New research shows what educators have long intuited: Letting kids pursue their own interests sharpens their hunger for knowledge. Here’s a look back at this approach.
—Jason Kehe

470 BC
Socrates is born in Athens. He goes on to become a long-haired teacher who famously let stu­dents arrive at their own conclusions. His questioning, probing approach—the Socratic method—endures to this day.

Maria Montessoriopens her first Children’s House in Rome, where kids are encouraged to play and teach themselves. Americans later visit her schools and see the Montessori method in action. It spreads worldwide.


The first Waldorf school opens in Stuttgart, Germany. Based on the ideas of philos­opher Rudolf Steiner, it encourages self-motivated learning. Today, there are more than 1,000Waldorf schools in 60 countries.

A. S. Neill founds the Summerhill School, where kids have the “freedom to go to lessons or stay away, freedom to play for days … or years if necessary.” Eventually, such democratic schools appear around the world.

Loris Malaguzzi vol­unteers to teach in a school that parents are building in a war-torn Italian village outside Reggio Emilia. The “Reggio Emilia approach”—a com­munity of self-guided learning—is born.

Seymour Papert, a protégé of child psychologist Jean Piaget, helps create the first version of Logo, a programming language kids can use to teach themselves. He becomes a lifelong advocate for tech­nology’s role in learning.

Sugata Mitraconducts his first “hole in the wall” experiment in New Delhi, India. On their own, slum kids teach themselves to use a computer. Mitra dubs his approach minimally invasive education.

Ken Robinson gives what will become the most frequently viewed TED Talk ever:“How Schools Kill Creativity.”Students should be free to make mistakes and pursue their own creative interests, Robinson argues.

The Common Core, a new set of curriculum standards that include student-centered learning, is adopted by 45 US states. Math students, say, should “start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem.”

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