Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692), is really a practical guide, rather than a theoretical treatise but that’s what makes it so fascinating and readable. Widely translated, it became a manual for education among the upper classes for most of 18th century.
As the greatest philosopher of his age, he laid the foundations for empiricism and the enlightenment view of knowledge, politics and education. Sceptical of the educational practices of his day, it was a break from the dry, educational stranglehold of medieval scholasticism. His is a sophisticated theory of education built, not around the transmission of information, but the shaping of habits and character, and in some detail.
As a libertarian he thought that the learner must not be coerced nor learn when they are not in the right frame of mind, neither should they be beaten. They must be made to feel as if it is in their own interest, and that they are acting from their own free will. Without pleasure and play, the child will become demotivated. Conversation is strongly favoured over lecturing, and the child’s character and temperament needs to be understood if they are to be taught well. Not that children should be spoilt. Indeed he recommends that parents, in particular, should be tough on their children in their early years.
His approach is a series of very practical methods for encouraging good habits and character right down to details on curiosity, games, language learning, dancing etc. He recommends educational methods that focus on example and practice, rather than the teaching of information and principles, as children do not remember or apply rules. In this sense, it is not learning that matters, but the establishment of good learning habits. It is repeated practice that reinforces these behaviours so they become instinctive, through the use of the concrete rather than the abstract. This is way ahead of its time.
Academic and vocational skills (but not the arts)
In particular, everyone should learn a manual skill, such as carpentry, as it helps relax the mind. Beyond this, his focus is on a healthy mind that has the basics in reading, writing, arithmetic and a knowledge of literature along with the natural and social sciences. The arts, like Plato, he regarded as either useless or dangerous. Detailed scholarly study should be left to those who want to become scholars.
Sceptical on schools
He does not recommend school (for those who can afford tutors), and sets great store on the enthusiasm of parents, and the family in general. Schools, he thought, merely perpetuate bad company and bad habits of behaviour. He explicitly rejects the focus on Greek and Latin through the teaching of grammar. A cross-curricular approach should, for example, move from French through geography (places in France) and only after a knowledge of numbers to longitude and latitude then Copernican astronomy. It is this orderly approach to the curriculum that puts the practical before the abstract, that lies at the heart of his pedagogy.
Lastly, and not many learning theorists touch on this, Locke recommends travel, not at 16-20 (the gap year norm) but either before this age, to acquire a language, or after when one can truly appreciate the difference between your own and another culture.
His thoughts on education, although influential, are weakened by the fact that, like most pure empiricists, he saw the mind as a table rasa or blank slate. But this was tempered by his recognition of individual character. We can now see that he was also a product of the age, making a firm distinction between the education of Gentlemen and the masses but remember also that he was an active investor and political supporter of the slave trade.
These points aside,, it is the idea of a free mind, that uses the power of reason to become contributory, autonomous adults in a free society, that mark out this educational theory. The sweeping scope of his thinking and thoroughly practical recommendations are impressive, couching education in a sophisticated theory of knowledge and liberal political society with observations and general views on education that point towards a tradition that focused on character and autonomy within society, rather than the transmission of knowledge.
Aaron, R. (1971). John Locke. Oxford: The Oxford University Press
Cranston, M. (1969). John Locke (rev. ed. Green and Co. Ltd. London: Longmans
Tarcov, N. (1984). Locke's education for liberty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Yolton, J. W. (1968). John Locke and the way of ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press