Playful Learning: Concerns about the British Primary School Curriculum Made Their Way onto the Political Agenda Last Year with the Publication of the Interim Rose Report. with the Full Report Imminent, Richard Willis Looks at the History of Progressive Education and Ponders Its Future

By Willis, Richard | History Today, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Playful Learning: Concerns about the British Primary School Curriculum Made Their Way onto the Political Agenda Last Year with the Publication of the Interim Rose Report. with the Full Report Imminent, Richard Willis Looks at the History of Progressive Education and Ponders Its Future


Willis, Richard, History Today


Rousseau's philosophy of allowing school children to 'develop their senses without restraint' has not been a priority of UK education policy in recent years. Testing the 'three R's' (reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic) ad infinitum has been more the trend. But, it now seems that the use of so-called progressive methods in early years education is experiencing a revival. The government is supporting small-scale initiatives using the holistic, child-centred approaches to learning promoted by such education luminaries as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori. So what did these thinkers see as the true benefits of progressive education and how is it being applied today?

Rousseau (1712-78) published Emile, his collection of thoughts on education, in 1762. The work has had a huge impact on educational theory and practice and is still highly regarded. Rousseau's original theories linked education to nature and countered the view of the child as an object to be managed totally by adults to fit in with adult society. Education had previously been dominated by what historians refer to as a 'traditional' approach underpinned by authoritarian precepts and corporal punishment. Instead, Rousseau regarded children as human beings who should be allowed to develop their natural goodness and individuality, and not be controlled by parents. He wrote that, as toddlers began to learn to walk and talk, they should be free from 'unnatural' restraint and that children should be allowed to develop their five senses without restriction.

Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) implemented Rousseau's ideas at the school he founded in Yverdon, Switzerland in 1805; and he wrote about his methods in How Gertrude Teaches Her Children (1801). He wanted children to learn through activity and play, and to be taught in a way that would allow the learner to be free from the constraints of more traditional forms of learning: children would rely more on discovering for themselves and less on the 'corrupting passions' and 'second-hand opinions' of others, whether derived from books or society. Pestalozzi elaborated on Rousseau's theories and underlined the principle that an individual's mind, when faced with a mass of confused objects, would endeavour to discover three things: how many and what kinds of objects are presented to him; their appearance, form, or outline; and their names--how he may represent them by a sound or a word.

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The German educationist Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) believed that children should be educated in a way that promoted creativity and he is sometimes referred to as 'the Playmaster'. Froebel's techniques are still valued and supporters claim that his theories are as relevant to university education as they are to nursery instruction. His system, explained in The Education of Man (1826), was based on instructive play. Inspired by Rousseau and Pestalozzi, Froebel's enduring legacy was the 'kindergarten' system, which emphasised play and the use of 'gifts' (play materials) and 'occupations' (activities) rather than prescriptive learning. A committed Christian, Froebel considered that the individual was essentially productive and creative and that self-fulfilment is achieved through individual creativity. He also thought that learning should be fun. Deprived of a mother at an early age, he had had a difficult upbringing with a father who seemed to care little for him.

Froebel's concepts were supported and put into practice by such educators as Bertha von Marenholtz-Bulow (1810-1893) and the philosopher Friedrich Diesterweg (1790-1866). The American educational commentator W.H. Kilpatrick, writing in 1916, said Froebel affected people's whole perception of childhood. The International Froebel Society was formed at a conference in Dresden in October 2002 and continues to develop his child-centred philosophy, providing opportunities for research and debate on early childhood education.

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Playful Learning: Concerns about the British Primary School Curriculum Made Their Way onto the Political Agenda Last Year with the Publication of the Interim Rose Report. with the Full Report Imminent, Richard Willis Looks at the History of Progressive Education and Ponders Its Future
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