Perspectives on history and theory

The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done Jean Piaget (1896–1980)

Chapter Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

  1. Identify significant leaders in early childhood education.
  2. Understand the major ideas and contributions to early childhood education of history’s most important figures.

As you think about and apply chapter content on your own, you should be able to:

  1. Continue to formulate your own philosophy of early childhood education, with more awareness of the original sources of your thinking.
  2. Observe elements of historical influence in various early childhood settings.

When you look at a young child, what do you see? Surely your interest in pursuing a career in early childhood education means that you see beyond outward appearances: an open smile, an adorable outfit, a charmingly awkward pose. If you think of yourself as a teacher of this child, do you see a small being waiting eagerly for you to share the knowledge that you have gained over the years? Or do you see someone who will learn best if allowed to remain independent, with you as an occasional guide? Do you see this child as innately good but in danger of losing that goodness within a hostile environment? Or do you see a child born neutral, ready to soak up the social environment as a sponge might?

All these views, and many more, have been held by large groups of adults at different times in history. At times, the welfare of children and their educational needs have been of great concern; at other times, they seem to have been scarcely considered. For much of history, attitudes on children and education were simply taken for granted, and change came slowly. Today, however, much research and thought are devoted to child development and early education. This doesn’t mean that definitive answers have been found to questions about what children are and what they need to develop most adequately. It does mean that to be effective, we cannot simply take children’s development for granted. The world is changing too fast, with more and more demands on children to perform at higher intellectual and physical levels. As teachers, we need to be aware of what these pressures do to children and to help them develop in the best ways possible.

One way to become more aware of our own attitudes and beliefs is to learn more about their roots. To do this, we must look back at key figures in history for what we think today is part of an intellectual tradition that dates from antiquity.


The centuries of prehistory are, of course, unknown to us, but we can safely assume that the education of young children during this period was directly related to survival issues and was nearly always the responsibility of the same-sex parent. Teaching techniques were probably quite simple and direct. We can relate to this method, for example, when we take a child out for her first walk in the woods. Since there may be poisonous plants and dangerous areas to avoid, we depend on simple instructions rather than hands-on discovery learning. Thus, in survival situations, we still retain a close kinship to our ancient ancestors.

Once beyond the survival level of instruction, however, we can begin thinking about what else children might need or want to learn and how we might best teach them. To look at the oldest recorded thoughts on early education, we turn first to the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato and then move on to the Romans and the early Christians. At this point, you may wonder why we appear to ignore philosophies from other parts of the world. Our reason, quite simply, is that the cultures we discuss are those that still influence the way we view and teach children here in the United States.

The Early Greeks

So, let us begin with Plato (427?–347 B.C.), who, in the fourth century B.C., could look at and respond to a fairly well-developed educational system and comment on the status of childhood itself. Although the Greek view of infants and young children varied from state to state, infanticide was a universal practice, particularly in regard to girls and infants with birth defects. At best, an unwanted infant might be “potted,” that is, put in a pot or basket and left at a temple gate in hopes that someone who needed a servant might adopt it. As Lloyd deMause (1974) noted, “The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused”.

It is interesting to compare the treatment of young children as demonstrated in two city–states of that time, Sparta and Athens. In Sparta, education began at about age 6 and was probably available only to boys. Prior to that, boys might attend their fathers’ club meetings and play informal games that involved stealing food off the table without getting caught. This was lighthearted training for the serious business of learning to wage war and keep down rebellions. The more serious education began at about the time we would send a boy off to elementary school, but in this case the sole purpose was to train warriors for the state. Boys were put into gangs, given scant provisions, and sent off to forage in any way they could; even murder was sanctioned. Girls were given training at home for domestic life, but they might also be provided with quasi-military training to prepare them to be wives and mothers of state warriors.

It was not to the Spartans that Plato wrote his philosophical views, however, but to the Athenians at a time when their government was in some disarray. In the context of describing the ideal state, Plato suggested a design for early childhood education. From birth to age 6, learning should be informal, for “knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. So do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement” (Gwynne-Thomas, 1981, p. 14). Good health and good social habits were to be inculcated by attentive parents who would provide plenty of close supervision; freedom was only to be earned over time.

For boys old enough to start school (at about age 6), Plato argued that the racier stories about the gods should be cleaned up and presented in a more ideal fashion to impressionable young minds. His enthusiasm for musical training also came with reservations, and he suggested that music be chosen that would promote the right attitudes, particularly toward the state.

It should be pointed out that Plato’s ideas about education were tied to an ideal republic that could only function successfully with a large slave class. In fact, the word pedagogue is almost identical to the Greek word for slave–teacher: an educated person, enslaved by victors of a battle, assigned as a child’s tutor and companion.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), like his teacher and mentor Plato, believed that early education was important. He argued that children have varying talents and skills, and that these should be enhanced. Thus he may be the first writer to recognize the educational importance of individual differences (Osborn, 1980).

The Early Romans

The inability of the Greek states to stop warring among themselves eventually led to their downfall, as Roman armies conquered them one by one. Once again, many educated Greeks found themselves in the role of teacher–slave, this time to the eager-to-learn Romans. Until their rise to power, Roman thought was considerably less sensitive, inventive, and curious than the Greeks’. Roman education was restricted to the basic necessities of life: fighting, farming, swimming, and riding, for example. There was little to read except for the rules of the state gathered in “The Laws of the Twelve Tables,” published in 450 B.C. Greek influence changed all that.

Perhaps the best known and most influential Greco-Roman thinker was Quintilian (A.D. 35–97). Born in Spain but educated in Rome, Quintilian felt that in order to produce young adults of good character, education must begin at the age of 1. Responsible parents and tutors, as well as carefully chosen companions, were important because they set examples for impressionable youngsters. And examples were important in the development of character and speech patterns. According to Quintilian, what the child learned while young and still at home would have lifelong implications.

Quintilian recommended making lessons as interesting as possible. Encouragement should come from the use of praise and never from corporal punishment. Academics should be balanced with gymnastic training, Quintilian said, in order to promote health.

Rome’s overexpansion eventually made it impossible for it to keep all its territories fortified and under control. As new groups of less educated outsiders began to conquer Roman territories, education began to decline, until much of the learning of the past centuries was all but lost. Many centuries later it would be “found” again and recognized as the basis of some of the same issues we write about and discuss today. Regarding early childhood education in particular, we can look back to Plato for his argument for informal learning and freedom based on structured guidance. Today’s controversies about appropriate literature and music for children were also considered by Plato. For the recognition of individual differences, we can look to Aristotle. And for role modeling and positive reinforcement through praise (vs. corporal punishment), there is Quintilian. That these positive ideals should have been lost from the mid-5th to the 11th century and beyond was definitely a setback in the education of young children.

The Early Christians

By the middle of the 5th century A.D., the Roman Empire had officially collapsed, and new struggles for control took place. Most notable was the Christian church’s rise to power. Earlier this had worked in favor of young children, since the newborn was deemed the owner of a soul, and infanticide was considered murder and punishable. The Christian emperor Constantine made killing a child a crime in 318, and by the next century there were stipends provided to families that kept foundlings and orphans. In 313 Constantine decreed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Christian schools spread throughout much of Europe.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, the influence of the Christian church began to be increasingly anti-intellectual. Fewer and fewer people were educated, and the newly emerging monasteries became the principal repositories of knowledge. Even there, however, intellectual freedom was highly constrained. For example, one monk who tried to translate all of Plato and Aristotle from the Greek to Latin was sentenced to die for his “crime.” Over the next 5 centuries, few children received an education: only those who planned to enter the monastery and those who belonged to wealthy families. As convents arose, girls were occasionally educated, particularly in what is now Germany.

The prevailing view of young children, what they were and what should be done with them, changed gradually from the Greek, Roman, and early Christian attitudes. As the concept of original sin took hold in religious thought, children came to be seen as inherently evil, thus condoning punishments that today we would define as child abuse. Furthermore, the concept of childhood itself changed. As soon as children had outgrown the most helpless stages of infancy, they joined in the general adult life, both for work and play.

It was for later generations to term these centuries (from the Fall of Rome to the rebirth of Greek and Roman ideas) the Middle or Dark Ages. The people who lived through this period knew little, if anything, about better times. But better times did come, and with them new interpretations of the ancient ideas that provide the foundation for today’s views of early education.

The onset of the Renaissance (from the Latin meaning rebirth) was very good news for young children. During the Middle Ages physical and sexual abuse had been widespread, even condoned by some of the great philosophers and religious thinkers. Although infanticide had been given up, it was still a difficult time for children, as some form of abandonment seemed the prime alternative to murder. The wet nurse, monastery, convent, and foster family were all acceptable avenues of abandonment, and infanticide still persisted, although it was more covert. For example, an unusually large number of babies were reported to have died while sleeping with their parents, who allegedly “laid over” the babies and smothered them. In addition, wet nurses could be paid to have an “accident.” The beginning of the Renaissance produced an increasing number of child instruction manuals, demonstrating a new view of children that could only be an improvement on the previous centuries. These manuals and other writings show a new understanding of children’s needs and identities as being separate from those of adults.


Whereas the Middle Ages gave us no educational leaders in the field of early childhood education, later centuries did. Like ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, influential thinkers wrote about their ideas so that today we can look back and evaluate them. The Moravian John Amos Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky) was the first to posit a complete system of education in the style of Plato. By the time he did, however, much Renaissance thinking had been altered by the period of religious Reformation.

John Comenius.

John Amos Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky in the original Czech, 1592–1670) was a bishop in the persecuted Moravian church who spent most of his adult life in exile. Nevertheless, his educational ideas were widely received throughout Europe, his books were translated into more than a dozen languages, and he was invited by several European governments to reconstruct their educational systems. In succeeding centuries he was sometimes forgotten, and that is surely now the case. Yet if any thinker was responsible for pulling education, including early childhood education, out of the Middle Ages, it was Comenius. Here are some of the things he said in his book School of Infancy (1633/1896), which dealt with children to age 6. Note how closely his ideas fit with our own. For example, a major issue in early education today is developmental appropriateness in children’s learning. This concept comes directly from Comenius. He understood that younger children are best able to grasp knowledge that relates to their own lives and that learning must be concrete before it can be abstract.

Today the study of history typically begins with the here and now and, as children grow older, adds on previous centuries. It was Comenius who first observed that young children need help in simply understanding yesterday and tomorrow and that they need to do this before trying to comprehend last year and beyond. Geography is another of the social studies influenced by Comenius. He realized that just as children first understand time in terms of today, they first understand space in relation to what they can see around themselves. Thus, he argued that geography should begin with the study of familiar places. Science study also begins with what is nearest and dearest to young children: nature. Again, this idea originated with Comenius. His views on arithmetic appear in today’s textbooks and lesson plans, too. He suggested that young children, should begin by learning such basic concepts as a lot or a little. Although he said that small children could learn to count, he added that it would take several years for them to understand numbers. Research done in recent decades has proven him completely right. In this, as in so many other instances, Comenius was far ahead of his time. Perhaps that is one reason that at a practical level his educational ideas were not as widespread as his popularity might indicate. But it is his ideas that affected later educational thinkers, some of whom we discuss in this chapter.

John Locke
An English philosopher of the following century, John Locke (1632–1704) was brought up in a Puritan family, but his adult thinking was more influenced by the scientific revolution than by Reformation Protestant thinking. At Oxford he studied and later taught Greek, rhetoric, and moral philosophy. In his mid-30s Locke’s more practical and scientific nature eventually led him back to the university to study medicine. He never succeeded in getting his terminal degree and only practiced medicine a short while, but the balance between the scientific and the philosophical in Locke’s thinking and education produced a like balance in his later writing on education. While working as the personal secretary to the earl of Shaftesbury and tutoring the earl’s son, he began to formulate his views on education, which, along with his anti-authoritarian political ideas, were revolutionary for their time. The only major work on education published during Locke’s lifetime was Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and this was not originally intended as a book for the public. A cousin and her husband asked Locke to write some letters giving advice on the upbringing of their son, and these were eventually published in book form. All Locke’s philosophical and medical thinking, as well as his past experiences, went into these letters. So did his views on social class. His cousin’s son was to be raised as a gentleman, and Locke differentiated the education of a future gentleman from that of a commoner’s child. Thus, despite his increasing involvement in the politics of the Enlightenment, Locke did not propose the kind of universal education that Comenius did.

Nonetheless, Locke’s ideas on early education represented new ways of looking at children and formed the basis for much of what we think and do today. His view of infants was that they are born with great potential for learning. Their minds, he said, might be viewed as white paper or an empty cabinet or a blank tablet. What they become as adults is then defined by their total education: “I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education” (Locke, 1692/1910, p. 9).

Another idea that set Locke apart from the educational thinkers of his day was his belief that in educating children we need to be aware of individual differences:

There is a difference of degree in men’s understandings, apprehensions, and reasonings to so great a latitude . . . that there is a greater distance between some men and others in this respect, than between some men and some beasts. (Cleverley & Phillips, 1986, p. 18)

This concept is contrast to the prevailing idea that there was a general mass of knowledge out there to be learned, and everyone in a group or class should move along together in conquering it. For Locke, our minds might all begin as blank slates, but some slates are higher quality than others. In other words, Locke (1692/1910) did not completely dismiss heredity and even said:

God has stamped certain characters upon men’s minds, which, like their shapes, may perhaps be a little mended, but can hardly be totally altered and transformed into the contrary.

For young children, Locke (1692/1910) wrote in favor of play and freedom, but he also supported disciplined living and even some deprivation for upper-class children, who were, in his view, overly pampered. Although his ideas along this line were sometimes contradictory, Locke was consistent in arguing for a positive approach to both teaching and discipline:

Beating then, and all other sorts of slavish and corporal punishments, are not the discipline fit to be used in the education of those who would have wise, good, and ingenuous men; and therefore very rarely to be applied, and that only on great occasions, and cases of extremity. (p. 39)

What Locke did advocate when discipline was necessary was stern, disapproving looks as well as shaming. To keep children from getting too spoiled, as well as to promote rugged health, he suggested cold foot baths, open air, loose fitting clothing and not much of it, a simple diet, and a hard bed. He may be the first educational philosopher to discuss toilet training, and on this subject he maintained his stern view, recommending regular visits with enforced sitting. For Locke (1692/1910), “A sound mind in a sound body is a short, but full description of a happy state in the world” (p. 9)

Much of Locke’s thinking pervades early childhood education today, although the form it takes in practice may be much altered. As an example, consider his view that individuals are born like blank slates but that they may differ qualitatively. For Locke, this meant the permanent subjugation of some classes of people. Today, although there are those who believe as he did, we generally argue that this attitude is potentially racist, sexist, classist, or prejudiced in some other way. At the same time, it is possible to accommodate Locke’s view of the blank slate in an updated, more democratic approach to teaching children from all walks of life.

When Locke said that the environment would create the child, he referred to its entire intellectual, social, and physical entity. Full learning experiences should involve input from all these aspects of the environment and include the child’s use of all the senses: When you see a classroom with much opportunity for learning through acting on sensory materials, you may well be observing a classroom whose roots go back to Locke’s 17th-century views. For the materials to be truly Lockean, however, they must have a learning goal connected to them. Locke believed that the environment should be controlled so that children learn what they should know. Some examples of what you might observe today would be math games using concrete materials, cardboard cut-out letters used in creating simple words, or perhaps wooden puzzles; all of these are sensory and all have specific learning goals.

Today’s behaviorist psychology also owes some portion of its basic thinking to Locke. One of Locke’s views was that children should be reinforced for their good behavior and intellectual successes. Little is accomplished, he argued, by approaching a child with a negative attitude or physical punishment. These should be saved for emergency cases. At the same time, Locke believed that too much reinforcement could have the wrong effect, making a child more demanding and spoiled, refusing to do schoolwork unless rewarded. Today’s behaviorists have created classroom approaches to discipline that are much like those that Locke would have recommended. Reinforcements are positive, focus on negative behavior is avoided, and rewards are gradually withdrawn as behavior or performance improves. Since teacher behavior is usually more subtle to observe than learning materials, you may have to look longer and more carefully to see these influences from Locke. It may be nothing more than a carefully timed, “You worked hard at that, didn’t you?” or the old standby, “I like the way Emily and Al are sitting,” but these and other similar statements have a direct effect on children’s attitudes and behaviors. Watch for them.

Locke and Rousseau proposed different views of early education based on different views of human learning. Locke saw children’s minds as blank slates or empty buckets to be filled by the teachings of knowledgeable adults. Rousseau, howe er, saw children’s minds as naturally programmed to unfold in their own way and at their own pace if given a secure environment by nurturing adults.

Jean Jacques Rousseau
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), born in Switzerland not long after Locke died, combined philosophical and educational thought in his writings as Locke had done. Like Locke, he was an influential force for egalitarianism and democracy in his society, but the conclusions he reached were different enough from those of Locke to inspire a very different form of early education.

In some ways it is difficult to believe that someone of Rousseau’s background could affect both politics and education in the intense ways that he did. His mother died while giving birth to him, and his father first spoiled and then deserted him. He was passed around among relatives and received little education, although by age 10 he had read countless novels. Apprenticed to an engraver, Rousseau tired of the cruel treatment he received and ran away. He began the life of a wanderer, trying various occupations (clerk, secretary, music copyist, even priest) and usually failing. At age 27 Rousseau was hired as a tutor to two young boys. He lasted just about a year, failing miserably at disciplining them in any way. But by now the wanderer was in France, where he became involved in society and numerous love affairs, in particular with one woman from the lower class who became his lifelong companion (he eventually married her when in his 60s) and who bore him five children. All of these he abandoned to a foundling home.

How, then, did Rousseau manage to influence his own and future generations in two major fields, politics and child development? As one author (Wodehouse, 1924) explained it, the enlightened gentlemen of the age of Locke were ready for new influences, something of a more “natural” condition and, “about 1760, a few books connected with this subject struck the general imagination with extraordinary force. They came from a somewhat lower cosmopolitan level, being the work of a rather disreputable Swiss from Geneva, living in France, who happened to have genius”.

In his major work on education published in 1762, Emile, Rousseau seemed to idealize the details of his own life in the fictional biography of a “perfectly” brought up and educated boy. Was Rousseau abandoned as a child, and did he abandon his own children? He could turn that into a positive experience for Emile, who would be given freedom to roam, play, and follow his spontaneous impulses. About this Rousseau wrote, “What is to be thought of that cruel education . . . that burdens a child with all sorts of restrictions and begins by making him miserable, in order to prepare him for some far-off happiness which he may never enjoy?” (Weber, 1984, p. 27).

The force of Rousseau’s thought was much stronger than the details of his often sordid life. Let’s take a look at some of his ideas on early childhood education because they eventually gave rise to many of the ideas we practice today.

Rousseau argued that early childhood education should come from all the senses, and that reading should not be pushed. In fact, he felt that it would be better for a child not to read at all until about age 12. The teacher or tutor should not use direct instruction but should act as a guide. The teacher should be aware of the child’s interests and let him follow those interests rather than prescribe a curriculum. Discipline should be primarily through the natural consequences of the child’s actions. Much of the child’s education should take place outdoors, and emphasis should be placed on healthful development. One of Rousseau’s views of the child set him apart from the traditional religious thinkers: Where they saw the infant as inherently evil, Rousseau saw him as basically good. “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” (Weber, 1984, p. 27). Thus, the general approach in the education of a young child was to tuck him safely away from the world in a protected environment where the only influences were those of good.

We should note that Rousseau’s ideal education was reserved for children of the middle and upper classes. Like Locke, he believed that little education was needed for the lower classes. In Rousseau’s case, this could be justified by his idea of naturalism, in which the child is educated by his surroundings. The poor, he decided, could take care of what little education they needed right where they were. In Emile, Rousseau also revealed his attitude toward women:

[Women are] specially made to please men, he said, to be useful to them, to make themselves loved and honored by them, to rear them when young, to care for them when grown up, to advise them, to console them, to render their lives, agreeable and sweet to them—these are the duties of women at all times, and should be taught to them from their childhood. . . . It is a law of nature that woman shall obey man. (Compayre, 1907, p. 84)

This was the “natural” woman who would be the helpmate of the free and unspoiled “natural” man.”

Rousseau’s ideas on education were complemented by his thoughts on politics. Much of what he wrote influenced antiroyalist thinkers and helped bring on the French Revolution, which he did not live to see. Occasionally, some progressive fathers of his century and the next actually tried Rousseau’s ideas on their own little Emiles, generally with disastrous results. He did not live to see this either, as his ideas on both politics and education had more effect after his death.

Today, you are as likely to see Rousseau’s influences in the classroom as you are Locke’s. Again, you can observe children interacting actively with materials that appeal to all their senses. But, in keeping with the concept of natural development, the materials are more open-ended and their use determined by the children. Math materials might be sticks brought inside by the children. These could be played with in a free-form way, while the teacher makes informal comments to inspire learning. Books might or might not be available, and the teacher could well choose to tell a story rather than read it. Giving children materials for costumes and props so that they might invent little plays would take preference over providing structured reading. Time spent outdoors would focus on learning about nature in an informal way.

A basic difference between Locke and Rousseau affects what you see in the classroom today. Along with others of his time, Locke assumed that there is a discreet body of knowledge that people of the upper classes should learn and that the function of education is to make knowledge accessible and interesting. Rousseau, on the other hand, was more interested in process, or learning how to learn. You can observe this difference in outlook when you see children playing with materials that have right solutions (Locke’s view) or when you see them playing with open-ended materials, creating their own learning (Rousseau’s view). In most classrooms you will find some of each kind of learning, living testament to our inability to decide which is the better course to take. Many teachers argue that a combination of the two views provides the best learning, although many of them aren’t aware that their argument is based on a conflict in ideology that has been around for more than two centuries.

Just as Locke’s ideas were modified by succeeding generations, so were Rousseau’s. Parents who took his ideas literally found themselves creating ill-mannered, self-centered, illiterate adolescents. Still, his ideas offered inspiration for more practical interpreters. In Rousseau’s native Switzerland, a man of the next generation molded his ideas into a more useful form and succeeded in educating children in a more natural way than ever before.

Johann Pestalozzi
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), like Rousseau, had an unhappy childhood. Born into a comfortably affluent family, his whole life changed at the age of 5, when his father died. He was subsequently brought up by his mother and a family servant. Pestalozzi had a delicate constitution, and his apparently odd appearance and personality made him the object of other children’s jokes. Even in his later years, commentators referred to his peculiar personality.

His motives in life were tied from his early years to the fate of the downtrodden. Like Locke and Rousseau before him, he was politically attuned to the need for some democratization in his country. Unlike them, he was sympathetic to the needs and deprivations of the poorer classes. As a young man he married and settled on a farm, having been inspired by his readings of Rousseau to seek the “natural” life. Soon he was providing a home for some 20 orphans and poor children. His poor business management ensured that he would eventually fail at the effort, but within a short time Pestalozzi published a successful novel, Leonard and Gertrude in 1781–1787, which made him famous and gave him some income. It contained his views on education, which were influenced by his earlier reading of Rousseau’s Emile. In one important respect, however, he took issue with Rousseau. To Pestalozzi, unlimited freedom would not bring children to the desired educational level. In Pestalozzi’s view, “liberty is a good thing, obedience is equally so” (Gwynne-Thomas, 1981, p. 235).

Among the enduring contributions of Pestalozzi were his insistence on universal education for both the rich and the poor of both sexes and for early learning that moves from the concrete to the abstract through the use of manipulative materials.

In 1799, Napoleon invaded Switzerland and, after sacking the town of Stanz, left hundreds of children destitute. An orphanage was established with Pestalozzi in charge. There he was able to put into practice the domestic love, emotional stability, and sensory education he had been writing about. Although the French eventually returned and commandeered the orphanage for a military hospital, Pestalozzi’s life career was begun. By 1805 he had established a school in the town of Yverdon, which, for 20 years, was an internationally known model of the latest in education.

In his school, Pestalozzi took Rousseau’s basic ideas about natural education, freedom, sensory learning, and so on, and made them work. Rousseau had escaped his own life by writing about a fictional ideal; Pestalozzi chose not to deny his own experience but to use it to empathize with and help others. Although his writings were well known, it was his ability to put his ideas into practice that gave Pestalozzi his lasting fame.

Much of what Pestalozzi did and recommended still influences what we do with young children today. He believed then, as most of us do today, that poor children have as much right to education as their wealthier counterparts. In fact, it was Pestalozzi’s intention to attempt a real elevation of their lives. Additionally, he matter of factly included girls in his educational plans, a radical departure from tradition. Although he believed in equal access to education for everyone, he also valued diversity, saying, “Idiosyncracies of the individual are the greatest blessings of nature and must be respected to the highest degree” (Weber, 1984, p. 29).

In the classroom, Pestalozzi geared experiences so that they went from the concrete to the abstract, a major innovation for his time. For the younger children there were “object lessons,” what we might call manipulative materials, that gave children their first understanding of form, language, and number. The order, he said, would be to “steadily increase the range of their practical experience with things”; then the teacher would “do all that is possible to clear this experience from confusion and indefiniteness.” Finally, when the concrete lesson was clear, the teacher would “supply them with words . . . going, indeed, a little farther in preparation for the future” (Pestalozzi, 1912, p. 93).

Today we describe Pestalozzi’s choice of natural, concrete materials as develop-mentally appropriate for young children. He also saw these materials as a way to interest young children in school. In his best-known book, How Gertrude Teaches Her Children (1801), Pestalozzi remarked at length on the wonderful freedom of preschool children and decried what traditionally happened to them once they attended school:

[S]uddenly, after five years of blissful sensuous life, we banish all Nature from their eyes . . . we herd them together like sheep in an evil-smelling room; for hours, days, weeks, months, and years, we chain them unmercifully to the contemplation of miserable and monotonously unexciting alphabets, and condemn them to an existence which, in comparison with their former life, is repulsive in the extreme. . . . (Pestalozzi, p. 89)

In actual practice, Pestalozzi did not always live up to his own ideals. In extreme cases he might resort to corporal punishment, and sometimes his ideas about object lessons gave way to boring drills that he somehow convinced himself the children loved, despite the obvious agony visitors observed on their faces.

Today we can see both sides of Pestalozzi in action: the use of manipulative materials juxtaposed with drill materials that seem to get the job done faster and with fewer frustrations—at least for the adult. The latter approach, however, is not an example of Pestalozzi’s thinking but of the normal adult’s occasional impatience with children. Let us focus instead on his ideas that are still philosophically sound. Pestalozzi developed activities and materials that encouraged children to learn from the concrete to the abstract. If you observe first in a nursery school and then in a third grade you will, no doubt, see this developmental sequence in action. Four-year-olds, who gain an intuitive understanding of division when they share crackers equally among the group, can later transmit that understanding to pencil-and-paper problems, as long as they have something concrete to help them understand.

Another enduring contribution was Pestalozzi’s insistence on universal education. He believed that both rich and poor, boys and girls deserved to learn. The increasing democratization of Western thought made such a concept more acceptable than it had been in previous generations. Today, we take for granted the right to free education, although the equalization of quality is often problematic. Still, if you are female or have grown up poor, you owe your education, in part, to the groundwork laid by Pestalozzi.

It was the observations of his school at Yverdon that made Pestalozzi famous throughout the world. For early childhood education, it was the visit of the German educator Friedrich Froebel to the school that was most important. His experience there transformed Froebel from a rural schoolmaster into a theorist and philosopher.

Friedrich Froebel
Yet again, we have an example of an influential educator shaped by his own unhappy childhood. Friedrich Froebel’s (1782–1852) mother died early in his life, and Froebel later wrote, “This loss, a hard blow to me, influenced the whole environment and development of my being: I consider that my mother’s death decided more or less the external circumstances of my whole life” (Shapiro, 1983, p. 19). At the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a forester and began a lifelong attachment to nature. Perhaps it was this experience that contributed to his inability to stick with university studies and sent him off to work as a land surveyor, estate manager, forest department official, museum assistant, tutor, and, finally, rural school teacher.

Between 1808 and 1810, Froebel attended the training institute run by Pestalozzi at Yverdon. Although he came away accepting the basic principles of Pestalozzi’s theories, Froebel felt that something critically important was missing: the “spiritual mechanism” that is the foundation of early learning. “Pestalozzi takes man existing only in his appearance on earth,” he said, “but I take man in his eternal being, in his eternal existence” (Shapiro, 1983, p. 20). Froebel also rejected ideas, still popular with the followers of Rousseau, concerning education that was largely outdoors. Although he loved nature and wanted children to as well, he wanted to protect them from its more raw aspects.

Eventually, Froebel’s concern for children’s moral, spiritual, physical, and intellectual growth led him to focus on their needs just prior to entering school. He shared Pestalozzi’s horror of what happened to 5-year-olds whose uninhibited, happy lives were so radically changed by their entrance into school. What Froebel envisioned was a sort of halfway house between home and school, infancy and childhood that would be attended by 4- to 6-year-olds. Because it would be a place where children were nurtured and protected from outside influences, much as plants might be in a garden, Froebel decided to call his school a kinder (children) garten (garden).

To make his kindergarten successful, Froebel knew that special teacher training would be necessary. He also decided that new concrete materials must be developed. They must be age appropriate for children’s interests and have an underlying spiritual message. To meet the first need, Froebel began a training institute alongside his first school. For the second, he developed a series of play objects as well as singing games that seemed appropriate to the interests and education of young children and had a spiritual message as well.

The educational materials were divided into two groups: gifts and occupations. The first two gifts were designed to be introduced in infancy by the mother, and Froebel fully expected babies to have a beginning understanding of what they were about. For example, the first gift was a yarn ball connected to a string, which was to be played with under the mother’s supervision in such a way that the baby’s senses and muscles would be stimulated. But Froebel also believed that the ball would “awaken spirit and individuality” while helping the infant intuit “unity” (from the shape of the ball) and “freedom” (from its swinging motion). Three more gifts introduced to children in kindergarten were small building blocks that would fit together in prescribed ways under the teacher’s instructions.

It is important to note here that Froebel considered these directed exercises with their specific goals a form of play. Compared to what most children in those days dealt with in their daily lives, it probably would have felt like very liberating play. Today, however, we would no doubt quibble that close-ended, prescribed, teacher-directed activities might be enjoyable but could not be described as play.

The occupations allowed children more freedom and included such things as weaving, bead-stringing, sewing, and stick-laying activities, as well as gardening. But even these held underlying spiritual messages that could be learned in such simple steps as the required and careful cleanup. This last step in every activity was considered “a final, concrete reminder to the child of God’s plan for moral and social order” (Shapiro, 1983, p. 24). The essential harmony of the gifts and occupations had its counterpart in the songs and games that focused on social harmony. Break up a circle of children and you have an understanding of individuality; put it back together again and there is group unity. Teachers were to point out these symbolic acts to the children, and it was expected that the children would understand.

Froebel did not have the strong political inclinations of Locke, Rousseau, and Pestalozzi and, indeed, rejected political action as a way to achieve more rights for women, although it was a cause he championed. His definition of emancipation was that women would be permitted out of the home to teach. This may explain why one of his missions was to train women throughout the world in childrearing and teaching. Despite his rejection of politics, however, the Prussian government considered Froebel’s ideas dangerous and ordered his schools closed in 1848. Despairing, he died 4 years later, not knowing that his educational ideas were about to take hold in the United States, bringing the still-new country an early education system unlike anything it had ever seen before.

The same Prussian repression and political rebellions that closed Froebel’s kindergartens also sent numerous educated citizens out of the country, many of them to the United States. Among these were a number of women trained in the Froebel system of early education, and it was they who were responsible for introducing the kindergarten to this country. The very first kindergarten was established in Wisconsin for German immigrant children, who were taught in German. Word of this new way of teaching eventually made its way to St. Louis, where the first public kindergartens were opened. Although those responsible for establishing the schools were native-born Americans, they coupled Froebel’s ideas with those of the German philosopher Hegel. Just as today there are people who worry about foreign influences altering the “American way,” so there were concerns held by parents and educators then that early education in the United States was being taken over by German ideals. Despite this setback, Froebel’s ideas provided the major direction that kindergartens followed during the last half of the 19th century. However, in a country that was beginning to look toward scientific theories rather than metaphysics and religion as a way to understand children, his ideas were gradually replaced by those of more scientific thinkers. The most radical of these eventually gained sufficient strength to be called the Child Study Movement.

One possible remaining influence that is unlike any other in our historical review is that the Froebel kindergarten has actually left its mark on the art and architecture of the 20th century. The brilliant architect Frank Lloyd Wright once claimed that playing with the Froebel gifts provided the foundation for his designs. Indeed, his mother spent much time at the demonstration Froebel kindergarten at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, purchasing a collection of the materials for her young son and even taking a teacher-training course. One author argued that Wright was not alone in being influenced by his early experiences with the Froebel materials (Brosterman, 1997). He traced the styles of a number of well-known 20th century artists to their early kindergarten experiences.

To a large degree, Froebel remains forgotten today except in his role as the developer of the kindergarten. His belief that young children can understand the spiritual symbolism behind the games they play has been discarded. The rigidly structured use of play materials has been abandoned in most quarters. The finely detailed, perfectly measured and produced learning materials have been replaced by mass produced toys. Some things remain, however: the concept that children of preprimary years learn best through some form of play, the feeling that group games help children feel a part of the whole, the idea that playing and working outdoors can lead to creativity and good health. Froebel’s ideas of natural learning and play demonstrated his debt to Rousseau, whereas the goal-oriented activities and materials followed the lead of Locke.

John Dewey
One of those responsible for the demise of Froebel’s kindergarten movement was John Dewey (1859–1952). Born, raised, and educated in Vermont, Dewey graduated from the University of Vermont at the age of 20. He then spent 3 anxious months looking for work and more or less fell into teaching when a cousin offered him a job at the high school where he was principal. Dewey taught Latin, algebra, and science, but his reading and thinking leaned toward philosophy. One of his former philosophy professors encouraged him to publish, and he had immediate success with three articles. This encouraged him to pursue a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University. He moved quickly up the academic ladder, going from professorships at the universities of Minnesota and Michigan to one at the University of Chicago in 1894. It was at Chicago that Dewey first gained national notice and respect for the application of his philosophical ideas to the education of children.


As a young man, Dewey read the German philosopher Hegel and came to reject his ideas. This was important for his own later theories on early childhood education, because much of the symbolism in the activities, songs, and games of Froebel’s kindergarten came from Hegel’s philosophy. It was important, too, that Dewey went to the University of Chicago when he did, because both it and other institutions nearby were in the midst of exploring new ideas in education. Even Froebel kindergartens in the area were interested in innovation and were considered far too radical by their more orthodox counterparts.

University laboratory schools were a recent innovation, and Dewey was instrumental in beginning one at Chicago. It included a kindergarten as well as the elementary grades. In putting his theories of early education into action, Dewey found himself caught between two popular but antagonistic philosophies: that of Froebel, which he considered outdated and rigid, and that of the more recent Child Study Movement, which he believed had gone overboard in attempting to be scientific. In the mid-1890s, the followers of Froebel were a force to be reckoned with, so rather than striking out completely on his own, Dewey chose to reinterpret Froebel. As one example, he took Froebel’s concept of unity (which we have seen expressed in children’s circle games and in building blocks) and focused instead on unifying such concepts as learning and doing, and child and society. Learning and doing can be united if we consider that young children are constantly active and are enthusiastic about learning, leading us to conclude that perhaps children can and should learn by doing. Child and society are also two dissimilar concepts that can be united. The individual child can learn to be a part of society if the school itself becomes a microsociety.

In addition to his different interpretation of unity, Dewey’s view on play was unlike that of Froebel’s. Children at the experimental university school used the Froebel blocks but could play with them freely; no emphasis was put on observing the unity of the whole and the individuality of the separate pieces. Play was free, there was more of it, and the rigidly timed lessons disappeared entirely. Dewey’s ideas on play came from the American philosopher and psychologist George Herbert Mead, who believed that play was grounded in a child’s social environment. From this idea, Dewey developed a whole new way of structuring the school, from the earliest years on. No longer did children play with pretend or symbolic brooms and such. Instead, they really took care of their own classrooms, structuring them as minisocieties. Furthermore, Dewey believed that social development could best take place in classrooms with mixed ages. For him, the artificial divisions between grades were unnecessary and worked against children’s social growth.

In the laboratory school, the subprimary classroom covered 2 years. To help the youngest children learn about society, teachers began with the already familiar home and the people in it. Bit by bit the outside world was then introduced. During the winter the children worked with Froebel building materials and arranged furniture and living spaces; in the spring they played outdoor games, studied nature, and took walks in the city. All the while, they played and worked with far more independence than children did in a Froebel kindergarten. Fostering democracy in the classroom was a major goal for Dewey and one of his most lasting contributions to education.

Dewey stayed at the University of Chicago 10 years and then moved on to Columbia University in New York. His interests branched into other areas, but his influence on early education has been lasting, although sometimes misinterpreted or unpopular. Misinterpretation was probably inevitable as Dewey’s philosophical views were simplified and watered down in their widespread application. He believed that learning by doing was important, not just for kindergarten children but for older students as well. He was a proponent of teaching children of all ages about democracy by helping them create democratic societies in their classrooms. These ideas in the wrong hands and directed by teachers who read little, if any, of his philosophy could lead to the kind of classroom anarchy that Rousseau’s early followers experienced. And that was just what happened. By the late 1940s, Dewey-inspired education was coming under widespread attack. By the late 1950s, when the weak nature of American education seemed exemplified in the Soviets’ jumpstart into the space race, Dewey’s philosophy was blamed. The backlash led to a greater focus on academics and eventually to a back-to-basics movement.

Of course, Dewey was never against academic learning. He believed, however, that children need to be actively involved in it and that academics should be meaningful to them. As the sterility of the back-to-basics approach became apparent, Dewey’s ideas began to return. Today, as you see young children learn how to run town meetings in their classrooms, or observe a teacher who focuses on all aspects of children’s growth, or learn to plan and teach a theme unit, you come in contact with education that has its roots in Dewey’s thinking.

A bit younger than Dewey and on the other side of the Atlantic, Italy’s first woman doctor was, at about the same time, developing an educational philosophy that might be placed somewhere between those of Froebel and Dewey.

Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori (1870–1952) was born in a small town on the Adriatic Sea in the same year that Italy succeeded in unifying its various independent states into one nation. The spirit of optimism in the new country gave hope to women and the poor, both traditionally downtrodden. Although this hope was eventually squashed by those who clung to tradition, it was sufficient during Montessori’s youth to give her the boost she needed.

When she was 5 years old, the family moved to Rome. Her mother expected her to take an active interest in helping those less fortunate, so she knitted for the poor and befriended a hunchbacked girl in the neighborhood. As a young child in school, she performed only adequately, but in time she grew interested in math and technical subjects. With the help of her mother, she overcame her father’s objections, and at age 13 entered the kind of technical school few Italian girls of her time dared enter. For a time she considered going on to study engineering, but she decided on medicine instead. This was totally unheard of for a woman, and when her father finally gave in, he insisted on accompanying her to class each day. As might be imagined, there was much prejudice against her presence, but she matched her courage with enthusiasm and brilliance and eventually graduated with high marks.

As a new doctor, some of her research took Montessori to the University of Rome’s psychiatric clinic. There, amid insane adults, she saw large numbers of children with learning disabilities, placed there for lack of other choices. The inhumane treatment of these children touched her, and she began to read everything she could find on the education of the mentally handicapped. Eventually, she decided that there must be some way to reach these children and found herself influenced to some extent by Rousseau. Although she disagreed with his idea of unstructured education in the wilds of nature, she liked his idea of developing the senses before abstract learning takes place. She also studied the work of Pestalozzi and Froebel and adapted them to her own use.

Because Montessori wanted to help those who were termed “idiot” children, she also studied the writings of two French men who had pioneered work in that area, Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin. Itard, a doctor born a century before her, had gained international fame when he attempted to educate a young boy found running wild in the woods, “The Wild Child of Aveyron.” Ultimately unsuccessful in his attempts, Itard still was inspired to continue looking for ways to treat other children with special cognitive needs or physical disabilities, particularly deafness.

Seguin, who studied with Itard, carried on the work, founding schools for those termed idiots both in France and in the United States. The unique methods he developed for educating children historically thought uneducable seemed to Montessori to hold promise for the children she observed locked up in insane asylums. She was convinced that it was education, not medicine, that would improve their lives. Soon she was speaking at conferences about the need to educate children with learning disabilities, and she proposed a school along Froebel’s lines. Before long she found herself appointed director of a teacher-training institute that was a pioneer in the field of special education in Italy. Pulling her ideas from Froebel and others, Montessori experimented with teaching materials and activities, succeeding so well that her 8-year-old “defectives” eventually did as well as or better than normal children in state examinations for reading and writing.

For the next several years, Montessori moved back and forth between medicine and special education. During this time she developed a close relationship with one of her colleagues, gave birth to their son, and sent him off to the country to be raised by others. Only in his teens did she raise him herself, usually claiming that he was adopted or belonged to someone else (Kramer, 1976).

Meanwhile, Montessori was given the opportunity to test her educational ideas with children of normal intelligence when she was asked to start a day-care center in a new public housing project. Her success came quickly as she experimented with methods and materials, and international fame followed. Some of the school’s attributes were born of necessity, then remained because of their effectiveness with children. Aspects of the so-called Children’s House (Casa dei Bambini) that were new in that time and place were insufficient materials to go around (to foster sharing), mixed ages (to promote positive interrelationships), freedom of movement and child-choice of materials (to enhance self-direction and democracy), structured activities for the youngest and newest (to provide a sense of stability and confidence), and real tools for real work (to demonstrate respect for the children’s abilities and to help them adjust to the real world).

Just as Pestalozzi’s and Froebel’s teacher-training institutes had attracted enthusiastic students from afar, so did Montessori’s. Several Americans learned Italian for the purpose of attending, and in the early years of this century Montessori schools began to bloom in this country. Soon, however, they were denounced by influential scholars and for a time almost disappeared. You have, no doubt, noticed that there are Montessori schools today, however, and this is due to their rebirth in the late 1950s, when our society became newly concerned about academic learning for young children. The Montessori method, which encourages children to go as far as they can in their cognitive development, seemed to many an effective alternative for early childhood education.

Like Froebel, Maria Montessori did not live to see this resurgence of popularity in the United States. Her last years were spent largely in exile from Italy and its fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Her travels during World War II ensured the establishment of Montessori schools in India and the Netherlands. They also gave rise to her belief that if people, beginning in their early childhood, could have more learning and experience with democratic processes, they would be less likely to follow a Mussolini or a Hitler. It was a sentiment that no doubt would have been shared by John Dewey.

Montessori education has survived to this decade relatively intact. Although there are various approaches to training, with some purists wanting to keep the schools as they were in Montessori’s day and others arguing for updating them, a common element is found in all the schools. If possible, you should try to observe at least one Montessori classroom. There, you will find a selection of materials designed to enhance learning through the senses, concrete math activities that help preschoolers intuit complex principles, and children moving independently and at will. It is likely that you will see little play in the free-form sense, and in this way, Montessori schools have a strong relationship to those of Froebel. Traditionally, Montessori schools have come under fire for their lack of creative experiences and free play. Responding to this criticism, many schools have added these elements to their programs, so you may find some differences if you observe in more than one place. In most Montessori schools there is some mixing of ages. The intent is to help the older children take responsibility for the younger while reinforcing their own learning, and for the younger children to learn to depend on and trust their older peers. Furthermore, the mixing of ages is designed to foster the creation of a predemocratic society, or “society in embryo,” as Montessori referred to it.

In recent years, the Montessori philosophy has been grasped by those who want to give children an early academic push. This is an unfortunate interpretation of her belief that children should be given the freedom to go ahead in their learning if they so choose. Nevertheless, it fits with the growing trend for hurrying children along (Elkind, 1983). At approximately the same time that Montessori was beginning her children’s house in Rome, a doctor and psychologist named Arnold Gesell was starting a much different trend in this country.

Arnold Gesell.
Arnold Gesell (1880–1961) received his MD from Yale after completing a PhD in psychology at Clark University. For 30 years he carried on research at the Yale Clinic of Child Development, which had strong influences on childhood education, particularly for the early years. The roots of his thinking went back to Froebel, Pestalozzi, and Rousseau. Gesell’s view of the child was related to that of a growing plant or tree or even an accreting coral. He believed that the seeds of adulthood are present from birth, and what is most needed for proper growth is simply proper watering and fertilizing. Gesell’s thinking put the most emphasis on the idea of the unfolding, predetermined plant, but it also left room for the influence of the (less important) environment.

The psychological term that Gesell gave to this automatic unfoldment was maturation. Related to it was the educational term readiness. Observational research in the Yale laboratory suggested to Gesell that there were ages and stages to all aspects of growth: physical, emotional, mental, and school skills. His research led him to establish norms for many behaviors within these areas. For example, he observed that children were biologically ready to read when they had attained a mental age of 6½ years. The school skill of reading, therefore, has the following developmental norms:

15 months: Pats identified picture in book.

18 months: Points to an identified picture in book.

2 years: Names three pictures in book.

3 years: Identifies four printed geometric forms.

4 years: Recognizes salient capital letters.

5 to 6 years: Recognizes salient printed words. (Weber, 1984, p. 57)”

To Gesell’s way of thinking, a child who does not reach these behaviors according to schedule is not a candidate for pushing. His hands-off attitude was reminiscent of Rousseau’s, as he argued the importance of waiting until a child demonstrates the appropriate readiness. Gesell’s arguments were widely heard, and readiness became for many people in early education an important byword. Eventually he was taken to task by other psychological researchers, who noted that he had done his studies at the Yale Clinic of Child Development, where the children’s parents were students and professors. In this privileged atmosphere, norms were established that were posited for the population as a whole. Gesell’s detractors saw this lack of broad-based research and regard for environmental influences as the fatal flaw of his life’s work. Furthermore, many have argued that the developmental schedules he established were too rigid and detailed to have universal application.

Nevertheless, Gesell’s legacy lives on, and work continues at the Gesell Institute in Connecticut. In the 1970s, Louise Ames and others published The Gesell Institute’s Child from One to Six, along with such titles as Your Four Year Old: Wild and Wonderful and Your Six Year Old: Defiant but Loving. Each contained detailed descriptions of what one might expect at each naturally unfolding age. Although the idea of readiness is no longer as popular as it once was, there are still educators and school systems that make use of the Gesell philosophy. The transitional kindergarten is one manifestation of the philosophy in action. The argument for it is that although everyone in a graduating kindergarten class may be close to 6 years old, it is likely that some children lack the mental maturity that will make it comfortable for them to learn to read. Because reading is the core of first-grade instruction, it would be better, the argument goes, to put the unready children into a class of their own. There, they can make the transition to first-grade learning at their own speed.

Letting children learn at their own speed while developing, flowerlike, in an expected sequence, is a Gesell idea that dates back to Rousseau. And whereas it may be argued that this vision of children is a limiting one, the strength of the philosophy—in these days of pushing children too far too soon—is its reluctance to do so.

Although many other historical figures have influenced early education, we complete our in-depth review by describing the two who have probably been the most important in recent times. In many ways they resemble each other, although their differences are often highlighted by educational writers. The first of these figures was a scientist devoted to genetic epistemology who actually preferred to leave the educational implications of his studies of children to other people.

Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget (1896–1980), like Rousseau and Pestalozzi before him, was born in Switzerland. And, like theirs, his childhood was a difficult one, if perhaps not as radically so. In writing about it many years later, he explained that his mother, although intelligent, energetic, and fundamentally a very kind person,” also had a “rather neurotic temperament” that “made our family life somewhat troublesome” (Piaget, 1953, p. 237). To shut off this difficult part of his life, Piaget chose at a very early age to follow an interest in science, modeling himself after his father, “a man of painstaking and critical mind, who dislikes hastily improvised generalizations. . . . Among other things he taught me the value of systematic work, even in small matters” (p. 237).

Turning aside childish play for serious study, Piaget published his first scientific observation (of an albino sparrow) when he was 10 years old. Later he apprenticed himself to a local natural history museum director and developed a lifelong interest in the study of mollusks. Although they were the subject of his doctoral dissertation, they were not the focus of any further study until the last few years of his life. Instead, Piaget took a position in Paris analyzing responses to items on standardized intelligence tests. Soon, he noticed that similar wrong answers were given by children of similar ages, and this led to interviews with the children to satisfy his curiosity as to why this was so. From this initial experience grew a lifelong dedication to the study of the genesis or origins of human knowledge: genetic epistemology.

He returned to Geneva, Switzerland, where he did research at the Institut Jean Jacques Rousseau, observing and interviewing children in the modified Montessori school there, marrying one of his graduate students, then publishing observations of his own children in their early years. Most of his observations of and interviews with children were devoted to cognitive development, but he also published one major study of children’s moral development as well. Although his studies were published in the 1920s and 1930s, it was decades before they were translated into English and thus influential in the United States. Like Montessori, Piaget discovered that eager American educators wanted to use his ideas as a means to push children beyond their developmental readiness.

Piaget’s ideas had elements in common with earlier philosophers and scientists, yet the way in which he fitted those elements into a new view was the work of a revolutionary genius. Piaget rejected the path of those who followed Rousseau in believing that children, like plants, simply needed good tending to grow to their genetically determined fullness. He also chose not to take the path begun by Locke in which children, with their blank slate minds, simply waited to be written on by a nurturing environment. Both nature and nurture, he said, affect how humans develop, so that we need not choose one path but must travel both. In Piaget’s view, a child is born with certain genetic traits and, as he develops, interacts with the environment to construct his own intelligence. Piaget’s view has been called interactionism or constructivism, the latter being the more popular term at this time.

To Piaget, there were four factors that explain early development: maturation, direct physical experience, social transmission, and equilibration. It is equilibration that is fundamental to school learning and refers to the child’s continual process of cognitive self-correction, whose goal is a better sense of equilibrium. There are two subcategories of equilibration: assimilation and accommodation. When children learn something new that they can just add on to their existing store of logic (cognitive structure), they are said to assimilate it. For example, a baby who can crawl and who has seen a ball but never one that is rolling, can put these two bits of knowledge together to crawl after a ball the first time she sees one roll by her. Piaget said that assimilation has a close identification with play, thus making play important to adequate cognitive development.

Accommodation, on the other hand, might be termed more serious learning. In this case, some part of a child’s cognitive structure has to be modified to take in the new learning. Suppose our crawling child has never seen a ball and suddenly one rolls by. The spherical shape, the rolling movement, perhaps the color are all new, and the child must adapt her thinking to take all this in. Of course, she may still take off after it, but the learning is deeper. As you might guess, both assimilation and accommodation go on continually and in combination with each other.

Despite his reluctance to give much advice to educators, Piaget did have some general ideas as to what should happen in the classroom. From the constructivist view, if children create their own intellects, then they should be given the freedom to do so. This argues for play, experimentation, and guided learning activities as opposed to direct instruction and lectures. As one example, Piaget abhorred the behaviorists’ view of mathematics as a drill subject and argued instead for a rich variety of experiences that would lead to deeper understanding. Such learning should begin with concrete activities and only slowly give way to abstract experiences:

Mathematical training should be prepared, starting at nursery school, by a series of exercises related to logic and numbers, lengths and surfaces, etc., and this type of concrete activity must be developed and enriched constantly in a very systematic way during the entire elementary education, to change little by little at the beginnings of secondary education into physical and elementary mechanical experiments. (Piaget, 1972, p. 104)

Piaget (1972) argued that it is better to let children spend more time on a few problems, really working through them, than to cover a lot of territory: “It is in learning to master the truth by oneself at the risk of losing a lot of time and of going through all the roundabout ways that are inherent in real activity” (p. 104). This approach to learning is more closely related to the current Japanese methods than it is to American ones, and every report of mathematical achievement indicates that what the Japanese are doing is more successful than the American concern with vast coverage of material.

Early critics of Piaget faulted him for basing his worldview of children on studies done in his own home. Subsequent research by others, however, seemed to indicate that his creative genius made it possible for him to do successfully what others would frown on. Today, early education is strongly influenced by Piaget, particularly when we put down the skillpacks and dittos in favor of less directive hands-on learning.

Lev Vygotsky
Our final historical figure is, like Piaget, of recent enough influence that research based on his ideas still goes on. If anything, his sphere of influence continues to grow, as Piaget’s remains stable or even begins to diminish. Like Piaget, Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) can be understood and discussed as a constructivist, but his life experiences and political inclinations led him to different conclusions as to how constructions are made.

Probably the word most often used by biographers to describe Vygotsky’s short and difficult life is tragic. Born into a Jewish family in czarist Russia, when an array of laws ensured that Jews could rarely rise to positions of influence or even live where they chose, the young Lev soon became known as a budding intellectual. His love for art, literature, history, and philosophy developed during his adolescence and continued to influence his ideas even years later when his academic interests became more focused on psychology and education (Berk & Winsler, 1995).

By the time Vygotsky was ready to enter university, the government had decreed that a lottery system would be used to determine which Jews would be chosen to fill the allotted 3% of the college population. Miraculously, Vygotsky’s name was drawn, and he was permitted to enroll at Moscow University but not to study the fields he had come to love. Because these could only lead to a teaching career and Jews weren’t allowed to teach, Vygotsky studied medicine for a while, then settled on law. Still restless to learn more, he coenrolled at Shaniavsky People’s University, where professors who had left or been expelled from other institutions for their anticzarist stands had found a home. There, Vygotsky studied the subjects he had loved for so long and graduated from both universities in 1917.

As it turned out, 1917 was not only an important year for Vygotsky but for all of Russia, as anticzarist sentiment led to the government’s downfall, revolutionary conflict and civil war, and the eventual creation of the Soviet Union with its foundations in Marxist socialism. Vygotsky, now able to teach the subjects he most cared about, did so, adding to them pedagogy as he became more and more committed to psychology and education.

In his mid-20s, Vygotsky joined a growing number of Russians who succumbed to tuberculosis, a disease from which he never fully recovered and which eventually cut short his remarkably productive life. During this same period he married, fathered two daughters, and impressed others sufficiently with his thoughts on psychology that he was invited to join the faculty of the Psychological Institute in Moscow.

As Vygotsky developed his theories of human development, he was influenced strongly by the political changes swirling about him. No fan of the repressive czarist regime, he adopted wholeheartedly the promising future that seemed to loom ahead in the Marxist Soviet Union. Thus, whereas Piaget, in the same years, envisioned a theory that dubbed children the creators of their own intelligence, Vygotsky focused on developing a more sociocultural or sociohistorical approach. In Piaget’s case, the influences for his more individualistic view might be traced back to the renaissance of Greek and Roman thought and the rise of democracy; in Vygotsky’s theory construction, the new social views pertaining to Marxism held sway.

For example, Vygotsky argued that children’s development depended on social interaction and “participation in authentic cultural activities” as a mirror of history’s development “by way of collective social movements and conflicts” (Berk & Winsler, 1995,p. 4). Vygotsky put so much emphasis on social interaction, in fact, that he believed it the most important element in the successful development of children with psychological or physical disabilities. That is, a child’s underdevelopment of mental functions is less due to the disability itself than to “what we might call the isolation of an abnormal child from his collective.” Applying this view to education, Vygotsky continued that whereas it would be “hopeless to battle with the defect and its natural consequences, it is valid, fruitful, and promising to struggle with difficulties in collective activities” (cited in Berk & Winsler, p. 83).

Vygotsky’s views had a large influence on the thinking of his colleagues and students as well as on the larger psychological community as he took much of the leadership in his new country of reformulating “psychology according to Marxist methodology in order to develop concrete ways to deal with the massive tasks facing the Soviet Union” (Newman & Holzman, 1993, p. 6). It was, for Vygotsky and many others, a brief period of enthusiastic creativity and idealism.

In the 12 years following his first bout with tuberculosis, Vygotsky wrote or collaborated on nearly 200 papers, striving to complete his best known manuscript, Thought and Language (1934/1962), while on his deathbed. Despite this prodigious output, his work remained unknown outside his circle of colleagues and friends for many years. It was during these years that the dictator Joseph Stalin came to power, creating a repressive regime that squelched creativity and intellectual endeavors. This unfortunate period and beyond became the cold war years, in which little intellectual exchange between the United States and Soviet Russia took place. By the time Thought and Language was translated into English in 1962, Piagetian thought was uppermost in the minds of American educators and educational psychologists. It took another two decades before Vygotsky was truly discovered.

What Americans found when they discovered Vygotsky was a set of theoretical proposals that had been laid aside in some cases and, in others, expanded on over the decades by his colleagues. Some of Vygotsky’s ideas complemented Piaget’s, perhaps answering questions that Piaget’s research had raised. Other ideas were more directly in conflict with Piaget’s, based as they were on socialist ideals rather than on those of a more individualistic society. Some of the major Vygotskian ideas to know about are:

• The importance of language to development. Of all the symbol systems created by humans, language is the most important in Vygotsky’s theory. In infancy, budding language capabilities are used for the sole purpose of social interaction; it is only later, in the preschool years, that language becomes a way of communicating with or influencing the behavior of the self. Because language is so important to early social development, and vice versa, Vygotsky had special concerns for deaf children. They would need extra coaching in their communication skills (primarily focused on lipreading in a time when sign language was not yet respected), and the intensity of the required training would lead to social isolation, a situation opposed to his general philosophy of effective development. Unfortunately, Vygotsky died before his views could be resolved and well before the prejudice against sign language was disspelled.

Both Piaget and Vygotsky observed preschool children talking to themselves, a phenomenon termed private speech. Piaget considered such behavior an example of the egocentric attempts at communication characteristic of the preoperational years, but Vygotsky viewed it as something quite different. Private speech, he observed, doesn’t blossom into better communication during the concrete operational years but goes underground as children begin to whisper to themselves and eventually learn to carry on thought silently as adults do. Thus, he argued, private speech has nothing to do with communication with others and everything to do with communication with the self and even self-regulation of behavior.

Today researchers agree that there are times when preschoolers use language to communicate in egocentric ways, but they have come to prefer the Vygotskian view of private speech and base their studies on it rather than on Piaget’s theory (Berk & Winsler, 1995). It should be noted that Piaget did not read Vygotsky’s Thought and Language until it was translated from the Russian in the early 1960s. In the monograph he wrote in response to the book he stated, “I respect Vygotsky’s position on the issue of egocentric speech, even though I cannot agree with him on all points” (Piaget, 1962).

• Instruction leads and influences development. Although Piaget agreed that education’s role in child development was important, he also argued that teachers should avoid being too intrusive and intervene primarily for the purpose of facilitating the child’s own self-construction. Vygotsky viewed the teacher—formal school teacher, parent, more knowledgeable peer, perhaps—as more directly important to development. His ideas were based, after all, on the importance of social interaction, and when applied to development, social interaction between teacher and learner would naturally hold importance.

The quality of such interaction would determine, to great extent, the quality of development, and the component of Vygotsky’s theory we discuss next addresses this issue. Important to the quality of interaction is the teacher’s ability to know when and to what extent to intercede in a child’s learning and when to pull back. For example, a child who is quickly learning a concept or skill will generally benefit from little interaction with a teacher; a child with special learning needs may benefit most from specific, direct instruction extended over a longer period of time before independence is truly possible.

• The zone of proximal development. This zone is that space between what the child already knows or has mastered and the knowledge that is currently beyond his capabilities. It is the space where learning is challenging but not overly frustrating; where, with some help from a teacher, parent, or peer a child can develop new knowledge.

Vygotsky created the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) in response to his own arguments against intelligence and other tests that determine what a child already knows and has accomplished. To explain his position, he used the analogy of a gardener who must test not only the mature fruit in his orchard but the developing fruit as well if he wishes to know how healthy the orchard really is. “If he is to fully evaluate the state of the child’s development, the psychologist must consider not only the actual level of development but the zone of proximal development” (cited in Newman & Holzman, 1993, p. 56).

The concept of the ZPD is one that has been expanded by colleagues and researchers since Vygotsky’s death. The next section is an example of just such expansion.

• Scaffolding. Vygotsky was certainly concerned about the teaching and learning that occurred within the ZPD, but it was for those who came after him to name and fully develop the idea of scaffolding. As in Piaget’s theory of development, children are seen as self-builders. In Vygotsky’s view, however, the role of the supportive social environment is of greater importance. The scaffolding provided by those in the child’s social world helps him or her to develop to the fullest extent. It thus becomes a primary responsibility of the classroom teacher to identify, where possible, each child’s ZPD and to provide just the right amount of guidance, direction, and encouragement to ensure optimum intellectual, social, and physical development.

Other Contributors
The people we have just discussed are arguably some of the most important figures in the history of early education, but there are many others who are worthy of our attention. Perhaps you have read about them, or soon will, in other contexts. Following is an annotated list of additional names you should know.

Socrates (470–399 B.C.): Greek philosopher and Plato’s teacher who discussed the education of children under the age of 6.

Martin Luther (1483–1546): A German leader of the Protestant Reformation who introduced the idea of music as a school study. Luther believed girls should be educated, too.

Margarethe Schurz (1832–1876): Founded the first U.S. kindergarten in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1855. Classes were conducted in German.

Elizabeth Peabody (1804–1894): Founded the first English-speaking U.S. kindergarten in Boston in 1860.

Susan Blow (1843–1916): Opened the first public kindergarten in the United States in 1873, with the backing and sponsorship of William T. Harris, superintendent of schools, St. Louis, Missouri.

Margaret McMillan (1860–1931): With the help of her sister Rachel, founded the first nursery school dedicated to improving the health and general well-being of preschool children in England. The building was in the style of a lean-to and open to the elements. The curriculum included both cognitive and social focuses.

Patty Smith Hill (1868–1946): A leader in the movement away from strict Froebelianism to more progressive education. She was influenced by Dewey as well as the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, both of whose philosophies were incompatible with much of Froebel’s thought. At Teachers College, Columbia University, she cotaught a series of lectures with Susan Blow in which Hill’s “common sense, practicality, and science” were pitted against Blow’s “erudition, abstraction, and philosophy” (Shapiro, 1983, p. 167). From the point of view of most students and the administration, Hill came out the victor, and Froebelianism took one more step toward a natural death.

John B. Watson (1878–1958): A psychologist who affected childrearing during the 1920s and 1930s. A behaviorist, he recommended little affection between parent and child, suggesting instead that children be treated as adults and given handshakes rather than hugs.

B. F. Skinner (1904–1990): A behaviorist who believed that positive reinforcement is the impetus to increased learning. His thinking has influenced such school programs as assertive discipline, which makes extensive use of reinforcement. The use of extrinsic rewards for academic success is derived from behaviorist thought.

David Weikart: Founder of the Perry Preschool Project, which conducts research with disadvantaged children before and during the Head Start years. Follow-up studies have shown that the benefits of preschool are lasting, even into adulthood.