In the early 19th century, industrialist, philanthropist and educational pioneer, Robert Owen, argued that an education was about preparing children for life. Two centuries on, Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Technology Sydney, Dr Don Carter, reflects on how these views are still evident in education today.
We tend to take for granted key assumptions about education, particularly the way in which we view children and the notion of childhood. Clearly, we love and value our children for many reasons but especially for who they are and what they might grow into. We acknowledge and celebrate their curiosity, innocence and vitality. And our contemporary views on childhood and the nature of the child can be traced back to assumptions about childhood evident over two centuries ago.
Notions of play, experimentation and explicit teaching have a long history in education. If we look at the 18th century, we can see a watershed in the fashioning of new, more modern attitudes to childhood, with education moving away from a religious, civic and institution-based regime to one that was more secularised, civil, social and experiential. Influential during this period was Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Rousseau’s conceptualisation of childhood centred on the status of the child being elevated to that of a person, a specific class of being with needs and desires and even individual rights, with the importance of independent thinking from an early age at the forefront, while Locke’s view of childhood held that the child’s natural state was a ‘tabula rasa’, founded on the hypothesis that all knowledge is acquired through sensory experience.
While specific notions of childhood had their advocates, the child as the source of uncorrupted wisdom and harmony that was both redemptive and healing for the adult was promoted through the poetry of William Wordsworth (1770-1850) who celebrated the transcendent and transfigured archetypal child and exerted a profound influence on philosophies of childhood and education during the Romantic period.
In fact, a version of the acclamation of childhood found expression in Scotland at the village of New Lanark, southeast of Glasgow, in 1776.
Established by David Dale (1739-1806), the village and factories were further developed by his son-in-law, Robert Owen (1771-1858) who established a school for the children of his mill workers. Here, Owen promoted a view that an effective education had to connect with children and their interests and like Rousseau, highlighted the significance of infancy and early childhood, emphasising these as the basis of a healthy and positive adulthood.
Influential in Owen’s thinking was the educational practice of Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827). Owen visited Pestalozzi’s school at Yverdun in Switzerland in 1818 and was impressed with Pestalozzi’s approach. Here, children were engaged through ‘sense impressions’ where they examined the shapes and varieties of different objects and then named and interpreted these objects. Pestalozzi developed carefully graded lessons requiring children to move from the simple to the complex through the examination of minerals, animals, plants and human-made artefacts, emphasising natural science and geography. Children explored the local countryside, noting topography, flora and fauna and investigated issues and features of interest.
Owen set out his principles in A New View of Society (1813), a treatise heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking where he consequently set about shortening the hours of his mill workers, repairing their houses and cleaning the streets of the village. In addition, he ensured that company stores stocked high quality goods to be sold at cost and children under the age of 10 were taken out of the factories and enrolled in the local school. And it was at this school that children were treated kindly and learned not through memorisation, but through the study of natural objects from the local woods, engaged in song and dance as well as precision drills and movements. As a result, the New Lanark site and school became an international phenomenon, attracting 20,000 visitors between 1815 and 1825.
More specifically, and during this era where usual educational practice often emphasised the rote learning of facts, Owen argued education was preparation for life, the development of character and the equipping of children to be able to think critically about information presented to them, rather than mere memorisation. He advocated education for the child from an early age with the teacher acting as a nurturer, to ensure that learning was as enjoyable and rewarding as possible.
Many of the sentiments evident in Owen’s era carried over into the 1905 NSW primary schools syllabus. In this syllabus, the interests of children were to be the basis of lessons; sense impressions appeared as Nature Knowledge where children observed the “nature of school surroundings” including “plant and animal life within reach of the children’s opportunities”. The development of character was expressed as “upright conduct” and “moral obligations… to the family, to society, and to the State”.
And more recently, the Australian Curriculum aims for children to “make informed decisions and act responsibly”, emphasising that “appreciation of the world is provided through exploratory, analytical and creative practices”. In addition, our national curriculum says that children’s “desire to make sense of the world provides a platform to plan and review their learning through interactions with others, experimentation, scaffolding, explicit teaching, practice and play in the classroom and beyond”. And the Melbourne Declaration Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008) aims to ensure that children “act with moral and ethical integrity” and “(be) prepared for their potential life roles as family, community and workforce members”.
Our valorisation of childhood in educational thinking can be traced back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries and we can certainly assign Robert Owen in Scotland as one of the pioneers whose work provided a strong educational inheritance still evident in curriculum today.
Dr Don Carter is senior lecturer in Education at the University of Technology Sydney. He has a PhD, Master of Education (Honours), Master of Education (Curriculum), Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma of Education. Dr Carter is a former Inspector, English at the NSW curriculum authority and led a range of projects including the English K-10 Syllabus. His research interests include the effects of standardised testing, literacy pedagogies and curriculum theory and history. Dr Carter has published extensively on a range of issues including curriculum reform, English education and standardised testing.