3 Philosophies and Theories in Education

What makes a teacher? Teaching is like a salad. Think about it. If you were to attend a party for any given holiday, the number of and variations to each salad recipe that might be present for consumption could outnumber those present at the party. There are so many different ways to teach, varying circumstances to take into account, and philosophies to apply to each classroom. And what better way to have a positive impact on the world than to offer knowledge for consumption? The term ‘teacher’ can be applied to anyone who imparts knowledge of any topic, but it is generally more focused on those who are hired to do so (teach, n.d., n.p.). In imparting knowledge to our students, it is inevitable that we must take into account our own personal philosophies, or pedagogies, and determine not only how we decide what our philosophies are, but also how those impact our consumers.

Lessons in Pedagogy

What, exactly, are education philosophies? According to Thelma Roberson (2000), most prospective teachers confuse their beliefs with the ideas of teaching (p. 6). Education philosophies, then, are not what you want to do in class to aid learning, but why you do them and how they work. For example, Roberson’s students state they “want to use cooperative learning techniques” in their classroom. The question posed is, why? “[I]s cooperative learning a true philosophy or is it something you do in the classroom because of your belief about the way children learn?” (Roberson, 2000, p. 6). Philosophies need to translate ideas into action – if you want to use certain techniques, then you need to understand how they are effective in the classroom to create that portion of your education philosophy. It helps to have an overview of the various schools out there.

  • Perennialism – Focuses on human concerns that have caused concern for centuries, revealed through ‘great works’ (Ornstein, 2003, p. 110)  It focuses on great works of art, literature and enduring ideas.
  • Essentialism – Emphasizes skills and subjects that are needed by all in a productive society. This is the belief in “Back to Basics”.  Rote learning is emphasized and
  • Progressivism – Instruction features problem solving and group activities – The instructor acts as a facilitator as opposed to a leader (Ornstein, 2003, p. 110)
  • Social Reconstructionism – Instruction that focuses on significant social and economic problems in an effort to solve them (Ornstein, 2003, pg.110)
  • Existentialism – Classroom dialogue stimulates awareness – each person creates an awareness gleaned from discussion and encourages deep personal reflection on his or her convictions (Ornstein, 2003, p. 108).

Perennialism

  • Knowledge that has been passed through the ages should be continued as the basis of the curriculum, like the classic works of Plato and Einstein.
  • Reason, logic, and analytical thought are valued and encouraged
  • Only information that stood the test of time is relevant.  It is believed these prepare students for life and help to develop rational thinking.
  • The classes most likely to be considered under this approach would be history, science, math, and religion classes (Educational Philosophies in the Classroom, pg.1).
Teacher standing by a table containing 6 young students with books and a map

Essentialism

  • Essentialists believe that there is a universal pool of knowledge needed by all students.
  • The fundamentals of teaching are the basis of the curriculum: math, science, history, foreign language, and English. Vocational classes are not seen as a necessary part of educational training.
  • Classrooms are formal, teacher-centered, and students are passive learners.
  • Evaluations are predominately through testing, and there are few, if any, projects or portfolios.

Progressivism

  • This is a student-centered form of instruction where students follow the scientific method of questioning and searching for the answer.
  • Evaluations include projects and portfolios.
  • Current events are used to keep students interested in the required subject matter.
  • Students are active learners as opposed to passive learners.
  • The teacher is a facilitator rather than the center of the educational process.
  • Student input is encouraged, and students are asked to find their interpretation of the answer, have a choice in projects and assignments. (Educational Philosophies in the classroom, pg.1).
  • Real world problem solving emphasized.
  • Subjects are integrated.
  • Interaction among students.
  • Students have a voice in the classroom.

Social Reconstructivism

  • This student-centered philosophy strives to instill a desire to make the world a better place.
  • It places a focus on controversial world issues and uses current events as a springboard for the thinking process.
  • These students are taught the importance of working together to bring about change.
  • These teachers incorporate what is happening in the world with what they are learning in the classroom (Educational Philosophies in the Classroom, pg.1).

Additional Beliefs in Regards to Teaching/Learning 

Constructivism

Active participation is the key to this teaching style. Students are free to explore their own ideas and share concepts with one another in nontraditional ways. “Hands on activity […] is the most effective way of learning and is considered true learning” (Educational Philosophies in the Classroom, pg.1).

What is Constructivism?

The root word of Constructivism is “construct.” Basically, Constructivism is the theory that knowledge must be constructed by a person, not just transmitted to the person. People construct knowledge by taking new information and integrating it with their own pre-existing knowledge (Cooper, 2007; Woolfolk, 2007). It means they are actively involved in seeking out information, creating projects, and working with material being presented versus just sitting and listening to someone “talk at them”.

Jean Piaget’s Theory of Constructivism

Jean Piaget was one of the major constructivists in past history. His theory looks at how people construct knowledge cognitively. In Piaget’s theory, everybody has schematas.  These are the categories of information we create to organize information we take in.  For example, “food” is one schema we may have.  We have a variety of information on food. It can be organized into different food groups such as the following: bread/ pastas, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, and sweets (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2007).  We use these schematas to help us “make sense” of what we see, hear and experience, and integrate this information into our knowledge bank.

Student sitting and writing

According to Piaget’s theory, one way people construct knowledge is through assimilation. People assimilate when they incorporate new knowledge and information into pre-existing schemes. Here is an example: A child sees a car and learns that it can be called a vehicle. Then the child sees a motorcycle and learns that it can be called a vehicle as well. Then the child sees a truck and calls it a vehicle. Basically, the child developed a schema for “vehicles” and incorporated trucks into that schema (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2007).

Another way people construct knowledge, according to Piaget’s theory, is through accommodation. People accommodate when they modify or change their pre-existing schemes. Here is an example.: A child sees a dog (a furry four-legged animal) and learns that it can be called a pet. Then the child sees a cat (a furry four-legged animal) and learns that it can be called a pet as well. Then the child sees a raccoon (also a furry four-legged animal) and calls it a pet. Afterwards, the child learns from his or her parents that a raccoon is not a pet. At first, the child develops a schemea for “pet” which includes all furry four-legged animals. Then the child learns that not all furry four-legged animals are pets. Because of this, the child needs to accommodate his or her schema for “pet.” According to Piaget, people learn through a balance of assimilation and accommodation (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2007).

Lev Vygotsky’s Theory of Constructivism

Lev Vygotsky was another major constructivist in past history. While Jean Piaget’s theory is a cognitive perspective, Vygotsky’s theory is a sociocultural perspective. His theory looks at how people construct knowledge by collaborating with others. In Vygotsky’s theory, people learn and construct knowledge within the Zone of Proximal Development. People have an independent level of performance where they can do things independently. Likewise, people have a frustration level where tasks are too difficult to be able to perform on their own.  In between there is an instructional level where they can do things above the independent level with the help and guidance of others. The range, or zone, between the independent and frustration levels is the Zone of Proximal Development (Cooper, 2007; Kail & Cavanaugh, 2007; Woolfolk, 2007).

In the Zone of Proximal Development, assistance needs to be given by another person. This assistance, help, or guidance is known as scaffolding. Because the zone has a range, assistance needs to be given, but not too much. If not enough assistance is given, a person may not be able to learn the task. On the other hand, if too much assistance is given, the person may not be able to fully construct the new acquired information into knowledge. For example, a child needs help doing math homework. With no help, the child may not be able to do it. With too much help, the homework is done for the child, so the child may not fully understand the math homework anyway (Cooper, 2007; Kail & Cavanaugh, 2007; Woolfolk, 2007).

Constructivism in the Classroom

In the classroom, the teacher can use Constructivism to help teach the students. The teacher can base the instruction on the cognitive strategies, experiences, and culture of the students. The teacher can make the instruction interesting by correlating it with real life applications, especially applications within the students’ own communities. Students can work and collaborate together during particular activities. The teacher can provide feedback for the students so they know what they can do independently and know what they need help with. New concepts can be related to the students’ prior knowledge. The teacher can also explain how new concepts can be used in different contexts and subjects. All these ideas are based on Constructivism (Sherman & Kurshan, 2005).

Research shows that constructivistic teaching can be effective. According to research conducted by Jong Suk Kim at Chungnum National University in Korea, constructivistic teaching is more effective than traditional teaching when looking at the students’ academic achievement. The research also shows that students have some preference for constructivistic teaching (Kim, 2005). Again, when the theory of Constructivism is actually applied in the classroom, it can be effective for teaching students.

It is not the sole responsibility of the teachers to educate the students. According to Constructivism, students have some responsibilities when learning. A student may be quick to blame the teacher for not understanding the material, but it could be the case that the student is not doing everything he or she could be doing. Because knowledge is constructed, not transmitted, students need to make an effort to assimilate, accommodate, and make sense of information. They also need to make an effort to collaborate with others, especially if they are having a hard time understanding the information.

Four Philosophies in Assessment

In addition, the ‘constructivist’ school of philosophy, rooted in the Pragmatic pedagogy and branched off from the ‘Social Reconstructivist’ school, has gained much popularity. Around the turn of the century (early 1990s), many teachers felt the rote memorization and mindless routine that was common then was ineffective, and began to look for alternate ways to reach their students (Ornstein, 2003, p. 111). Through the constructivist approach, “students “construct” knowledge through an interaction between what they already think and know and with new ideas and experiences” (Roberson, 2000, p. 8). This is an active learning process that leads to deeper understanding of the concepts presented in class, and is based on the abilities and readiness of the children rather than set curriculum guidelines (Ornstein, 2003, p. 112). Constructivism “emphasizes socially interactive and process-oriented ‘hands on’ learning in which students work collaboratively to expand and revise their knowledge base” (Ornstein, 2003, p. 112). Essentially, knowledge which is shaped by experience is reconstructed, or altered, to assist the student in understanding new concepts (Ornstein, 2003, p. 112). You, as the teacher, help the students build the scaffolding they need to maintain the information even after the test is taken and graded.

Conclusion

You are ready to graze at a Fourth of July picnic. You walk over to the table, and you see an array of salads ready for you to dive in to them. How do you pick which ones you want to sample now or save for later? How do you narrow the choices down?

Most educators do not follow just one philosophy.  We use pieces from several and roll them all into one.  For example, I do believe there is a core set of knowledge that all humans must have, (Essentialism), but I believe it can be taught in ways that have students actively involved in making decisions, creating activities and using a variety of techniques.  (Progressivism).   I believe we build, or construct, our own knowledge and this is why students are engaged in learning activities, and with each other, versus just listening to me stand in front of a class and talk.

You also will find the pieces that these philosophies that you believer in and will weave them into your own philosophy.  It will grow and change throughout your career.  I do not believe some of the things I believed 35 years ago when I first began teaching.  Just as your classroom will change every year, continue to alter your philosophies. See what works for you and your students on a collaborative level.

Creating Your Philosophy

As I said, you will choose elements from various philosophies and roll them all into your own.  Here are things to consider:

  • What is the purpose of education?
  • What do you believe should be taught?
  • How do you think curriculum should be taught?
  • What is your role as the teacher?
  • What is the role of the student?
  • What is the value of teacher-centered instruction and student-centered instruction; where and when do you incorporate each?

These are few ideas for you to begin to think about as you work to develop your own philosophy of education.


 Modified from “Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment” by Dionne Nichols licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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Education 2010 by Brenda Alward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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