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Johann Heinrich PestalozziHeinrich Pestalozzi

developer of the theory that the purpose of education is to expose the natural powers and faculties latent in every human being

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on January 12, 1746. Although he did not begin formal schooling until the age of nine, and had a less than impressive elementary record, he still managed to graduate from the University of Zurich.

In 1775, Pestalozzi bought a farm near Neuhof, Switzerland, where he established a free school for orphans and vagrant or abandoned children. Using methods he had learned while teaching his own son, Jacobi, he successfully educated children who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to go to school. Although the school survived for five years without regular patronage, he was finally forced to close it and declare bankruptcy. He was able to save his farm, however, thanks to the services of a neighbor, who managed it so well that the Pestalozzi family was never again in need.

Pestalozzi spent the next several years working his farm, and refining his educational techniques. In 1781, he published The Evening Hours of a Hermit, a series of observations on education and life. That same year, he also published the first volume of his novel Leonard and Gertrude, which incorporated many of his ideas about educational and social reform; the fourth and last volume was published in 1785. Although the book soon became an educational classic, it brought him little money. Fables, a collection of animal stories with simple morals, and Inquiry, a philosophical work, were both published in 1791.

In 1798, Pestalozzi offered to assist the orphans of Stanz following the destruction caused by the Swiss Revolution. He spent five successful months there, despite criticism from both religious and educational leaders. The orphange was forced to close after another round of war and destruction.

In 1799, Pestalozzi volunteered his services to the village of Burgdorf. When villagers became suspicious of his teaching methods, he decided to establish his own private school. This school soon began attracting international attention and fame, which in turn gained Pestalozzi government support for the first time. A complete and systematic treatise on Pestalozzi's teaching methods was published in 1801, under the title How Gertrude Teaches Her Children.

Pestalozzi moved his school to a castle at Yverdon in 1805, and it remained there for the next twenty years. During that time, Pestalozzi's school attracted students and teacher from around the world. Representatives from Prussia were so impressed with the school that they took Pestalozzi's methods back to Prussia and used them to completely revamp that nation's elementary educational system.

Pestalozzi closed his school and retired to his farm in 1826. He died on February 17, 1827.

Pestalozzi's Theories and Methods

Pestalozzi believed that the purpose of education was to expose the natural powers and faculties latent in every human being. And, since the moral, social, emotional and intellectual development of each individual unfolds through education, society is improved by those individuals who achieve their full potential.

To help the child achieve his full potential, Pestalozzi expanded the elementary school curriculum to include geography, science, drawing, and music. While most teachers of the day did little more than lecture to their students, Pestalozzi emphasized that the teacher should never teach by words when a child could see, hear or touch an object for himself. He expected the child to be continually active in seeing for himself, making and correcting mistakes, describing his observations, analyzing objects, and satisfying his natural curiosity. He also took books out of his classrooms, stressing the need for direct and concrete experience instead.

In addition to how students were taught, Pestalozzi also changed the way in which students were treated. He deplored the harsh treatment of children that was normal in schools of the day, and truly believed that such treatment prevented the natural development of children. Rather than demand respect, Pestalozzi asserted that the teacher must earn the trust of his charges. He believed that the schoolroom must possess the atmosphere of a loving Christian family, the members of which are cooperative, loving and kind to one another.

Pestalozzi's theories and methods proved so successful that they still form the basis of elementary educational systems around the world.

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This page was last updated on February 13, 2017.