Sunday, November 6, 2011

David Elkind's Giants in the Nursery

"To forget the past is to forever remain a child."'


"If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

-Issac Newton

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to hear David Elkind discuss his new book, Grandmasters in the Nursery. David Elkind is an American child psychologist and Professor Emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University. He was the former president of the American Montessori Society and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. He is also the author of more than six books on early childhood education, including Miseducation and The Hurried Child.

Prof. Elkind appeared as part of a lecture series hosted by the Montessori Center Internationale (Denver, CO).

The lecture summarized the research Prof. Elkind has undertaken for his forthcoming book Giants in the Nursery: Grandmasters of Educational Reform.

I have reproduced my lecture notes from this lecture here; any errors or omissions are my own.


David Elkind began his lecture with an anecdote about a young composer coming to Mozart for advice on writing a symphony. Mozart suggested that the composer should begin with something simpler; the frustrated young composer observed that Mozart had written his first symphony at eight. "But I didn't have to ask how," responded Mozart.

Talent is a gift that cannot be taught, Prof. Elkind observed. Elkind uses the term "grandmaster" to refer to those individuals who had the vision to see beyond even the best. In terms of early childhood education, he applies it to three philosophers: Locke, Comenius, and Rousseau; four practitioners: Froebel, Pestalozzi, Steiner, and Montessori; and three theorists: Freud, Piaget, and Erikson.

Learning is the modification of behavior as a result of experience. Psychology traditionally focuses upon behavior because it is the objective, measurable, aspect of learning.

One of Professor Elkind's central arguments is that early childhood education should serve as the model for all education (not the other way around- by determining standards for the education of older children and working backwards to determine appropriate standards and experiences for younger children). Early childhood education offers a more robust philosophy, a stronger experiential basis, and stronger theoretical underpinnings.

To understand the theoretical basis which supports early childhood practice, his book will examine the lives and theories of these influential savants. He identifies four main commonalities among these individuals.

1) All were dominated by a single idea or mission.

Pestalozzi: Learning only occurs when you re-present an experience. Practical education must combine the social and the natural.

Froebel: Disagreed with Pestalozzi. Founded kindergarten. Believed God is the creator and people should emulate God; therefore, people should work to be creative. He believed people create through play. He was trained as a crystallographer and believed that physical development follows the same process as organic development. He created beautiful materials for children (which famously influenced the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright).

Rudolph Steiner: A polyglot who famously founded the first Waldorf school in the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory. He experienced an ongoing stream of spiritual and extra- sensory experiences throughout his life which he believed were spiritual in nature. He created anthropsophy and the Waldorf philosophy of education because he believed he could train people to see differently and to access this spiritual dimension; he developed anthroposophy to deal with a talent that he couldn't understand in any other way. He was very concerned with the over-intellectualism of education and highly valued fine arts (music, dance, and art). Where Pestalozzi, sought to bring the social and the natural together; Steiner sought to unify the personal and the social. Art is the boundary between that which is personal and that which is social.

Maria Montessori: Montessori was the first person to bring the modern scientific perspective to bear upon education. She was the first femal doctor in Italy and encountered a great amount of discrimination and significant obstacles to her achievment. She famously began her career working with special needs children in the Orthophrenic School, before developing her method. She took from Seguin the system of sensory education (finding that special needs individuals were often not learning well through their senses and required sensory training, a belief which modern science supports- due to neural pruning, children who cannot process information well often lose the ability to even receive the sensory data over time). Dr. Elkind expressed that her philosophy holds great promise for contemporary education of children with special needs, particularly autism.

Sigmund Freud: Introduces the idea of the affective unconscious experience. Many of our behaviors are caused by unconscious experiences. He begins by examining hysteria and parapraxis as examples of reflecting unconscious experiences. In early childhood education, many behaviors (children's enjoyment of peek-a-boo, separation anxiety, relationships with teachers as substitutes for parents) can be explained by postulating the existence of unconscious experience.

Jean Piaget: Piaget discovers the existence of unconscious reasoning through famous examples like conservation of number tasks. He found that unconscious reasoning dictates behavior and that verbal explanations may not accurately capture and explain the actual thought process used. Humans possess mental structures that cause them to assimilate external events. He develops a system of genetic epistemology to explain how an individual develops cognitively and to link the validity of knowledge to its model of construction.

Erik Erikson- Introduces the idea of the social unconscious, the importance of the life cycle and stages of life. he argues that children gain experience through cultural and social influences, of which they are unconscious.

2) All were extremely hard workers. They tended to be obsessive, compulsive, with a tremendous capacity for hard work and a compulsion to do it.

3) All were fairly nomadic. Most moved around frequently.

David Elkind spent a lot of the lecture telling stories and anecdotes about these grandmasters that he uncovered during his research: Rousseau had five children that he sent to orphanages as soon as they were born, he loved changing things into their opposites; Freud smoked 10-12 cigars a day; Erikson became a Montessori teacher as the suggestion of Anna Freud, he developed the basis for naturalistic evaluation in family settings.

4) All considered deeply what type of experiences are key for learning and the sequence/scaffolding required. Many discuss the importance of matching or adapting the educational experience to the child's level of experience (the first discussions of individually differentiated education).

Comenius believed simple ideas must be presented before complex ideas. He also believed that children needed one hour of play for every four hours of instruction.

Locke believed sensory experiences precede ideas.

Rousseau conducted a thought experiment of what a child might be like without social impositions and constructions. He discussed the importance of nature in education. David Elkind discussed Rousseau as a precursor to theorists like Richard Louv, who coined the term "nature deficit disorder" in this context, and the fact that television is decreasing parental interactions and the opportunity for children to develop focused attention and concentration.

Steiner believed in the importance of combining the personal and the social. While he though socialization was important, he also valued the importance of the individual (after all, one of the key aims of education is to teach children to think for themselves). Art accomplishes this, as it is both for our own pleasure and to others. He believed art experiences were integral to education, not incidental.

5) To become a student of any of these "grandmasters" is to become a defender or disciple of them.Elkind argues that research is difficult because, not surprisingly, those closest to the grandmasters are the most biased (so accounts and works written about them by people who knew them best are the least objectively valid).

He believes this fact is interesting, because all of them explicitly state that they don't want carbon copies of themselves; they encourage their students to think for themselves.

At the conclusion of the lecture, Elkind addressed the question of why he chose to bring these "grandmasters" together by stating (without additional explanation) that he believed their philosophies complement each other and that it is by combining them that one would create a comprehensive system of education.


Yet again, I would like to thank Montessori Center Internationale for providing the local Montessori community with the opportunity to hear renowned speakers in the field of early childhood education, and for continuing to provide an excellent series of continuing education lectures (it is seldom that one gets to take continuing education hours listening to someone whose breadth and depth of knowledge rivals that of Prof. Elkind).

Although I genuinely look forward to reading the book when it is available, and felt that his knowledge about the subject and the biographical research was impeccable, I couldn't help but leave with the feeling that the central thesis had not yet been completely thought out. How these specific theorists had been selected (why not include Freire? Dewey? etc)? What is the significance of the similarities he found in the biographies of these theorists- are these similarities merely the characteristics of giftedness, or do they speak to something more essential about the nature of education? How could these different philosophies (with completely different epistemologies) be combined into a coherent system of education ? Was Elkind's project directed at something other than providing a summary of these philosophies of education and a biographical sketch of these theorists?

I could tell that many of the audience shared this sense of unease as to the central premise. "What was the point?" someone at my table asked. Although this could certainly be taken as a flippant criticism of the speaker, it occurred to me that given the nature of his endeavor, it might not be insulting to take this question seriously. Is the book intended to be a survey of the philosophy of early childhood education (a more focused and biographical version of Amelie Rorty's Philosophers on Education)? Why choose these "grandmasters"? Why mobilize all of these resources? Why address a group of practitioners with so much biographical information? What is the value in modern practitioners studying these "grandmasters" of the past?

For a moment it occurred to me that this might be an example of the danger of reducing a system of thought to mere psychology and biography, particularly given some of the observations made in the lecture (the relationship between long hair and revolutionaries, etc), but the more I thought about it, I thought that perhaps autobiography is the central point. There is certainly a danger in trying to "shrink the shrink" so to speak, but I'm willing to hasten a suggestion. Nietzsche says all philosophy is always the biography of the philosopher and what unites these grandmasters is their place in the philosophy (and the biography) of David Elkind.

To take a stab at the unspoken central tenet of Professori Elkind's argument, I would submit that masters are necessary both to every discipline, and to every individual who goes beyond merely learning about a discipline to dedicating his or her life to it. That is the both the common thread among these philosophers- each shared the conviction that their ideas were not worth an hour of toil if they did not reverberate, clarify, and ordain their entire life with a sense of purpose and meaning- and their relation to the speaker. As someone who has dedicated his own life in pursuit of these ideas, these are not merely "grandmasters," they are David Elkind's masters. The point of understanding history, consciously examining our assumptions, presuppositions, and conceptual frames, and retracing the lines of thought of the past is to arrive at the present and to understand both the discipline that we practice and to understand our relationship to it. That is ultimately the purpose of all education. Montessori calls this "our cosmic task."

"I shall inhabit my name. That is why we mobilize so many resources. That is also what our monotonous biography can be used for: to constantly begin again the search for the conditions by which the proper name of each one of us can be inhabited."


  1. Now and then I read your school blog and are amazed about all your work and the children work you do!
    Thank you so much for your notes lecture notes.

    Kindly regards from a Montessori teacher in Gothenburg, Sweden

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comment! It really made my day! I am glad that you found it useful!