In 1798, he founded a free elementary school in Borough Road, Southwark, using a variant of the monitorial system. His ideas were developed simultaneously with those of Dr Andrew Bell in Madras whose system was referred to as the "Madras system of education". The method of instruction and delivery is recursive. As one student learns the material he or she is rewarded for successfully passing on that information to the next pupil. This method is now commonly known as peer tutoring, but the economics of Lancaster's or Bell's methodology is not widely discussed. The use of monitors was prompted partly by a need to avoid the cost of assistant teachers.
Lancaster wrote Improvements in Education in 1803 and later travelled to the United States to lecture and promote his ideas. The height of popularity of his system came in the first decades of the 19th century. In 1818 Joseph Lancaster helped to start the first model school in Philadelphia to train teachers to implement his system. The year 1808 saw the creation of "The Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor".
Despite initial successes, the Lancasterian schools were criticized for poor standards and harsh discipline even by contemporary standards. Although Lancaster had rejected corporal punishment, misbehaving children might find themselves tied up in sacks, or hoisted above the classroom in cages. The poet Robert Southey noted that, despite his opposition to corporal punishment, he would rather be beaten than subjected to Lancasterian discipline.
Lancaster fell out with "The Society" over a number of issues. While poor financial management was ostensibly the reason for the clash (he became bankrupt and was imprisoned in a sponging house for debt), his colleagues had also discovered that Lancaster had been privately beating a number of the boys with whom he worked. He was forcibly ejected from the society, which renamed itself the British and Foreign School Society, in contrast to the National School System, which provided an Anglican education. Although the BFSS was to be widely successful in the early part of the 19th century, the waning popularity of monitorial methods during the 1820s and 1830s meant that the body soon became a conventional school society. As the involvement of the British government in education increased, the body transferred its schools to government control and concentrated, instead, on the training of teachers.
A number of schools using his system were established in Lower Canada before he settled there in 1828. He opened a school in Montreal, but his attempts to obtain funding floundered and he moved back to the United States. Another school existed for some time in Nyon, Switzerland. Reflecting the fact that Simon Bolivar visited his teacher training college in 1810 and resolved to send two Venezuelan teachers to be educated there, there is at least one school in Venezuela that retains Lancaster's name. A school was set up in Caracas, and when Simon Bolivar was president he invited Lancaster to come there, promising $20,000 for the education of the children of the city; Lancaster stayed from 1825 to 1827 in Caracas and got married there, with Bolivar presiding over the wedding; however, the two fell out over the non-payment of the promised sum. Other schools were established by his followers in Bogota, Colombia, in Quito, Ecuador and in Lima, Peru. He also started a school in Baltimore, but it was financially unsuccessful.
In Mexico, Lancaster's pedagogy was implemented in the last years of the colonial regime and gained rapid acceptance. Beginning in 1822, the compañía Lancasteriana operated public schools throughout Mexico with generous support of philanthropists, gaining official support in 1843. It oversaw Mexican public schools until 1890 in conjunction with the Federal Directorate of Public Instruction, when a series of educational reforms replaced it with the Pestalozzian or Oswego method of object lessons (objective education) developed by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.
Lancaster died in New York from injuries sustained after being run over by a horse carriage. At the time of his death, between 1200 and 1500 schools were said to use his principles. Bell's methods were appropriated by the Catholic church.
Joseph Lancaster's descendents still live in Mexico. See Ricardo Lancaster-Jones y Verea.
- Improvements in Education (London, 1803; New York, 1807)
- The British System of Education (Washington, 1812)
- Epitome of the Chief Events and Transactions of my own Life (New Haven, 1833). See Life of Lancaster, by his friend William Corston.
- Pen Vogler: "The Poor Child's Friend", History Today, February 2015, pp. 4–5.
- Ellis, C.C. (1907). Lancasterian Schools in Philadelphia. p. 43.
- Trend, J.B. (1946). Bolivar and the Independence of Spanish America. p. 72.
- Joseph Lancaster (1833). Epitome of Some of the Chief Events and Transactions in the Life of Joseph Lancaster, written by himself. Newhaven, CT.