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An Overview of Modern Philosophies of Education

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    Philosophy means “love of wisdom. ” It is made up of two Greek words, Philo, meaning love, and Sophos, meaning wisdom. Philosophy helps teachers to reflect on key issues and concepts in education, usually through such questions as What is being educated? What is the good life? What is knowledge? What is the nature of learning? And What is teaching? Philosophers think about the meaning of things and interpretation of that meaning. Even simple statements, such as “What should be learned? Or What is adolescence? ” set up raging debates that can have major implications.

    For example, what happens if an adolescent commits a serious crime? One interpretation may hide another. If such a young person is treated as an adult criminal, what does it say about justice, childhood, and the like? Or if the adolescent is treated as a child, what does it say about society’s views on crime? Your educational philosophy is your beliefs about why, what and how you teach, whom you teach, and about the nature of learning. It is a set of principles that guides professional action through the events and issues teachers face daily.

    Sources for your educational philosophy are your life experiences, your values, the environment in which you live, interactions with others, and awareness of philosophical approaches. Learning about the branches of philosophy, philosophical world views, and different educational philosophies and theories will help you to determine and shape your educational philosophy, combined with these other aspects. When you examine a philosophy different from your own, it helps you to “wrestle” with your thinking. Sometimes this means you may change your mind.

    Other times, it may strengthen your viewpoint; or, you may be eclectic, selecting what seems best from different philosophies. But in eclecticism, there is a danger of sloppy and inconsistent thinking, especially if you borrow a bit of one philosophy and stir in some of another. If serious thought has gone into the selection of strategies, theories, or philosophies, this is less problematic. For example, you may determine that you have to vary your approach depending on the particular learning needs and styles of a given student.

    At various periods, one philosophical framework may become favored over another. For example, the Progressive movement led to quite different approaches in education in the 1930s. But there is always danger in one “best or only” philosophy. In a pluralistic society, a variety of views are needed. Idealism The quality or state of being ideal. The conception of the ideal; imagery. The system or theory that denies the existence of material bodies, and teaches that we have no rational grounds to believe in the reality of anything but ideas and their relations.

    The practice or habit of giving or attributing ideal form or character to things; treatment of things in art or literature according to ideal standards or patterns; – opposed to realism. Idealism is a philosophical approach that has as its central tenet that ideas are the only true reality, the only thing worth knowing. In a search for truth, beauty, and justice that is enduring and everlasting, the focus is on conscious reasoning in the mind. Plato, the father of Idealism, espoused this view about 400 years BC, in his famous book, The Republic. Plato believed that there are two worlds.

    The first is the spiritual or mental world, which is eternal, permanent, orderly, regular, and universal. There is also the world of appearance, the world experienced through sight, touch, smell, taste, and sound, that is changing, imperfect, and disorderly. This division is often referred to as the duality of mind and body. Reacting against what he perceived as too much of a focus on the immediacy of the physical and sensory world, Plato described a utopian society in which “education to body and soul all the beauty and perfection of which they are capable” as an ideal.

    In his allegory of the cave, the shadows of the sensory world must be overcome with the light of reason or universal truth. To understand the truth, one must pursue knowledge and identify with the Absolute Mind. Plato also believed that the soul is fully formed before birth and is perfect and at one with the Universal Being. The birth process checks this perfection, so education requires bringing latent ideas (fully formed concepts) to consciousness. In idealism, education aims to discover and develop each individual’s abilities and full moral excellence to better serve society.

    The curricular emphasis is a subject matter of mind: literature, history, philosophy, and religion. Teaching methods focus on handling ideas through lecture, discussion, and Socratic dialogue (a method of teaching that uses questioning to help students discover and clarify knowledge). Introspection, intuition, insight, and whole-part logic are used to bring to consciousness the forms or concepts which are latent in the mind. Character is developed through imitating examples and heroes.


    Pragmatism is the philosophy of considering practical consequences or real effects to be vital components of meaning and truth.

    Pragmatism is generally considered to have originated in the late nineteenth century with Charles Pierce, who first stated the pragmatic maxim. It came to fruition in the early twentieth-century philosophies of William James and John Dewey and, in a more unorthodox manner, in the works of George Santayana. Other important aspects of pragmatism include anti-Cartesianism, radical empiricism, instrumentalism, anti-realism, verificationism, conceptual relativity, a denial of the fact-value distinction, high regard for science, and fallibilism.

    Proponents of Pragmatism:

    • Charles H. Pierce (1839-1914)
    • William James (1842-1910)
    • George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)
    • John Dewey (1859-1952)

    Major Concepts

    • The test of truth lies in its practical consequences
    • Man learns through experience
    • An idea is true if it works and false if it does not Aim of Education
    • Development of the mind and body through experimentation and problem-solving
    • The sole end of education is growth; i. e. the reconstruction of experience that leads to the direction and control of the subsequent experience
    • Make the child the center of all educative processes. discover and expand the society we live in to share experiences
    • Promote the intellectual and social development of the individual
    • Develop the child through experiencing the use of the theory of self-activity.


    Essentialists believe that there is a common core of knowledge that needs to be transmitted to students in a systematic, disciplined way. The emphasis in this conservative perspective is on the intellectual and moral standards that schools should teach. The core of the curriculum is essential knowledge and skills and academic rigor. Although this educational philosophy is similar in some ways to Perennialism, Essentialists accept the idea that this core curriculum may change.

    Schooling should be practical, preparing students to become valuable members of society. It should focus on facts-the the objective reality out there-and “the basics,” training students to read, write, speak, and compute clearly and logically. Schools should not try to set or influence policies. Students should be taught hard work, respect for authority, and discipline. Teachers are to help students keep their non-productive instincts in checks, such as aggression or mindlessness. This approach was in reaction to progressivist approaches prevalent in the 1920s and 30s.

    William Bagley took progressivist approaches to tasks in the journal he formed in 1934. Other proponents of Essentialism are James D. Koerner (1959), H. G. Rickover (1959), Paul Copperman (1978), and Theodore Sizer (1985). “Essentialism” is an ambiguous word, like the term “Essence” from which it is derived, generally depending on whether the Platonic/Aristotlean or Hegelian genealogy is referred to. The word was introduced in modern times by Karl Popper in his 1945 work The Open Society. Essentialism is the assertion that there exists some meaning behind what is immediately given to sensuous perception (phenomenon). Popper took the meaning of ‘essence’ from the Aristotlean genealogy but held that meaning was constructed by institutions and social practices, and it was the business of science to construct definitions reflecting these objectively existing ‘essences’. Generally-speaking, “essentialism” is used with a negative connotation in contrast to subjectivist constructivism in feminist or postmodern social theory.

    That is to say, “essentialism” is taken to mean that there is an essential meaning of something that is not socially constructed (for example, blacks or women are ‘essentially’ different from whites and men), in contrast to the constructivism which is taken to mean that meaning is constructed by the subject in practical or critical activity (and thus gender or ‘race’ differences are socially constructed). “Essentialism” can be used in the same derogatory sense about the Marxist understanding of social class as underlying or being the “essence” of political or ideological orientation.

    From this standpoint, ideology is ideology and class is class, full stop. Broadly speaking the term has the same meaning as “metaphysics” had for positivism. For Marxism, constructivism and essentialism are not mutually exclusive, since the meaning of essence is taken from the Hegelian genealogy rather than the subjective idealist current and is understood as social and historical, critical activity. Thus, all social and cognitive processes do have a meaning which is indeed “constructed” by the subject, but the subject is social, rather than an individual, whose activity is socially and historically conditioned.

    In line with the Hegelian genealogy of philosophical terms in Marxism, the “essence” which is revealed by social practice is the dialectical unfolding of the thing through successively deeper and deeper meanings. Essentialism then is concerned not with some final essence which can never be revealed, but rather is concerned with the process of revealing ever deeper meanings. “Essentialism” is often taken to mean the rejection of the possibility of different, opposed meanings being attached to a thing.

    However, for Marxism such opposing, contradictory meanings are the very nature of essential development. Essentialism holds that the major purpose of education is to transmit culture and core knowledge to each new generation.


    Progressivism holds that truth is relative. Since knowledge is always changing, we should teach children how to think rather than what to think.

    This philosophy is based on evolution and John Dewey’s pragmatism. It looks to the future rather than the past and generally assumes that people are good by nature and that new is better than old. Progressivism is a very popular philosophy in American public schools and universities.

    Unschooling seems to me to be the most progressive of the home school philosophies because it assumes that children will choose what is best for them and are capable of becoming fully educated without adult pressure. Although this is true for some children, it is not true for all. Many methods popularized by progressive thinkers, such as unit studies, are excellent and may be used within the context of other philosophies.

    Progressivists believe that education should focus on the whole child, rather than on the content or the teacher.

    This educational philosophy stresses that students should test ideas through active experimentation. Learning is rooted in the questions of learners that arise through experiencing the world. It is active, not passive. The learner is a problem solver and thinker who makes meaning through his or her individual experience in the physical and cultural context. Effective teachers provide experiences so that students can learn by doing. Curriculum content is derived from student interests and questions.

    The scientific method is used by progressivist educators so that students can study matter and events systematically and first hand. The emphasis is on process-how one comes to know. The Progressive education philosophy was established in America from the mid-1920s through the mid-1950s. John Dewey was its foremost proponent. One of his tenets was that the school should improve the way of life of our citizens through experiencing freedom and democracy in schools. Shared decision making, planning of teachers with students, student-selected topics are all aspects.

    Books are tools, rather than authority.


    Reconstructionism is an outgrowth of progressivism. It holds that the purpose of education is to establish new cultural patterns and to eliminate social evils. Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler held this view. Reconstructionism/Critical Theory Social deconstructionism is a philosophy that emphasizes the addressing of social questions and a quest to create a better society and worldwide democracy. Reconstructionist educators focus on a curriculum that highlights social reform as the aim of education.

    Theodore Brameld (1904-1987) was the founder of social reconstructionism, in reaction to the realities of World War II. He recognized the potential for either human annihilation through technology and human cruelty or the capacity to create a beneficent society using technology and human compassion. George Counts (1889-1974) recognized that education was the means of preparing people for creating this new social order. Critical theorists, like social reconstructionists, believe that systems must be changed to overcome oppression and improve human conditions.

    Paulo Freire (1921-1997) was a Brazilian whose experiences living in poverty led him to champion education and literacy as the vehicle for social change. In his view, humans must learn to resist oppression and not become its victims, nor oppress others. To do so requires dialog and critical consciousness, the development of awareness to overcome domination and oppression. Rather than “teaching as banking,” in which the educator deposits information into students’ heads, Freire saw teaching and learning as a process of inquiry in which the child must invent and reinvent the world.

    For social reconstructionists and critical theorists, the curriculum focuses on student experience and taking social action on real problems, such as violence, hunger, international terrorism, inflation, and inequality. Strategies for dealing with controversial issues (particularly in social studies and literature), inquiry, dialogue, and multiple perspectives are the focus. Community-based learning and bringing the world into the classroom are also strategies.


    Existentialism holds that life is a meaningless void. There are no objective standards or rules, no God, no purpose or plan. Individuals are completely free.

    The nature of reality for Existentialists is subjective and lies within the individual. The physical world has no inherent meaning outside of human existence. Individual choice and individual standards rather than external standards are central. Existence comes before any definition of what we are. We define ourselves in relationship to that existence by the choices we make. We should not accept anyone else’s predetermined philosophical system; rather, we must take responsibility for deciding who we are. The focus is on freedom, the development of authentic individuals, as we make meaning of our lives.

    There are several different orientations within the existentialist philosophy. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Danish minister and philosopher, is considered to be the founder of existentialism. His was a Christian orientation. Another group of existentialists, largely European, believes that we must recognize the finiteness of our lives on this small and fragile planet, rather than believing in salvation through God. Our existence is not guaranteed in an afterlife, so there is tension about life and the certainty of death, of hope, or despair.

    Unlike the more austere European approaches where the universe is seen as meaningless when faced with the certainty of the end of existence, American existentialists have focused more on human potential and the quest for personal meaning. Values clarification is an outgrowth of this movement. Following the bleak period of World War II, the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, suggested that for youth, the existential moment arises when young persons realize for the first time that choice is theirs, that they are responsible for themselves. Their question becomes “Who am I and what should I do?

    Related to education, the subject matter of existentialist classrooms should be a matter of personal choice. Teachers view the individual as an entity within a social context in which the learner must confront others’ views to clarify his or her own. Character development emphasizes individual responsibility for decisions. Real answers come from within the individual, not from an outside authority. Examining life through authentic thinking involves students in genuine learning experiences. Existentialists are opposed to thinking about students as objects to be measured, tracked, or standardized. Such educators want the educational experience to focus on creating opportunities for self-direction and self-actualization. They start with the student, rather than on curriculum content. Educational Philosophies Within the epistemological frame that focuses on the nature of knowledge and how we come to know, there are four major educational philosophies, each related to one or more of the general or world philosophies just discussed. These educational philosophical approaches are currently used in classrooms the world over.

    They are Perennialism, Essentialism, Progressivism, and Reconstructionism. These educational philosophies focus heavily on WHAT we should teach, the curriculum aspect. Which Philosophies Are Compatible with Christianity? Both perennials and essentialism, the traditional schools of philosophy, are compatible with Christianity. Reconstructionism and existentialism are not. Although many progressive methods are excellent and may be used within the context of Christianity, the foundation of the progressive philosophy is upward evolution, secular humanism, and the natural goodness of human beings.

    The learner is an information constructor. People actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality. New information is linked to prior knowledge, thus mental representations are subjective. Originators and important contributors: Vygotsky, Piaget, Dewey, Vico, Rorty, Bruner Keywords: Learning as experience, activity and dialogical process; Problem Based Learning (PBL); Anchored instruction; Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); cognitive apprenticeship (scaffolding); inquiry and discovery learning. Constructivism

    A reaction to didactic approaches such as behaviorism and programmed instruction, constructivism states that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it. Knowledge is constructed based on personal experiences and hypotheses of the environment. Learners continuously test these hypotheses through social negotiation. Each person has a different interpretation and construction of the knowledge process. The learner is not a blank slate (tabula rasa) but brings past experiences and cultural factors to a situation.

    NOTE: A common misunderstanding regarding constructivism is that instructors should never tell students anything directly but, instead, should always allow them to construct knowledge for themselves. This is confusing a theory of pedagogy (teaching) with a theory of knowledge. Constructivism assumes that all knowledge is constructed from the learner’s previous knowledge, regardless of how one is taught. Thus, even listening to a lecture involves active attempts to construct new knowledge.

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