Books and pamphlets on education were being constantly published and debated in the 18th century. Now forgotten works, such as Maria and her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s Practical Education, pushed, like Locke, for early learning, good habits in learning and learning by doing. This is a side of learning that is overlooked as most writing the theory are academic theorists. The Edgeworths present a view of learners as autonomous, rational beings, who need to be encouraged to think for themselves. It is a remarkable text with as many progressive ideas as one would find in a modern book on pedagogy.
Attention and doing
Attention was a necessary condition for learning and tiredness its enemy. Children must not be overburdened, so teaching needs to be varied, structured and carefully sequenced. Rote learning and cramming are cast aside in favour of the application of principles. Knowledge was less important that judgement and the development of competences. At this time, there was also great interest in hands-on, practical skills, around agriculture, science, mechanics and chemistry. He recommended contextualising learning by making schools sit in farm-like environments, with pets and farm animals. The careful selection of toys, prints and materials were to give children meaningful tasks. He also advocated an early form of phonics. Habit, reinforcement and repetition are all important, especially the habit of attention. Here, again, we have an emphasis on the psychology of learning.
The Edgeworths were among the first to test educational interventions, albeit in a rather unorthodox manner. In addition to gathering evidence from his grandchildren, he experimented on Peter, the ‘wild boy’, who lived close-by. This child was found in the German woods in 1724, without speech or social habits. Brought to England, by then an old man, he was studied by Richard Lovell Edgeworth. He concluded, from Peter, rather disappointingly, that the acquisition of language was a necessary condition for learning. However, education had become the subject of experimental science.
A strong advocate of universal schooling, he saw education, like many in the late eighteenth century, as the means of improving the lot of the poor, correcting their faults and keeping them from criminal activity. The Edgeworths were typical Enlightenment figures. He conceptualised and experimented with the first caterpillar tracks, never really producing one that was practical but was an inquiring mind, with a deep interest in education. A member of the famous Lunar Society, he mixed among the greatest minds of the day and saw that education could be furthered by the empiricism and experimentation of the age.