Owen, Robert (1771-1858) - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Owen, Robert (1771-1858)


Robert Owen, industrialist, philosopher, and social and educational reformer, was also the creator of what can be considered the first employment-related early childhood care program in the Western world. But Owen’s “Infant School” was far more than a care program for the children of working parents, it was allied with a broader undertaking, the New Institution for the Formation of Character (1816), both located in New Lanark, Scotland.

Owen was born in Newton, Montgomery shire, Wales, in 1771. By the age of seventeen he was employed in the drapery trade in Manchester, a city that would become the epicenter of the English Industrial Revolution. By 1799, Owen and two partners were in a position to purchase the textile mills of David Dale in New Lanark. Dale (Owen’s future father-in-law) and Owen were both progressive in their views as employers, with particular interests in the welfare of children.

In the early 1810s, Owenvisited Johann Pestalozzi at Yverdun, as had many other progressive thinkers and educators—indeed, Friedrich Froebel lived in Yverdun from 1807 to 1809 (Pence, 1980). By 1812, Owen’s ideas regarding education and development had begun to take form and were presented in his first public speech in 1812, which was followed by his first publication in 1813, The First Essay on the Principle of the Formation of Character. At the core of his thought was the environmentalist belief that “the constitution of every infant, except in case of organic disease, is capable of being formed or matured, either into a very inferior, or a very superior being according to the qualities of the external circumstances allowed to influence that constitution from birth” (Owen, 1842, p. 1).

Owen’s First Essay was followed by three others (1813-1814) and collectively they comprise his A New View of Society (1816). In that book, Owen takes issue with the excesses of capitalism and the failure of the Church to play an appropriate and effective role in stemming such excesses.

Owen called on society and, in particular, those in positions of wealth and influence, to address the need for social change. New Lanark became his own experiment in ways in which the “constitutions” of individuals might be improved for the betterment of all. Owen’s New Institution for the Formation of Character included as part of its structure an Infant School, which accepted children from the age of eighteen months. There were approximately eighty children enrolled in the Infant School in 1816, with both a male and a female teacher.

Owen did not believe that children of such a young age should receive formal instruction.

“The children were not to be annoyed with books, but were taught the uses and nature of qualities of the common things around them by familiar conversation, when the children’s curiosity was excited so as to induce them to ask questions respecting them.” (Rusk, p. 134)

The Infant School teachers were trained that “they were on no account ever to beat any one of the children or to threaten them in any manner.” Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, who later taught in the New Institution, confirmed that “all rewards and punishments, whatever, except such as Nature herself has provided... are sedulously excluded as being equally unjust in themselves and prejudiced in their effects” (Salmon and Hindshaw, p. 25).

Owen’s Infant School was the first of what became a broader movement in the 1820s in the United Kingdom, in North America, and more broadly. Owen’s pedagogical approach was, however, not adopted by all such programs, many of which followed a more restrictive, instructive monitorial model. Owen was himself a part of the “internationalization” of the Infant Schools process, establishing an Infant School in the utopian community he helped found and fund at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825.

Further Readings: Pence, A. R. (1980). Preschool programs of the nineteenth century: Towards a history of preschool child care in America. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Oregon, Eugene. Rusk, R. R. (1933). A history of infant education. London: University of London Press; Salmon, D., and W. Hindshaw (1904). Infant schools, their history and theory. London: Longmans Green and Co.

Alan Pence