What’s Your Philosophy of Education? (Pt. 1)

Here’s a question that you were probably asked during your certification program. A question that you likely had to write an essay about. A question that you perhaps haven’t entertained since you started teaching.

What’s your philosophy of education?

But first, why do you even need a philosophy of education?

Maybe you don’t. Maybe you can be a perfectly competent educator without one. Planning curricula, executing lessons, instilling classroom management; none of these essential functions of teachers are directly tied to your philosophy.

But your philosophy — if you have one — forms the basis of all those tasks. In fact, your educational philosophy underpins every single thing you do as a teacher or administrator. What does your curriculum look like? How do you execute your lessons? Why and how do you manage your classroom the way you do? Consciously or not, your philosophical approach influences the underlying purpose behind everything you do as an educator.

Successful classrooms (and even schools as a whole) have a consistent, uniform philosophical approach. It may generally be more authoritarian, more democratic, or somewhere in between; the important thing is that it is consistent throughout all aspects of education.

To investigate school philosophy, let’s narrow down our list two four approaches outlined in George Knight’s Issues and Alternatives in Educational Philosophy. Of those four perspectives, two take their influence from classical thought while two come from a more modern tradition. Let’s take a look:

 

  • IDEALISM derives from the philosophy of Plato, especially that which is expounded in his treatise, The Republic. The goal of an Idealist approach to education is to develop the student spiritually and intellectually though the transmission of a society’s fundamental truths and values. An Idealist curriculum might focus on Great Literature, Liberal Arts, History, Philosophy, and Religion. Teaching methods would heavily include Socratic discussion and individual reflection. Students should develop moral character by emulating the example of collective heroes. People who pine for a “back-to-basics” approach to education are often referring to this philosophy.
  • REALISM, while still in the classical tradition, departs from Idealism in that the focus shifts to the observable world. Realism comes from the teachings of Aristotle, who was actually one of Plato’s students. Similar to the previous philosophy, the goal of a Realist education is to teach intellectual and moral virtue; however, the methods focus more on objective and observable natural truths. A Realist approach is orderly and focuses on applying the scientific methods to all aspects of education. Perhaps we see this being revived in the current push for STEM education.
  • PRAGMATISM is the first of the more modern approaches to educational philosophy, pioneered by Thomas Dewey and other Progressive educators in the early-1900s. While Pragmatists relate to the Realist approach of focusing on experiential reality, they differ in their view of eternal truths. For a Pragmatist, truth is not universal and unchanging; instead, truth is what can be shown to work in the real world. Truth changes, and thus the focus of education should be real-world problem solving. An education based on this approach would model democracy by using group work, experimentation, and the teacher as a ‘project director’ to solve problems. Project-based learning and Inquiry education are definite applications of a Pragmatist approach.
  • EXISTENTIALISM turns the focus back towards the individual instead of the outside world. An Existentialist approach focuses on self-discovery and the individual’s choice and responsibility. In an Existentialist classroom, students are empowered to discover their own personal truths. Class Management should focus on the responsibility of students to make decisions. Schools like to pay a lot of lip-service to a “student-centered” educational experience, but do they really embrace an Existentialist approach, or is it more empty rhetoric that simply sounds good?

 

In reality, your educational philosophy is probably a blend of all four. But before re-opening your classroom, it’s worth reflecting onto your own practice: which of the four perspectives do you most identify with? Does your daily approach to the classroom match the goals and methods of each your chosen philosophy? If not, how can you align them to create a more unified underpinning to your classroom?

Oh no…did I just ask you to reflect on your own individual truth? I must be following an Idealist philosophy. Or am I…?

 
For further reading, see this internet summary and this textbook.

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