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Edward Sheldon (1823–1897)

Edward Austin Sheldon was instrumental in bringing object training to the United States. As president of the Oswego Training School in Oswego, New York, from 1861 until his death, Sheldon worked to fulfill his commitment to make education accessible to all children, both in practice through free schools and in theory through a Pestalozzian teaching style.

Born in Perry Center in Genesee County, New York, Edward Sheldon grew up on the family farm. After completing a college-preparatory course of education, Sheldon fulfilled family expectations by leaving home at age twenty-one for Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Sheldon originally intended to pursue a law career but a bout with pleurisy in his second year at Hamilton forced him to take a leave of absence, during which he returned to the family farm and dabbled in horticulture. His interest in this field–coupled with his fond memories of life on the farm–inspired him to leave college in 1847, after his junior year, to invest with a partner in a nursery in Oswego, New York. Within a year, financial mismanagement by Sheldon's partner caused the nursery to fail. However, struck by the poverty he observed in Oswego, Sheldon already was immersed in his new life: spearheading and organizing an educational system in Oswego that would serve all children.

Sheldon solicited the support of a committee of prominent community members to open the Orphan and Free School in Oswego in 1848. Although it was not his intention to take charge of the "ragged school," at least one of the most influential backers of the committee said she would pull her support without Sheldon as the teacher. Thus, Sheldon reluctantly began his short stint as a teacher. He reflected, "Nothing could ever have been farther from my thoughts than the idea of teaching school; nothing for which I considered myself so poorly adapted" (Barnes, p. 78). Sheldon struggled through this stressful year, teaching upwards of one hundred pupils at a time and witnessing the depraved conditions in which they lived when he visited their homes on Saturdays. The high point of the year was his marriage in May 1849, to Frances A. B. Stiles, whose own educational attainment enabled her to serve as a helpful partner for forty-six years as Sheldon worked to realize his vision of an educational system to serve all children. Their five children kept the Sheldon household busy.

Financial support for the school waned, and after one year Sheldon accepted a position at a private school in Oswego. But, for Sheldon, the idea of a unified educational system to serve all children lingered. After a brief time at the private school and one year as superintendent of public schools in Syracuse, New York, Sheldon returned to Oswego in 1853 and settled into his life work of reforming education, especially instruction. As secretary of the board of education (essentially, superintendent) in Oswego, Sheldon reorganized the Oswego public schools into a unified system, enacting such reforms as assigning students to schools and grades according to age and requiring all teachers to pass certification exams.

By the mid-1850s the Oswego schools were flourishing, serving as exemplars for education reformers, and Sheldon became well known in education circles. He soon realized, however, that this smooth-running system was "a machine found wanting" because the instructional methods "lacked vitality," and intensified his study of educational reforms in other school systems (Barnes, p. 116). In 1859 Sheldon was inspired to invest three hundred dollars in materials from the Home and Colonial Institute of London, in the hopes of duplicating the innovative practices he observed in classrooms in Toronto, Canada. There, teachers based lessons not on recitation and memorization, but on pictures, charts, and other objects, a teaching technique credited to Swiss educator, Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827). Many people saw shades of Pestalozzi himself in Sheldon's life and work–both loved children, worked for the benefit of the poor, and maintained the courage of their convictions in reforming education. Pestalozzi developed object training out of necessity; he used field trips and actual objects as teaching tools because his students were poor and his school was inadequately funded. This active learning style was child-centered and engaged total sensory learning. Pestalozzi's belief in nurturing the natural and orderly development of the mind struck Sheldon so strongly that "he became a Pestalozzian overnight" (Snyder, p. 231).

Following his enlightening exposure to Pestalozzianism, Sheldon began, in his capacity as secretary of the board of education, to prepare teachers in this systematic objective style of teaching. He was soon frustrated, however, as he found that these teachers left for better-paying jobs in other districts. Recognizing the demand for teachers who were familiar with object training, he convinced the school board to establish a teacher training school and sought to find an appropriate teacher for the school. Because the method of teaching he had been emulating was based on the Home and Colonial Institute of London, he hired Pestalozzian expert Margaret E.M. Jones of the institute for the inaugural year of the Oswego Training School. Classes began in 1861 and Sheldon was a regular attendee during Jones's tenure. In 1865 New York made Sheldon's institution its second state-supported normal school. In 1869 Sheldon resigned as secretary of the board of education to devote himself full-time to the Oswego State Normal and Training School, which gained national attention for what rapidly became known as the Oswego method of object training. Sheldon remained as president of the school until his death in 1897.

The impact of the Oswego (Normal) Training School cannot be overstated. Teachers trained at Oswego fanned out across the country, beginning a revolution in classroom instruction. The majority of Oswego's early graduates taught in elementary and even normal schools outside of the state of New York, often in the growing pioneer West. An Oswego graduate, Sheldon's daughter Mary followed in her father's footsteps; she became a professor of history at Stanford University and was well-known for her work in developing historical teaching methods. Mary and other Oswego-trained teachers helped to transform not only the subject matter and the methods of formal education, but also the spirit of education. Sheldon's graduates took his object-training vision across the country and around the world. Oswego State Normal and Training School became synonymous with object training; many normal schools taught the Oswego method for years to come.


BARNES, MARY SHELDON, ed. 1911. The Autobiography of Edward Austin Sheldon. New York: Ives-Butler.

HOLLIS, ANDREW PHILLIP. 1898. The Contribution of the Oswego Normal School to Educational Progress in the United States. Boston: Heath.

ROGERS, DOROTHY. 1961. Oswego: Fountainhead of Teacher Education. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

SNYDER, CHARLES M. 1968. Oswego: From Buckskin to Bustles. Port Washington, NY: Friedman.


OSWEGO COLLEGE, NEW YORK. "College History." <www.oswego.edu/library/archives/CollegeHistory.html>.



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