See study ed. by C. F. Kaestle (1973).
In 1798, he founded a free elementary school in Borough Road, Southwark, using a variant of the monitorial system. His ideas were developed simultaneous 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 (also Learning by teaching) but the economics of Lancaster's or Bell's methodology is not widely discussed.
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 was in the first decade of the 19th century and in 1808 saw the creation of "The Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor".
However, despite initial successes, the Lancasterian schools came under a considerable amount of criticism. The standards which they achieved were often poor and the discipline to which children were subjected was harsh, 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 was to note that, despite his opposition to corporal punishment, he would rather be beaten than subjected to Lancasterian discipline.
Moreover, Lancaster fell out with "The Society" over a number of issues. While poor financial management was ostensibly the reason for the clash, 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 nineteenth 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.
His ideas are being revisited by schools now as an effective model for reducing costs. At the time of his death, there were claimed to be between 1200 and 1500 schools established with his principles. Bell's schools and methodology were appropriated by the Catholic church.
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. There is only one Lancasterian schoolroom, built to the exacting specifications of Lancaster himself, remaining in the world. It is at the British Schools Museum , in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England.
Lancaster died in New York from injuries sustained after being run over by a horse carriage.