What’s Your Philosophy of Education? (Pt. 2)

While the previous post (Pt. 1 HERE) focused on more global philosophical approaches, this one will be a little more specific to your individual classroom. One of the problems with the school system is that (at various levels) we often implement policies that are contradictory to our philosophical approaches. For example, educators or administrators might push for an inquiry-based approach to learning, but then push for an ordered and rigid classroom management scheme and assessment based on uniform, standard tests. How effective can our lessons really be if our practice doesn’t match our philosophy?

Schools will often say that they are progressively student-centered, but their daily practices typically belie that statement.

What follows is an attempt to entrench your philosophy into the way you teach. Not only should a thorough grasp of your own educational philosophy help with lesson, unit, and year planning, but it should also help with hiring and job searching (i.e., making sure the school and teacher philosophies mesh well). Each of these four listed below corresponds pretty similarly to the first overarching set of philosophies, but they have more direct applications to the classroom.

  1. PERENNIALISM focuses on the unchanging great truth of (primarily Western) civilization. The purpose of school is to cultivate the intellect in the classic disciplines. Lessons emphasize the great achievements of mankind; for example, take a look at the Great Books curriculum proposed by Robert Maynard Hutchins in 1963. The classroom is highly structured and orderly while the teacher is an authoritarian figure (at the head of the class) and the disseminator of truth. Assessment consists of objective exams of student knowledge.
  2. ESSENTIALISM advocates for a common core (now that should sound familiar…) of knowledge to be passed down in an organized, systematic way. This Core may change over time, but schools still need to pass down the skills to produce young adults who are contributing members of society. The classroom has strict moral discipline and behavioral expectations, while the teacher is authoritarian but also a demonstrator. Assessment is performance-based and standardized. I would argue that most schools today fit this philosophy, whether they know it or not.
  3. PROGRESSIVISM uses a student-centered approach to education, as opposed to content- or teacher-focused. The goal of school is promote democratic society by providing experiential education. The classroom should be collaborative, democratic, and community-centered, while the role of the teacher is to be a facilitator or research director (providing problems for students to solve). Assessment takes the form of an ongoing monitoring of student progress. Schools will often say that they are progressively student-centered, but their daily practices typically belie that statement.
  4. According to SOCIAL RECONSTRUCTIONISM, social reform is the main goal of education, meaning that students should be equipped to create a better society than the one they grew up in. The curriculum will often critique cultural and social institutions to resist oppression. The classroom has a climate of inquiry and community building, often with respect to tackling real-life problems, while the teacher is someone who is transformational — an agent of change. Assessment is often done in an authentic environment as part of a cooperative effort.

Which of these do you most identify with? Should education preserve society as it exists or should it help students grow and create their own version? More importantly, does the practice of your classroom match your philosophy?

(Read more about these philosophies HERE)

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.

Is Teaching An Art or A Science?

Yes.

It’s both, and it’s more.

The way I see it, to be a successful teacher you have to balance science (fundamentals of human cognition, individual and group psychology, etc.) with your own personal experience and the collective experiences of fellow teachers (whether they be colleagues, mentors, or internet strangers); then you must refine your day-to-day approach based on the strengths and weaknesses of your own personality.

That, in a run-on sentence, is my way of saying that teaching is both an art and a science meshed with a bit of individual personality. Typically new methods or techniques in the classroom are developed, borrowed, and tweaked by the collective experience of educators. The role of science, through scholarly research, is to test those techniques and analyze whether or not they really are effective in the classroom — or, whether they can be extrapolated to a wider professional level. Your personality comes into play to determine how you execute those individual techniques, because every teacher will put a slightly different spin on the same thing.

For example, let’s take a (very) brief look at one of the most tried-and-true instructional strategies: Direct Instruction (“DI” from here on out). For centuries, DI was the primary method of imparting knowledge from an expert to a learner; only much more recently have educators begun to challenge its hegemony in school.

On the experience side of things, you’ll generally have two camps: one that swears by DI as fundamental to learning a new topic, and one that sees it as outdated, passive, and de-motivating for students. Many current teacher educations programs generally fall on the latter side of the debate, as does popular site Edutopia, which promotes a series of “Core Strategies for Innovation and Reform” that include integrating subjects, project-based learning, and social-emotional (aka, collaborative) learning. I mean, just Edutopia’s slogan surrounding Innovation and Reform should tell you all you need to know about its stance on “traditional” DI.

But if the experience of teachers is increasingly being pulled away from DI, it seems that academic research actually validates DI as one of the most effective techniques for learning. In fact, Rosenshine (2012) seems to imply that current research supports DI as a learning model. The second of ten principles for effective education is to “present new material in small steps with student practice after each step,” going on to state that, “the more successful teachers…presented only small amounts of information at one time, and they taught in such a way that each point was mastered before the next point introduced. They checked their students’ understanding on each point and retaught material when necessary” (Rosenshine, 2012). That sounds a lot like Direct Instruction!

So which approach is correct, the research-backed one in favor of DI or the experience-based one against it? Perhaps which is best depends on you, the educator. Some people have a commanding and energetic personality that lends itself well to engagement with DI, while others appreciate a much more hands-off, democratic classroom approach. It all comes together based on your personality and what you find most natural.

While this site is titled “The Science of School,” it’s goal is not to be a monument to scientific research. I find the notion that teachers (or any other profession/pastime) should only follow what has been proven to work by existing academic research laughable; there are simply too many variables in schools for researchers to have everything figured out. Rather, I find a more balanced approach the best, one that combines experience with research, or, better yet, asks, “Is there evidence that backs up this approach in school?”

This site is a monument to professional questioning and introspection, something that teachers have far too little time to do on their own during the school year.

Citation: Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, Spring(2012), 12-39.

Welcome!

Welcome to the SCIENCE OF SCHOOL. Whether you came here from the website, newsletter, social media, or wherever, I hope you find the content informative and interesting.

The purpose of the SCIENCE OF SCHOOL is to connect academic research in education to the classroom. Too often what we do in the classroom is contrary (or at least off-base) compared to what research suggests the most effective approaches should be. We do things because that’s just the way things are done, instead of trying to find a better way. Educators have very little extra time as it is, so the purpose of this site is to interpret the practical applications of scholarly research in an accessible manner.

Further, I hope that you’ll find the content thought-provoking, if not downright controversial. By all means, disagree with the conclusions you see here! This is not a monument to scientific fact, but rather to the scientific process: questioning, hypothesizing, and experimenting. If nothing else, you should question everything you do in the classroom. Is it optimal for students? Parents? The community? How can it be improved?

Throughout this blog, you will see posts labelled to one of four categories. Posts about Methods will examine the effectiveness of different pedagogical strategies. The next category, Curriculum, will attempt to explain why we teach what we teach. Assessment will be a review of various evaluations, and finally Policy will analyze the overarching structure of schools at both the individual and systemic level.

My least-favorite phrase is, “That’s just the way it is.” As educators, we can be better than that. We have to be.