Caleb Gattegno is the teacher every student dreams of; he doesn’t require his students to memorize anything, he doesn’t shout, at times he
doesn’t even say a word, and his students learn at an accelerated rate because they are truly interested. In a world where memorization, recitation, and standardized tests are still the norm, Gattegno was truly ahead of his time.
He is the author of pedagogical works, books on psychology and books on reflection of different subjects including the brain, awareness, energy, death, health, love, and economics. His exploration of these topics led him to believe that although one is the same person all one’s life, humans are constantly learning and changing. For Gattegno, human learning adds to and adjusts our existing abilities, to meet the demands of future skills that will be needed.
Gattegno was a scholar of many fields. He held a doctorate of mathematics, a doctorate of arts in psychology, a master of arts in education, and bachelors of science in physics and chemistry. He held a scientific view of education, and believed illiteracy was a problem that could be solved. He questioned the role of time and algebra in the process of learning to read, and, most importantly, questioned the role of the teacher. The focus in all subjects, he insisted, should always be placed on learning, not on teaching. In his view, the role of the teacher is not to inform students of facts, but to lead them to make discoveries through their own insights. He called this principle the Subordination of Teaching to Learning.
Gattegno was inspired to solve the problem of reading when he went to Ethiopia on a United Nations literacy mission in 1957. The city of Addis Ababa was shut down for Christmas when he arrived, giving him time to himself. During this 48 hour period, he learned how to read the local language. Although he could not speak fluently, he could read every sign on the street. When he discovered that it is supposed to take 18 months to teach Amharic, he decided to test his method on others. Gattegno had illiterate ministry employees in their 50s and 60s reading newspapers within six hours.
This experience allowed Gattegno to develop teaching tools rich in approaches which appeal to the human skills of imagination, creativity, insight and intuition. These tools work to build on skills already mastered, while at the same time offering students insight into the student’s own learning processes. The concept of creating criteria, making the classroom into a laboratory, and discovering the unknown, are the basis of Gattegno’s work. The teaching aids Gattegno developed allow the role of the teacher to be that of a guide, leading students to make discoveries through their own insights, without informing them of facts.
His techniques for teaching mathematics were developed after meeting a Belgian schoolmaster named Georges Cuisenaire in 1953. Gattegno was inspired by Cuisenaire's invention of colorful rods of varying lengths. Rods of the same length had the same color, and could represent anything from musical notes to numbers. Eventually Gattegno started the Cuisenaire Company promoting the use of the rods as a visible and tangible way for children to express mathematical ideas.
In the new age of air travel, Gattegno travelled around the world more than 10 times conducting seminars on his teaching methods. He himself had learned more than 40 languages. He published more than 120 books during his career, and from 1971 until his death in 1988 he published the Educational Solutions newsletter five times a year. He died in Paris in 1988, two weeks after presenting a seminar titled Le Mystère de la Communication, near Grenoble, France. Dr. Gattegno was survived by his wife Shakti Gattegno and his four children.