Working Papers from the Textbook Colloquium, No. 3

The Instructional Turn
(constructing an argument)

David Hamilton
Pedagogiska institutionen
Umeå University
901 87 Umeå


(October 2000)


My focus is a claim about schooling. My claim has three elements:

• Writings about education underwent a major change in the course of the Renaissance and Reformation.

• The emphasis changed from attention to learning to concern for instruction.

• This change marks the beginnings of modern schooling.

In short, this claim suggests the existence of an instructional turn.

 My purpose in this paper is to sketch out the evidential foundation for this claim -- most of it from secondary sources. That is, I present this claim as the first stage in the construction of an argument, leaving the elaboration and defence of the claim for other working papers.

 Nevertheless, my claim about an instructional turn is not mere speculation. It is a synthesis. It builds upon a range of subsidiary assumptions. First, that change occurred in the 16th century. Secondly, that this change was ‘major’. Thirdly, that there was a change of emphasis from learning to instruction. And, finally, that this change contributed to the emergence of schooling in its modern form.

 A Change Occurred

This part of the claim rests on etymological evidence. A cluster of key words entered the European (i.e. Latin) educational lexicon within about a hundred years (see below).


Key word
‘early printed editions’ (circa 1500)
Oxford English Dictionary
Hamilton, 1989
(circa) 1540
Green, 1996
Hamilton, 1989
Martial, 1985

All of these words have classical roots, in Greek and Latin. Two were inventions that built on earlier Greek and Latin forms (‘syllabus’ and ‘didaktik’); and three arose from the co-option of existing Greek and Latin words into the language of education (‘class’, ‘catechism’, and ‘curriculum’). To date, however, no one seems to have noted the above phenomena, nor their connection to the emergence of modern schooling.

 I see this gap in the literature as, in one sense, an opportunity -- an unexplored niche in the marketplace of ideas. But it is also worrying. Why has no one else focused on the same issue? Is the gap in the literature illusory, perhaps? Have I, for instance, missed a key source? Certainly, I am very conscious that I must be eternally divergent in seeking out fresh sources; that these sources may not be in English; and that my analyses must always been reflective and provisional (which is why this series of papers are ‘working’ papers).

 But there is also another reason to be cautious about the gap in the literature. Am I working in the history of ideas or the history of practice? Have I focused on a change in the language of education that, however, had no discernible impact on practice? I work from changes in educational writings. Assumptions about changes in practice, therefore, can only be inferences. They are problematic; but they are not entirely groundless. Educational writings about the new infrastructure of schooling penetrated all levels of society. Schools opened with new rules and constitutions (e.g., the Ratio studiorum of the Jesuits, 1599). Books were written by schoolteachers about the organisation of schooling -- a pioneering instance in English was Richard Mulcaster’s, The First Part of the Elementarie, 1582). And, above all, new ideas about education gradually entered the literature of political philosophy and social policy (cf. Comenius’ Didactica Magna, 1567).

 The weight of evidence suggests that there was, indeed, an association of language and practice. But it is erroneous to use labels as surrogates for practice. At best, the label is only suggestive of the practice. My own preference is to regard labels and practices as fluid and, therefore, a joint focus of inquiry. In short, both words and practices change. The issue for me is not whether new ideas had an impact on practice but, rather, the form and extent of their impact. Following the historian of ideas, Quentin Skinner, I see my research as struggling to offer a ‘contextual account’ of a series of central concepts in schooling. That is, my aim is to ‘situate’ both the theory and practice of education and schooling ‘within the intellectual context in which it was formed’ (1996, pp. 6-7). To this end, I aspire to illuminate the past in a literary form that could, in principle, be understood by the actors in the narrative and, in practice, also understood by readers who seek assistance from the narrative.

Was it a major change?

A different approach to the question ‘did a change occur?’ is to ask whether historical actors felt they were living through a period of educational change? Were they acting to bring about change? And what was the scale of such change?

 Charles Hoole’s A New discovery of an old Art of Teaching Schoole (1660) provides a telling example. Of course, Hoole (and/or his publisher) chose the title for maximum effect. Like many authors, Hoole’s lifestyle depended on income from his educational writings. Nevertheless, his title remains noteworthy. Hoole wrote self-consciously about the transformation of an old art into a new art. His reference to the ‘old art’ is to classical sources (e.g., Quintilian’s Institution oratoria and Cicero’s De oratore); and his reference to ‘a new discovery’ relates to the reworking of the old art at the hands of Renaissance and Reformation educationists. In my terms, this re-working was part of the instructional turn.

 Moreover, Hoole’s self-consciousness about his art also throws light on another problem in my analysis. Hoole wrote about practice for practitioners. He wrote books around the assumption that language could denote practice and that, accordingly, teachers could take Hoole’s words and translate them into their own practice. Indeed, this was the selling point of many of Hoole’s contemporaries. It rested on the claim that they had methodised an art. They had, in the process, created a marketable commodity whose take-up among European (and other) school-keepers assured the translation -- however inexact -- of ideas into practice. Indeed, this methodisation and commodification of the old art was central to the creation of modern schooling.

 It is in this last sense that the instructional turn can be deemed a major change. It was qualitative rather than quantitative, a matter of form rather than scale. A new language fostered new practices.

 The research challenge, however, still remains. How can I situate and explain such a qualitative change in educational ideas and practice? Situating a qualitative change entails two tasks. It must be situated in time and space (i.e., in history); and it must be situated within a set of ideas (i.e., in theory).

 The first task is easy. I opt to write about education and schooling within a defined period of time. Yet, such an antiquarian, one-thing-after-another stance is not enough to justify a claim about qualitative change. To study a phenomenon (viz., the instructional turn) is not to study a period of time. Phenomena may be immanent in -- or buried in -- data; but they are revealed by theory. My argument about the instructional turn, therefore, depends not only on data, but also on the framework which I use to report the data. Together, data and framework jointly validate (or constitute) the argument. In this case, my theory is that a qualitative change, linked to methodisation, can be identified as a notably turning point in the history of education. Further, my claim is that this qualitative change can also be described as a switch from the pre-eminence of learning to a hegemony of instruction. And, finally, I identify the hegemony of instruction as the hallmark of modern schooling.

From Learning to Instruction

This view on the changeover from learning to instruction stems from Robert McClintock’s ‘Toward a place for study in a world of instruction’ (1971). In the 20th century, McClintock felt that schooling should turn away from the world of instruction and, in a return to the ‘world of study’, discover values that had been lost in the past.

 I was drawn to McClintock’s work because he also suggested that the latter part of the 16th century had been a critical period in creating the ‘world of instruction’. He contrasted, for instance, the classical ideas of Socrates with the modernist notions propounded by Comenius. Socrates was a ‘teacher who could not teach’ but who could ‘help another give birth to his soul’ (p. 169); whereas Comenius ‘cared nought [nothing] for study’ since, according to McClintock, ‘teaching and learning were his thing’ (p. 178).

 Further, McClintock recognised that classical ideas about education had survived into the 16th century. Educationists at that time leaned heavily on Quintilian’s Institution oratoria and Cicero’s De oratore. They built on ‘Platonic convention’. The purpose of education was to bring (or raise) human beings closer to ideal forms of life. Accordingly, early Renaissance educators envisaged education as a ‘regime of political self-formation’ (cf. Bildung). And, finally, they offered portrayals of such an education through the ‘literary artifice’ of narratives about the ‘ideal education’ that might nurture ‘a perfect prince’ (p. 164).

 McClintock suggests that such narratives of formation and self-formation can be found in Renaissance texts such as Castiglione’s The Courtier, 1528; Rabelais’ Letter from Gargantuan to Pantagruel, 1532; Roger Ascham’s The Book of the Governor, 1531; and the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, c1536). Yet, by the latter part of the16th century, a new literature had begun to emerge. It included the Jesuit’s Ratio studiorum (1599), and culminated in the appearance of Comenius’ Didactica Magna (Czech version, 1627, Latin version, 1657). McClintock regarded these developments as anti-educational. Comenius, he felt, was a ‘futile visionary’ (p. 178), with an ‘only half correct’ conception of teaching and learning. The methodisation that had linked teaching to learning in a causal and technocratic manner was generally undesirable:

 Teaching is the teacher’s function. But learning, in passive response to the teacher, is not the job of the student. Study is his business; and the motive force of education is not teaching and learning but teaching and study. (p. 187)

 Further, McClintock also recognised that the forms of schooling identified with Comenius were incompatible with the educational ideals of the early Renaissance:

Schooling that respects the autonomy of study, even though it might deal with study in a quite formal, disciplinary way, should not be confused with a system of instruction. . . Schooling keyed to the self-active student is properly part of the world of study. (p. 170)

 McClintock’s claims are not widely known. Nevertheless, similar arguments have surfaced among distinguished historians. Grafton and Jardine’s From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth and Sixteenth-century Europe (1986) is a good example. It focuses on an overlooked ‘gap’ (p. xvi) in discussions of humanities teaching. Grafton and Jardine recognise that there was a major difference between the ideals and practices of early humanists (e.g. Guarino Guarini, 1374-1460) and the ‘northern methodical humanism’ fostered a hundred years later through the work of Rudolph Agricola and Desiderius Erasmus.

 Grafton and Jardine’s thesis is that, in the early-16th century, the ‘individualism’ of ‘early humanism’ gave way to an ideology of ‘routine, order and, above all, "method" ‘ (p. 123). There was, in other words, a transition ‘from teachers to textbooks’ (the sub-title of chapter 6) which Grafton and Jardine also identify as a transition from ‘humanism’ (an ideal) to the ‘humanities’ (a cluster of subjects). Following Cicero and Quintilian, early humanism shifted attention from the ‘formal and artificial’ disputations of the Middle Ages to the ‘oration’. With the ‘individual performer prominently in mind’, it celebrated the ‘mastery of language’ as a desirable accomplishment for the ‘urbane member of a civilised community’ (p. 123).

 In the process, however, early humanists became constrained by the ‘tight aristocratic circles’ and ‘exclusivity’ in which their humanism flourished (p. 123n). Further, such teaching could be regarded as ‘indigestible’, a notion Grafton and Jardine take from Claude Baduel (1491-1561):

 Today [Baduel wrote] our masters distinguish neither time nor age nor methodical order. They mix everything up, confuse it all, teach everything at the same time. Greek, Latin, orators, poets, historians, dialecticians, philosophers, come at the same time, on the same day, at the same hour, to fill the minds of the students with confusion, overwhelmed beneath this indigestible mass of knowledge. (p. 124)

 Grafton and Jardine comment further on the organisational implications of this individualisation -- its restriction to a small group of learners:

 Such critics take the view that the treasury of ancient learning uncovered by the brilliant classical scholars of the earlier generation is not being make available in a form in which it can be absorbed by less dedicated (and perhaps less gifted) students. And it is surely true that until humanists have devised a curriculum and an order or method for progressing through its bewilderingly rich resources, humanism was bound to remain the preserve of a small number of dedicated (and leisured) specialists. (p. 124)

 From the ‘1510s onwards’, they suggest, ‘method’ was the catchword of promoters of humanist education. Such a practical emphasis on procedure signalled a ‘shift’ from the ideal end-product of a classical education (the perfect orator perfectly equipped for political life) to the creation of ‘classroom aids’ (textbooks, manuals and teaching drills) which would reduce teaching to a system. Finally, Grafton and Jardine claim that this shift marked a ‘genuinely transitional stage in the institutionalisation of Renaissance humanism’ (p. 124). In short, they point to a phenomenon comparable to the instructional turn.

 A comparable account that can also be included in the instructional turn is found in Green’s Catechisms and Catechising in England c1530-1740 (1996). As noted the catechism underwent reform in the 16th century, taking on its instruction form in the process. Green indicates how the discipline of instruction included attention to the connection between teaching and learning:

From the 1520s in Germany, and later elsewhere, most Protestants replaced the older pattern of a series of statements of belief by a system of questions and answers designed not only to test catechumens’ knowledge but also to keep their attention and enhance their comprehension. Where the typical pre-Reformation form for beginners was declaratory, its post-Reformation equivalent was interrogatory. (Green, 1996, p. 16; emphasis added)

To summarise: the instructional turn comprised changes in the relationship between teaching and learning. These activities became bound together -- or mediated -- by ‘classroom aids’, including catechisms. In effect the pedagogic relationship (between teacher and learner), became transformed into the didactic relationship (between learner and curriculum).

 But two questions remain:

• how, in fact, were the activities of teaching and learning mediated; and

• why did this mediation emerge in the 1500s and 1600s?

The answer to the second question relates to the infrastructure created around late-Renaissance schooling, itself embodied in the new language of instruction (class, curriculum, etc.). And the answer to the mediation question relates to the fact that notions such as syllabus, class and curriculum were disrupted by two other notions that also came to prominence in the 1500s: method and delivery. Once the indigestible mass of knowledge had been methodised, it could be delivered.

The standard source on method is Gilbert’s Renaissance Concepts of Method (1960). Like the words ‘class’, ‘catechism’, and ‘curriculum’, ‘method’ also underwent a change in the 16th century. It new form can be characterised as a refinement of an older notion -- that teaching is an art.. Like Grafton and Jardine (and Hoole), Gilbert makes a distinction between the old art inherited by the early humanists, and its methodised version crafted by later humanists:

An art is brought into a method by being presented in short, easily memorized rules set forth in a clear manner so that the student may master the art in as short a time as possible. In order to qualify as methodical, the rules of an art require to be disposed in certain order. Thus method is almost synonymous with art (as with the Greeks), but it is distinguished from it by the fact that it facilitates or speeds up the mastery of the art. The emphasis on speed and efficiency sets apart the Renaissance notion of method -- at least the ‘artistic’ branch of it -- from the ancient concept. (p. 66)

 In this way, method came to be implicated in the ordering of educational presentations; that is, the methodisation of instruction eliminated the ‘confusion’ described by Baduel. As a result, Gilbert suggests, ‘the number of school subjects "brought into order" or "reduced to art" during the late Renaissance is almost unbelievable’ (p. 69).

 But bringing an educational topic into order does not, in itself, constitute a mediation. A sense of forceful presentation is still missing. Methodisation, therefore, is only part of the story. It was necessary to the instructional turn; but it was not enough. The notion of delivery, however, makes up this shortcoming. I have traced it back at least as far as the 1580s, to Richard Mulcaster’s The First Part of the Elementarie (1582). Mulcaster’s work was pioneering (at least in English) because it not only linked teaching to learning (i.e., instruction) but also content to method.

 In his opening ‘epistle’ [i.e., letter] to the reader, Mulcaster describes his work as the ‘[w]hole matter, which children are to learn, and the whole manner how masters are to teach them’. By such means, the teacher could ‘deliver plainlie and with order’ (p. 53) the ‘whole course of learning’ (p. 235). This synthesis of methodisation and delivery made instruction both comprehensible and possible. And the new field of didactics should be seen as the fruits of this synthesis.

 The Emergence of Modern Schooling

 The corpus of key words that fostered the instructional turn -- method, delivery, curriculum, didactic, syllabus and catechesis -- still survive in the lexicon and practices of schooling. With care, the educational lexicon of 1650 can be used to ponder the practices of 2000, and vice versa. In other words, I can write about the educational events of the 1500s and 1600s in a form that can be understood by practitioners now -- and then. It is more difficult, I suggest, to find words and frames appropriate to the educational practices of earlier centuries.

 This continuity -- not identity -- enables me to link 1650 with 2000 using the notions of ‘modern’ and ‘modernist’ schooling. Indeed, when Ernest Campagnac (Professor of Education at Liverpool University) organised the republication of Hoole’s A New Discover of the Old Art of Teaching Schoole in 1913, he explicitly felt that it had lessons for a 20th-century audience of male teachers who were not only steeped in the humanities but also still engaged with a curriculum for ‘training a social elite to fulfil its predetermined social role’ (Grafton & Jardine, 1986, p. xvi; see Hamilton (forthcoming) for further comment on Campagnac’s republication of Hoole).

 But I am hesitant whether publishers in 2013 would accept the same argument. I would be more likely to invoke McLintock’s argument -- that the time had come for Hoole’s new art of instruction to be abandoned in favour of a new renaissance of ‘learning and study’. Certainly, these questions are central to the information age, even if they are beyond the scope of this paper!


 This working paper is the launching pad for a cluster of other papers. It explores the validity of an argument about European education and schooling. It addresses the question: is the instructional turn a reasonable, plausible and defensible concept to use in educational studies? Is it reasonable because the internal logic of the argument can be sustained as a continuum of linked ideas. Is it plausible because it catches the readers attention? And is it defensible because it can resist challenges (e.g., about alternative relationships between language and practice)?

What do you think?



Gilbert, N.W. (1960) Renaissance Concepts of Method. New York: Columbia University Press.

 Grafton, A. & Jardine, L. (1986). From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth and Sixteenth-century Europe. London: Duckworth.

 Green, I. (1996) Catechisms and Catechising in England c1530-1740. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

 Hamilton, D. (1989). Towards a Theory of Schooling. London: Falmer.

 Hamilton, D. (forthcoming) Notes from nowhere: on the origins of modern schooling. In T. Popkewitz, B.M. Franklin & M. Pereyra (eds.) Cultural History and Critica Studies of Education: Dissenting Essays. New York: Routledge.

 Hoole, C. (1660). A New Discover of the Old Art of Teaching Schoole. London: Andrew Crook. [Reprinted in 1913 by Liverpool University Press, with an introduction by E.T. Compagnac.]

 McClintock, R. (1971). Towards a place for study in a world of instruction. Teachers College Record, 73, 161-205.

 Martial, I. K. von (1985). Geshichtes der Didaktik: Zur Geschischte des Begriffs und der Didaktischen Paradigmen. Frankfurt (Main): Fischer.

 Skinner, Q. (1996) Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.