"Boys in a circle..." -- The History of the Encyclopedia

"Boys in a circle..." -- The History of the Encyclopedia
Martha Washington: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: One week


The phrase "boys in a circle" in this lesson refers to a common way of teaching and learning in ancient times.  Boys (because girls were not usually formally educated at all, sat in a circle and listened to the teacher. For the most part, books held by private owners in the colonies in the 18th century were very scarce, and the idea of a general reference work such as an encyclopedia was unheard of until the second half of the century.  Indeed, the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica wasn’t published until 1771, when Martha Washington was 40 years old.


The purpose of this lesson is to acquaint students with the idea and history of the encyclopedia, and give them experience in comparing and contrasting the print versions of encyclopedias with the online wikipedia version.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; notebooks or paper and pen or pencils.


1.  This lesson can be introduced by engaging students in a discussion about how many of them have used an encyclopedia, and for what purposes.  You might also ask if any students have an encyclopedia at home.
2.  Have all students explore the history of encyclopedias, including the Britannica, as background information.
3.  Inform students that at the end of the week, they will be engaging in a debate on the relative merits of a print encyclopedia and an online encyclopedia.

4.  Divide the class into two groups, assigning one the task of discovering the strengths and weaknesses of print encyclopedias, like the Britannica, and the other the task of discovering the strengths and weaknesses of online encyclopedias like Wikipedia.  Because the groups will likely be large, students should divide up the work, including the preparation of “talking points” on strengths and weaknesses of their kind of encyclopedia.
5.  Allow about three days for research and one day for debate preparation (see “Holding Your Own Debate” website, below, for suggestions). 
6.  At the end of a week, students should engage in a formal debate on the strengths and weaknesses of each. If appropriate, the whole class can vote on which “side” presented its case most effectively.
7.  The lesson should be concluded with a general discussion on when one might profitably use a print vs. an online reference work. 

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson might be extended by including the school librarian as an additional resource during the research stage, and as a “judge” or “adjudicator” during the debate.

Sources & Resources:


About Encyclopedias

History of the Encyclopedia Britannica

Definition of Wiki

History of Wikipedia

Holding Your Own Debate


This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.