Early Childhood Education

Pestalozzi, Johann (1746-1827)

 

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, often referred to as one of the most influential modern educators, was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1746. Johann’s father died when he was only five, but his mother and sister managed to raise the young boy and send him off to school when he was nine. Although he was not a particularly good student, he always felt that education was the ultimate answer to the problems of society.

Originally, Pestalozzi studied theology at the University of Zurich and planned to become a preacher, but due to his shyness, he soon turned to the study of law. While studying, Pestalozzi became greatly impressed by the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau and aspired to put these theories into practice. In 1767, Pestalozzi visited an experimental farm in the canton of Bern where he learned many experimental methods of farming and was impressed by the farmer’s interest in the welfare of his workers. In 1768, Pestalozzi secured a loan and bought a farm nearby, which he called “Neuhof.” In 1769, he met and married Anna Schulthess, a well-to-do, well-educated woman who ultimately shared Pestalozzi’s successes and failures for the next fifty years. When the agricultural experiment failed, he turned his farm into an educational experiment for poor villagers. In 1774, Pestalozzi assembled a group of social castoffs at Neuhof and set them to work in his spinning mill. He also taught them some industrial skills in hopes of bettering their position. When this endeavor turned into a financial disaster, he turned toward education as a way to elevate these citizens from their poverty.

In 1781, Pestalozzi published his famous novel Leonard and Gertrude. This book described many of Pestalozzi’s ideas about education and social justice. Pestalozzi was later asked by the village of Stanz to set up a school for the many children who had been orphaned by the recent wars. Although his school lasted only a short year, Pestalozzi next moved to the Castle of Burgdorf to open another school. While at Burgdorf, he wrote a systematic treatise on Education entitled “How Gertrude Teaches Her Children.” In 1805, he moved his school to its final location in Yverdon. Students and teachers traveled from many nations to experience this “new” educational system, and returned home to improve their own schools. Here, Pestalozzi labored with his ideals of education and appropriate treatment of young children. In 1815, his wife died, and in 1825, the school at Yverdon closed because of dissension among Pestalozzi’s teachers. In 1827, Pestalozzi died, alone and destitute.

Pestalozzi’s lessons proceeded from the concrete to the abstract, from simple to complex. Classrooms were child-centered, where children learned from doing activities rather than being told about experiences. Children would first observe activities and interact with materials, and then they would express their impressions of the objects as they perceived them, and finally they would form their own understanding of the experiences. Pestalozzi stressed that early education needed to emphasize experiences, not book learning. Through concrete experiences, the child moves into abstract understandings of the world around it.

Pestalozzi’s methods look quite familiar to students in our own school of the twenty-first century, but these methods were quite new in Pestalozzi’s day. Pestalozzi felt that all children should be educated equally, regardless of gender or economic conditions. His approach to early childhood education stemmed from his love for children and his conviction that each child held the promise of individual potential. He further believed that educators should not intrude upon that natural development and that instruction reflecting the needs of the individual rather than the group as a whole.

Further Readings: Lascarides, V. C., and B. F. Hinitz (2000). Johann Pestalozzi. In History of early childhood education (pp. 53-62). New York: Falmer Press; Monroe, W. S. (1969). The history of the Pestalozzian movement in the United States. New York: Arno Press. Pestalozzi, J. H. (1898). How Gertrude teaches her children. Syracuse, NY: C. W. Bardeen. Silber, K. (1973). Pestalozzi: The man and his work. New York: Schocken Books.

Martha Latorre