Early Childhood Education

Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1908-1984)


New Zealand’s Sylvia Ashton-Warner exemplified the reflective teacher, studying the response of the children in her classroom to her work, and modifying it in turn so that their learning would be optimum. Ashton-Warner wrote eleven books (1959-1979). In the most important of them, Teacher, she tells of her struggle to teach beginning reading to very young Maori children, who found the books and lessons used with white children incomprehensible and boring.

Her methods strongly influenced many other teachers who found themselves in cross-cultural settings and who wished to avoid “colonizing” the children. She worked during a time when reading primers still depicted only white, middle- class children. Children of color had little to identify with and little incentive to learn from the sterile text or European urban illustrations of the available primers. Ashton-Warner’s passionate writing and her ability to portray classrooms in a way that made them come alive on the page earned her a worldwide audience. Her books have been translated into more than 17 languages.

Social critic Paul Goodman wrote about Ashton-Warner:

Consider ... the method employed by Sylvia Ashton-Warner in teaching little Maoris. She gets them to ask for their own words, the particular gut-word of fear, lust, or despair that is obsessing the child that day; this is written for him on strong cardboard; he learns it instantaneously and never forgets it; and soon he has an exciting, if odd, vocabulary. From the beginning, writing is by demand, practical, magical; and of course it is simply an extension of speech—it is the best and strongest speech, as writing should be. What is read is what somebody is importantly trying to tell. (p. 26)

Ashton-Warner was motivated by the artist’s urge to express strong feelings, and saw the same urge in the children. That observation led her to develop her reflective instructional method. She also orchestrated the school day so it would alternate between expressive activities chosen by the children and activities in which the teacher imparted new information. She called this alternation “breathing in and out.” Ashton-Warner also wrote about the relationship of early education to world peace, believing that if children have peaceful means of expression they will not be aggressive or violent.

Ashton-Warner was unable to reconcile her artistic life with her family life. Her drawing, painting of watercolors, and playing piano could not directly be reconciled with her life as a wife and a mother. She and her husband, Keith Henderson, worked out an unusual domestic arrangement. She created in her twenties, and re-created in each place she lived afterwards, a separate writing space she called “Selah” (a place of rest). Although it scandalized the neighbors, her husband, Keith, was the main child-care provider for the family.

She was more honored in the United States, and in other countries, than in her own New Zealand. Despite her receipt of the New Zealand Book Award in 1979 for her autobiography, I Passed This Way, she had felt neglected by her country for most of her life. Many in New Zealand education still speak of her as if she was not special. In the rest of the world, her influence is felt, although usually not in the mainstream. Her work was implemented in early Head Start programs (notably Child Development Mississippi) and in many of the alternative schools of the 1960s in the United States. Teachers in scattered classrooms around the world continue to use her methods to introduce young children to reading. Ashton-Warner has influenced the work of Vivian Gussin Paley, Karen Gallas, Cynthia Ballenger, and others, as well as the activities of the centers for young children in Reggio Emilia.

Further Readings: Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1971). Bell call. New York: Simon and Schuster. Originally published 1964; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1967). Greenstone. New York: Simon and Schuster. Originally published 1966; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1979). I passed this way. New York: Knopf; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1960). Incense to idols. New York: Simon and Schuster; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1969). Myself. New York: Simon and Schuster. Originally published 1967; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1974). O children of the world... Vancouver: The First Person Press; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1972). Spearpoint. New York: Knopf; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1959). Spinster. New York: Simon and Schuster. Originally published in 1958; distributed by Heinemann; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1986). Stories from the river. Auckland, New Zealand: Hodder and Stoughton; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1963). Teacher. New York: Simon and Schuster; Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1970). Three. New York: Knopf; Clemens, Sydney Gurewitz (1996). Pay attention to the children: Lessons for teachers and parents from Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Napa, CA: Rattle OK Press; Goodman, Paul (1964). Compulsory education. New York: Vantage; Hood, Lynley (1988). Sylvia! The biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Auckland, New Zealand: Viking Penguin.

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens