Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

The Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) envisioned a science of education based on the psychology of child development. He laid the foundation of the modern primary school.

Johann Pestalozzi was born in Zurich on Jan. 12, 1746. His father died shortly afterward, and Pestalozzi was raised in poverty. This early experience with the life of degradation of the poor developed in him an acute sense of justice and a determination to help the underprivileged. He chose to enter the ministry, but his studies in theology at the University of Zurich were without distinction. He tried law and politics, but his humanitarianism was mistaken for radicalism and he became very unpopular even with those he sought most to help. In 1769 he settled on his farm, "Neuhof, " at Birr, Switzerland, where he planned to fight poverty by developing improved methods of agriculture.

At Neuhof, Pestalozzi realized that schoolteaching was his true vocation and that as a schoolmaster he could fulfill his desire to improve society by helping the individual to help himself. In 1775 he turned his farm into an orphanage and began to test his ideas on child rearing. In 1780 he wrote The Hours of a Hermit, a series of generally sad maxims reflecting his view of man's somber plight in the world and the failure of his own attempts at reform at Neuhof. He first experienced success with Leonard and Gertrude (1783), which was widely acclaimed and read as a novel and not, as it was intended to be, as an exposition of his pedagogical ideas.

His newfound fame brought Pestalozzi to Stanz, where he took over an orphanage in 1798, and then to Burgdorf, where he ran a boarding school for boys from 1800 to 1804. In 1801 he published How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, a sequel to his earlier novel and an expansion of his educational thought. But it was at Yverdun, where he was the director for the next 20 years of a boarding school for boys of many nationalities, that Pestalozzian principles of education were applied and observed by world leaders.

According to Pestalozzi, "the full and fruitful development" of the child according to his own nature is the goal of education. The school and teachers provide only the environment and guidance, respectively, most appropriate to free expression that allows the natural powers of the child to develop. Instruction should be adapted to each individual according to his particular changing, unfolding nature. Rather than from books, the child should learn by observing objects of the real world. Sense perceptions are of supreme importance in the development of the child's mind. Pestalozzi described such a detailed methodology both for child development and for the study of the child that a definite system of teacher training evolved also.

Honors flowed in; Yverdun became a showplace. These were two causes of the ultimate collapse of the school. Pestalozzi's fame brought out some of his more disagreeable characteristics, and the original atmosphere of fellowship disappeared in the influx of visitors to the school. The school closed amid disputes and lawsuits; Pestalozzi died an embittered man on Feb. 17, 1827, in Brugg. But his ideas were used in establishing national school systems during the 19th century, and his influence among educators continues to be great to this day.


Further Reading on Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

The best books on Pestalozzi are in German. In English the two works of J. A. Green, The Educational Ideas of Pestalozzi (1907) and Life and Work of Pestalozzi (1913), are still useful. Gerald L. Gutek, Pestalozzi and Education (1968), explores Pestalozzi's contributions to contemporary educational theory and practice.

Additional Biography Sources

Downs, Robert Bingham, Heinrich Pestalozzi, father of modern pedagogy, Boston, Twayne Publishers 1975.