 elementary school students.

“At that point, radio was a fairly new technology,” Hines says. “Using it in education was pretty experimental and pretty cutting-edge for the day.”

Lessons were short, presented in 15-minute slots throughout the day on six cooperating radio stations. The broadcast schedules were available in the local daily newspapers, along with directions and assignments. Because students were used to the radio being a medium for stories and entertainment, the school district adopted tactics from the commercial broadcasting world, such as bringing guest stars into its lessons.

Even then, equity was an issue: Some students’ families didn’t own a radio or lived in areas with poor reception, while others had two or three radios they could set up in different rooms of the house so that siblings in different grades could all listen to their lessons at the same time. Access to technology for teaching and learning has been a problem throughout the history of education, Hines says, and exacerbated during times of crisis.

You can listen to School's In on SiriusXM, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Soundcloud.


Faculty mentioned in this article: Michael Hines

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