Two young children carefully observing lavender in bloom.

Educational theories, philosophies and approaches to curriculum

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… 


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)

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


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)

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)

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)

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. 

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:

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…

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)

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


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)

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)


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.

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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