Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was a social and educational reformer and writer in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He believed that society could best be changed by education and that the reform began with assisting the individual students to help themselves.1 Besides teaching children with his unique methods, Pestalozzi also taught education leaders of his day, including Friedrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten movement. Additionally, his methods and writings influenced later educational leaders and philosophers, such as Johann Friedrich Herbart, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget2 and became the foundation of elementary education today.3

Unlike his contemporaries, Pestalozzi believed that “life for the young child should be happy and free, and education in self-control should be gradual and careful... Pressure to learn beyond the child's natural pace is harmful, and the denying of opportunities to learn by trial and error retards the development of character as well as of learning.”4 He also felt that “play is a natural gift, propensity, or inclination of children, and following its dictates would result in a free-play approach” to an effective education.5

Born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1746, Pestalozzi's family was a Protestant middle class family until his father died in his early childhood. His mother, Susanna, continued to raise him as they struggled financially. These experiences and the influence of his paternal grandfather, a rural minister, inspired Pestalozzi to seek to assist the disadvantaged and poor children through an effective education, something not common at that time.

Pestalozzi's own education began with the local primary school and continued at the Schola Abbatissana and Schola Carolina where he studied Latin and Greek. At the university, he studied languages and philosophy at the Collegium Humanitartis and the Collegium Carolinum in Zurich. At the university Pestalozzi was influenced by the controversial reformer Jean Jacques Bodmer and Jean Jacques Rousseau's Emile. He joined and wrote for the Helvetic Society, a Catholic and Protestant student society dedicated to improving education and reforming the government. His studies, however, were cut short by his brief imprisonment due to Helvetic activities the authorities considered “subversive.”6

At twenty one years of age in 1767, Pestalozzi apprenticed under Johann Rudolf Tschiffeli, a physiocrat and experimental farmer. Two years later in 1769, he married Anna Schulthess, built a house, and continued to farm some marginal land near Zurich.7 Their son, Jean Jacques was born the following year, and Pestalozzi began to modify Rousseau's ideas to raise his only child. In the process he discovered the importance of an experimental method of teaching, a concept he expanded in How Father Pestalozzi Instructed His Three and a Half Year Old Son published in 1774.

By then the marginal farm was not able to support them, so Pestalozzi and Anna established an agricultural and handicraft school at their home, the Neuhof. At that time it was the custom for farmers to take in “waifs and strays” and use them as “slave labor.”8 Instead the Pestalozzis began an experiment of providing a good home, an education, and training in a vocational skill for which the indigent children would work in the fields in the summer and spin cotton in the winter. They started with 20 children, who worked happily alongside their son. Through support from the Bern Council of Commerce and the Bern Agricultural Society they were able to add students until they had 50 children. Pestalozzi created a group method of teaching school subjects in order to accommodate the children, and the farm school thrived until parents wanted their now trained children back. Consequently, the Pestalozzis were bankrupt by 1779.9

Over the next 18 years, Pestalozzi wrote on educational, political, and economic ways of “improving the lot of the poor.”10 He began by detailing his educational theories in “The Evening Hour of a Hermit” (1780) and ended with an educational sociology work, “Researches into the Course of Nature in the Development of the Human Race” (1797). In between he wrote essays for a newspaper, two children's books, and the popular novel, Leonard and Gertrude (1781). The latter was considered by some as the “first realistic representation of rural life in German” as well as a depiction of the ideal educational and social setting for a town.11 Through his writings, Pestalozzi's influence in social and educational reform began to be noticed throughout Europe.

After the French Revolution, Pestalozzi turned down the now Helvetian Republic invitation to organize education for the new Switzerland. Instead he accepted the charge of war orphans in Stans, where he established for a few months an emotionally safe residential school. During that time he wrote, “My children soon became more open, more contented and more susceptible to every good and noble influence than anyone could possibly have foreseen... the impression of weariness which habitually reigns in schools vanished like a shadow from my classroom. They willed, they had power, they persevered, they succeeded, and they were happy.”12

The Stans experience confirmed his educational theories of the importance of an emotionally secure environment and the necessity of teaching with the “Anschauung” method, an incrementally expanding process that begins with direct observations utilizing the senses - the ancestor of the modern “object lesson.” After the Stans school Pestalozzi briefly directed an infant school for which he received high praise from the Burgorf School Commission. They wrote,

“By your method of teaching you have proved how to lay the groundwork of instruction in such a way that it may afterwards support what is built on it...Between the ages of five and eight, a period in which according to the system of torture enforced hitherto, children have learnt to know their letters, to spell and read, your scholars have not only accomplished all this with a success as yet unknown, but the best of them have already distinguished themselves by their good writing, drawing, and calculating. In them all you have been able so to arose and excite a liking for history, natural-history, mensuration, geography, etc., that thus future teachers must find their task a far easier one if they only know how to make good use of the preparatory stage the children have gone through with you.”13

Pestalozzi wrote of his method in How Gertrude Teaches Her Children (1801) in which he rejected the corporal punishment and rote memorization of the day. He replaced flogging with an atmosphere of love and kindness and individual memorization with sensory exploration of the concrete world in a playful approach. Additionally, he believed in the balanced approach of educating the whole child through including the “head, hands, and heart.”14

With the support of the Society of the Friends of Education and a village schoolteacher Krilsi, in 1800 Pestalozzi established an education center at a Burgdorf castle which eventually included a day school for war orphans, an orphan asylum, a boarding school for the wealthier, a “normal school” for training teachers, and an educational research and schoolbook preparation center.15 By 1804 politics threatened to dissolve the center which was then moved to Yverdun where their focus narrowed to teaching children and in the process researching and refining the Pestalozzi method.

Over the next 20 years, Yverdun became an educational Mecca, bringing visitors as well as students. For example, philosopher Gottlieb Fichte brought Pestalozzi's ideas to the Germans and Prussia sent students and teachers to be trained. Friedrich Froebel studied there for two years before establishing the first kindergartens, Henry Barnard brought Pestalozzi's ideas to America, and later the United Kingdom established a teacher training school based on Pestalozzian methods.16

During this time, Pestalozzi also established a school for girls (1807) and one for children with hearing and/or speech disabilities (1813).17 For all students he included physical exercises in the schools, including time for free outside activities, which he felt promoted “cheerfulness, comradely spirit, frankness, courage and perseverance.”18 Pestalozzi felt that the object of education was “not a perfection in the accomplishments of the school, but fitness for life; not the acquirement of habits of blind obedience and of prescribed diligence, but a preparation for interdependent action.”19

Eventually, as the Yverdun schools grew they became corrupted by internal squabbling and the teachers' push to achieve academic recognition instead of being content to pace their teaching to the children’s needs. By 1825 the school center closed, and Pestalozzi moved back to Neuhof where he wrote, taught in the village school, organized a Poor School, and became president of the Helvetic Society. In one of his final writings, Swan's Song, Pestalozzi wrote a concise conclusion of his method: “Life itself educates.”20 At the age of 81 years, Pestalozzi died in 1827 and was buried at Neuhof.

  • 1. Frost, Joe L. A History of Children's Play and Play Environments. New York, NY: Routledge. 2010. p. 24.
  • 2. “Pestalozzi.” < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 3. “Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich.” Knox College. < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 4. “The Life and Work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) A Founder of Modern Educational Methods.” The Development of Education. < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 5. Op.cit., Frost. p. 26.
  • 6. “Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) – Career and Development of Educational Theory, Diffusion of Educational Ideas.” < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Op.cit., “The Life and Work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.”
  • 9. Op.cit., “The Life and Work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.”
  • 10. Op.cit., “Pestalozzi.”
  • 11. Op.cit., “Pestalozzi.”
  • 12. Op.cit., “The Life and Work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.”
  • 13. Op.cit., “The Life and Work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.”
  • 14. Smith, Mark K. “johann heinrich pestalozzi.” May 8, 1997 infed. < > 20 Sep 2012.
  • 15. Op.cit., “The Life and Work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.”
  • 16. Op.cit., “Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich.” and “Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) – Career and Development.”
  • 17. “Interesting Facts about Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.” The History of Education at ExtremeIntellect. < > 20 Sep. 2012.
  • 18. “Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) The Approach and Method of Education.” The Development of Education. < > 14 Oct. 2012.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Op.cit., “Pestalozzi.”