What Are the Forces That Shape Our Education System?

And why is it important for us to understand as teachers?

There are many forces that shape our education system.
Image by Mojca from Pixabay

The debate about our education system is raging all the time. That is not a surprise. Teachers have a strong influence on a child’s life. After all, during their school time, students spend up to a third of their day in school. We, teachers, need to understand which are the forces that shape our education system. Both in a positive and negative way. And we also need to understand which role we as current or future teachers play.

For the purpose of this article, I will frequently refer to Germany and Denmark. I will use them as examples of modern, western education systems. This is because these are the education systems, I am most familiar with.

Important Questions to Ponder Upon as Teachers

Because education plays such a major role in our lives, most of us have opinions about it. Teachers are no exception. But we should ask ourselves the following questions as an exercise.

  • As a teacher, what are the ideal conditions for you to teach?
  • If you were a student, what would be the ideal conditions for you to learn?
  • As a parent, which are the ideal conditions for your child to thrive and learn?
  • If you were the minister of education, what do you think the ideal education system should look like?

Try and take notes on each question. Compare. Do the expectations from each point of view match up 100%? Chances are that they don’t. That is one of the forces that shape our education system. Education is a dialectic process. There are many actors involved. And all have different expectations of the system. For the most part, the current system we have is simply a result of trying to align those expectations. But that is not all.

History and Traditions Are Some of the Forces That Shape Our Education System

The concept of a public school system for educating the masses is a new one. At least if you look at it on the scale of human history. Most public school systems have only been in existence for a bit over 200 years. One of the early examples are the danish “Rytterskoler“, and the Prussian Schools. Their structures still form the basis of many western school systems.

For most of human history, however, education mostly took place in informal contexts. Or it was only reserved for the elite.

There are some examples of school systems in ancient times. For instance Plato’s Academy and the Spartan Polis. The former focused on debate, and reflection. The latter had another focus. To teach children the virtues of military discipline and skills.

Actually, core content of modern, western curriculums traces back to the Greeks and Romans. They formalized the idea of the 7 liberal arts. The Romans subdivided them into the Trivium and the Quadrivium.


General Grammar

Answers the question of the “Who, What, Where, and the When” of a subject.

Formal Logic

Answers the “Why” of a subject.

Classical Rhetoric

Provides the “How” of a subject.



The ‘study of numbers, and quantities.


The study of numbers in physical space


The study of numbers in time. It is the applied theory of numbers. Also the study of relations between quantities.


The study of numbers in space and time.

These 7 liberal arts still form the basis of nearly all western school curriculums.

Education usually reflected the needs of the communities, in which it took place. For most of human history, formal education was only accessible to the elite. Wealthy families would hire (or enslave) private tutors. They would teach the children to read, write, and do arithmetics.

For the rest of the population, the situation was different. Fundamental skills were passed down from generation to generation. How to hunt, how to take care of a farm, etc. This has been the case since the early hunter-gatherer societies. The methods are also very similar to what we see in modern education. Learning by doing, Storytelling, and Songs, are some examples. The “curriculums” always served to perpetuate existing gender and social structures.

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I am from Germany but have spent more than half of my life in Denmark, and other places abroad. I have a background in teaching, both youngsters and adults. I am interested in a wide field of things, which I love to teach and write about. Sustainability, technology, politics, social change, and mental health are just some examples.

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