Pestalozzi Education Today Essay

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Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (January 12, 1746 – February 17, 1827) was a Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer, who greatly influenced the development of the educational system in Europe and America. Not only was he an innovative teacher, but he was also committed to social reform, and carried out several humanitarian projects involving children orphaned during war. His educational method emphasizes the importance of providing a loving, family-type environment in which the child can grow and flourish naturally, becoming a whole person balancing their intellectual, physical, and technical abilities, with emotional, moral, ethical, and religious growth. According to Pestalozzi, when individuals are well educated in this way, social improvement and regeneration occurs.

Although his ideas were adopted with considerable initial success in many parts of the world, the social problems he sought to solve continued, and even his own schools were unable to maintain the harmonious "family" atmosphere he advocated, finally closing due to bitter disputes and conflicts among the teachers that lasted several years. Without solving the problematic relationships within families, which, after his time, increasingly led to divorce and family breakdown, his educational method was doomed to suffer the same failures.


Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was born in Zürich, Switzerland on January 12, 1746. His father died when Johann was only five, and his mother raised Johann and his sister alone. Johann started his formal education rather late, at the age of nine, but successfully completed school on time. He initially enrolled to study ministry at the University of Zürich, but due to his shyness he decided to switch his major from theology to law.

At the University of Zürich, Pestalozzi met Johann Kasper Lavater and the reform party. He entered the world of politics. However, the death of his friend Johann Kasper Bluntschli turned him from politics, and induced him to devote himself to education.

Through his association with reformists, Pestalozzi had become aware of social problems, which helped him develop a deeper sense for human suffering. He began to research different ideas and schemes for improving the condition of the people. Influenced by the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to "go back to nature," Pestalozzi started a social experiment—he purchased a piece of waste land at Neuhof in Aargau, where he attempted to cultivate madder, a plant whose roots can be used as a source of red dye. His idea was to use this farm as a way of providing shelter and education for orphans.

Pestalozzi married his childhood friend and they had their first child, Jacobi, soon after. He developed his teaching methods from teaching Jacobi based on Rousseau's ideas in Emile. His wife proved to be a “down-to-earth” woman, who helped her husband curb many of his impractical ideas. His social experiment with a group of orphans was successful for five whole years. Nevertheless, the project failed financially and the family went bankrupt in 1780. However, when everything looked hopeless, Elizabeth Naef, a neighbor, fortunately turned the whole farm project into a successful business and saved Pestalozzi’s project.

In 1780, Pestalozzi wrote a series of reflections The Evening Hours of a Hermit, which outlined his basic theory that education begins at home and should occur naturally through direct experience. This was followed by his masterpiece, Leonard and Gertrude (1781), an account of the gradual reformation, first of a household, and then of a whole village, by the efforts of a good and devoted woman. This work became a bestseller in Germany, and the name of Pestalozzi became internationally recognized.

The French invasion of Switzerland in 1798 brought into view Pestalozzi’s truly heroic character. A number of children were left in Stans, in Canton Unterwalden, on the shores of Lake Lucerne, without parents, home, food, or shelter. Pestalozzi gathered a number of them in a deserted convent, which he turned into an orphanage. During the winter he personally tended them with the utmost devotion, but in June 1799 the French reclaimed the building for use as a hospital, and the orphanage was closed.

In 1799, Pestalozzi started yet another project. He volunteered his service as a teacher to the village of Burgdorf, where he used his own educational methods in his work with children. However, due to the non-traditional nature of his teaching, the villagers became suspicious of Pestalozzi’s success, with the result that he was compelled to open his own private school. In a short time, with two additional teachers, the school became the center of international attention and fame, and received government support.

In 1801, Pestalozzi gave an exposition of his ideas on education in the book How Gertrude teaches her Children. In 1802, he went as deputy to Paris, and tried unsuccessfully to interest Napoleon I of France in a scheme of national education.

In 1805, Pestalozzi moved his school to a castle at Yverdon, near Neuchâtel, and for 20 years he worked steadily on this project. It became famous worldwide, and he was visited by all who took an interest in education, including Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, Count Ioannis Antonios Kapodistrias, and Anne Louise Germaine de Staël. He was praised by Wilhelm von Humboldt and by Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Many visiting educators studied his methods and incorporated them into their own teaching, including Carl Ritter and Friedrich Fröbel. Educational systems in countries all over Europe were modified to reflect Pestalozzi’s ideas.

As the Yverdon School grew in size, it lost its family spirit as some of the teachers changed Pestalozzi’s original ideas, which resulted in numerous quarrels and conflicts. After the school closed in 1826, Pestalozzi retired to his Neuhof farm, at the age of eighty. There, he wrote his last work, the Swan Song. He died soon after, on February 17, 1827.


Pestalozzi’s principles of education are predominantly expressed in his seminal work How Gertrude Teaches her Children. In it, he argued that young children should learn through experience—through physical activity and through concrete experiences with objects, and not through the world of words by studying books. His ideas can be summarized under the following three topics:

Goal of Education

The goal of education is not to impart knowledge, but to unfold the natural faculties latent and hidden in every human being. In another words, educators need to focus on the human being, a child, and not on education per se.

Pestalozzi presented two general purposes of education: for development of the individual and for the improvement of society. On the individual level, educators should strive to educate the whole child, not just their intellect. Physical or technical knowledge, as well as emotional development, are also important. He stressed that there should be balance between the head, hands, and heart, i.e. between intellectual knowledge (head), physical and technical education (hands), and moral and religious education (heart). Through developing a balance among these three areas, a person becomes a "whole man."

On the social level, education provides the means for general development of the whole society. In other words, the more the individuals in a society develop intellectually, emotionally, morally, and socially through education, the more educated and regenerated the whole society becomes. For Pestalozzi, therefore, education plays a central role in the improvement of society.

Method of Education

Pestalozzi asserted that education should be centered on the child, not the curriculum. Since knowledge lies within human beings, the purpose of teaching is to find the way to unfold that hidden knowledge. Pestalozzi advocated direct experience as the best method to accomplish this. He also advocated spontaneity and self-activity, in contrast to the rigid, teacher-centered, and curriculum-based methods used in other schools.

Teachers should not teach through words (giving children ready-made answers), but allow children to discover answers themselves. Nothing is better than a direct sensory experience. Thus, in early education, Pestalozzi recommended that children use no books, but rather learn through direct experience.

He advocated an inductive method, in which the child first learns to observe, to correct its own mistakes, and to analyze and describe the object of inquiry. The child starts with simple objects and simple observation, and builds toward more complex and abstract things. Only after that can the child start to use books.

In order to allow children to obtain more experience from nature, Pestalozzi expanded the elementary school curriculum to include geography, natural science, fine art, and music.

Discipline in the classroom

Pestalozzi maintained that the classroom should be like a family. The atmosphere must be loving and caring, like in a good Christian family, where the family members are cooperative, loving, and kind to one another. He developed the idea of the “family classroom” from the way his mother raised him and his sister. Pestalozzi said "There can be no doubt that within the living room of every household are united the basic elements of all true human education in its whole range" (Smith 2005). Family is thus, for Pestalozzi, an essential component of education.

Based on this assumption, Pestalozzi suggested that teachers always need to be loving and kind, and earn the trust of the children. He believed that "without love, neither the physical nor the intellectual powers will develop naturally" (Smith 2005). He viewed harsh discipline, as was commonly used in schools at that time, as only serving to alienate children from the teachers, and thus prevent their normal, natural development, particularly in areas of morality and ethics.


In essence, Pestalozzi used Rousseau’s ideas, adapted them, and implemented them in a more practical way. He addressed the tension in education, recognized by Rousseau, between the individual's freedom and the responsibilities as a citizen. Pestalozzi not only theorized about education, but also put his ideas into practice through the Neuhof and Yverdon projects, which laid the foundation for what became known as the “Pestalozzi Method.”

As Pestalozzi himself once said, the real work of his life did not lie in Burgdorf or Yverdon; it lay in the principles of education which he practiced, the development of his observation, the training of the whole man, the sympathetic application of the teacher to the taught, of which he left an example in his efforts at the orphanage in Stans.

Pestalozzi not only inspired elementary school educators in Europe, but also impacted American education. The Normal School at Oswego, New York became the center of Pestalozzi education in the United States. An investigation by the National Educational Association in 1965 reported favorably on the results, and soon after, normal schools across the nation adopted the Oswego plan, based on his method.

Pestalozzi had a profound effect on all branches of education, and his influence is far from being exhausted. However, his hope that this method of education would lead to the resolution of social problems and regeneration of society has not been realized. In fact, even his own schools failed and were closed after serious disputes erupted among the teachers—not exactly the loving family atmosphere he advocated. Unfortunately, there is a clear parallel between these problems in his schools and the problems within families, leading to family breakdown and divorce. In this case, it appears that the well-known sociologistEmile Durkheim was correct in his observation that education is a reflection of society, and so problems in education cannot be solved without first solving those problems in society.


  • Pestalozzi, Johann H. 1977. How Gertrude Teaches Her Children: Pestalozzi's Educational Writings: Two works (Significant Contributions to the History of Psychology 1750-1920). University Publications of America. ISBN 0313269378


  • This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, a publication in the public domain.
  • Silber, Kate. 1973. Pestalozzi: The Man and his Work (3rd edition). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710021186
  • Smith, Mark K. 2005. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi


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Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi
Pestalozzi with the orphans in Stans (detail); oil on canvas painting by Konrad Grob, 1879

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 (1811–1900), a common school leader and U.S. Commissioner of Education, endorsed Pestalozzian education in Pestalozzi and Pestalozzianism (1859). Sheldon (1823–1897) 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.


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.

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