[Editor’s Note: This is the 14th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]
Jan Amos Comenius was a Protestant bishop who lived from 1592-1670 and who reformed the educational system at the time. He came from a poor family, all of whom died in 1604 of a plague, but he nonetheless strived to become one of the most optimistic educators, learning multiple languages and becoming the most sought-after teacher in Europe in the 17th century.
A Realist, Comenius was the first person to put images in text, as he believed it was necessary for children to see what the world looked like with the help of pictures. “Orbis Pictus,” written in 1638, became the first children’s picture book and later led to audio-visual techniques in the classroom.
His work was seen by the Swedes, who asked him to organize and manage their schools, which he did. And beginning in 1642, he prepared school texts for six years.
In his book “Didactica Magna,” Comenius proposed a very different educational system from the one at the time. First, he believed that schools should be organized in stages, from easy to hard, to address students’ growing knowledge. Second, while punishment was viewed as an effective means of instilling discipline in students, and the rod was used liberally, Comenius felt teachers would be more effective if they were kinder. And third, he emphasized the importance of learning languages. While he mostly taught Latin, he also tried to learn to speak and write in other languages, believing language instruction was beneficial to every child who wanted to learn.
Comenius, in his later years, became very interested in the sciences. According to The Encyclopedia of Education (vol. 2, 1971), he started with three tasks: “The first task is for European scientists to state all goals and knowledge in an encyclopedia. Establishing a college to provide labs for scientific research is the second task. The last task is to have access to knowledge in all fields.” He wanted to make this learning universal, and in his book “Consultation of 1640,” he described these pansophic views. However, the complete work wasn’t published until 1960.
Comenius was more than just a bit of a radical. At a time when women’s intelligence and capacity for learning and advanced thought were routinely dismissed, he stood up for them, claiming that failing to educate them was “a denial of the divine will and a waste of their proven capacity to learn.” Education was meant for everyone; it shouldn’t be confined within a school classroom but should coexist with their life.
Comenius wasn’t a highly intelligent man. Instead, he used simple ideas to create an impressionable education system. As a Realist, his ideas about nature set the tone of his works. As a bishop, he incorporated his religious beliefs into his teachings. And he believed that, at its most fundamental level, learning should be interesting, dramatic, and stimulating.
Before his death in 1670, Comenius established seven schools, one for each stage of life, from the first stage’s “school of becoming” to the last stage’s “school of death.” He reformed the teaching of language and promoted universal education in the most practical, optimistic, and innovative ways possible. His influence can’t be ignored; aspects of the system he forged centuries ago still endure in our educational system today.
Next week: European Influences, Froebel
To read part 1: Introduction, click here.
To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.
To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.
To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.
To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.
To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.
To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.
To read part 8: China, click here.
To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.
To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.
To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.
To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.
To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.
 Downey, Vannessa. (June 15, 2004). History of American Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/comenius.html.