Pestalozzi, Johann (1746–1827)

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In the history of education, the significant contributions of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi are (1) his educational philosophy and instructional method that encouraged harmonious intellectual, moral, and physical development; (2) his methodology of empirical sensory learning, especially through object lessons; and (3) his use of activities, excursions, and nature studies that anticipated Progressive education.

Career and Development of Educational Theory

The development of Pestalozzi's educational theory is closely tied to his career as an educator. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, Pestalozzi was the son of Johann Baptiste Pestalozzi, a middle-class Protestant physician, and Susanna Hotz Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi's grandfather, Andreas Pestalozzi, a minister in the rural village of Hongg, inspired his evolving philanthropic mission to uplift the disadvantaged Swiss peasantry.

Pestalozzi, who had an overly protected and isolated childhood, considered himself to be socially inept and physically uncoordinated as an adult. His formal education was in institutions in Zurich. He first attended a local primary school and then took the preparatory course in Latin and Greek at the Schola Abbatissana and the Schola Carolina. His higher education was at the Collegium Humanitatis and the Collegium Carolinum, where he specialized in languages and philosophy.

With other university students, Pestalozzi was influenced by Jean Jacques Bodmer, an historian and literary critic, whose reformist ideology urged regenerating Swiss life by renewing the rustic values of the Swiss mountaineers. Pestalozzi joined the Helvetic Society, an association committed to Bodmer's ideals, and wrote for The Monitor, a journal critical of Zurich's officials. Pestalozzi was jailed briefly for his activities, which the authorities deemed subversive.

In 1767 Pestalozzi studied scientific agriculture with Johann Rudolf Tschiffeli, a physiocrat and experimental farmer near Kirchberg. Pestalozzi married Anna Schulthess, daughter of an upper-middle-class Zurich family in 1769. His only child, named Jean Jacques after Rousseau, was born in 1770. After using Rousseau's work Émile as a guide to educating his son, Pestalozzi revised Rousseau's method in How Father Pestalozzi Instructed His Three and a Half Year Old Son (1774). Though still committed to Rousseauean natural education, Pestalozzi began to base instruction on a more empirically based psychology.

In 1774 Pestalozzi established his first institute, a self-supporting agricultural and handicraft school at Neuhof. At its height, the school enrolled fifty pupils, many of whom were indigent or orphaned. Here, Pestalozzi devised simultaneous instruction, a group method to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, financial indebtedness forced the school's closing in 1779.

Pestalozzi published Leonard and Gertrude, a popular didactic novel in 1781, which was followed by a less successful sequel, Christopher and Elizabeth in 1782. Between 1782 and 1784 he wrote educational essays for Ein Schweizer Blatt, the Swiss newspaper. His On Legislation and Infanticide, (1783), condemned killing or abandoning unwanted children. He wrote two children's books: Illustrations for My ABC Book (1787) and Fables for My ABC Book (1795). Pestalozzi's Researches into the Course of Nature in the Development of the Human Race (1797) was a pioneering work in educational sociology.

Pestalozzi re-entered active educational service in 1799 when the Napoleonic-backed Helvetian Republic appointed him director of the orphanage at Stans. Here, he developed his concept of a residential school in which children were educated within an emotionally secure setting. Operating for less than a year, the orphanage closed when French and Austrian armies battled in its vicinity.

Pestalozzi then conducted a residential and teacher training school at Burgdorf from 1800 to 1804. He trained such educators as Joseph Neef, who would introduce Pestalozzianism to the United States, and Friedrich Froebel, the kindergarten's founder.

Pestalozzi's most systematic work, How Gertrude Teaches Her Children (1801) was a critique of conventional schooling and a prescription for educational reform. Rejecting corporal punishment, rote memorization, and bookishness, Pestalozzi envisioned schools that were homelike institutions where teachers actively engaged students in learning by sensory experiences. Such schools were to educate individuals who were well rounded intellectually, morally, and physically. Through engagement in activities, students were to learn useful vocations that complemented their other studies.

Pestalozzi's method rested on two major premises: (1) children need an emotionally secure environment as the setting for successful learning; and (2) instruction should follow the generalized process of human conceptualization that begins with sensation. Emphasizing sensory learning, the special method used the Anschauung principle, a process that involved forming clear concepts from sense impressions. Pestalozzi designed object lessons in which children, guided by teachers, examined the form (shape), number (quantity and weight) of objects, and named them after direct experience with them. Object teaching was the most popular and widely adopted element of Pestalozzianism.

Pestalozzi developed two related phases of instruction: the general and special methods. The general method in which teachers were to create an emotionally secure school environment was a necessary condition for implementing the special method. Emphasizing sensory learning, the special method, using the Anschauung principle, involved forming clear concepts from sense impressions. Pestalozzi designed an elaborate series of graded object lessons, by which children examined minerals, plants, and animals and human-made artifacts found in their environment. Following a sequence, instruction moved from the simple to the complex, the easy to the difficult, and the concrete to the abstract.

Pestalozzi's object lessons and emphasis on sense experience encouraged the entry of natural science and geography, two hitherto neglected areas, into the elementary school curriculum. On guided field trips, children explored the surrounding countryside, observing the local natural environment, topography, and economy. A further consequence of Pestalozzi's work was the movement to redirect instruction from the traditional recitation in which each child recited a previously assigned lesson to simultaneous group-centered instruction.

In 1804 Pestalozzi relocated his institute to Yverdon, where he worked until 1825. He died on February 17, 1827 and was buried at Neuhof, site of his first school.

Diffusion of Educational Ideas

Pestalozzianism was carried throughout Europe and America by individuals he had trained as teachers and by visitors who were impressed with his method. After Gottlieb Fichte promoted Pestalozzianism in his Addresses to the German Nation in 1808, Prussia incorporated selected elements of Pestalozzi's method in its educational reform of 1809 and dispatched teachers to study with him. In the United Kingdom, the Home and Colonial School Society in 1836 established a Pestalozzian teacher training school.

William Maclure, a philanthropist and natural scientist, began Pestalozzianism's introduction to the United States in 1806, when he subsidized Neef's school near Philadelphia. Neef's A Sketch of a Plan and Method of Education (1808) and The Method of Instructing Children Rationally in the Arts of Writing and Reading (1813) promoted Pestalozzian education in the United States. Under Maclure's auspices, Neef, Marie Duclos Fretageot, and William D'Arusmont conducted Pestalozzian schools at Robert Owen's communitarian experiment at New Harmony, Indiana, from 1824 to 1828.

Other American proponents of Pestalozzianism were Henry Barnard and Edward A. Sheldon. Barnard (18111900), a common school leader and U.S. Commissioner of Education, endorsed Pestalozzian education in Pestalozzi and Pestalozzianism (1859). Sheldon (18231897) incorporated the Pestalozzian object lesson in the teacher education program at the Oswego normal school in New York. In 1865 a report of the National Teachers' Association endorsed object teaching.

Certain Pestalozzian elements could be found among American progressive educators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who, like Pestalozzi, opposed traditional schools' formalism and verbalism and emphasized children's interests and needs. Such educational emphases as the child-centered school, child permissiveness, and hands-on process learning had their origins with Pestalozzi.

Pestalozzi's paramount contribution to education was his general philosophy of natural education that stressed the dignity of children and the importance of actively engaging children in using their senses to explore the environment.

Specifically, his legacy to later educators was his emphasis on children's holistic physical, mental and psychological development; his emphasis on empirical learning; his reforms of elementary and teacher education; and his anticipation of child-centered progressivism.

See also: Instructional Strategies; Progressive Education; Sheldon, Edward.


Barlow, Thomas A. 1997. Pestalozzi and American Education. Boulder: Este Es Press, University of Colorado Libraries.

Gutek, Gerald L. 1999. Pestalozzi and Education. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.

Monroe, Will S. 1907. History of the Pestalozzian Movement in the United States. Syracuse, NY: Bardeen.

Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich. 1891. Leonard and Gertrude, tr. Eva Channing. Boston: Heath.

Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich. 1946. Complete Works and Letters; Critical Education, ed. Emanuel Dejung. Zurich: Orell Fussli Verlag.

Silber, Kate. 1973. Pestalozzi: The Man and His Work. New York: Schocken Books.

Gerald L. Gutek