Educational Philosophy and Methods of Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1905–1984) is a New Zealand British novelist and educator. Her years of teaching Maori children in “Infant (elementary) School” has given her the chance to develop educational methods that she wrote in the treatise Teacher in 1963 and in successive volumes of her autobiography in 1967, 1972, and 1979 (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2004). Her educational philosophy, stimulating insights, and personality have caught the interest of many educators and authors especially in the academe. She has addressed issues on civilization and education in old cultures that have become applicable in the modern times and showed that it is possible to change for the better through her works in relation to pedagogy (Gunton, 1981, p. 1). She advocates a student-centered educational method which is indeed a more effective means of teaching children to be independent, responsible, and task-driven and goal oriented learners. Her contribution to the educational arena has been widely recognized because not only the teachers could benefit from them but most especially the children who need to develop cognitively, emotionally, and socially in order to function well as individuals instead of becoming liabilities to the society.

Ashton-Warner’s Educational Philosophy

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Ashton-Warner is known for her “Creative Teaching Scheme” in which her knowledge about pedagogy and children is evident. She recognizes the relevance of contemporary teaching reading approach in eliciting children’s minds and in making them more active learners instead of passive receivers in the teaching-learning process. Isenberg (1994) describes Ashton-Warner as having a “kindred spirit, another lonely, unappreciated teacher struggling against great odds” (p. 17). She also has had extensive readings in psychology, history, and literature which Isenberg concludes that her extensive effort in educating herself is a reaffirmation of her belief on the importance of education in changing the world to become a better place for all humanity. Arts and the contributions of Plato, Da Vinci, Tolstoy, Freud, and Jung were also her interests (19). In “Teacher”, Ashton-Warner affirms John Locke’s “concept of knowledge as a transmittable entity to be channeled from the all-knowing teacher to the know-nothing student” (p. 20). She supports the idea that the learners’ experiences are crucial in understanding what they read. Thus, it is always necessary to make words meaningful to the learners and information should always be based on facts, reality, and experiences in order not to confuse their understanding.

Another significant concept on the part of the teacher, regarding creativity is flexibility. Ashton-Warner argues that can’t rely on myself by merely following the lesson plan because there are instances that some things which are not prepared can be useful in improving the children’s learning process (Isenberg, 1994, p. 24). It is not always advisable to rely on books and lesson plans when teaching children because there are times that incidental learning can occur. It may not directly relate to the daily topic but it can be considered as learning goal as long as children learn something new which can be applied or used for their future activities. However, it is necessary to control the number of new words being studied for a day in order to avoid information overload. Quality in the teaching-learning process is better than quantity.

Organic Teaching Scheme

The main theme of Ashton-Warner’s Organic Teaching Scheme which is discussed in her book, “Teacher” (1963), is the collaborative learning in which the learners are paired to work on reading, writing, and spelling activities (Ashton-Warner, 1986, p. 63) or they are grouped as one to share their stories (p. 65). This method allows the children to freely communicate with each other (p. 66) while the teacher supervises them instead of interrupting their interaction (as cited in Isenberg, 1994, p. 28). Her method requires the teacher to act as a witness of the learners’ activities as they bring out their potential through a active interaction with other learners: “For one thing, the drive is no longer the teacher’s but the children’s own as Ashton-Warner (1963, p. 92) expresses the role of a teacher: “For another, the teacher is at last with the stream and not against it, the stream of the children’s inexorable creativeness” (as cited in Reinsmith, 1994, p. 135). Ashton-Warner has revealed that a learner-centered educational process is an effective means of teaching the children become independent and responsible in their learning activities. The lesser the teacher interferes in the learning process, the more the children are able to develop creativity, resourcefulness, confidence, and self-reliance which are needed in order to ensure that these children would be able to function well in their daily life-activities.

This teaching method highlights the use of key vocabulary or basic words that have powerful meaning which are significantly related to children’s experiences. Ashton-Warner used the “organic” vocabulary approach in 1963 which effectively helped indigenous students who lived outside the cultural mainstream to improve their literacy. She integrated her Language Experience Approach (LEA) in which she allowed the children to build bridges between oral and written language through an interactive writing experience. The children study about particular words before they attempt to use them in their own ideas through writing. With this approach, children are encouraged to experience and create stories in their own language (Hoffman& Schallert, 2004, p. 8). Their written works can be used as teaching materials for further discussion or learning reinforcement. Thus, allowing the children to improve their writing, reading, and listening skills. This approach is an effective means of building a give-and-take relationship among learners and training them to comprehend, recall details, and exchange dialogues to enrich their language learning experiences. This method entices the children to focus on the things they are supposed to learn in a given time. Experiential learning in today’s educational set up is very much adopted due to its positive impact on children’s learning outcome. It is important that children talk about the things and use words they understand in order to maintain their interest and motivation. Learning the basics can lead them to learn more about many things efficiently.

In relation to vocabulary, interaction, and independent learning, the affective aspect of children is also an important consideration in Ashton-Warner’s organic pedagogy. She is concerned about children’s emotion and personality (Leseur & Sutterby, 2001, p. 69; Tyrrell, 2001, p. 124; Rathbone, 2005, p. 471). Words that relate to their inner self can help them better understand new words, especially the abstract concepts: “reach[es] a hand into the mind of the child, bring[s] out a handful of the stuff [she] find[s] there, and use[s] that as their first working material” (Ashton-Warner 1986, p. 34). The use of words like “Mummy,” “Daddy,” “kiss,” “frightened,” and “ghost” as key vocabulary, has great impact on children’s personal, cognitive, emotional, and social development (as cited in Isenberg, 1994, p. 20). Ashton-Warner also stresses in “Teacher” the need for creating an atmosphere where there is respect between teacher and student (p. 31). This kind of relationship does not mean that the teacher should take authority or control of the learners’ activities. Respect is needed to keep order in the classroom since discipline can positive reinforce emotional development.


Ashton-Warner’s contemporary and creative teaching method, the Organic Teaching Scheme, based on the Teacher” published in 1963 has indeed a universal appeal for she was courageous enough to change the traditional teaching methods into a learner-centered approach to maximize children’s potential in learning and discovering new things through the use of vocabulary or educational materials that can be integrated with the learners’ experiences. Values that can be developed through Ashton-Warner’s educational methods include independence, self-reliance, cooperation, social functioning, emotional growth, personal development, and creativity. This method also allows the teacher to become more adaptive to new or unusual situations that can occur in the teaching-learning process.