Teaching Philosophy

A philosophy grounds or guides practice in the study of existence and knowledge while developing an ontology (the study of being) on what it means for something or someone to be—or exist. Educational philosophy, then, provides a foundation that constructs and guides the ways knowledge is generated and passed on to others. Therefore, it is of critical import that teachers begin to develop a clear understanding of philosophical traditions and how the philosophical underpinnings inform their educational philosophies; because a clear educational philosophy will help guide and develop cohesive reasons for how each teacher designs classroom spaces and learning interactions with both teachers and students. A clear philosophy also frames the curriculum along a spectrum from teacher-centered curriculum to student-centered curriculum to society-centered curriculum.  

There are 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. In imparting knowledge to our students, it is inevitable that we must consider our own personal philosophies, or pedagogies, and determine not only how we decide what our philosophies are, but also how those impact our students. 

In order to develop a teaching philosophy, a teacher should examine and continuously reflect on the following:

  • Creation of an articulated philosophy that can become a foundation upon which an individual’s life work can be built.
  • Consideration of how your attitude is a function of who you are, how it affects your philosophy towards education, and how it shapes who you are as a teacher.
  • Formulation of a teaching style that integrates teaching strategies with one’s own personality and philosophy.

Exercise 1.6 educational Philosophies Self-Assessment Survey

Before reading about the various philosophies, take this assessment to find with which you most align. This assessment will assist you in writing your teaching philosophy.

  1. Complete the  Educational Philosophies Self-Assessment Survey
  2. Compile your score using Educational Philosophies Self-Assessment Scoring Guide

What does this survey reveal about your underlying philosophy?

Lessons in Pedagogy

Teacher preparation classes frequently separated the concept of philosophy into separate schools. “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 teaching philosophies? According to Thelma Roberson (2000), most prospective teachers confuse their beliefs with the ideas of teaching. Teaching 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 teaching philosophy. It helps to have an overview of the various schools out there.

Ontological Frameworks of Philosophy

Generally, four ontological perspectives frame schools of educational philosophy.  Two ontological frameworks, idealism and realism, stem from Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato developed the tradition of idealism; whereas, Aristotle, Plato’s student, formed an antithetical ontology of realism. Progressivism and existentialism grew from the philosophical remnants of the Age of Enlightenment in the 19th century. Pragmatism formed within the United States during the late 1800s; at the same time, existentialism developed as a continental philosophy in Europe. While the early public education system in the United States was guided by idealism and realism, pragmatism and existentialism have served as the influential foundations of the 20th and 21st-century educational philosophies.

Idealism

For Idealists, ideas are the only true reality. Conscious reasoning is the only way to locate what is true, beautiful, and just. Plato founded Idealism and outlined its tenets in his book The Republic. For Plato, there are two worlds. The first world is home to the spiritual or mental world where universal ideas and truth were permanent; this world can only be found through conscious reasoning. The second world is the world of appearances and imperfection; a world experienced through sensory experiences of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Plato outlines this duality between the two worlds in “The Allegory of the Cave.” In this famous allegory, people are chained against walls with a fire behind them. What the people perceive as real are only shadowed projections on the wall of the cave. If one were to break free, leave the cave, and discover the sun, this new “realm” would discover the true source of everything that was previously known. It would be the realm of pure fact and form. This is the source of all that is real. The real world is just an imperfect projection of these ideas, forms, and truth.

Drawing of Plato

Almost two centuries later, Dutch philosopher Renè Descartes shifted Platonic Idealism toward mind-body dualism with his famous phrase “Cogito, ergo sum (I think; therefore, I am).” For Descartes, the only proof of his existence is his thinking—a thinking being. Like Plato, Descartes outlined a rationale for why perceptions are unreliable, and the external world is illusory. Only through rational deduction could one obtain truth. While Plato described a dualism between two separate worlds, Descartes established an Idealism founded on mind-body dualism where the thinking mind is given privilege over the physical body and external world. This dualism would heavily influence philosophy and educational philosophy well into the 20th century.

Teaching, for Idealists, focuses on moral excellence that will benefit society. Students should focus on subjects of the mind like literature, history, and philosophy. Students will demonstrate understanding through participation in lectures and through Socratic-dialogues, which engage students in introspection and insight that bring to conscious the universal forms and concepts.

Figure 1.6.1. Plato.

Realism

Realism’s central tenet is based on reality, or the external universe, independent from the human mind. Aristotle, Plato’s student, contradicted his teacher’s Idealist philosophy and formulated a philosophy on determining truth through observation. Reality can be truly understood by careful observation of all the data. Because of his emphasis on careful observation, Aristotle is often referred to as the Father of the Scientific Method. Through logic, humans can reason about the physical universe. The essence of things or substances, therefore, can be determined by examination of the object or substance. Aristotle’s logic, then, emphasizes induction as well as deduction, and the real world can be determined through both.

During the Enlightenment, Common Sense Realism began to counter the Idealism of Descartes. Rather than the skepticism of the external world espoused by Idealists, the Common Sense Realists, like John Locke, argue that ordinary experiences intuit a self and the physical world without the skepticism of the real world outside the mind. This realism would influence the development of Empiricism and Pragmatism later in the Enlightenment.

For realists, teaching methods should focus on basic skills and memorization and mastery of facts. Students demonstrate content mastery of these skills through critical observation and applied experimentation.

Figure 1.6.2. Aristotle. viena-Wien. Kunsthistorisches Museum. Cap d’Aristotil. Copia romana d’ un original qrez. Ca. 320 Dc.” by Pilar Torres.

Pragmatism

Like Realism, Pragmatism requires empirical observation of the real world; however, unlike Realism and Idealism, the real world is not an unchanging whole but is evolving and changing according to how thought is applied into action towards a problem. Thought cannot or should not describe or represent reality, but rather, should be applied by the practical applying thoughts and experiences to problems that arise. The universe, then, is always evolving according to new applied thoughts turned into actions. Pragmatism’s founder Charles Sanders Pierce posits thought must produce action towards an ever-changing universe.

John Dewey, the founder of Progressivism, believed that experience is central to explaining the world; moreover, the experience is what is needed to be explained. One needs practical experiences and uses explanations to find models that would best fit any given problem or situation. As new experiences and explanations arise, reality will evolve or change to new situations and problems.

Pragmatists focus on hands-on, experiential learning tasks such as experimenting, and working on projects in groups. Students will demonstrate understanding through applied learning tasks to concrete problems or tasks.

Existentialism

Existentialism grew from the continental philosophies forming in Europe during the 19th and early 20th century, most notably hermeneutic phenomenology—the examination of lived-experience. Hermeneutic phenomenology and existentialism countered the dualisms inherent in both Idealism and Realism. The world does not have any meaning outside human existence within a world. The mind/body or mind/physical world duality and cannot have any meaning without a human being actively absorbed in the world. Jean-Paul Sarte posited that “existence precedes essence,” which means one’s existence comes before the nature, or fact, of a thing. This means that individual human beings are free to determine their own meaning for life and do not possess any inherent identity different than one the individual chooses or creates.

Existentialists position the individual as responsible for their own being, or existence. “Who am I? What should I do?”  become central questions for an individual’s project in being. If one identifies with being a teacher, or any other identity like being a parent, then one must evaluate what does one who teaches (or any other identity) do? After thoughtful and careful reflection, one must choose to authentically do the project of being a teacher (or any other identity). Acting in accordance with one’s chosen beliefs and values despite social pressures is the way to have an authentic existence. However, acting or adopting false values based on social pressures would be acting in “bad faith,” and one would be living an inauthentic existence, according to Sartre.

In educational settings, Existentialists focus on giving students personal choices where they must confront others’ views in order to clarify and develop authentic actions in terms of the students’ developing identities. Existentialists have difficulty positioning students as objects to be measured, tracked, or standardized. Teachers who adhere to an Existentialist ontology create activities that guide students to self-direction and self-actualization.

Philosophical Perspective of Education

There are several philosophical perspectives currently used in educational settings. Unlike the more abstract ontology, these perspectives focus primarily on what should be taught and how it should be taught, i.e., the curriculum.

Essentialism

Essentialism adheres to a belief that a core set of essential skills must be taught to all students, a universal pool of knowledge needed by all. Essentialists tend to traditional academic disciplines that will develop prescribed skills and objectives in different content areas as well as develop a common culture. Typically, essentialism argues for a back-to-basics approach to teaching intellectual and moral standards. Schools should prepare all students to be productive members of society.

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. Schools should be sites of rigor where students learn to work hard and respect authority.  Because of this stance, essentialism tends to subscribe to tenets of realism.  Essentialist classrooms tend to be teacher-centered in instructional delivery with an emphasis on lecture and teacher demonstrations. Assessments 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 (Ornstein  & Levine, 2003).

Perennialism

Perennialism advocates for seeking, teaching, and learning universal truths that span across the ages. These truths, Perennialists argue, have everlasting importance in helping humans solve problems regardless of time and place. While Perennialism resembles essentialism at first glance, perennialism focuses on the individual development of the student rather than emphasizing skills. Perennialism supports liberal arts curricula that help produces well-rounded individuals with some knowledge across the arts and sciences. All students should take classes in English Language Arts, foreign languages, mathematics, natural sciences, fine arts, and philosophy. Like Essentialism, Perennialism may tend to favor teacher-centered instruction; however, Perennialists do utilize student-centered instructional activities like Socratic Seminar, which values and encourages students to think, rationalize, and develop their own ideas on topics.

Perennialists are instructors who believe that knowledge passed through the ages should continue to be 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 elicit student input. The classes most likely to be considered under this approach would be history, science, math, and religion classes (Ganly, 2007).

Positivism

Positivism is a philosophical theory that believes information is derived from sensory experience and interpreted through reason and logic. The instructors whose teaching philosophies are based on documented facts and objective 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 (Ganly, 2007).

Behaviorism

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 (Ornstein  & Levine, 2003).

Progressivism

Progressivism focuses its educational stance toward experiential learning with a focus on developing the whole child. Students learn by doing rather than being lectured to by teachers. This pedagogy is a student-centered form of instruction where students follow the scientific method of questioning and searching for the answer. Students work in cooperative/collaborative groups to do project-based, expeditionary, problem-based, or service-learning activities, and students have opportunities to follow their interests. The teacher is a facilitator rather than the center of the educational process, and students have shared authority in planning and decision making with teachers (Ganly, 2007).

The curriculum is usually integrated across contents instead of siloed into different disciplines. Progressivism’s stance is in stark contrast to both Essentialism and Perennialism in this manner. Progressivism follows an explicit pragmatic ontology where the learner focuses on solving real-world problems through real experiences. Current events are used to keep students interested in the required subject matter. Students are active learners as opposed to passive learners. Evaluations include projects and portfolios.

Figure 1.6.3. Progressive John Dewey.

Social Reconstructionism & Critical Pedagogy

Social reconstructionism was founded as a response to the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust to assuage human cruelty. Social reform in response to helping prepare students to make a better world through instilling democratic values. Critical pedagogy emerged from the foundation of the early social reconstructionist movement.

Critical pedagogy is the application of critical theory to education. For critical pedagogues, teaching and learning is inherently a political act, and they declare that knowledge and language are not neutral, nor can they be objective. Therefore, issues involving social, environmental, or economic justice cannot be separated from the curriculum. Critical pedagogy’s goal is to emancipate marginalized or oppressed groups by developing, according to Paulo Freire, conscientização, or critical consciousness in students.

Figure 1.6.4. Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks.

Critical pedagogy de-centers the traditional classroom, which positions the teacher at the center. The curriculum and classroom with a critical pedagogy stance are student-centered 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 (Ganly, 2007).

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” (Ganly, 2007).

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. Students are engaged in all aspects of learning and work together with the teacher and her peers to develop a curriculum and evaluation system that allows for individual interests and abilities (Ganly, 2007).

“Your philosophy of education is what you believe about education and the way children learn”                  (Roberson, 2000, p. 4).

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 at that time was ineffective and began to look for alternate ways to reach their students (Ornstein & Levine, 2003). 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 a deeper understanding of the concepts presented in class and is based on the abilities and readiness of the children rather than set curriculum guidelines. Constructivism “emphasizes socially interactive and process-oriented ‘hands-on’ learning in which students work collaboratively to expand and revise their knowledge base” (Ornstein & Levine, 2003, p. 112). Essentially, knowledge that is shaped by experience is reconstructed, or altered, to assist the student in understanding new concepts (Ornstein & Levine, 2003). You, as the teacher, help the students build the scaffolding they need to maintain the information even after the test is taken and graded.

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.

Conclusion

Teaching philosophies are as abundant. How do you narrow the choices down? And even though the difference between one philosophy and the next seems small at the onset, 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 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 a 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.

“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”                  (Apps, 1973, p. 1).

Exercise 1.7 Draft Your Philosophy

While your teaching philosophy will never be finished, now is a good time to start writing one. This will be your first of many drafts. With each domain of teaching that you explore, you should expect that your new understanding will help you further develop and refine your philosophy.

Here are some helpful tools to get started:

Teaching Perspectives Inventory

Teaching Styles Inventory

Teaching Goals Inventory

Statement of Teaching Philosophy – Questions to Consider

Writing Your Teaching Philosophy