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Educational Pioneers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778


The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a great, if controversial, social thinker of the eighteenth century. Of all his works, it is a book entitled Emile that has most interested educational theorists, both past and present. The book records the education of a boy from infancy to adulthood. In his study of Rousseau, Leslie F. Claydon summarises Emile as a set of guidelines for a new type of society brought about by education. It was certainly radical in its day, not least because it raised the status of childhood, and particularly valued the early stages of child development. Rousseau's theories are based on what is now well known as a 'child-centred' approach to education. As Professor J Eric Wilkinson writes 'although it is doubtful whether he was the founder of child-centred educational theory, he was undoubtedly one of its most influential exponents' (p.22). This article will discuss some of Rousseau's beliefs about education and child development, with a view to recognising the relevance they have for present day early years practice.

A Brief History

Rousseau was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1712. His own childhood was a troubled one, beginning with the death of his mother shortly after his birth. By the age of twelve he was apprentice to an engraver. For some years he tried various ways to earn a living, including teaching music and becoming a tutor, but these experiences do not appear to have been successful for Rousseau. He had a long term relationship with a woman called Therese Levasseur and they had five children. All Rousseau's children were placed in an orphanage soon after each of their births. He began writing on social and political issues, and Emile was published in 1762. Soon afterwards it was banned in Paris and Geneva, most probably for its negative views on the Bible, as well as for its damning of all that was currently held to be true about education. 'Reverse the usual practice and you will almost always do right' wrote Rousseau (Rusk, p.168). The censorship of Emile did not last for long, and in his lifetime others, including the educational theorist Johann Pestalozzi, began to follow and expand his philosophy. Rousseau died in 1778.

There seem to be many contradictions between Rousseau's own life, and his educational theories. For example, Rousseau believed that the home was the best place for early education to take place, and yet his own children were sent away. Allan Bloom excuses this by claiming that these contradictions genuinely represented the paradoxes people faced in life. Rousseau himself admitted as much: 'I prefer to be a paradoxical man than a prejudiced one' (Bloom, p.93).

Rousseau's theories - the importance of childhood and child development

Rousseau is well known for his phrase 'the noble savage', by which he meant that 'we are born essentially good and are a part of nature' (Pound, p.6). Rusk interprets the book Emile as 'the doctrine of the innate goodness of the child' (Rusk, p.181). Rousseau believed that it was only through external influences that people became corrupted, and this was why he valued education and childhood so highly. He advocated that children should be allowed to be children: 'Love childhood; promote its games, its pleasures, its amiable instinct' (Rousseau, in Bloom, p.79). He was aware that adults and children were very different, and reminded readers that 'childhood has its own ways of seeing, thinking and feeling' (Rousseau, in Rusk, p.178). It is almost as if, for Rousseau, children inhabited another world, one that adults, with all their preconceptions and judgements, would find it hard to reach: 'Childhood is unknown. Starting from the false idea one has of it, the farther one goes, the more one loses one's way' (Rousseau, in Bloom, p.33).

Rousseau's educational philosophy was based on different stages of development of the child, and in Emile he follows these phases through to adulthood. The two stages that cover the child's early life are those that are most relevant to early years practitioners today. Rusk describes these as 'Infancy, characterised by habit and the training of the emotions' and 'Childhood, characterised by necessity and the training of the senses' (p.167). Rousseau advised that each stage should be worked through before moving on to the next, and that the educator should follow the pace of the child.

Rousseau's theories - the role of education

Rousseau placed great importance on education from infancy, and felt that the natural educator in these early years was the mother. Although his attitude towards the role of women and motherhood is very much of his time, he warned against underestimating the vital part the mother played in child development. Rusk explains Rousseau's belief that 'the first and most important part of education, precisely that which all the world neglects, is that of preparing a child to receive education' (p.168). Rousseau advised mothers to give their babies the freedom to experience the world around them; 'he wishes to touch and handle everything. Do not oppose him in this restlessness' (Rousseau, in Claydon, p.183). His understanding was that 'our first teachers are our hands, feet and eyes' (Rusk, p.186). Learning from experience was the basis of Rousseau's whole philosophy of education: 'Give your scholar no verbal lessons; he should be taught by experience alone' (Rousseau, in Claydon, p.183). Rousseau embraced a child-centred approach to learning. Rusk remarks that 'the outstanding feature of Emile is the complete abandonment of a predetermined curriculum. Emile has to be educated entirely through activities and by first hand experience' (p.187). According to Rousseau, nature, the outdoors, and physical exercise were a vital part of educating through experience, and many of these activities were to take place in the open air: 'Instead of letting him stagnate in the stale air of a room, let him be taken daily to the middle of a field. There let him frisk and run about' (in Bloom, p.78). Rousseau took his theory of learning only by experience to extremes, particularly in his attitude towards books. Bloom writes that Rousseau believed 'books act as intermediaries between men and things, they attach men to the opinions of others rather than forcing them to understand on their own' (p.7). He felt that books got in the way of real life.

Rousseau had strong opinions on the role of the teacher. He believed that the adult should be an inspiration to the child. The art of teaching, he explained, 'consists in making the pupil want to learn' (Rousseau, in Rusk, p.179). According to Rousseau, listening and observation were the keys to successful teaching: 'Watch your scholar well before you say a word to him; first leave the germ of his character free to show itself' (Rousseau, in Pound, p.7). The child should be given room to think for themselves. The adult's role is to facilitate this process, not to dominate it. Rusk states that 'education becomes for Rousseau a matter of guidance' (p.178). At the end of the second stage of development, childhood, Rousseau wrote that the child should have 'nothing to show other than himself' (Bloom's translation, p.162). In other words he should know only what his own curiosity has led him to find out. Rousseau admitted that this kind of teaching required a leap of faith: 'The great difficulty with this first education is that it is perceptible only to clear-sighted men and that in a child raised with so much care, vulgar eyes see only a little rascal' (Bloom's translation, p.162).

Linking Rousseau's theories to today's practice

Rousseau's understanding of the early years of child development as being a profound time in our lives is still relevant today. Claydon writes that 'it is a reminder for us, but perhaps a revelation in Rousseau's day, that the first years of life are of tremendous importance and characterised by an astonishingly complex developmental pattern' (p.59). His appreciation of how much a child learns through finding things out for themselves, and of the role of observation and thoughtful interaction with the child in facilitating this kind of learning are central to our current understanding of good practice in the early years. Compare these concepts with this quote from Ann Gillespie Edwards, in Making their day, written in 2002: 'Children learn through exploration and conversation with interested others and they need to know that adults are listening to what they are saying. Real conversation with children is a skilled art. It works best when adults can abandon their own agenda and 'tune in' to a child's intentions' (p. 32). Montessori, who worked with children in the early 1900's and whose schools still follow her theories today, also moved away from a set curriculum to work at the child's pace. Even more recently, Chris Athey has advised careful observation to support individual children in their current linked interests, or 'schemas'. Perhaps it is Rousseau's encouragement of the teacher to allow the child to think for themselves, to be led by the child and to go where they go, that is still the hardest, but wisest and most relevant of Rousseau's theories on early education.


Many of Rousseau's theories are still considered controversial today. As Wilkinson points out, 'the Thatcher Governments of the 1980's ...regarded progressive education (that is, child-centred education) as the root cause of the nation's economic weakness at that time' (p.23). But he has left us an impressive and wide ranging legacy on the philosophy of education, which over two centuries has influenced our modern approach to early years teaching.


Links with other Educational Pioneers

Johann Pestalozzi, 1746-1827

Friedrich Froebel, 1782-1852

Maria Montessori, 1870-1952


Emile, or On Education, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated by Allan Bloom, Basic books, USA, 1979

Being Good, article by Professor J Eric Wilkinson, Nursery World, 21st September 2006

Making their day: providing for two year olds in a mixed age setting, Pre-school Learning Alliance, London, 2005

Relationships and Learning: Caring for Young Children from Birth to Three, Ann Gillespie Edwards, 2002

Rousseau, edited by Leslie F Claydon, Collier-Macmillan Ltd, London, 1969

How children learn, Linda Pound, Step Forward Publishing Ltd, Leamington Spa, 2005 (the section on Rousseau's life owes much to this book).

The Doctrine's of the Great Educators, 4th Edition, Robert R Rusk, Macmillan, London, 1969

Juliet Mickelburgh
After doing her PGCE, Juliet taught in a Nursery and Reception class at a school in South London. She then moved to East Sussex, teaching Reception and Year 1, began freelance writing and also worked in a nursery. She had a children’s picture book published in 2011. Juliet currently works as a Key Stage 1 Learning Mentor and regularly teaches in a Reception Class, as well as writing for the FSF. She lives in East Sussex with her partner and three children.

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