Imagine the situation. It's the early 19th century and Britain desperately needs its citizens to be educated, since most cannot read or write. Yet there are few qualified teachers, nor are there schools for the millions of poor people living in shocking conditions. What would you have done in these circumstances?
The man who seized the problem and made the most heroic attack on it was David Stow, a Glaswegian who worked in the textile industry. I first read about him 30 years ago while writing a book on teacher training. His ideas seem as fresh and exciting now as they were in the 1830s, when he founded the Glasgow Normal Seminary to train 100 new teachers.
In the early 19th century, most working-class children received no education. Some attended a Sunday school after church, like the one founded by John Wesley in 1737, when the vicar or a local worthy would teach them elementary literacy so they could one day read the Bible.
Others went to "dame schools", run by elderly ladies in rural areas, who taught reading and numbers for a small fee. There were a number of private or common day schools, sometimes in the charge of disreputable and cruel drunkards with little education themselves, described at the time as "too often the refuse of superior schools and of society at large". It was a Dickensian nightmare.
Stow had two important predecessors, whose methods were primitive. Dr Andrew Bell, an army captain in Madras, India, where he encouraged older children to stay on at school to continue their education and act as pupil-teachers. Joseph Lancaster, a 20-year-old Quaker, read about Bell and set about improving his system. By 1820, there were 200,000 children being taught in more than 1,500 schools.
Stow exploded on to the educational landscape. The unique complex of buildings, opened in Glasgow in 1837, contained four model schools, graded for different age groups and achievement levels, with 16 classrooms, a library, a museum and rooms for 1,000 children and 100 trainee teachers, as well as an adventure playground. It was light years ahead of the robotic training given by Bell and Lancaster.
The playgrounds of the model schools were awash with poles and ropes attached to circular swings, for he believed that children should be able to play energetically. Student teachers had to join in, as well as allow time during lessons for brief spells of physical jerks, an idea that has unfortunately lapsed.
The traditional Scottish teacher, or "dominie", was a flint-hearted repressive. What Stow produced was more humane. His ideas were way ahead of his time. Dissatisfied with the level of education of his 100 new recruits, he set about improving it. Not only did they have to improve their own knowledge of what they were teaching, but they became teachers in the fullest sense, learning how to construct timetables, keep registers, run school budgets, and understand government regulations - all very 21st century.
Stow also had an enlightened philosophy. The top priority for student teachers was concern for the children in their care. He also worked out his own psychology of teaching. It was intuitive and commonsensical rather than scientific, but much of what he advocated was substantiated later by research and enquiry. Students learned to use individual and whole-class questions, analogies, familiar illustrations and language appropriate to children's development. He called this "picturing out in words".
One important part of practical training was the "gallery lesson". A student would teach a lesson and be observed and critiqued by fellow students, experienced teachers and often Stow himself. Nearly 150 years later the same sort of thing was done with video cameras, hailed as a new discovery and called "micro-teaching".
What Stow did placed Scotland well ahead of the rest of Britain, not only in teacher training but in education generally. His ideas were copied in colleges such as Homerton, Westminster and St Luke's Exeter.
It is not often that one person can seize the imagination of a generation, but Stow did. By the late 19th century, 4,000 men and women had trained as teachers in his Glasgow Seminary. His ideas made an impact all over the world as his students went into schools, where they taught children who grew up to be some of the finest scientists, engineers, inventors and scholars on the planet. He is a shining inspiration even today.