Every day, new technology emerges with the capacity to transform the classroom.
From the way students learn, interact, and play to the way teachers instruct, engage, and enrich, innovations in computing, communication, and presentation have made today’s classroom largely unrecognizable from those of the mid-to-late 20th Century. Just how much have classrooms changed since the advent of personal computing, the proliferation of web-technology, and the emergence of digital media?
The items below—formerly commonplace and now largely obsolete—were once standard issue for every American classroom. Whether your parents are Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers, they went to school during a time very different from the one you know. How different?
Check out these 15 Things Your Parents Used in School That Will Make No Sense To You!
1. Overhead Projector
The overhead projector looks like a scaled-miniature from the set of a Tim Burton movie. But in fact, this was the primary method of display for fact sheets, timelines, maps, news articles, diagrams or any number of visual aids that might enhance your likelihood to remember and absorb a lesson. The teacher was in charge of the overhead projector, but if she ever turned her back, you could slide your hand under the projector and make hilarious shadow-animals or obscene gestures for the amusement of your classmates.
The overhead projector was created by a French inventor named Jules Duboscq in the 1870s and was at first used largely for police work. It found its way stateside toward the end of World War II, when the U.S. Army began using it during instructional training. By the next decade, the projector was omnipresent in American classrooms. Its proliferation was fueled by the Federal Aid to Education program, which in 1957 stimulated sales of the projector throughout the U.S. With the introduction of smart boards and USB-ready projectors, this primitive construct of metal and mirrors is mostly relegated to history today.
At this point, even those heavy Texas Instruments graphing calculators from the ‘90s are little more than paperweights, outmoded by smartphone and tablet technology. So you can imagine how left out the sliderule must feel. This manual device was the precursor to the personal calculator, which was introduced to students in the 1970s.
For those who attended school in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the sliderule was a standard learning tool for mathematics (not to mention architecture, engineering, and a wide range of other technical fields). Its sliding central strip and logarithmic scales enabled the user to quickly execute multiplication and division calculations. Still does, in fact. But “quickly” has become a relative term. It would take you a fraction of that time math it out on your phone today. So you can be forgiven for greeting its tiny numbers and first-glance complexity with trepidation. Some of your parents will remember the sliderule, though perhaps not all that fondly.
If you thought the sliderule was old-fashioned, check out its ancient ancestor, the abacus. To date, this remains a wonderfully visual and instructive instrument for learning to count. Of course, what it boasts in elegance and usability, it sorely lacks in portability. Of all the items on our list, the abacus likely traces its origins furthest back through history.
This “technology” is believed to have first appeared in ancient Mesopotamia around 2700 BC. (So even if your parents do remember using an abacus, we recommend against implying that they were there to witness its invention.) Ironically, though the oldest innovation on our list, it is perhaps this list’s least obsolete item as well. If not still widely in circulation in the school setting, the abacus remains in use today by merchants and traders in Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and Africa.
4. The Card Catalog
So, how did you find information before Google? You had to go to a physical location, open a wooden drawer containing thousands of meticulously alphabetized cards, and leaf through them to find out if your book was in stock. The corresponding card would consequently tell you where your book was located in some towering labyrinth of a library, at which point you would be required to walk, climb, kneel, and dig to find your book, or else determine that somebody made a mistake because your book simply wasn’t where the card claimed it was, by which time you are so sweaty and disheveled that the librarian refused to help you because he was pretty sure you were having some sort of post-traumatic episode that he was simply not qualified to handle. It’s no wonder people got more exercise back in the day. Even finding a book was hard work.
Granted, this isn’t a totally fair representation of libraries, which can be magical places filled with though-provoking artifacts, buried treasures, secret reading spaces, and even coffee shops. But the card catalog…that was never convenient. And with the proliferation of computer databasing, it was almost entirely replaced by the Online Public Access Catalog. Though some libraries still keep these file drawers around for decoration, they are merely a secondary source.
Dewey Decimal (known as Melvil to friends and well-wishers) was a genius in his time and place but his filing system doesn’t hold a candle to Gary Google. (What? Google would totally be a Gary.)
5. Oregon Trail
If you think your parents aren’t old enough to remember America’s pioneer days, think again. Starting in 1974, an educational computer game called Oregon Trail simultaneously educated children on the hardships faced by the hearty men and women who settled the American West after the Louisiana Purchase, and on the consequences of strategic decision-making. Innovated by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, Oregon Trail would be the first exposure that many children of the 70s and 80s would have to computer gaming, even if this gaming was deceptively educational.
The basic premise of Oregon Trail was that, as your covered wagon party journeyed across the frontier, you would have to decide on the proper provisions to purchase, how to cross cresting rivers, and how best to avoid the scourge of dysentery. Oregon Trail proved that a “video game” didn’t require eye-popping graphics, soundtracks with hip popular music, or even movement of any kind in order to be compelling. It asked you questions, you answered them, and then something largely beyond your control happened and it was usually not great. Today, if you sat down to play Oregon Trail, it would do so little, you’d pretty much assume it was broken. But ask your folks. This was a groundbreaker in its time.
Some of the most adorably naive and culturally insensitive media ever made can be found on a medium called filmstrip. These reel-to-reel video presentations offered jaunty music, authoritative-sounding voiceovers, and the general sensation of learning while underwater. You always knew you were getting a break from the standard lecture when somebody squeaky-wheeled one of these cobwebbed babies into the room.
Back before the advent of the VHS cassette, which became available to American consumers beginning in 1977, educational content was largely delivered on 16mm film. For kids in the 50s and 60s, these low-fi videos were omnipresent, whether the focus was why you shouldn’t use a blowtorch in shop-class while doused in gasoline or how to reconcile the unpredictable changes that come with puberty.
Once you heard the whirring-click of the projector, and those three consecutive “boop” noises, you just knew your head was about to be crammed with all sorts of inaccurate, unsubstantiated, House Un-American Activities Committee-approved moral hygiene claptrap.
I’d would optimistically say that this one is unfamiliar to most of our readers, at least on a personal level. Throughout American educational history, the paddle has functioned as the primary symbol of corporal punishment, a practice which allows teachers and other school personnel to administer physical punishment to insubordinate students. It was commonplace throughout much of the 1900s—though with decreasing frequency by the end of the century—to employ a public paddling on the posterior of an offending student.
The paddle would often be displayed visibly in the classroom as a warning that insolence would be met with pain and humiliation. Indeed, some particularly passionate educators would even drill holes in the paddle to improve aerodynamic velocity. Believe it or not (and if you’ve experienced it, I suppose you believe it), paddling still goes down legally in 21 states. According to Education Week, more than 109,000 students were paddled in school between 2013-2104, which is objectively ridiculous.
This is quite a modest figure considering just how standardized this mode of punishment was for school-aged Baby Boomers. Still, it seems reasonable to believe (and hope) that this fairly barbaric mode of punishment will soon be nothing more than a bad memory.
The history of education is littered with now fully useless educational content committed to dead media. Depending on the era in which you went to elementary school, you watched any number of instructional, safety, or documentary videos whose content is now as irrelevant as the plastic on which it was printed. In fact, the education sector is sort of great at adopting unproven technology and suffering the consequences.
My elementary school went all-in on Betamax, missed the boat on VHS, and compensated by investing everything it had in LaserDisc. For those who don’t know, LaserDisc was basically the first in-home digital optical media delivery system. A LaserDisc looks like a cross between a CD and a frisbee. Though it was vastly superior to VHS in convenience and quality, the prohibitive cost of players and discs prevented the medium from ever really taking off outside the educational setting. And even for the education sector, this was a fairly short-lived blip during the early 1990s.
Schools are used to this though. Educational videos are often the first fodder jammed into the cannon of media innovation, for better or worse. Today, your average elementary school probably has a media closet somewhere that looks like the list of things the Salvation Army asks people not to stuff into its donation bins.
9. The PLATO
The in-class computer was obviously cutting edge technology in its time. Of course, today, your Keurig has more computing power. But when the PLATO was introduced to classrooms around 1981, it really did change everything. This was the year that the Intel 8080 microprocessor hit the market, combining with the remote mainframe computing technology largely used in military and engineering settings to that juncture in order to create something commercially accessible.
According to Edudemic “Public schools in the U.S. averaged about one computer for every 92 students in 1984. The Plato was one of the most-used early computers to gain a foothold in the education market. Currently, there is about one computer for every 4 students.”
So of course, the PLATO was a true game changer. But what could it do? There was no commercially available internet to connect to. There was no media player. There was no weather application telling you what to wear, or Google calendar reminding you of your appointments, nor even the storage to hold what you can now keep in your keychain flash drive. But this had a few advantages.
First of all, the fact that the computer didn’t actually do that much kept the 91 other students in your class from lining up behind you waiting for their turn. Imagine 92 Instagram users sharing the same device. It would be a pandemonium of hurried selfies and distressed duck faces. The other advantage, of course, was that without the distractions of social media, gaming or fantasy sports, one could readily focus on the math, reading, or programming functions that did outfit these early PC terminals.
10. Pencil “Sharpener”
These days, classrooms have all kinds of cool electric pencil sharpeners, assuming you’re even in a class that uses pencils outside of standardized testing. Back when the pencil was the most advanced tool in a student’s hand, the manual pencil sharpener was a classroom standard.
Of course, calling the aluminum grinder typically affixed to a wall or shelf in some corner of the room a “pencil sharpener” is a tremendous exercise in euphemism. In fact, the object in question was a graphite-chomping thresher that more often than not left your pencil gnarled and twisted. Not only that, but the sound of its grinding was so loud, the class basically had to stop what it was doing while you finished destroying your writing implement mid-exam. Basically the only good thing about this pencil sharpener is that it provided you an excuse to get up from your seat during class.
11. Trapper Keeper
Back when everything you did was on loose-leaf paper, there was just no cooler way to organize your schoolwork than a Trapper Keeper. Nothing says back-to-school like the sound of fresh velcro crisping open to reveal a metal three-ring binder, a colorful trove of folders, and intuitively arrayed pen and pencil pouches. Today, Trapper Keeper makes magnet-seal covers for your tablet or laptop.
But back in the 70s and 80s, this was the best and most culturally-acceptable way to store dittos, transport permission slips, and doodle your next masterpiece while daydreaming in class. It was also one of your best outlets for expression, provided that your mode expression can be effectively conveyed in a shocking rainbow of dayglo colors. Whether you were into Lamborghinis, Sonic the Hedgehog or random geometric shapes intersecting on astral planes, Trapper Keeper had a cover design that allowed you to convey a bold statement about your personality.
Before all-in-one printers, before desktop scanners, before those massive copy machines that took up entire quadrants of the teacher’s lounge, there was mimeograph. This was how people reproduced documents before photocopying emerged in the 1960s. Here, you would duplicate a stencil by hand-cranking the mimeograph, producing a single copy at a time.
Like pretty much every other invention in American history, this one traces back to a patent by none other than Thomas Edison, with the term mimeograph being licensed to one Albert Blake Dick in 1887. The mimeograph was only convenient for turning out a small batch of copies. You can image how long it might take to create a two-page handout for a class of 30. But it was really the only way for early 20th-Century instructors to make a facsimile.
That all changed when Xerox emerged with the first photocopier in 1959. Today, the mimeograph is truly a relic.
Microfiche is like Google if you had to look at all your search results in chronological sequence, and if all of those results were physically located on differently-filed filmstrips that you had to manually load, and if you had to use a specific and increasingly-outdated viewing device just to view said filmstrip.
Ok, so it’s actually nothing like Google at all. But this was the only real way to view archival newspapers and articles before the web began the massive but organic undertaking of compiling all of the world’s printed information for posterity.
Microfiche is a form of Microfilm, which emerged in the mid-20th century as a way to preserve the newspaper and periodical collections deteriorating in aging libraries across America. Chronicling the material thusly also allowed libraries to clear substantial space on their shelves for a rapidly growing commercial publishing industry. From the 60s onward, microfiche and other methods of microfilming had become the standard method for both archiving and reviewing yellowing primary sources.
Though innovative in its time—and most certainly the reason that so many documents remain available for our consideration today—microfiche is a casualty of global digitalization. Fortunately, so too is search-engineless the tedium that came with it.
14. Desk with Inkwell
If the desk you’re sitting at has a circular hole in the upper right hand corner, chances are it’s as old as your grandparents. That hole is designed to hold an inkwell. This means that the desk not only predated the 1950s advent and proliferation of the ballpoint pen, but even the early-20th Century reservoir fountain pen.
At about the turn of the century, and for a few decades thereafter, students used standard fountain pens, which had to be dipped into said inkwell every few lines in order to facilitate writing. As the act of penmanship becomes less common altogether, it is fascinating to consider that the ballpoint pen was itself an earth-shattering innovation in its time, altering everything about the classroom from the nature of classwork to the very desk on which it was completed.
15. Dunce Cap
There may be no greater indicator of just how much has changed in our education system than the Dunce Cap. A student who was observed misbehaving, or who asked a question that the teacher deemed stupid, or who otherwise conducted himself in a manner unbefitting the mid-20th Century classroom, would be sent to the corner with this pointed cap of disgrace.
In other words, the punishment for insolence or poor aptitude was to be remanded to one part of the room, from which your fellow classmates could enjoy your humiliation and heap ridicule on you for your general shortcomings as a human being. One could argue that today’s children are a bit soft around the edges. But one could also argue that the Dunce Cap is a likely subject of discussion in many an aging Baby Boomer’s therapy sessions.
Ironically, the Dunce Cap traces its roots to a rather intelligent man, a 13th Century philosopher and theologian named John Duns Scotus. Scotus favored the pointy hat, which he associated with the intelligence of wizardry. In the centuries to follow, and through no fault of his own, Scotus fell out of intellectual favor with the humanists of the Renaissance era. Thus, the Dunsmen (or Dunces) who adhered unflinchingly to his aging ideas were perceived as intellectually outmoded.
By the Victorian Era, the pointed cap was adopted as a punishment, and one that remained in circulation both in British and American classrooms well into the 1950s. Naturally, the practice of humiliating students proved a fairly ineffective method of confronting behavioral and learning difficulties, a revelation that largely contributed to the midcentury death of the Dunce Cap.
Few have lamented its disappearance.
Any Old School Tools we missed? Let us know!