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15.4: What are Education Philosophies?

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  • Introduction

    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.

    An analogy is one of a teacher’s most useful tools. It helps the instructor relate a difficult concept to something the students will already have the infrastructure for, thus enabling the students to cement the ideas in their mind.

    Lessons in Pedagogy

    Early teacher education classes frequently separated the concept of philosophy into separate schools (Roberson, 2000, p. 8). “Philosophy has been taught in the theoretical realm rather than the practical sense,” meaning that the ideas were placed before the teachers without the scaffolding to create a bridge into the classroom (Roberson, 2000, p. 7). The teachers, as students, were given a body of thought and expected to translate that into lessons for their own students. Once you have the idea, how do you apply it to teaching?

    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.

    Philosophies of Education have traveled down a tree of branches. The first four support branches of philosophy are the Idealist school, the Realist school, the Pragmatist school, and the Existential schools of thought (Ornstein, 2003, p. 99). It might help to look at the tree and its individual branches rather than read about them…

    • Idealism – focuses on a subject-matter curriculum emphasizing the great ideas of the culture. You must ponder ideas to make them whole (Ornstein, 2003, p. 99).
    • Realism – A subject-matter curriculum stressing objective knowledge and values. Reality is objective, meaning everyone should obtain the same results regardless of what he does or how he consider concepts (Ornstein, 2003, p. 101)
      • Perennialism – Focuses on human concerns that have caused concern for centuries, revealed through ‘great works’ (Ornstein, 2003, p. 110)
      • Essentialism – Rooted partially in Idealism, as well – Emphasizes skills and subjects that demonstrate the cultural heritage and contribute to society (Ornstein, 2003, p. 110)
    • Pragmatism – Instruction is organized around problem-solving following the steps of the scientific method – emphasizes the need to act on concepts by testing them (Ornstein, 2003, p. 104).
      • 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).


    Perennialists are instructors who feel that the 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. Perennialists base their teachings on reason, logic, and analytical thought. Only information that stood the test of time is relevant. They do not illicit student input. 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).


    The instructors whose teaching philosophies are based on documented facts and tangible truths are normally those who would be in the math and science departments. These teachers do not feel that religion and the supernatural should be a part of the thinking process. The idea of uncertainty and the unknown is considered illogical (Educational Philosophies in the Classroom, pg.1).


    Behaviorists believe in rewards and punishments as an approach to controlling the teaching environment due to their belief in the intrinsic nature of humans to react to internal or external stimuli. This teacher-centered system ultimately allows the students to be controlled by the educator, who makes the environment pleasant or unpleasant depending on the students’ behavior (Foundations of Education, pg.1).


    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. These instructors easily accept the No Child Left-Behind Act because test scores are the main form of evaluation (Foundations of Education, pg. 1).


    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 (Educational Philosophies in the classroom, pg.1).


    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).


    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).

    Humanism/ Existentialism

    Also a student-centered philosophy, this educational method is based on the idea that the students should be presented with choices about the learning process. The student is engaged in all aspects of learning and works together with the teacher and her peers to develop a curriculum and evaluation system that allows for individual interests and abilities (Educational philosophies in the Classroom, pg.1).

    Your philosophy of education is what you believe about education and the way children learn.” – Roberson pg 4

    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.

    Four Philosophies in Assessment

    Once you know how you want to lead your classroom, it is important to consider how to assess your students’ progress. And when we think of school, we automatically consider the threesome subjects, Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmatic. In all aspects of learning, however, the ability to communicate comes to the forefront. Communication is used in class discussion as well as unit test short answers. Writing is present in almost all subjects in some form, and writing translates to communication. Richard Fulkerson (2000), in his article “Four Philosophies of Composition,” questions whether “a […] set of four philosophies of composition might exist, each one stressing a different element in the communicative transaction” (p. 3). Fulkerson’s schools of communicative philosophy fall into the following categories:

    • Expressionism: a way of writing that demonstrates the students’ thoughts and can be lead by “non-directive teachers, some of whom insist that one neither can nor should evaluate writing” or more hands-on teachers who “design classroom activities to maximize student self-discovery” (p. 5). This school of thought emphasizes the student.
    • Rhetorical: this school states that good writing is adapted to achieve a specific reaction from the audience (p. 6). This is focused on the connection between goal and process in completing assignments, and it emphasizes the audience.
    • Mimesis: states that “a clear connection exists between good writing and good thinking” and focuses on logic and reason as exemplified in the completion of assignments (p. 5). This school emphasizes a well-rounded student in that, research, prior knowledge, and the ability to recognize both sides of an argument are necessary for success (p. 6).
    • Formalism: this school focuses primarily on the form of the assignment – it disregards content to the extent that poor grammar can distract the audience from absorbing the content, and therefore, the work is judged “primarily by whether it shows certain internal [mistakes]” (p. 4).

    While most teachers fall primarily into one school of composition pedagogy, Fulkerson (2000) points out that it is necessary to hold on to them all when he states “they are not mutually exclusive” (p. 6). The trick is to learn when each is applicable and to what extent it should be employed.

    Hooked on Phonics?

    So, you know how you want to lead your class, and you have an idea as to which kind of ‘grader’ you are. What next? Another area where teachers have struggled is simply in helping their students learn to or improve their reading. How do we teach reading? The two battling schools of thought are between those who support Whole Language, and those who support Phonics. “The disputes have been dubbed the Reading Wars, and the participants call them ‘vicious’” (Collins, 1997, n.p.). Several states have even intervened and enacted laws mandating one or the other.

    But what are they? Just as their names state, the difference is in how the words are read. Phonics was taught primarily in the 1970s (Collins, 1997, n.p.) and study the individual components of each word, called ‘phonemes,’ which are the “smallest meaningful sounds in a language” (Collins, 1997, n.p.). “Cat, for example, has three: “kuh-aa-tuh” (Collins, 1997, n.p.). A reader needs to understand how the words are broken up and that each letter has its own sound in order to read (Collins, 1997, n.p.). Phonic teaching focuses on code learning. Once the students understand the ‘code,’ and how the words phonemes are put together, they are supposed to be able to understand the entire word.

    Whole language advocates disagree with the process of breaking each word down. They feel readers cannot focus on every letter in a word, or every word in a text (Collins, 1997, n.p.) and made their opinions known during the 1980s (Collins, 1997, n.p.). If they did, “and if they tried to translate what they saw into sounds, reading would be much too cumbersome” (Collins, 1997, n.p.). Instead, whole language teachers instruct their students in ‘skipping strategies’ – ways of guessing which word comes next to fill in any blanks (Collins, 1997, n.p.). Overall, reading is considered an organic process by which the students learn phonics “only when a question about phonics comes up in the course of reading” (Collins, 1997, n.p.). Whole language focuses on the meaning behind the words.

    Which is better?

    Just as in many other walks of life, statistics and studies show that one philosophy of teaching will prevail over another. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, as stated in J. Collin’s article (1997), claims that “from 1971 to 1980 there was a steady improvement in the reading comprehension of nine-year-olds. However, during the 1980s…the scores did not improve and rather declined” (n.p.).

    The 1990s brought the topic full circle. It was then that Marilyn Adams, a cognitive psychologist, wrote a book describing the best methods to teach learning. “Programs that combined systematic phonics instruction with meaning emphasis seemed to work best of all” (Collins, 1997, n.p.). The key to reading is that words need to be recognized so the brain can interpret the meaning behind it (Collins, 1997, n.p.). Thus, putting the two methods together was necessary for correct comprehension of the concepts presented.

    What else do I need to know?

    We’ve discussed the accepted definition of pedagogy, varying schools of thought for assessment, and the difference between reading philosophies. Your salad components are increasing by number exponentially. But what toppings to you add to your thought salad? What else do you need to consider when you are setting up your classroom, your teaching styles, and your lessons?

    Teaching is the hardest job you can have. You are in a position to touch hundreds of lives over the course of a career, and yet, how do you succeed? The fact remains that “when a teacher and his/her students face each other in the classroom they must truly work with each other” (Cadenas, 1999, n.p.). How else can you ensure that the students are learning what you are teaching?

    [You] may spend as much as 60 hours a week creating lesson plans, teaching, advising students, grading, supervising extracurricular activities and meeting with colleagues and parents” Valerie Marchant – Time

    The first thing to keep in mind is your own knowledge basis. Cadenas (1999) recommends that you “renew and refresh your knowledge of the subject matter” (n.p.) to stay on top of changes and help you incorporate them in to your lessons. Our world changes so rapidly that to stay on top of technology, your field of expertise, or even other areas that can be integrated into your subject matter, it is necessary to take a class or attend a seminar every once in a while (Cadenas, 1999, n.p.).

    Next, “prepare interesting, colorful, captivating lesson plans and deliver then with gusto” (Cadenas, 1999, n.p.). An entertaining teacher will help cement information into a student’s memory with much more ease than one who is monotone or inactive (Cadenas, 1999, n.p.). The more entertaining you are, the deeper a connection you will make with your students, as well.

    In addition to the captivating lesson, make sure “it [is] a number one priority to ensure that your student can follow the lesson” (Cadenas, 1999, n.p.). This will assist all your students in grasping the information you are placing before them in class, and will help you reach students of all learning styles (Cadenas, 1999, n.p.). You don’t want to end up teaching only to the auditory learners and leaving the visual learners to fend for themselves!

    Last, “help your students to put their learning to use immediately” (Cadenas, 1999, n.p.). Show them how the lessons you are teaching are applicable to them so they feel like school is worth an investment of time and energy (Cadenas, 1999, n.p.). If nothing else, have them help each other out in class to reinforce the lesson!


    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?

    Educational philosophies are as abundant as salads at any holiday spread. And even though the difference between one potato salad and the one next to it is an addition of mustard, the two are by no means exactly alike. Your classes will be just as diverse. You will have students from all economic classes, with differing levels of English language ability, and all bringing various and beautiful experiences to your class. How do you reach each individual?

    Knowing who you are as a teacher before you enter the classroom will help significantly. Teaching is so much more than just the content. Teaching is a learning curve on philosophy that will never be finished. 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.In the words of J. W. Apps, “a working philosophy is never completely developed the ultimate working philosophy never reached. We’re always moving toward, hopefully, a more complete, and thus more useful, working philosophy.” (The Educational Philosophies of Training and Development Professors, Leaders, and Practitioners, pg. 1)

    Study Questions

    1. Amy is working with her third grade class to improve their reading skills. She is asking them to write the words on a specific list down and break them apart based on their syllables and then combine them back into their original words. Amy is making use of which theory for reading?

    a. Whole Language

    b. Phonics

    c. A combination of the two

    2. Lou asks his students to critique their formal essays for APA formatting and grammar. He then asks them to write him an informal letter explaining their thought process on the formal essay, and how they thought they did overall on it. Lou is implementing which two schools of philosophy of assessment?

    a. Formalism and Mimesis

    b. Mimesis and Rhetorical

    c. Rhetorical and Expressionism

    d. Expressionism and Formalism

    3. A student who is writing her formal pedagogy paper for class expresses an interest in incorporating technology into her history class. She then lists several ways she will consistently make use of technology in her classroom. In order to ensure technology is part of her pedagogy, what does this student need to do?

    a. Develop the reason behind why she wants to use technology, including an explanation for what she hopes to accomplish

    b. Develop her lesson plans fully so she has alternatives in case the electricity goes out, her LCD projector blows a bulb, etc.

    c. Research statistics that show pros and cons to using technology in the classroom

    d. Interview experienced teachers to hear what they have to say about using technology in the classroom

    4. A student receives his paper back from his teacher and on it is written a comment, “Where is the opponent’s viewpoint?” This student’s teacher is focusing on which philosophy for assessment?

    a. Rhetoricism

    b. Mimesis

    c. Expressionism

    d. Formalism

    5. Adam has been teaching for 11 years and needs to complete his recertification points to maintain his licensure. He signs up for a conference on reaching students with learning disabilities. Which step is he taking to help him stay focused on his original purpose of teaching?

    a. Applicability to real life

    b. Ensuring all students can participate

    c. Refresh his pedagogical knowledge

    d. Preparation of lesson plans

    Answers: 1(b); 2(d); 3(a); 4(b); 5(c)


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