Education & Pedagogy

Naturalism Philosophy of Education | ZONE OF EDUCATION

Written by Arshad Yousafzai

Naturalism is a philosophical theory that connects the scientific method to philosophy. It affirms that all events and beings in the universe are natural, and therefore all knowledge of the universe is subject to scientific investigation. 

Naturalism has some fundamental principles, including:

  • The material world is the only true world, and there is no spiritual world
  • The soul is the conscious element produced from matter
  • Nature is the ultimate reality
  • Human development is a natural activity
  • The state has only a practical existence
  • Natural life is best for happy living 

Naturalism also advocates for minimal structure and interference in education. This includes no formal classrooms or textbooks. The role of the teacher is to guide and not interfere with the natural development of the child. Naturalistic epistemology is an approach to the theory of knowledge that is based on the use of scientific methods and empirical data. It relies less on deductive methods and a priori analysis of concepts. The naturalist curriculum theory emphasizes the importance of hands-on, experiential learning in natural environments. Students are encouraged to observe, explore, and interact with the natural world to gain a deeper understanding of the environment. 

Naturalism emphasizes nature in all fields of education and gives importance to the physical world. It also relates the scientific method to philosophy by affirming that all beings and events in the universe are natural.  Naturalism is also known by its types: Ontological naturalism, Metaphysical naturalism, Pure naturalism, Philosophical naturalism, Anti-supernaturalism. Naturalism Philosophy explains all the natural phenomena based on natural laws. According to this view, Nature itself is the ultimate reality. Nature has been explained using motion and energy.

The different phenomena in nature occur due to the motion and waves of electricity. Naturalism also accepts the principle of motion. It is also known as energism because it accepts energy. According to energism, all the natural things are only different forms of energy.

Naturalism is also known as positivism. Positivism means that natural phenomena come within the scope of some or the other positive sciences and can be explained using scientific laws. In modern times, positivism was established by a French thinker August Comte.  According to naturalism, the natural laws are universal and necessary.

Thus, the naturalists believe in the principle of uniformity of nature. According to it, the different natural phenomena occur mechanically without any purpose (Goetz & Taliaferro, 2008).

  1. Naturalistic worldview: Naturalism is a philosophical perspective that emphasizes the natural world as the sole reality, rejecting the existence of the supernatural or spiritual world.
  2. Scientific Methodology: Naturalism often aligns with the scientific method, valuing empirical evidence, observation, and experimentation as the primary means of understanding the world.
  3. Materialism: Naturalism typically adopts a materialistic stance, asserting that everything that exists, including consciousness and mental states, can ultimately be explained in terms of physical matter and natural processes.
  4. Determinism: Many naturalistic philosophies lean towards determinism, suggesting that events, including human actions and choices, are governed by causal laws and are thus predictable given complete knowledge of the relevant factors.
  5. Human nature: Naturalism tends to view human beings as part of the natural world, subject to the same laws and processes as other natural phenomena. This can lead to a reductionist view of human behavior and consciousness.
  6. Rejecting supernatural explanations: Naturalism rejects supernatural explanations for phenomena in favor of naturalistic explanations rooted in science and reason.
  7. Ethical implications: Naturalism can have implications for ethics, often grounding moral principles in human well-being, societal norms, and evolutionary considerations rather than divine commandments or metaphysical concepts.
  8. Critique of dualism: Naturalism typically opposes dualistic views that separate mind and body, favoring monistic perspectives that see mental phenomena as emergent from physical processes.
  9. Epistemological implications: Naturalism influences views on knowledge and epistemology, emphasizing the importance of evidence, reason, and empirical inquiry while often being skeptical of claims based on faith or intuition.
  10. Compatibility with atheism: While not inherently atheistic, naturalism tends to be compatible with atheistic worldviews, as it does not rely on supernatural explanations and often leads to a perspective that excludes the existence of gods or divine beings.

Philosophical Presuppositions

In metaphysics, the ultimate reality, according to naturalism, is Nature and Nature is material. In epistemology, the Naturalists are empiricists. They believe that knowledge is acquired through sense organs and with the help of the brain. They do not accept the rationalist’s position that all knowledge is innate.

In modern Western philosophy John Locke, Bishop Berkeley and David Hume, the British philosophers were empiricists. They believed in the possibility of direct knowledge.

In axiology, the naturalists believe in living according to Nature as the best type of life. ‘Follow Nature’ is their slogan. Be natural is their motto. They are pluralists since Nature has made all persons different.

Philosophical Forms of Naturalism

From the standpoint of philosophical principles, the following three forms of naturalism are distinguished:

  • Physical Naturalism
  • Mechanical Positivism
  • Biological Naturalism

1. Physical Naturalism

Physical Naturalism understands human actions, experiences, emotions, and feelings solely through the lens of physical sciences. This approach posits that the entire universe, including human behavior and consciousness, can be explained by principles derived from physics, chemistry, biology, and other natural sciences.

Physical Naturalism emphasizes empiricism and the scientific method as the primary means of acquiring knowledge about the world. It prioritizes empirical evidence and experimentation over other forms of inquiry, such as philosophy or metaphysics.

This perspective often marginalizes or dismisses other forms of knowledge, such as spiritual or philosophical insights, viewing them as inferior or irrelevant compared to scientific understanding. As a result, physical naturalism tends to have little influence in educational settings that value a more holistic or interdisciplinary approach to learning.

In essence, physical naturalism is closely aligned with positivism, which holds that only knowledge obtained through empirical observation and experimentation is valid. It asserts that scientific knowledge is not only one form of knowledge but the only form of knowledge that holds any significance, relegating other forms of understanding to insignificance or irrelevance.

This principle seeks to explain human actions, individual experiences, emotions, and feelings based on physical sciences. It seeks to explain the entire universe in the light of the principles of physical sciences. It has little or no influence in the sphere of education because all that it has done is place knowledge of science above every kind of knowledge. It points out that not only is science one form of knowledge but it is the only form of valid knowledge. It is a concept of positivism, and it holds that even philosophical knowledge is worthless.

Mechanical Positivism

According to this principle, the entire universe is a machine made of matter and is possessed of a self-driving energy that ensures its functioning.

This is materialism, for it suggests that matter is the only reality, and anything that exists is a form of matter. The human being is conceived of as nothing more than an active machine which is activated by certain environmental influences.

The impact of this kind of positivism led to the emergence of the behavioral school in psychology which explained all human behavior in terms of stimulus and response.

Behaviorists do not believe in the existence of any consciousness distinguished from the material element. All processes of the mental faculty such as imagination, memory, winking, etc., are explained in physiological terms.

This school also makes no distinction between human and animal, because both can be explained in terms of stimulus and response.

Behaviorism thus seeks to explain the entire range of human activity as a mechanical process. As naturalism it has had a tremendous impact on education.

Biological Naturalism

It is naturalism in this form, as biological naturalism, which has had the greatest impact upon education. It has elaborated the theory of the natural man, and has explained that the evolution of man and animal is a single process. It refuses to admit the spiritual nature of man and expounds that his nature is the heritage he has received from his ancestors. That is why it traces many similarities between human and animal behavior.

Biological naturalism contends that all the processes of Nature and the entire existence of the universe cannot be explained in terms of mechanical and physical processes, because in the biological world, evolution is a more important phenomenon.

All living beings have an instinct to live and for this reason life evolves from lower forms to higher and more complex ones.

One can find all the characteristics of evolution in man’s life. The principles underlying evolution can explain the form that a human being will ultimately assume and the manner in which he will progress.

At the animal level, the process of evolution stops at the material or physical level, but in the case of human beings it is also manifested in the mental, moral and spiritual levels. This instinctive evolution is found not only in individual human beings but also in groups of human beings, because these groups also evolve to a stage of greater complexity.

But this evolution is also governed by the same principles which govern the individual’s evolution. In this process of evolution, the principles of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest have been considered the most important by Charles Darwin, because in his opinion the principle of self-preservation is the strongest law of nature.

Aims of Education in Naturalism

The naturalist approach to the aims of education is rather narrow in that it fails to include the spiritual aspect of man’s nature. Its inclusion would almost naturally remove the distance between idealism and naturalism and this is what is being attempted now.

Concerning the aims of education, naturalists adopt a biological and evolutionist attitude. Even among the different forms of naturalism one finds a variation in the objectives assigned to education.

Mechanical naturalism suggests that education should aim at the efficiency and perfection of the human machine. But this concept does not represent completely the naturalist school.

Biological evolution uses education to ensure the proper adjustment or adaptation of the child to his environment.

McDougall points out that education aims at the transformation, synthesis and sublimation of instincts.

Darwinists argue that education must train the individual to struggle successfully for his own survival. Lamarck and his followers agree with the concept of biological evolution, because for them also the aim of education is to adapt to the environment.

On the other hand, Herbert Spencer believed education to be a preparation and a training for the complete life. Bernard Shaw believed that education must aim not only at the individual’s development but also at making the individual capable of stimulating and sustaining social development, for this will add to the social heritage of the succeeding generations.

T.P. Nunn prefers to use education as a means of making the individual capable of developing his own individuality and of contributing to society. Naturalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries believe that education should achieve a synthesis and adjustment between individual and society and also between man and nature. Rousseau believed that education should develop the child according to his natural ability. And it is accepted today that education should conform to the child’s abilities. To quote Rousseau’s words,

Curriculum in Naturalism

As a system of philosophy, naturalism has been exceptionally susceptible to the development of science, and by this influence, it has attached much importance to evolutionary theory, empirical teaching scientific analysis, etc.

As a result of the significance ascribed to scientific study naturalists want to introduce physical and social sciences at every level of education because they believe these to be more important than the humanities.

Language and mathematics for the naturalists, are tools for the learning of science and both should be taught only so long as they assist the learning of science.

Literature, in any case, should not completely absorb the students’ interest and attention. Curricula should be so constructed as to encourage the educator to take an interest in science and to gain knowledge that is factual and objective.

Granting that the present is more important than the future, the naturalists have not fallen into the mistake of neglecting the past, because the past contains many valuable suggestions for the educand. For this reason, naturalists believe in the value of historical study. Such a study will enable them to construct a new social structure and thus plan for the future.

Since evolutionists believe man to have developed or evolved, from the animal stage, and since they also believe that there is no gap or discontinuity in the transition from the animal to the human, they want education to develop the instincts and emotions. On the subject of the curriculum, naturalists have expressed theories that differ from each other to some extent. Comenius wanted the educand to study every subject, without making any selection.

Locke refuted this notion by demonstrating that every individual cannot be made to study the same subject, because of certain natural handicaps. Hence, much emphasis was laid upon modifying the curriculum to suit the needs of the individual. Herbert Spencer arranged the curriculum with science as its nucleus and tried to synthesize the other subjects into science. The arts were given a secondary place in his program because he believed that one must first create the basic elements before refining or making them sophisticated. He wanted to synthesize all subjects to the study of science, arriving at a conception of liberal education arranged around science.

T.H. Huxley, another naturalist, attached greater importance to the cultural aspects of life than to the study of science. Thus, his conception of a liberal education differed materially from that of Spencer.

In contrast, modern naturalists do not stress the importance of any one subject against that of any other, although more importance is attached to the sciences. Yet, the arts are not neglected, but given an important place in the curriculum so that it may acquire a wide base (Sharma, 2002).

Teaching Methods in Naturalism

Naturalistic education is Pedocentric (Centered on children). The child occupies a central place in it. The child, to develop, should be left on its own. The society or the state should not interfere in his contact with nature. This will allow the growth of the child in natural circumstances.

Therefore, the most important method of teaching, according to the naturalist, is to leave the child free to learn from nature. Naturalism was responsible for a violent denunciation of the traditional methods of education.

It opposed all kinds of negative techniques and the stress on rote learning. Instead, it favored teaching by more positive methods. Being empirical, it preferred to educate the child by giving him experience of all that he is to learn. Locke believed that training of the sense organs or sensory training, should be the first stage in the child’s education.

Naturalists considered experience to be more important than books, for they propounded the principle of do and learn. They felt that the child learns much from natural consequences, and therefore the child should be left to do as he is inclined, so that he may follow the dictates of his nature.

Much emphasis is laid upon direct experience. It is argued that the child learns more by direct experience of nature, men, and objects than through books. By the same reasoning, the teaching of science can be more effective if it is done through practical work in the laboratory, just as geometry is better learned by calculating the configuration of actual objects and spaces than through hypothetical problems posed in the textbooks.

Geography can be taught better through tours of places of geographical interest than through maps and charts. The same holds for the teaching of history. Hence, naturalistic educational methods depend more upon direct experience and personal observation than upon textbooks.

1. Positive method

In this, the educator tries to inform the child about various subjects. This is the traditional method which the naturalist rejects as old fashioned and ineffective.

2. Negative method

Concerning the negative methods of education, Rousseau has commented,

Hence negative education consists of training the child to use his sense organs and motor organs instead of filling his mind with bits and pieces of information.

By using the various bodily powers at his disposal, the child will generate much knowledge for himself. The playway method of education is very popular with naturalists because, during play, the child gets the opportunity to manifest his dormant powers. He is often faced with situations which compel him to use these powers.

Irrespective of the definition of play— as a recapitulation of man’s ancient activities, as a rehearsal for the rough and tumble of future life, as a safety valve for letting off excess energy it is undoubtedly the most natural and facile way of developing the child’s natural inclinations.

That games provide an outlet for man’s creative power is true not only of the child’s games but also of games played in adult life.

The artificiality of any kind is another thing that naturalists find objectionable. The atmosphere in the class and the school should be informal, and the timetable should not be rigorously adhered to.

Apart from the subjects taught as part of the prescribed syllabus, the child must be encouraged to take an active part in various extracurricular programs.

The child should not be burdened by or compelled to submit to any definite teaching method at all. Left to himself the child is perfectly capable of evolving an educational technique that suits him best. If the educator wants to know what this method is, he should observe the child, since through such observation he can learn what the child wants, in which direction he is inclined, and in what things he evinces interest. Consequently, the teacher will be enabled to mold his technique to suit the child.

The Role of Teacher in Naturalism

Naturalism opposes the traditional concepts of education in which the educator inflicts any kind of punishment on the child to make it progress in the desired direction.

Naturalists believe that the period of infancy is important in itself, not merely as a stepping stone to adult life. That explains their extreme emphasis on the Playway technique of education. They opine that the child should be encouraged to enjoy his infancy and childhood as much as he can, with the least possible interference from the teacher. Consequently, the teacher does not occupy as high and respected a position as he does under the idealistic tradition.

One example of this is Neil’s Summerhill School in which the educator mixed with the educands, played and practically lived with them. Even the matter of discipline was in the hands of the educands who selected a cabinet of five educands for this purpose.

This cabinet was even empowered to expel an educand from the school if it felt the necessity for such an extreme step.

Neil’s only function was to remove the various difficulties of the educands, after discussing everything with them. Hence, in this school, the educator was no more than just one of the members of the school.

Naturalists suggest that the educator should be a guide and a friend and that in his behavior with the child, the educator should try to recollect his childhood and infancy.

The child is naturally inclined to laughter and happiness. Hence the educator should be jolly and not grave, for undue seriousness of manner and behavior depresses the child.

The educator’s role is primarily negative since he is required to protect the child’s inherent goodness from bad influences originating in the environment. He is responsible for creating an environment in which the child can experience the greatest amount of freedom.

He must study the child’s psychology and intervene in his activity only when some obstacle bars the way to the child’s progress. Hence, the aim of education is, thus, to provide the child with opportunities for completely unrestricted self-expression. The role of the educator, therefore, is only to protect the child from repressions, mental conflicts, and mental disorders of all kinds.

Naturalism warns the educator against unnecessary seriousness, the desire to assert his authority, physical punishment, etc., since all these measures have a detrimental influence on the child’s development. The educator must think in terms of what he must avoid doing rather than think of things he must do.

He can do even better and become a child in dealing with children. But his guidance is apparent when he can give a positive and confident opinion on controversial matters, and for this, he must be possessed of unbounded self-confidence.

He can also guide the children in their search for new things and can train them in new techniques of doing things so that in later life they should become capable of doing things on their own.

The role of the teacher is most clearly defined by Ross in the following words,

It is evident, therefore, that the educator should never have recourse to any kind of pressure or force, even to the use of his authority.

His task is simply to provide the theatre for the child’s acting, to collect the materials required, to provide the child with an opportunity to do as he likes, and to create an ideal environment.

As a result of the impact of naturalism, many of the latest techniques of education, such as the Montessori system, Dalton plan, Project method, etc., all grant the teacher a similar status.

Compared to naturalistic philosophy, the idealistic school grants a more responsible position to the teacher.

Adams expressed the opinion that the educator himself has been through the same situations as the educand is experiencing at present.

He is no less a part of the intellectual world than anyone else. Both the educator and the educand are two elements of the organic structure of the universe, and both have their status and role in God’s plan.

The educator teaches and guides him along the path of perfection.

The educator’s role in the naturalist organization of education is clarified by the example of Froebel’s kindergarten system.

In this system, the school is conceived to be a garden, the educand to be a delicate plant, and the educator the careful, responsible, and cautious gardener.

The plant grows by itself, it seeks its nourishment, and its development is governed by natural laws.

It is impossible to turn one plant into a plant of another kind. This is beyond the abilities of even the greatest gardener. His only function is to make sure that the plant and the weed grow according to its nature, and that this development is not hindered. 

Up to this point, the idealistic conception does not differ very much from the naturalistic conception. But, as Ross has commented, the naturalist may be satisfied with wildflowers, but the idealist can be satisfied only by the finest of roses.

The idealist places greater stress on the aims of education and believes this aim to be self-realization or perfection. Hence, under the idealistic pattern of education, the educator allows the educand to follow the natural pattern of growth, but he reserves the right to guide the educand towards perfection. It is implied that such perfection cannot be achieved without the educator’s guidance, and hence the educator does not remain merely a friend but becomes a guide and a sage.

Discipline in Naturalism

As in the case of curriculum and educational methods, the naturalist philosophers oppose the traditional concepts of discipline. And more than anything else, they oppose the method of physical punishment for they believe that this gives rise to undesirable conflict in the child.

Rousseau has written, “Children should never receive punishment. Freedom and not power is the greatest good.” If the child makes a mistake he will get his reward from nature itself, and thus he will learn to distinguish between right and wrong through the consequences of his actions. For this reason, the child should be given every liberty.

To the naturalist, liberty does not imply freedom to interfere with the activity of others. The child can never be independent in this sense because he is controlled by many rules and laws that unconsciously or consciously operate in his mind.

Only external and obvious discipline should be done away with. All the work of school administration and organization should be left to the educand, for then he will learn to make the rules and to obey them. Respect for discipline is sought to be instilled in the child’s mind through natural consequences. Spencer writes,

But, there is a limit to learning through this method. Very often the child is not able to reason out the relation between his various actions and the total consequences. As a result, he repeats even the harmful activity many times. And, hence, in such a situation, as Dewey has hinted, it becomes necessary to scold the child, to caution it, or even to punish it. As T.H. Huxley observes,

Hence, it is not enough to abandon the child to learn for himself through these natural consequences of his actions. They do play a significant role in his training, but it is necessary to caution him at times. He should be warned against certain kinds of activities.

The system of reward and punishment has been found effective everywhere. But it must be remembered that the value of the naturalist concept lies in that it hints at the shortcomings of excessive external discipline, although there is no doubt that the theory is one-sided.

School Organization in Naturalism

Naturalism distinguishes between formal and informal agencies. While the formal agency of education is the school and other educational institutions, the informal agencies include family, society, community state, etc. Of these, the informal agency, the family starts the education of the child. The state influences the formal agencies of education. The school management, according to naturalists, should be liberal, free, and based upon natural laws.

According to the naturalist philosophers, nature itself is a school where the child is taught according to natural principles. The school should be organized in such a way so that the child may get a natural atmosphere for his growth. The naturalists cherish democratic values.

The social environment of the school should be based upon the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The teacher’s role should be reduced to a minimum.

The students should govern the school. They should receive training in leadership. The timetable of the school should be flexible because a rigid timetable hampers freedom.

The naturalist school organization may be found in Dalton plan where classes are changed into laboratories and there is no definite timetable in the school. The school buildings should have proper arrangement of light and air. Rousseau recommended the organization of schools according to the nature of children and the stages of development of the educands.

Contribution of Naturalism to Education

Like other systems of philosophy of education, naturalism has also made an important contribution to education. It made education Pedocentric, psychological, free, self-dependent, related to nature and society, based upon developmental psychology, democratic, multisided, and natural to the stages of development. These points may now be discussed in detail.

Pedocentric education

In the naturalistic conception of education, the child is in the forefront while all other things such as the educator, the books, the curriculum, the school, etc., are all in the background. Sir John Adams called this the conception of paidocentric education. Naturalism stresses the fact that education should be guided by the nature of the child and that the natural inclination of the child is always good.

He must be enabled to avoid the ugly, to manifest the natural truth inside him so that he can combat the falsity which is thrust upon him by the defective environment. In this process, the educator can perform only the function of the guide.

Naturalists are not inclined to transform the child’s nature through education or to apply to him the standards of the adult. Education according to them, is not the preparation for life but life itself. Children should live like children, because infancy has its significance, and it is not merely a stepping stone to adulthood.

The child is not to be prepared and made ready for his future, but instead to be allowed to enjoy the present. Munro opines that Rousseau was the first to state the principle, that,

In this manner, it can be summarized that education is the process of living a natural life and moving towards evolution because the child has within himself the germs of evolution.

Emphasis upon psychology

The influence of naturalism was the cause of the psychological tendency gaining so much prominence in the field of education.

By stressing the fact of the child’s nature, it emphasized the importance of natural development. And, to determine what is natural and what is abnormal in child development, the naturalists turned to psychologists. Thus it came to be understood that education must study the child and observe him.

Many psychological researches have established that the child is not a young adult and that he has a distinct psychology that differs from adult psychology.

It has been established that the child’s mental activities of thinking, memory, imagination, recall, learning, etc., all differ from similar activities in the adult. Hence, naturalism stressed the value of psychology for education.

Rousseau is often credited with introducing the psychological tendency in education for he was the first to point out that education should follow the child’s nature, which must first be understood.

Although Thomas Fuller had stressed even before Rousseau the importance of studying the educand more than books, it was the latter whose theorizing in this sphere took practical shape. Rousseau’s ideas were put into practice by Pestalozzi, Herbert, Froebel, and other educationists.

The introduction of psychology into the sphere of education led to considerable research in child psychology, and the entire process finally culminated in the emergence of a distinct branch of psychology called educational psychology.

William McDougall has made valuable contributions to the literature on and knowledge of child psychology through his analysis of the child’s instincts and his definition of the process of character formation, determination, and sentiment formation in the child.

Thorndike and other psychologists contributed a great wealth of knowledge in the sphere of manual skill and other aspects of child learning. By comparing and examining the various stages in the evolution of the child, it was found that child psychology differed considerably in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. As a consequence, great stress was placed on adopting different techniques of teaching at each one of these stages.

Apart from this, education was further influenced by the discovery that children differed from each other to a very great extent concerning their physical and mental capabilities, their nature and emotions, etc. It was considered desirable to make education flexible so that it could accommodate all such variations and still contribute to the healthy development of the child. But probably the greatest impact on education was that of the psychoanalysts.

Freud put forward many novel theses about child psychology. Other psychoanalysts were responsible for many interesting and illuminating books on child psychology, and these were avidly read by educators the world over. In the main, the influence of psychoanalysis can be seen in the knowledge it provides of the harmful effects of repression and the fresh attitudes to sex, authority, and the child’s attitude to authority.

Besides, this branch of psychology also warned educators against the harmful effects of threats, physical punishment, and asserting oneself. Ross thinks that the greatest benefit derived from psychoanalysis is that it has helped to explain the causes of juvenile delinquency and also suggested ways and means of curing it.

Naturalist Emphasis upon Free Choice

Naturalists contend that a predetermined pattern of education must never be foisted upon the child even when the pattern is entirely scientific. Education must give the child an opportunity to make a free choice in everything that he wants to study or play or even how he wants to behave. No external restraints should be placed on his free choice.

Some naturalists even object to the very institution of school education, because they fear that the school is an obstacle in their normal and independent development. They also believe that the atmosphere in the home is freer than the school environment but they are contradicted by others more conscious of the constant interruptions made by parents in the child’s activities.

Apart from this naturalists, in general, are opposed to all educands in one class being taught in the same manner, or by the same method of education. They even object to the introduction of any kind of timetable. One example of a completely unrestrained environment is to be found in Summerhill School established by A.S. Neil. It was taken for granted at this institution that the child was not expected to be fit for school, but that the school had to prepare itself for the child.

Liberty was the first principle in the child’s education, so much so that the children could play through the entire day if they were so inclined. They were given no religious education because a child is not naturally religiously inclined. No adult values were forced upon the children who were also taught none of the principles of culture.

Naturalists also believe that the child should not be made cultured unless he realizes the need for culture. It was, therefore, thought better to leave the child in his more primitive condition.

The liberty granted to the children even extended to their being allowed to roam naked if they so wished. It was found that no moral difficulty was raised due to the sex instinct, and it was decided that a healthy attitude to sex could only be generated through education.

Neil thought that undesirable behavior is due to moral and unnatural repression and that no undesirable incidents take place due to co-education if the environment is completely free and liberal.

Place of the teacher in Naturalism

Naturalism grants to the teacher the place of the friend and the guide, not of the administrator, for he is not to interfere in the child’s activities, nor to make any attempt at influencing him. He is there merely to observe them, not to give them any information to fill their minds with facts or to form their characters. It is for the child to decide what he wants to learn.

He will learn from experience what he should learn and when, what he should do, and what he should avoid. His interests and instincts should be allowed to manifest themselves freely. All this does not imply that the teacher has no role at all in education, for he has a definite role since he is the one who will provide the educative material, create the learning opportunities, create the ideal environment, and thus contribute to the child’s development.

For example, in the Montessori method of education, the child is given many kinds of equipment to play with, while the teacher looks on and observes. Naturalism, thus, favors the concept of self-education.

Norman Mencken has gone one step further and suggested that children can even educate each other. Nothing should be done to turn the child’s mind in any particular direction. He is not to be taught to read or write, to make use of the various parts of his body, or be taught moral lessons, but merely to be left to himself so that he can develop independently.

This is what Rousseau implied by his concept of the educator’s negative effort in the process of education. The negative effort did not imply that the teacher was merely to pass his time, but to observe the child, avoid any interference in his activities, prevent or protect him from defects, to protect him from a defective environment.

The educator must be perfectly aware of all that he has not to do, but at the same time, this negative attitude is to be supplemented by the positive one of love and sympathy. He can love the child only when he has been a child, that is, he has not completely forgotten his childhood. He should be inclined to laugh and play like the child, to forget that he is an adult, to mix with the children and become one of them himself. Only then can he give anything to them.

At times, one finds children developing some bad tendencies and it becomes necessary to guide them. But even this should be done in the form of an informal conversation with the child. In such a dialogue the educator understands the difficulties of the educand, shows his love and sympathy, and encourages the educand to solve them himself. He makes the educator aware of the difficulties he is likely to face. Neil called this re-education. He saw in his school that many of the children often sought opportunities for such informal dialogues. Whenever the children showed any disinclination for such dialogues, they were immediately abandoned.

Direct experience of things

Naturalists believe Rousseau’s dictum, “Give your scholar no verbal lesson; he should be taught by experience alone.” Hence, the naturalist lays stress on teaching through direct experience. The child will learn more by coming into contact with the objects surrounding him than through books. He should be allowed to examine these objects.

Similarly, the teaching of science should not take the form of verbal lectures, but the actual performance of experiments in the laboratory. Geometry should be taught not by the problems written in books but by the actual measurement of the areas of the school and the height and other dimensions of the school buildings and other objects. If geography is to be taught, the educand should be taken to the various parts of the country, and not taught only through maps and charts produced on the blackboard. Thus naturalists insist that the educand must learn from the things that exist in the school, not through the lectures of the educator.

Direct experience of social life

What is true of the natural environment of the child, is also equally true of the social environment in which he lives. He should learn the various duties, obligations, and responsibilities of social life not through lectures of the educator but through the natural society of the school, of which the educand is a member. Here, left to himself, he will learn to do those things which should be done and leave alone those which should be avoided.

In Neil’s Summerhill School, the children themselves decided upon the form of behavior that others found objectionable or which hindered their adjustment and thus learned to avoid it. This formed the basis of the child’s social education.

The concept of co-education is also favored by the naturalists because then the society within the school resembles the society outside the school. Besides, it has been contended that unnatural attitudes to sex are the inevitable result of segregated education of boys and girls.

This is a very controversial subject and many educationists fail to agree with the naturalists, although in many cases the results of experiments in coeducation favored the naturalists’ thesis. It can undoubtedly be said, however, that the child’s experience of the social life within the school, forms the basis of his later social and moral life.


Another characteristic feature of the naturalist conception of education is the insistence on self-government. Neil’s Summerhill School experimented in this direction also by allowing the educands to form their government. They created a cabinet of five educands whose function was to reflect on various difficulties, to give decisions in cases of indiscipline and even to inflict punishment for such acts.

These five cabinet members met every Saturday night, and one of them was elected to the chair. All problems were then discussed. The cabinet even had the authority to expel an educand from the school, if it so decided, although this right was never exercised.

Neil states that this arrangement led to the development of highly democratic qualities in his educands, and it was felt that this weekly meeting had a much greater influence and impact than an entire week of traditional teaching. And no one can doubt that such an arrangement of self-government is very beneficial for training educands in democratic living.

The condition of self-government does impose certain restrictions on the educand’s activities, but because it is imposed through his own rules and regulations, it takes the form of self-government and self-discipline. All kinds of self-control can be learned through self-government, and it has none of the drawbacks of the method of external control. There is undoubtedly no better way of teaching public morality. And it is only self-government that teaches cultured behavior and cooperation.

Play Way of Education

Of the many methods of education, naturalists prefer the play way. In this technique, all that the child learns is through a sense of playing or indulging in sports.

Psychologists contend that the child best manifests his instincts and tendencies in an independent game, and his development can also be achieved through sport. Whatever the objectives of play—the recapitulation of man’s primitive activities, the preparation for future life, or a kind of safety valve for an individual’s excessive energy—it is undoubtedly the most natural method of teaching.

Playing affords education not only during childhood, for people learn many things through playing even in adult life. It also provides an opportunity for constructive activity. Games are an important medium of constructive or creative education.

Naturalists have, therefore, placed adequate stress on the value of games a fact that even modern educationists accept without reservation. Nowadays the play way of education is adopted for the education of infants and children, and thus they acquire all the advantages of a naturalist education.

Montessori education, for example, is a good instance of this because in this method of teaching the child learns even reading and writing through play. Scouting is another activity in which the child is taught many things through the medium of play. In Neil’s Summerhill School, more stress was placed on character than on learning. Children were free to play from morning till evening. There was no system of examination, and books had less importance in the school than most other kinds of activities. Some lessons were taught, but attendance was never compulsory because most of the work, in any case, was done outside the classroom.

On the other hand, educands favoured the crafts rooms much more, where they were taught to make things out of wood, plastecine, and metal. Educands and educators sat together to write plays. It was found that drama writing is an important means of developing the creative imagination.

Development of the child according to its nature

Naturalists stressed the fact that the child must develop according to his nature, and educational patterns must be modified to suit the various needs of children because children differ from each other on account of their innate individual differences.

Importance of developmental psychology.

By stressing the value of studying child development, naturalists made contributions to the progress of developmental psychology which scientifically studies the various stages of man’s development.

Comprehensive curriculum

 Naturalists have favored the adoption of a multifaceted and comprehensive curriculum, which reflects, apart from the scientific, sociological, and psychological tendencies, the holistic tendency in education.

The Holistic Approach

The holistic approach is, in fact, a synthesis of scientific, sociological, and psychological tendencies. Schools make use of all kinds of modern audiovisual aids and arrange for the teaching of sciences and the various arts.

Extracurricular Programs

Extracurricular programs and activities are also believed to be of considerable importance.

Development of Democratic Qualities

Naturalism is opposed to repression and vigorous discipline of any kind. It seeks to replace the traditional with the modern, the dogmatic by the liberal and the progressive. It consequently helps in the development of such democratic qualities as liberty, equality, and fraternity. It favors a complete rejection of the traditional modes of teaching and instead advocates greater dependence upon self-government.

 Development of child psychology

 Naturalists played a significant role in the development of child psychology as a result of their insistence on education being oriented to the child’s nature. As a result of this development in child psychology, it was discovered that the child is not a young adult, but a distinct kind of human being possessed of a different psychology.

Naturalists insist that the child is born good, and that education must seek only to protect him from evil. Support of residential schools. Under the naturalist mode of teaching, the educator has the negative role of protecting the educand from evil. For this reason, naturalists favor residential schools because the educand’s environment can be controlled much better if the educand lives in hostels attached to the school.

They also favor the pattern of co-education because this develops more natural attitudes in boys and girls.

Revolution in all fields of education

Finally, it can be said that naturalists were responsible for some of the most revolutionary ideas in all spheres of education. As has already been pointed out, naturalists vigorously opposed all traditional thinking on child psychology, educational techniques, curriculum, administration, coeducation, etc.

Although all of their ideas are not found acceptable today, many of the principles propounded by the naturalists are still being applied. For example, such educational principles as learning through activity, going from the simple to the complex, from the concrete to the abstract, from the definite to the indefinite, from the easy to the difficult, and from the known to the unknown, are all principles which were originally propounded by the naturalists. And all these have been established as correct. Modern educationists now agree that the aim of education is not to provide education but to encourage spontaneous development. The significance and efficacy of broad-based and comprehensive curricula have been almost universally accepted.

Frustration and repression are held to be harmful everywhere. And the role of the teacher is now universally seen as the guide and not the administrator ( Shivendra,2006).


Leave a Comment