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Top 12 Pioneers in Education

Cindy Leech

You don't need to venture into the Old West or shutte into space to be a pioneer.  These Top 12 pioneers in education have explored much rougher terrain to shape modern learning.

Horace Mann (1796-1859) Pioneer of American Public School Education
Horace Mann grew up in a time when education was not easily obtained for those that lived in the poor rural areas of America.  Though his own early education was limited, he attended Browns University, studied law, and later enjoyed a highly successful political career.  It was during his time serving as a representative and senator in the legislature of Massachusetts and lastly Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education that he used his influence to advance change in the American educational system.  We can thank Horace Mann for teacher training colleges, free libraries, and free public education to all children through taxation.

Freidrich Froebel (1782-1852) Pioneer of Early Childhood Education
Freidrich Froebel was a German educator whose philosophy of education influenced such people as Horace Mann and Maria Montessori.  Based on the belief that a young child possessed innate qualities that would unfold gradually within a natural setting, he established kindergartens where free expression, creativity, social interaction, motor activity and learning by doing were the focus.  Many of these same tenets can be found in our contemporary early childhood programs.


Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) Pioneer of Home Education
A citizen of Britain, Charlotte Mason’s dream was that all children, no matter what social class, should have the opportunity to obtain a liberal arts education.   She was dedicated to improving the way in which children were educated.  Seeing the importance of educating parents in areas of discipline and the training of children, she began the Parents’ Education Union.  It was her belief that children learn best through “living books” rather than dry textbooks and through real experiences.  Her methods included an emphasis on the enjoyment of the arts and the study of great artists and musicians.  Many of her educational practices were well suited to home education and her methods have become the foundation of many homeschooling families.

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Jean Piaget (1896-1980) Pioneer of How Children Learn
Anyone who has taken a child psychology class will have studied the developmental and learning theories of Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist. Fascinated with how children reasoned, he began researching and writing books on the subject of child psychology.  When he later married and fathered three children, he was supplied with enough data to write three more books!  His research and subsequent theories have become the basis and foundation of our understanding of normal child development.


Margaret Bancroft (1854-1912) Pioneer of Special Education
Bancroft’s intelligence, imagination, and dedication to her students set her apart as an extraordinary educator.  At the age of 25, she embarked on a courageous and lonely endeavor by opening the first private boarding school in Haddonfield, New Jersey, for children with developmental delays.  She believed that disabled children needed special schools, adapted material, and well trained teachers rather than to be sent to institutions.  Bancroft’s students responded to her love and patience and individually-tailored instruction.  Under her influence, the medical profession began to awaken to their responsibility to help correct defects and disabilities in children.  Admirers of her skill came to train and later became leaders in the field of special education.


Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) Pioneer of Education for African-Americans
Born into slavery and later freed, Washington knew first hand the difference an education can make in a person’s life.  As a young man, Washington was appointed to head the Tuskegee Institute now called Tuskegee University, which was originally a teacher’s training college for African-Americans.  He was leader of the college from its infancy to the time of his death.  He became a dominant and influential figure among politicians and the general public and did much to pave the way for later civil rights and desegregation of public education.  It was his belief that education was the African-American community’s best chance for social equality and a better future.


John Dewey (1859-1952) Pioneer of Progressive Education
It was while he was a professor of philosophy and the head of the Chicago University’s teacher college, that Dewey exerted his greatest influence in education and promoted many educational reforms through his experimental schools.  It was his view that children should be encouraged to develop “free personalities” and that they should be taught how to think and to make judgments rather than to simply have their heads filled with knowledge.  He also believed that schools were places where children should learn to live cooperatively. A member of the first teacher’s union, he was concerned for teacher’s rights and their academic freedom.


Maria Montessori (1870-1952) Pioneer of Individualized Education
Montessori methods remain the popular choice for many parents who seek an alternative education for their children, especially for the early childhood through the primary years. Before she took an interest in education, Montessori was the first woman in Italy to obtain the training to become a doctor.  She was assigned the post of medical care to the patients of a mental institution and it was there that she encountered “backward” children igniting her passion for education.  Beginning with a daycare facility in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rome, Montessori put her theories into practice. Her methods were influenced by her previous training in medicine, education, and anthropology.   The results were extraordinary and soon drew much attention from many parts of the world, including America.  The rest, as they say, is history.


John Holt (1923-1985) Pioneer and Advocate for Home Education
Talk about going full circle.  Whereas Horace Mann fought for the free public education of all children, Holt raised awareness of the need for reform in America’s public schools.  As an educator, he became convinced that the present system stifled the learning of most children mainly because of fear.  Disillusioned by the inability to bring reform and improvement to public schools, Holt left teaching and devoted his time to the promotion of his ideas.   He believed that children learn best when allowed to follow their own interests rather than having learning imposed upon them. His exposure to proponents of home education lead him to later conclude that the best place to set up a natural environment for learning was within a child’s home.  His books had a profound impact on the growth of the home schooling sector.


Marie Clay (1926-2007) Pioneer of Balanced Literacy Model and Reading Recovery
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, Marie Clay became an international leader in the study of children’s acquisition of literacy.  Her methods of teaching reading and written language have swept through the United States and other English speaking nations since their inception three decades ago.  The reading recovery component was developed as a means of lifting the low achieving first grader to a place alongside the average learner.  The structure of the program calls for close observation of the student by the teacher to design lessons that constantly build on what a child already knows and taking them to the next level.  Children are surrounded by a language rich environment and encouraged to choose reading books that align with their personal interests.


Jerome Bruner (1915-)  Pioneer of Discovery Learning Theory
To combat the behaviorist approach to education, Bruner developed cognitive psychology and promoted a constructivist approach.  His discovery learning theory is based on the assumption that children learn and remember better what they discover for themselves and that they are better able to remember new information if they connect it to something that they already know. His research and subsequent theories on child development closely aligns with the work of Jean Piaget.  


Howard Gardner (1943-)  Pioneer of Multiple Intelligences Theory
Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has redefined educators’ views of how students learn and should be assessed. Historically, intelligence has been measured through the ability to problem solve and to demonstrate cognitive ability through various controlled verbal and performance type tasks.   Gardner’s theory broadens the field of how individuals display their intelligence by including linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, special, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences.  Through his influence there has been a greater emphasis placed on performance testing and educators have become more conscious of the need for diversification of instructional strategies to match the learning styles and strengths of students.


Who is your favorite educational pioneer? Share in the comments section!

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