Article Index

Active learning

By Laurie Huberman

There has been a current of thought and practice in education dating back to the 19th century which prones the active engagement of children in the learning process. This is in contrast to the more passive experience of listening to teachers, taking notes, watching what they do, memorizing and imitating what is presented.

Such practices aim to instruct students through their active engagement in problem solving, creative work, critical thinking, projects etc. Over the past century and more there have been a number of thinkers and practitioners whose ideas have been taken up, published, spread and put into practice so as to advance their differing but nevertheless similar visions of what such active learning should be like. We have put together a list of some of the most influential and respected figures who have developed the ideas and practices of active education and included information about their most important contributions to the field.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (12 January 1740 – 17 February 1827)

By Laurie Huberman

Pestalozzi was a Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer who founded several educational institutions in both German and French-speaking regions of Switzerland. He wrote many works about his revolutionary modern principles of education: “learning by head, hand and heart.” He was a Romantic who was inspired by Rousseau. He argued that children should learn through concrete activities and things, that they should be free to pursue their own interests and draw their own conclusions.

For further reading: Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: pedagogy, education and social justice

John Dewey: (Oct 20, 1859-June 1, 1952)

By Laurie Huberman

Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and influential reformer in education. He wrote many books on education and argued that learning was a social and interactive process and that students thrive when they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum. In 1894, Dewey started an experimental primary school at the University of Chicago. Its curriculum emphasized the child instead of the subject matter, the learning process over what was learned.

In 1904 he was already writing about many of the themes found in current educational proposals, recognizing that students need to be prepared for an unknowable future.

For further reading:

Works by John Dewey at project Gutenberg

*Democracy and Education: An introduction to the Philosophy of Education by John Dewey
*The Child and the Curriculum by John Dewey
*Moral Principles in Education by John Dewey
*Schools of To-morrow by Evelyn Dewey and John Dewey

John Dewey,

My Pedagogic Creed by John Dewey

John Dewey, Inquiry, & Progressive Education (Part 1) (Sean Steel)

Rudolf Steiner (27 February 1881-20 March 1925)

By Laurie Huberman

Steiner was an Austrian philosopher, author, social reformer, architect and esotericist. He was first known as a literary critic and philosopher. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century he founded an esoteric spiritual movement called anthroposophy. Around 1907, he began collaboration with the artistic media, including drama, movement arts and architecture. At this time he also wrote an essay on education, describing the major phases of child development. Finally, after World War I, he worked to establish a number of practical endeavors including, amongst others, Waldorf education.

Waldorf schools grew from ideas presented at a conference in 1922. Now there are more than 1000 Waldorf schools worldwide. These schools emphasize the importance of creativity and focus on the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of each student. The underlying spiritual dimension has led to some criticism of its rigidity and practices.

For further reading:

Works by Rudolf Steiner at Project Gutenberg for Waldorf education (a promotional film)

Ecole Steiner-Waldorf Verrieres: Un autre chemin vers l'ecole

Maria Montessori ( 31 August, 1870- 6 May, 1952)

By Laurie Huberman

Montessori was an Italian physician and educator best known for the philosophy of education that bears her name. Her educational method is presently in use in public and private schools throughout the world. After completing medical school in Rome, in 1886, Montessori first worked with children suffering from some kind of mental retardation. In 1900 she was named co-director of a newly opened Orthophrenic School for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children. Here she developed methods and materials which she would later adapt to use with mainstream children through an approach she came to call “scientific pedagogy”. From this, Montessori went on in 1907 to open her first class for normal children. This had a structured program which became popular and soon spread first in Italy and then beyond. Montessori wrote and traveled widely in Europe and the USA to promote her pedagogy as well as her ideas about peace and the interdependence of all elements in the natural world. She died at the age of 81 while living in the Netherlands.

Montessori method: a method of educating young children that stresses the importance of working from a child's own initiatives and natural abilities, especially around play. Special environments are set up to meet the needs of students in three age groups.

For further reading:

Maria Montessori,

Montessori, Maria, The Discovery of the Child

Montessori education,

Principles of the Montessori Method,

Montessori, c'est fou (Trevor Eissler), Une journee a la Maison des Enfants Montessori du Pre-Saint Gervais et de Montreuil (92) Ecole Montessori du Pays d'Apt-Villars (84) Feb. 2012

Ovide Decroly (23 July 1871 – 10 September, 1932)

By Laurie Huberman

Jean-Ovide Decroly was a Belgian teacher and psychologist. He studied medicine and later worked with mentally handicapped children at a clinic in Brussels. In 1907, Decroly founded the Hermitage School, which still functions today. In this school he intended to focus on the “biosocial needs” of children. According to this theory,it is vital to recognize that learning begins with the spontaneous activity of a child and the best environment is one that presents children with real problems to solve. Decroly insisted on a respectful attitude towards the originality of children and the need to allow free expression of their needs and to nurture social harmony.

For further reading:

Besse, J.M., Decroly: un modele d'ecole?

Dubruecq, F., “L'Ecole Decroly” Psycologie de l'enfant et Pedagogie experimentale, 623, II, 1990

Dubreucq, F., Les Programmes Scolaires et leurs Usagers, Cahiers Decroly, Bruxelles: Ecole Decroly l'Hermitage, 1986 (A Decroly-inspired public school in France)

Pédagogies du XXe siècle : les méthodes d'Ovide Decroly et de Célestin Freinet, Jean-Michel Dufays (in French)

Adolphe Ferrière (30 August, 1879 – 16 June, 1960)

By Laurie Huberman

Adolphe Ferrière, a Swiss who lived most of his life in Geneva, was one of the founders of the progressive education movement. He taught briefly and founded an experimental school in Lausanne, but had to abandon teaching due to his deafness. He founded a New Education Fellowship which included both Maria Montessori and Celestin Freinet. From the 1920s, he wrote many books on his concept of Active Education, criticizing traditional education which he found to be stuck in the Middle Ages. He looked for a pedagogy founded on meaningful tasks that were motivated by direct access to a social reality, to individual initiatives and group work.

For further reading:

Ferriere, Adolphe, L'école active, Neuchâtel, Genève, etc. Forum, 1922 (reimprim. 1953) “Qu'est-ce que l'Ecole Active?” Adolphe Ferriere, 1922

Celestin Freinet (15 October, 1896 – 8 October 1966)

By Laurie Huberman

Celestin Freinet was a noted French pedagogue and educational reformer. He began his teaching in the French village of Le Bar sur Loup and soon after began developing his own teaching methods. One of his key tools was the use of a printing press for free texts and school newspapers. He went on to create the teachers' trade union from which arose the French teacher movement called “Mouvement de l'Ecole Moderne” and which aimed to change public education from the inside with the cooperation of teachers. His teaching methods were, however, at such odds with official policy that he resigned in 1935 and started his own school in Vence.

There were five defining concepts of Freinet's pedagogy and these were: 1) pedagogy of work (encourage children to make things and provide services 2) inquiry-based learning (group-based trail and error work) 3) cooperative learning 4) a natural method (learning based on real experiences of children) and 5) democratic self-government.

The 3 poles of Freinet’s teaching according to Etiennette Vellas:

By Etiennette Vellas, Doctor in Educational Sciences

Freinet (1896-1966). Freinet’s teaching was developed and is currently implemented by the Feinet movement, which spans across all continents. His private school in Vence was founded in 1935 and became public in 1991. It currently holds an experimental status.


3poles freinet

The "practical theory" which was developed by Freinet, continues to evolve as a pedagogy which disrupts the nature of elitist schools to construct a school for the nation:

- The material environment influences behaviour and learning patterns. 

- Pedagogical materialism publicises the relationship whilst structuring the learning circumstances.

- The tools are to be placed at the centre of the whole educational system because they represent the leading organizers: they establish a rhythm in the classroom and a course of action that is not arbitrary. They adopt various and complementary skills, allowing each child to have a place in the development process and to make "his/her" unique and irreplaceable place within the group.

- Knowledge acquired in the human sciences, arts and crafts and the professional world.

- Children's rights.

- The classroom is a workshop, a place of production.  

- It is collaborative by necessity, to keep the wheels turning.

- Freinet's techniques. A few examples:

Printing yesterday, the latest technologies today.

The newspaper, besides its use as a support to learn spelling, graphic design, grammar, mathematics, etc., is a tool that opens the classroom to the external environment. It enables the external world to infiltrate the classroom and gives purpose to any kind of work. Imagination and creativity is present through free texts, drawings, which are present alongside investigations, results from a piece of research, the abstract of a presented conference.

All this results in a strange classroom where everything is embedded and connected. It is more a question of work rather than exercises, since one writes, searches and creates because others correspond, print, buy, sell and investigate. Real problems, which must be solved, are encountered in the classroom: technical, conceptual, relational problems, which are discussed at the cooperation council supervising the production.

For further reading: Celestin Freinet

Education 2/4 – France Culture L'ecole moderne de Celestin Freinet in 1958. A documentary in French by Severine Liatard et Severine Cassar.

2 films: l'Ecole buissonniere (1949) et Le maitre qui laissait les enfants rever (2006)

Freinet, C., Education through work: a model for child centered learning, translated by John Sivell Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993

Pedagogie Freinet une classe pas comme les autres (Gilles Sapirstein), Temoignages d'une ecole Freinet (Laurent Grouet),L'ecole selon Feinet (EcoloMarchin), Pedagogie Freinet France 3 Pays de Loire, 5 Sept. 2015 (Sylvain Connac)

Fernand Oury (18 January 1920 – 19 February. 1997)

By Laurie Huberman

Fernand Oury was a French pedagogue and the creator, along with the psychologist Aida Vasquez, of institutional pedagogy. He began as a teacher and was critical of the French educational system with, according to him, schools and classes that were too large and with many “absurd regulations.” At first he worked with fellow educator Celestin Freinet to reform organizational practice within urban schools. However, he subsequently broke away from Freinet and founded what he called institutional pedagogy.

During the 1960s and 1970s Oury worked on developing the practical and theoretical instruments which would define institutional pedagogy. These were based on three “pillars of consideration”: 1) materialist (equipment, techniques of organization and activities 2) Sociological (consideration of the dynamics of the group class) and 3) psychoanalytic (“the unconscious is in the class”) He used a number of tools to promote his ideas including a daily discussion with students in the morning, a class council to resolve conflicts, and the use of individualized curricula. 

The 3 poles of Institutional Pedagogy (I.P.) by Etiennette Vellas

By Etiennette Vellas, Doctor in Educational Sciences

Fernand Oury (1920-1998). His pedagogy was once relegated to the margins of the school institution, however it continues to exist today and continues to gain acceptance.

3poles pi


The IP from Fernand Oury is based on a radical theoretical doubt against any "vertical and authoritarian educational structure".
"Where problems exist, solutions exist".
"Not to mention anything that we have not done".

Pioneers have read:
Karl Marx (exploitation is not the inevitable condition of the working class).
Anton Makarenko (plan fair and efficient educational communities).
Sigmund Freund (attention is focused on the desiring subject, the games played by the unconsciousness).

The educational place is considered a place of existence, speech and work where desire is present. A place suitable for identifications and projections of all kinds.

Oury used to say that the IP rested on a tripod composed of materialism, the group and the unconsciousness.

To allow an educational place to live, it needs regulations and laws like any other social organization. Two approaches are then possible, one of regulation, and the other of institutionalization. Oury chooses the latter, the only one capable to respect desire.

This so-called pedagogy “with desire” develops, for this very reason, relationships that are of ternary structure. The exchanges between teachers and children, but also between children or between adults, which are not restricted to face to face interactions. This is because they are publicised by institutions: a set of meetings, operating rules, clearly defined roles, constantly undergoing improvement and being evaluated by the group. Every institution that is malfunctioning should be changed in a collaborative effort.

Oury has taken over Freinet's cooperative classroom. His techniques such as the Newspaper, the Correspondence, the Investigation, etc. are considered as institutions and mediating objects.

The IP relies on specific ancient institutions which often continue to exist: The Market, the Professions, the Sanctions, the Internal Currency, the Level and behavioural belts, the Council, Mutual learning, the Question box, the What's new?, the Meeting, the How are you doing? the Keywords, the Monographs, etc. 

Any rule is also an institution negotiated with the group, but the teacher always remains the guardian of the rules.

For further reading: pdf Fernand Oury et la pedagogie institutionnelle “Fernand Oury- Un Homme est passe”

The Reggio Emilia approach

By Laurie Huberman

The Reggio Emilia approach is an educational philosophy focused on pre-school and primary school education. It was developed after World War II by a teacher, Loris Malaguzzi, and parents in the villages around Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. The school's philosophy is that children are “knowledge bearers” and that they need to be encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas about everything.
The main principles behind this philosophy are:

1. Children must have some control over the direction of their learning.

2. Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening and observing.

3. Children must be able to explore relationships with other children and with material items in the world and

4. children must have endles ways and opportunities to express themselves.

Much of the instruction at Regio Emilia schools takes place in the form of projects providing opportunities to explore, observe, hytpothesize, question and discuss. There is a strong tradition as well of community support and collaboration with parents.

For further reading:

Hewitt, Valarie (2001: “Examining the Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education” Early Childhood Education Journal 29 (2),95-10

Reggio Emilia – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia