Hans Aebli’s academic interests focused on

  • cognitive psychology (thinking, concept formation, learning, problem solving) and
  • developmental psychology and
  • their application for pedagogical psychology, particularly didactics.

Primary School Teacher in Zurich
While many of the important chapters of Hans Aebli’s life were spent outside of Zurich, he always considered himself a Zurich native ("Zürcher"). In the years of the Second World War, he attended the Unterseminar Küsnacht near Zurich (a Baccalaureate school focusing on subsequent teacher training), followed by the Zurich Oberseminar, where the Canton of Zurich trained its teachers at that time. He subsequently worked as a primary school teacher.

Studies under Jean Piaget in Geneva
Though originally intending to study English, Hans Aebli was crucially advised by Walter Guyer, one of the most important Swiss educationists of the time and then-Director of the Zurich Oberseminar, to study psychology in Geneva under the great developmental psychologist and epistemologist Jean Piaget. Aebli collaborated on various of Piaget’s now-famous experiments with children, and wrote his doctoral thesis Didactique psychologique. Application à la didactique de la psychologie de Jean Piaget (1951) under Piaget. This doctoral thesis has been translated into seven languages.

The doctoral thesis builds on Piaget’s developmental psychological and epistemological insights, and unlocks their potential for didactics and instruction. It later formed the foundation for Grundformen des Lehrens (1961) and Zwölf Grundformen des Lehrens (1983) which may translate into "Basic forms of teaching" and "Twelve basic forms of teaching", respectively. Both works are an approach to didactics founded on cognitive psychology, whose goal is to achieve operational mobility of thinking. In his subsequent work Grundlagen des Lehrens, 1987; "Foundations of teaching", the basic forms of teaching were substantially broadened and expanded to include autonomous learning.

Piaget’s work, especially his term “mise en relation”, forms one basis of Hans Aebli’s scientific standing. Piaget’s epistemology of constructivism was a guiding force for Aebli. However, he developed it further into the conception that cognitive development is the result of the mental performance of the child that takes place under guidance, through which the child, beginning with experiences already made, establishes her or his own structures of acting, thinking, and knowing. According to Hans Aebli, this construction takes place under more or less systematic guidance. It is at its most systematic in school, and requires a high level of psychological and didactical skills on the part of the teacher.

Second Course of Studies in the USA
A second basis developed during Hans Aebli’s second course of studies in Minneapolis (Minnesota, USA) at the end of the 1940s. During this time, he became acquainted with American pragmatism through the educational philosopher John Dewey. According to Dewey, human actions are constantly subject to breakdowns; to move on, reflection and problem solving are necessary. Action is essentially problem solving, being able to act, and thus being able to think. Therefore, teaching must address realistic problems which arouse children’s interest and give them the opportunity, through problem-solving, to form new structures and become mentally mobile therein.

Applications for Didactics and Instruction
A third basis of Hans Aebli’s lifework is the connection between cognitive psychology and instruction, the origin of which reaches back to Johann Friedrich Herbart in the first half of the 19th century. For Hans Aebli, this led to a structural theory of development, acting, thinking, and learning and to a series of functional didactic steps in the learning process, to which teachers are able to orient themselves during instruction.

Jean Piaget’s Genetic Constructivism and Hans Aebli’s Response
Throughout his life, Hans Aebli was skeptical of an over-optimism by the progressive education movement, which makes unrealistic assumptions about a child’s capacity to learn without any guidance. On this point, in his postdoctoral thesis Über die geistige Entwicklung des Kindes, 1963; "On the mental development of the child", he departed from Piaget. For Hans Aebli, cognitive development occurs, in line with Vvgotsky, from the outside to the inside, and depending on the preconditions, it is guided to a greater or lesser degree by more competent partners (Von Piagets Entwicklungspsychologie zur Theorie der kognitiven Sozialisation, 1978; "From Piaget's developmental theoryto a theory of cognitive socialization").

Learning, thinking and problem solving are initially always social and reflect the culture and the social milieu in which dyads or groups of more competent as well as less competent partners, conduct their dialogues. Gradually, learners internalize the problem-solving mode which was at first socially supported. At some point, they start to interact intellectually with themselves in a way they had previously done with a more competent partner, and assume responsibility for their autonomous learning, thinking, and problem solving.

Teacher Educator, University Professor and Trainer of Teacher Educators
After Hans Aebli returned to Switzerland from the USA in the late summer of 1950, he took up a teaching position at the Zurich Advanced Teacher Training School (Oberseminar). So, teacher education became his occupational focus for a decade, interspersed with an Acting Professorship in Psychology at the University of Saarbrücken (1955-57) and a Privatdozent position at the University of Zurich in the years 1961-62.

From 1962-66, Hans Aebli lived in Germany and worked as a professor and, alternating with Hans Hörmann, as Director of the Institute of Psychology at the Freie Universität Berlin. From 1966-71, he was Professor of Psychology at the newly founded University of Konstanz. He was one the first six professors and helped to establish the Institute of Psychology.

In 1971, he was appointed to the University of Bern. Here, up until his retirement as Emeritus Professor in 1988, he spent an extremely lifely and active time doing scientific and education-related work. The latter included the founding and constitution of the Department of Educational Psychology, into which he integrated an Advanced degree course for the future teacher training force ('teachers of the teachers') and experts of educational sciences (LSEB), the so-called "Berner Seminarlehrerstudium". Numerous teacher education lecturers (and future professors at Pedagogical Universities) in Switzerland went through this programme.

Hans Aebli’s initiatives for modern teacher education are also reflected in his activities within the expert group Lehrerbildung von morgen (Teacher Training of Tomorrow; 1971–1976), which aimed to achieve reform in  teacher training in Switzerland. In his last years as a professor, Hans Aebli focused, within science and research, on self-regulation of learning and the promotion thereof in schools.

Retirement as Emeritus Professor, Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Research Stay in Australia, Illness and Death
Upon his retirement at the end of the summer semester 1988, Hans Aebli made a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, together with his wife Verena Aebli-Näf. This experience gave rise to his final book Santiago, Santiago… (1990) which aimed at a broader audience. In the academic realm, he embarked on a research stay in Australia in February 1990, from which he returned, earlier than planned, in May due to suspected grave illness. On the 26th July 1990, Hans Aebli passed away in Burgdorf, Switzerland, incidentally the same town where Pestalozzi once worked.

Hans Aebli was a pedagogue in a comprehensive sense, with deeply anchored ethical values and a strong sense of responsibility for the (intellectual) development of those who turned to him. Anyone who entered into his world experienced the breadth, clarity, precision and independence of his thinking. Hans Aebli’s academic work has a lasting international impact, also reflected in his honorary doctorates from the University of Turku in Finland (1986) and the Kiel University of Education (1987).

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