Two young children carefully observing lavender in bloom.

Educational theories, philosophies and approaches to curriculum

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Maybe you’ve heard of Montessori and Waldorf rings a vague bell, but what do these words actually mean and who on Earth is Charlotte Mason, what does RIE stand for and is ‘unschooling’ just skipping school? If this is you, don’t panic, I’ve got you covered!

I have drawn out the key aspects of 10 educational theories, all of which have something inspirational and valuable to contribute to the field. You could of course read endless books and academic papers on each of these philosophies, but, if like most parents, teachers and caregivers, you are short on time, I hope you find this a helpful introduction so that you may then select what’s most likely to work for you and do further research if you wish.

Children are born with all the curiosity they will ever need. It will last a lifetime if they are fed upon a daily dose of ideas. (Charlotte Mason)

Mainstream / Traditional

Of course, exactly what this looks like varies from country to country. I know and understand the British system best because I was raised in it, I have worked in it as a Clinical Psychologist, and I remain both personally and professionally connected to individuals who teach within it. During our time living in New Zealand, I have also come to understand the system here, although there are still gaps in my knowledge and experience. Despite some obvious differences, it is very clear that there are a number of overlaps (usually the things that worry me most about mainstream education). I cannot comment at all on other systems, having never been exposed to them.

Generally, it’s pretty safe to say that in a mainstream setting… 

  • A fixed and compulsory curriculum will be implemented.
  • Standardised measures of achievement will be utilised to benchmark kids and categorise them according to how well they can remember and regurgitate a bunch of information that may or may not interest them.
  • The day is run according to strict routines with very little emphasis placed on play, free time or observing individual bodily cues for hunger, thirst, toilet needs and rest.
  • Children are typically grouped according to age and most of the day is spent with the same 25ish people in the same four walls.
  • Conformity tends to be valued to the detriment of individuality and diversity. If children don’t conform, they risk being labelled (by both peers and adults).
  • My view as a Clinical Psychologist is that neurodevelopmental diversity is not sufficiently supported in the vast majority of mainstream settings, which results in kids falling through the gaps.
  • I’m sure my entire profession shudders at the routine use of shame-based models of discipline and withholding opportunities for fresh air, exercise and play as a form of punishment (insert massive eye role accompanied by loud sigh here). 

Montessori

The Montessori approach takes its name from its founder, Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), and is based on her observations of children in the early 1900s. She was a physician, an educator, a philosopher and the first early childhood educator to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She believed that education need radical reform if the future were to be peaceful for humankind. 

The education of even a small child, therefore, does not aim at preparing him for school, but for life. (Maria Montessori)

  • At the core of the Montessori approach is respect for the child; children are seen as innately 'good' and are treated with the same kindness and courtesy as would be expected for all humans.
  • The learning environment aims to enrich the ‘whole child’; Montessori distinguished between physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, all of which are equally valued.
  • Montessori noted a connection between movement and learning and so encouraged learning through both fine and gross motor movement. Children are understood to learn by experimenting and manipulating materials for themselves rather than through adult instruction (though adults can introduce new materials through demonstration and guided discovery).
  • The prepared environment is key; teachers are seen as guides who have a responsibility to observe children and prepare a calm, organised and engaging environment in which materials appropriate for age, stage and current learning needs are accessible to children without adult help.
  • Independence is paramount. The prepared environment will enable children to be independent. They will have independent access to water and food. Any tools and equipment (such as for cooking, cleaning, woodwork, craft etc) are the same as an adult would use but child-sized and accessible. In a school setting, child-sized toilets and sinks are available. Of course, this might not be practical at home so stools placed in bathrooms and kitchens are a common feature of a Montessori home environment.
  • Natural materials are favoured over man-made materials and time spent outside and in nature is valued. Indoor settings will also typically include plants and flowers.
  • Materials in a Montessori setting will introduce a wide range of concepts and subject matters; the development of practical life skills are key to the Montessori environment but materials will cover mathematics, sciences, language, the arts, geography, botany, physical movement and much more. Children dictate their own learning; 'following the child' on his/her own path is key.
  • Children have the freedom to choose what they work with within the limits of what is offered and within the limits of respect for the self, others and the environment.
  • Uninterrupted work periods lasting 3 hours are considered optimum to allow children to delve deeply into their chosen materials and maintain focused attention.
  • Motivation is intrinsic and learning (and doing) is its own reward. Rewards, punishments and praise (verbal reward) are avoided. This is not to say that work is not valued, appreciated and recognised, but it is the effort of work that is given recognition, not the end result.
  • In a Montessori setting, children are in mixed age groups spanning at least 3 years to enable them to interact with older and younger children, and hold both mentor and 'mentee' roles.
  • Until age 6, children are said to have an ‘absorbent mind’ enabling them to soak up skills and knowledge effortlessly. During these first 5 years of childhood, Montessori noticed six 'sensitive periods’ for language, movement, sensory refinement, order, small objects and social life. These sensitive periods are blocks of time during which a child is absorbed in one particular aspect of the environment to the exclusion of all others and is driven to repeat the same activity again and again so that a new skill may be acquired. After age 6, there is thought to be a switch to a ‘reasoning mind’. It is for this reason that Montessori discourages fantasy until age 6.
  • From age 6 to 12, children are thought to be in a period of ‘conscious imagination’, during which they develop skills in abstract thinking, reasoning and social relationships, and like to be in control of their learning.
  • From age 12-18, the development of a ‘new identity’ is key, and from age 18, young adults will seek financial independence, an active social life and control over their future by setting personal goals to achieve concrete desires.

What the hand does, the mind remembers. (Maria Montessori)

Waldorf-Steiner

Waldorf-Steiner education is based on the ideas of Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the founder of Anthroposophy. This is a spiritual philosophy that suggests that spiritual experiences can be scientifically understood following a process of inner-development in which imagination, intuition and inspiration are consciously achieved. Personally, I don’t consider myself a particularly spiritual person – my background is in sciences and I’m not religious – but, if you’re like me, don’t let this put you off exploring the Waldorf approach. I have discovered that many (but not all!) of my natural instincts are in line with Waldorf thinking so it’s definitely not just for those who identify as ‘spiritual’. Perhaps I am spiritual but I’d just give it a different label?

Our highest endeavour must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility - these three forces are the very nerve of education. (Rudolf Steiner)

  • A Waldorf education emphasises fostering a state of balance between head (thinking), heart (feeling) and hands (willing). By giving equal focus to each of these facets, the 'whole child' may be nurtured: body, soul and spirit; cognitive, emotional and physical.
  • Children are viewed as individuals on their own unique developmental path and are free to embark on their own educational journey.
  • Steiner observed and described three distinct periods of child development, each lasting seven years. From age 0-7, children are understood to be engaged in imitative, sensory-based learning so he proposed no formal academics during this first period of development.
  • Age 7-14 is a period of creativity and imagination. It is during this period of development that children are taught languages and performing arts.
  • Age 14+ sees the development of social responsibility. At this age, a more structured environment is introduced.
  • The importance of imagination, storytelling, art and connecting with nature every day is emphasised for all age groups.
  • Learning spaces are kept organised, calm and minimalist. Like in Montessori settings, materials may be presented in baskets or on shelves. Simple, natural, sensory toys are believed to foster creativity. Toys and materials may be taken from nature (e.g. pine cones, acorns etc)
  • Rhythms and routines are the backbone of the Waldorf approach. Children are introduced to the circular rhythms of nature from an early age (seasons, moon phases, life cycles). Predictable daily rhythms and traditions are believed to bring a sense of calm and joy to a Waldorf setting, whether this is in the home environment or at a school setting. Moving a perpetual calendar, lighting candles for meals, starting the day with movement to signal a transition from night to day are all examples of small daily rhythms that Waldorf families may choose to adopt.
  • Colour is seen as 'the soul of nature' and is used to enliven an environment with light, nature and emotion. Different colours are said to be optimum for different developmental stages. Colour is also used to signify rhythms. Days of the week, for example, each have an allocated colour.

Where is the book in which the teacher can read about what teaching is? The children themselves are this book. We should not learnt to teach out of any book other than the one lying open before us and consisting of the children themselves. (Rudolf Steiner)

Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) was an English educator, who proposed that ‘education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.’ She meant that education equally consists of what is learned from the home environment and parental values, the development of good habits, and exposure to thoughts and ideas. Although her methods and beliefs are rooted in Christian ideas, as was typical of turn of the 20th century England, it is entirely possible to adopt the Charlotte Mason method without the use of scripture and Bible study if this does not fit with your family. If you are looking for set Charlotte Mason curriculums, it may be tricky to find secular versions, however.

An observant child should be put in the way of things worth observing. (Charlotte Mason)

  • The Charlotte Mason approach advocates a delay to formal education until age 6, instead emphasising play and gentle boundary setting prior to this.
  • Once formal lessons begin, they are kept short to enable full attention (5-45 minutes depending on age).
  • Emphasis is placed on instilling the ‘good habits’ of full attention, best effort and learning as its own reward.
  • 'Living books' that bring a subject to life are utilised in place of purely factual information. Charlotte Mason never used textbooks. She preferred using biographies, autobiographies, poetry, classical writing and scripture. It is believed that books written in a narrative or conversational style by someone passionate about the topic draw you in and spark emotions, thus making it easier to remember the content.
  • Oral narration (having children talk about what they have learned) is used in place of written worksheets until the age of approximately 10 as a means to cement knowledge and assess how much information has been retained.
  • Living books are also utilised to teach the complex rules of English grammar and spelling. Passages are carefully selected to promote positive ideas and good habits, and are used for copying and dictation.
  • Time outside is valued in preference to being inside. Charlotte Mason advocated that children spend hours outdoors each day. Children are encouraged to keep journals of their nature studies by drawing and writing about their observations.
  • Children are guided to discover and appreciate works of beauty, particularly art and music, in order to have a balanced education. Charlotte Mason believed that children should be exposed to masterpieces, not dulled down child versions, and so teachers have a responsibility to lay in front of them works of the highest talent. Artists and composers are studied in detail over a number of weeks. Children might describe in words works of art and music, and may then select pieces of art to replicate.
  • Many topics are introduced and individual interests are then further explored.
  • Afternoons are kept free for hobbies, handicrafts, outdoor play and interest-based exploration. This allows time for children to put ideas from their formal learning into practice.

We are all meant to be naturalists, each in his own degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things. (Charlotte Mason)

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia is a small town in Northern Italy. It was here that, immediately following the surrender of German forces in World War II, the people gathered together to reinvent and rebuild the education system. Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994), a local primary school teacher and psychologist became a leader in the parent cooperative movement that followed. As a community-run system, schools in Reggio Emilia were originally the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church but became more secular in the 1960s.

Teachers must learn to interpret ongoing processes rather than wait to evaluate results. (Loris Malaguzzi)

  • The involvement of parents and community in the education of their children continues to be a key aspect of the Reggio approach.
  • The Reggio approach advocates hands-on discovery based learning. Play is not separated from learning, and children are enabled to use all their senses and ‘languages’.
  • The ‘hundred languages’ must be nurtured. This refers to the many mediums through which children communicate their ideas, thoughts, emotions and understanding. For example, they may use speech, writing, painting, drawing, sculpting, collage, dance, movement, music, modelling, pretend play... the list goes on.
  • Children are understood to be innately curious. They are driven by their interests to acquire knowledge which will inform their understanding of the world and their place in it. They are therefore capable of constructing their own learning around their interests.
  • Adults are not the givers of knowledge. Children seek out knowledge through their own investigations.
  • Communication is valued as a means to new discovery, to ask questions (the answers to which are searched out together, not offered by the adult), to reflect on experiences, and as a form of play.
  • Collaboration and group equality are valued. Understanding of the self and one's place in the world results from social interactions.
  • The learning environment should should encourage collaboration, communication and exploration, and should evolve with the child’s interests. There is shared responsibility for the space, which is typically kept organised and full of natural light. Authentic materials are used as this is seen as respectful of a child's capeability.
  • The adult is seen as a guide and partner in learning. It is their responsibility to observe, listen, discover the child’s interests and provide opportunities to explore interests further. They collaboratively investigate questions and share in the child’s wonder and amazement.
  • Documenting the child’s thoughts and progression of thinking is encouraged to demonstrate the child’s learning process. This can be done through photographs, visual representations, transcripts of speech and observational notes.
  • Child-led project approach. Projects aren’t planned but emerge as a result of child’s interests. Projects and individual pieces of work aren’t time limited.
  • Children are permitted to make and correct their own errors in order to develop problem-solving skills.

Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.' (Loris Malaguzzi)

Forest School and Scandinavian Educational Theories

The Forest School movement originated in Scandinavia but has seen a recent spread in popularity, with many western nations adopting the model as one of a number of progressive alternatives to mainstream schooling. 

  • Forest schools are outside, ideally in a forest or woodland, but if a park, beach or other outdoor space is the only option, that can work too. Regardless of the exact setting, outdoor play is the default learning approach.
  • Learning takes place in all weather (with the exception of high winds if falling branches are a risk). Policy dictates that there is 'no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing'. Parents and teachers have a responsibility to ensure children are dressed appropriately.
  • Children learn skills in evaluating and navigating risk. Risks are minimised but not eliminated. This is believed to help build trust between children and teachers.
  • Learning is play-based, child-initiated and child-led.
  • Forest schools aim to provide positive outdoor experiences, sensory-based learning and, by participating in engaging and achievable tasks, children will develop intrinsic motivation, confidence and problem-solving skills.
  • Healthy living and daily exercise is the norm.
  • Sessions begin and end with some kind of ceremony. This might be a campfire, storytelling, dancing and singing, eating foods foraged and cooked during the session, or reflective discussions.

Playcentre and Te Whāriki

Te Whāriki is the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s framework for early years (0-5) education. I’ve given it a separate heading as it is very far removed from most mainstream education approaches and is deserving of a special mention. It does not contain guidelines on any curriculum content or methods, leaving it open for use in all early childhood services following any education philosophy. 

Pronounced ‘teh far-ree-kee’, te whāriki refers to a woven mat and is a metaphor for how the components of the framework are uniquely woven together for each individual child within the context of their specific service. The framework is organised with:

  • Four guiding principles:
    • Empowering the child
    • Accounting for the child's holistic development
    • Consideration for the child's wider family and community
    • An understanding that children will learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places and things
  • Five 'strands' (these can be thought of as areas of learning):
    • Wellbeing
    • Belonging
    • Contribution
    • Communication
    • Exploration
  • Goals for the service (not the children!) to ensure that children are provided with an environment that promotes the four principles and enables development in each of the five strands. Children will be provided with an environment in which:
    • Physical and emotional health are nurtured; and they are kept safe from harm.
    • Connections with family and the wider world are affirmed; they know they have a place; they are comfortable with the routines and customs of the service; and they know the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
    • There are equal opportunities for learning for all; they are encouraged to learn with and alongside others; and they are affirmed as individuals.
    • They develop verbal and non-verbal communication skills; they discover and develop different ways to be expressive and creative; and they experience the symbols and stories of their own and other cultures.
    • Play is valued as meaningful learning and the importance of child-led spontaneous play is recognised; they gain confidence in and control of their bodies; they learn strategies for active exploration, reasoning and thinking; and they develop working theories for making sense of the world.

Whānau tupu ngātahi — Families growing together (Playcentre)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the same framework could be extended to Primary and Secondary education in place of content and academic achievement driven curriculums?! 

Playcentre is one such early childhood education service utilising Te Whāriki. Founded in 1941, Playcentre started as a support service for parents and has grown to more than 420 centres across the country. Playcentre is…

  • Unique to New Zealand - there is nothing else like it.
  • Child-led. Play is seen as valuable learning. Children direct their own play and learning path.
  • Parent-managed. Playcentre Aotearoa is a single charitable trust, but each centre operates as a parent-led cooperative. Playcentres are all licensed by and receive funding from the Ministry of Education, but are primarily funded by charitable donations.
  • Parents (or primary caregivers) are seen as a child's first and best educator. Playcentre offers adult training in childhood learning and development, and the Playcentre philosophy. This is free of charge and contributes to a diploma. With the support of Playcentre-trained parents, volunteers and staff, parents learn to observe their children, notice learning patterns and drives, record what's happening for their children, and respond by providing opportunities for further play informed by what they have witnessed.
  • A whānau (family). Community and relationships are strongly valued.

RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers)

The RIE (pronounced ‘rye’) approach was co-developed by Hungarian and U.S.-based educator, Magda Gerber (1910-2007) and American paediatric neurologist Dr. Thomas Forrest. It was designed specifically with infants and young children in mind, but its values can be carried throughout childhood.

Be careful what you teach. It might interfere with what they are learning. (Magda Gerber)

  • Rooted in the belief that babies are whole, competent human beings, not objects, and should be treated with respect.
  • Trusting that infants are self-learners and will initiate exploration and learning. They should be given uninterrupted time to play and explore both solo and with other infants.
  • Through careful observation, ‘educarers’ can understand the needs of their infant and provide an environment which is safe, challenging and nurturing.
  • Even the youngest babies should be active participants in all care-giving activities (washing, dressing etc) rather than passive recipients; this might involve asking babies if they consent to being picked up, explaining that you’re about to change their nappy and what’s going to happen, and not using ‘baby-talk’.
  • Clear and consistent boundaries and expectations are used to introduce discipline.

Let the child be the scriptwriter, the director and the actor in his own play. (Magda Gerber)

Unschooling

John Holt (1923-1985) was an American author and educator, who, afters years of mainstream teaching, became a proponent for homeschooling, and specifically ‘unschooling’, a term he coined in the 1970s. Holt wanted to move away from grading and ranking students, as well as other methods of attempting to control and coerce children into learning (bribes, threats, punishments, criticism etc), as this only contributes to a ‘charade of learning’ (being able to pass the test but not actually retaining any information beyond that). Unschooling is a rejection of traditional schooling, including schooling delivered at home. 

Children learn from anything and everything they see. They learn wherever they are, not just in special learning places.  (John Holt)

  • The aim is not education, which is seen as moulding a child into who parents or society think it is valuable to be, but to support a child to discover their passions and be who they are. There is no curriculum.
  • At the heart of an unschooling approach is the belief that children are innately driven to learn, they are learning all the time, and they will learn best when they have the freedom to explore the world around them and choose what, when, where, with whom and how they want to learn.
  • Children are viewed as young scientists, turning experience into knowledge.
  • An unschooling approach can lead to project-based learning, and they often go hand in hand. Children may choose to investigate and respond to a real-world complex question/challenge/problem for an extended period.
  • Learning should not be limited to the confines of a classroom, cut off from life, but should take place in the world while life is being lived. As such, learning comes from many sources and with the help of many people.
  • Children are empowered to largely make their own choices, but this is not at the expense of guidance and boundary-setting. For most unschooling families this will not only apply to learning, but to all areas of life.
  • Instilling a love of learning (rather than specific knowledge) is valued.
  • Relationships and family are prioritised over societal demands.

Since we can't know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned. (John Holt)

Worldschooling

This is a relatively new term that unfortunately has become a bit of a buzzword, taking it away from its original meaning. I was privileged as a child to travel abroad and within the U.K. often, but I was mainstream educated, not worldschooled. Sure, I learned a lot from my childhood travels, about the world and myself, but this was in the context of holidaying with family and friends, not receiving the bulk of my education. 

Worldschooling, to me, is more philosophical than simply taking your children on wonderful holidays, where of course they will do lots of learning, but are perceived to be on a ‘break’ from their education. 

If you want to hear more about the pros and cons of worldschooling from kids being educated this way, check out this post.

  • Worldschooling is the idea that a whole education can be provided through travel. By witnessing people and cultures, history, science, technology, geography (and so much more!) in action, we can provide our children with a full, rounded and, most importantly, applicable education. Learning about the world by living in it. All of it.
  • Of course, by intentionally and mindfully opening yourself up to the experience of being somewhere new, you inevitably soak up information about culture and language. The same applies to adults and children alike in this respect, but caregivers can facilitate learning by first doing research and providing opportunities for their children to delve deeper into unique aspects of the location if they wish. Learning is not simply by osmosis; it takes a committed adult and an engaged child. Families may choose to visit locations that are of particular interest to their child, or otherwise select activities at their chosen destination that are likely to spark interest.
  • The travel component will vary from family to family and probably within each family depending on current circumstances. Some travel might be fast, moving about relatively frequently. Some might be slow, involving extended periods of months or even years in one place.
  • During stationary periods, most families will continue to ‘home’ educate in whatever location they are currently calling ‘home’. Some families choose to send their kids to local schools (often so they learn a new language but sometimes as an easy means to meet other local families). For me, it’s a pretty big jump to go from having the whole world as your classroom to being confined to four walls, but I guess it would depend on the philosophy of the school or service provider, the needs and wants of my children and how often they were attending.

    My current thinking would go something along the lines of...

    • Eroll at a western mainstream school...no flipping way!
    • Do a day a week at a forest school with other like-minded kids...sounds fun!
    • Spend a little time at a school in a country with a very different culture and approach to education...might be an interesting opportunity to experience what life is like for kids here, tell me more.
    Currently, we are enrolled at Playcentre for 8 hours each week, which has been an invaluable way for us to find our tribe here in New Zealand, it’s helped us all learn some te Reo Māori and the philosophy is a great fit for us.

One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child. (Maria Montessori)

I’ve heard some parents argue that one single approach must be picked (or else you must not have an in depth understanding of the merits of each individual model), and sadly there seems to be an air of superiority among some (of course not all) of those who choose to strictly adhere to their chosen model. Anyone who deviates from this model can be quickly cast aside and labelled some kind of ignorant traitor who’s doing it ‘wrong’. 

Personally, I think this is bollocks. I see merits and pitfalls in each of these approaches so why not pick out the bits that feel right for our family and respectfully disregard the rest? 

You can read more about our approach to homeschooling a preschooler here and how we combine elements of all of these philosophies in our weekly and daily rhythms here.

There are loads of fascinating books, interviews and other resources out there if you want to delve into any of these approaches in more detail. I hope this post has been a helpful introduction and has whetted your palette to discover more about the different approaches to education. 

People should be free to find or make for themselves the kinds of educational experience they want their children to have. (John Holt)

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