Philosophy of education

Philosophy of education

The philosophy of education is the study of the purpose, process, nature and ideals of education. This can be within the context of education as a societal institution or more broadly as the process of human existential growth, i.e. how it is that our understanding of the world is continually transformed via physical, emotional, cognitive and transcendental experiences.

It can naturally be considered a branch of both philosophy and education.

Educational Philosophy

Content of Education

* Classical education movement: trivium, Quadrivium, etc
* [by: jose p. laurel

* Educational perennialism
* Educational progressivism
* International education
* Experiential education

Method of Education

* Educational progressivism: Learn by Doing
* Homeschooling
* Lecture
* Maturationism
* Montessori method
* Taking Children Seriously
* Outcome-based education
* Self-education
** Autonomous learning: The student teaches himself or herself a curriculum set by others
** Unschooling: The student explores subjects of his or her own choosing
** Constructivist approach to learning
* Learning via Questioning
** Coyote teaching
** Socratic method
** Transformative learning

ocial concerns

* Critical pedagogy
* Inclusive classroom


* Educational existentialism
* Humanistic education
* Waldorf education (Steiner)


A chronological summary of the work of some of the most important and influential educational philosophers in Western culture follows.


Date: 424/423 BC - 348/347 BC

Plato is the earliest important educational thinker. He saw education as the key to creating and sustaining his Republic. He advocated extreme methods: removing children from their mothers' care and raising them as wards of the state, with great care being taken to differentiate children suitable to the various castes, the highest receiving the most education, so that they could act as guardians of the city and care for the less able. Education would be holistic, including facts, skills, physical discipline, and music and art, which he considered the highest form of endeavour.

For Plato the individual was best served by being subordinated to a just society. Plato's belief that talent was distributed non-genetically and thus must be found in children born to all classes moves us away from aristocracy, and Plato builds on this by insisting that those suitably gifted are to be trained by the state so that they may be qualified to assume the role of a ruling class. What this establishes is essentially a system of selective public education premised on the assumption that an educated minority of the population are, by virtue of their education (and inborn educability), sufficient for healthy governance.

Plato should be considered foundational for democratic philosophies of education both because later key thinkers treat him as such, and because, while Plato's methods are autocratic and his motives meritocratic, he nonetheless prefigures much later democratic philosophy of education. This is different in degree rather than kind from most versions of, say, the American experiment with democratic education, which has usually assumed that only some students should be educated to the fullest, while others may, acceptably, fall by the wayside.


Date: 384 BC - 322 BC

Only fragments of Aristotle's treatise "On Education" are still in existence. We thus know of his philosophy of education primarily through brief passages in other works. Aristotle considered human nature, habit and reason to be equally important forces to be cultivated in education. Thus, for example, he considered repetition to be a key tool to develop good habits. The teacher was to lead the student systematically; this differs, for example, from Socrates' emphasis on questioning his listeners to bring out their own ideas (though the comparison is perhaps incongruous since Socrates was dealing with adults).

Aristotle placed great emphasis on balancing the theoretical and practical aspects of subjects taught. Subjects he explicitly mentions as being important included reading, writing and mathematics; music; physical education; literature and history; and a wide range of sciences. He also mentioned the importance of play.

One of education's primary missions for Aristotle, perhaps its most important, was to produce good and virtuous citizens for the polis. "All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth."


Date: 980 AD - 1037 AD

In the medieval Islamic world, an elementary school was known as a "maktab", which dates back to at least the 10th century. Like madrasahs (which referred to higher education), a maktab was often attached to a mosque. In the 11th century, Ibn Sina (known as "Avicenna" in the West), in one of his books, wrote a chapter dealing with the "maktab" entitled "The Role of the Teacher in the Training and Upbringing of Children", as a guide to teachers working at "maktab" schools. He wrote that children can learn better if taught in classes instead of individual tuition from private tutors, and he gave a number of reasons for why this is the case, citing the value of competition and emulation among pupils as well as the usefulness of group discussions and debates. Ibn Sina described the curriculum of a "maktab" school in some detail, describing the curricula for two stages of education in a "maktab" school.citation|title=The Age of Achievement: Vol 4|last=M. S. Asimov|first=Clifford Edmund Bosworth|publisher=Motilal Banarsidass|year=1999|isbn=8120815963|page=33-4]

Ibn Sina wrote that children should be sent to a "maktab" school from the age of 6 and be taught primary education until they reach the age of 14. During which time, he wrote that they should be taught the Qur'an, Islamic metaphysics, language, literature, Islamic ethics, and manual skills (which could refer to a variety of practical skills).

Ibn Sina refers to the secondary education stage of "maktab" schooling as the period of specialization, when pupils should begin to acquire manual skills, regardless of their social status. He writes that children after the age of 14 should be given a choice to choose and specialize in subjects they have an interest in, whether it was reading, manual skills, literature, preaching, medicine, geometry, trade and commerce, craftsmanship, or any other subject or profession they would be interested in pursuing for a future career. He wrote that this was a transitional stage and that there needs to be flexibility regarding the age in which pupils graduage, as the student's emotional development and chosen subjects need to be taken into account. [citation|title=The Age of Achievement: Vol 4|last=M. S. Asimov|first=Clifford Edmund Bosworth|publisher=Motilal Banarsidass|year=1999|isbn=8120815963|page=34-5]

The empiricist theory of "tabula rasa" was also developed by Ibn Sina. He argued that the "human intellect at birth is rather like a "tabula rasa", a pure potentiality that is actualized through education and comes to know" and that knowledge is attained through "empirical familiarity with objects in this world from which one abstracts universal concepts" which is developed through a "syllogistic method of reasoning; observations lead to prepositional statements, which when compounded lead to further abstract concepts." He further argued that the intellect itself "possesses levels of development from the material intellect ("al-‘aql al-hayulani"), that potentiality that can acquire knowledge to the active intellect ("al-‘aql al-fa‘il"), the state of the human intellect at conjunction with the perfect source of knowledge." [Sajjad H. Rizvi (2006), [ Avicenna/Ibn Sina (CA. 980-1037)] , "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy"]

Ibn Tufail

Date: c. 1105 - 1185

In the 12th century, the Andalusian-Arabian philosopher and novelist Ibn Tufail (known as "Abubacer" or "Ebn Tophail" in the West) demonstrated the empiricist theory of "tabula rasa" as a thought experiment through his Arabic philosophical novel, "Hayy ibn Yaqzan", in which he depicted the development of the mind of a feral child "from a tabula rasa to that of an adult, in complete isolation from society" on a desert island, through experience alone. The Latin translation of his philosophical novel, entitled "Philosophus Autodidactus", published by Edward Pococke the Younger in 1671, had an influence on John Locke's formulation of tabula rasa in "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding".G. A. Russell (1994), "The 'Arabick' Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England", pp. 224-262, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004094598.]

Thomas Aquinas

Date: c. 1225 - 1274

See Religious perennialism

John Milton

Date: 1608-1674

See Of Education

John Locke

Date: 1632-1704

See Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Date: 1712-1778

Rousseau, though he paid his respects to Plato's philosophy, rejected it as impractical due to the decayed state of society. Rousseau also had a different theory of human development; where Plato held that people are born with skills appropriate to different castes (though he did not regard these skills as being inherited), Rousseau held that there was one developmental process common to all humans. This was an intrinsic, natural process, of which the primary behavioral manifestation was curiosity. This differed from Locke's "tabula rasa" in that it was an active process deriving from the child's nature, which drove the child to learn and adapt to its surroundings.

Rousseau wrote in his book "" that all children are perfectly designed organisms, ready to learn from their surroundings so as to grow into virtuous adults, but due to the malign influence of corrupt society, they often fail to do so. Rousseau advocated an educational method which consisted of removing the child from society—for example, to a country home—and alternately conditioning him through changes to environment and setting traps and puzzles for him to solve or overcome.

Rousseau was unusual in that he recognized and addressed the potential of a problem of legitimation for teaching. He advocated that adults always be truthful with children, and in particular that they never hide the fact that the basis for their authority in teaching was purely one of physical coercion: "I'm bigger than you." Once children reached the age of reason, at about 12, they would be engaged as free individuals in the ongoing process of their own.

John Dewey

Date: 1859-1952

Rudolf Steiner

Date: 1861-1925

Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and writer, created a holistic educational impulse that has become known as Waldorf Education. He emphasizes a balance of developing the intellect (or head), feeling and artistic life (or heart), and practical skills (or hands). The education focuses on producing free individuals, and Steiner expected it to enable a new, freer social order to arise, through the creative, free human beings that it would develop. Regrettably, Steiner's methods have not been an unadulterated success.

Waldorf Education is based on Steiner's philosophy, known as anthroposophy, and divides education into three discrete developmental stages; these stages predate but have close similarities to Piaget's stages of child development.

Throughout the education, a great importance is placed upon having free and creative individuals as teachers; thus, schools should have an appropriate amount of freedom to shape their own curriculum and teachers should have a corresponding freedom to shape the daily life of the classroom. In order for such a system to function, intensive work must take place both amongst teachers within schools and between schools to provide the necessary communication, training and development.

Waldorf education includes a respect for children's physical nature, rhythmic life (technical term: ether body), consciousness (technical term: astral body) and individuality (ego). Anthroposophy includes teachings about reincarnation and schools often try to foster an awareness that each human being - and thus each child - carries a unique being into this earthly life.

As both an independent educational model and a major influence upon other educators - such as Maria Montessori - Waldorf education is currently both one of the largest and one of the fastest growing educational movements in the world. Waldorf schools are also increasingly operating as state-funded (in the U.S.A. "charter") schools or even state-run (in the U.S.A. public) schools.

B.F. Skinner

Date: 1904-90

One of B.F. Skinner's contributions to education philosophy is his text "Walden Two" wherein he details the failings of society and education, as one is intricately and intrinsically linked to the other. The pedagogical methods direct instruction and precision teaching owe much to his ideas. Behaviorist theories play largely in his proposed ideas of social engineering.

Precision Teaching, developed by Skinner's student Ogden Lindsley, uses the basic philosophy that the "learner knows best". Each learner is charted on a unique graph known as a "Standard Celeration Chart". The record of the rate of learning is tracked by this charting and decisions can be made from these data concerning changes in an educational program.

B. F. Skinner developed the theory of "operant conditioning," the idea that we behave the way we do because this kind of behavior has had certain consequences in the past in the arellano.

Maria Montessori

Date: 1870-1952

Jean Piaget

Date: 1896-1980

Paulo Freire

Date: 1921-97

A Brazilian who became committed to the cause of educating the impoverished peasants of his nation and collaborating with them in the pursuit of their liberation from oppression, Paulo Freire contributes a philosophy of education that comes not only from the more classical approaches stemming from Plato, but also from modern Marxist and anti-colonialist thinkers. In fact, in many ways his "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" may best be read as an extension of or reply to Frantz Fanon's "Wretched of the Earth", which laid strong emphasis on the need to provide native populations with an education which was simultaneously new and modern (rather than traditional) and anti-colonial (that is, that was not simply an extension of the culture of the colonizer).

Freire is best-known for his attack on what he called the "banking concept of education," in which the student was viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher. Of course, this is not really a new move--Rousseau's conception of the child as an active learner was already a step away from the "tabula rasa" (which is basically the same as the "banking concept"), and thinkers like John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead were strongly critical of the transmission of mere facts as the goal of education.

More challenging, however, is Freire's strong aversion to the teacher-student dichotomy. This dichotomy is admitted in Rousseau and constrained in Dewey, but Freire comes close to insisting that it should be completely abolished. Critics have argued that this is impossible, claiming that there must be some enactment of the teacher-student relationship in the parent-child relationship, but what Freire suggests is that a deep reciprocity be inserted into our notions of teacher and student. Freire wants us to think in terms of teacher-student and student-teacher, that is, a teacher who learns and a learner who teaches, as the basic roles of classroom participation.

This is one of the few attempts anywhere to implement something like democracy as an educational method and not merely a goal of democratic education. Even Dewey, for whom democracy was a touchstone, did not integrate democratic practices fully into his methods. (Though this is in part a function of his peculiar attitudes toward individuality and his idea of democracy as a way of living rather than merely a political practice or method.) However, in its early, strong form this kind of classroom has sometimes been criticized on the grounds that it can mask rather than overcome the teacher's authority.

Freire's work is widely-read by educationalists but is less respected among philosophers.Fact|date=February 2007

Aspects of the Freirian philosophy have been highly influential in academic debates over 'participatory development' and development more generally. Freire's emphasis on emancipation through interactive participation has been used as a rationale for the participatory focus of development, as it is held that 'participation' in any fora can lead to empowerment of poor or marginalised groups. Critics argue that the inherently undemocratic, unequal nature of development projects forecloses any possibility of Freirian emancipation, but many cling to the 'empowering potential' of development.

Neil Postman and the Inquiry Method

Date: 1931-2003

Neil Postman has been a strong contemporary voice in both methods and philosophy of education. His 1969 book "" (co-authored with Charles Weingartner) introduced the concept of a school driven by the inquiry method, the basis of which is to get the students themselves to ask and answer relevant questions. The "teacher" (the two authors disdained the term and thought a new one should be used) would be limited in the number of declarative sentences he could utter per class, as well as questions he personally knew the answer to. The aim of this type of inquiry would be to provide the conditions for students to build progressively what they don't know on top of what they do, and for the teacher to understand, through close listening, what the student knows, from where he/she can continue to provide the conditions for the learner to progress, and develop their understanding. This may be opposed to methods based on answers and knowing rather than understanding. Postman went on to write several more books on education, notably "Teaching as a Conserving Activity" and "The End of Education". The latter deals with the importance of goals or "gods" to students, and Postman suggests several "gods" capable of replacing the current ones offered in schools - the current goals being (1) economic utility, and (2) consumerism.

Jerome Bruner

Date: 1915-

Another important contributor to the inquiry method in education is Jerome Bruner. His books "The Process of Education" and "Toward a Theory of Instruction" are landmarks in conceptualizing learning and curriculum development. He argued that any subject can be taught in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development. This notion was an underpinning for his concept of the spiral curriculum which posited the idea that a curriculum should revisit basic ideas, building on them until the student had grasped the full formal concept. He emphasized intuition as a neglected but essential feature of productive thinking. He felt that interest in the material being learned was the best stimulus for learning rather than external motivation such as grades. Bruner developed the concept of discovery learning which promoted learning as a process of constructing new ideas based on current or past knowledge. Students are encouraged to discover facts and relationships and continually build on what they already know.

John Taylor Gatto

Date: 1937-

Spiritual successor to "The Hidden Curriculum", Gatto takes a historical view of educational systems as primarily and purposefully socializing and normative, as opposed to the stated goal as a vehicle for individual personal development. [ [ The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher] ]

John Caldwell Holt

Date: 1923-1985

A teacher and an observer of children and education, Holt asserted that the academic failure of schoolchildren was not in spite of the efforts of schools, but actually a product of the schools themselves. Not surprisingly his first book, "How Children Fail" (published in 1964), ignited a firestorm of controversy. Holt was catapulted into the American national consciousness to the extent that he made appearances on major TV talk shows, wrote book reviews for "Life" magazine, and was a guest on the "To Tell The Truth" TV game show. ["The Old Schoolhouse Meets Up with Patrick Farenga About the Legacy of John Holt",] In his follow-up work, "How Children Learn", 1967, he tried to demonstrate the learning process of children and why he believed school short circuits this process.

In neither book had he suggested any alternative to institutional schooling; he had hoped to initiate a profound rethinking of education to make schools friendlier toward children. As the years passed he became convinced that the way schools were was what society wanted, and that a serious re-examination was not going to happen in his lifetime.

Leaving teaching to publicize his ideas about education full time, he encountered books by other authors questioning the premises and efficacy of compulsory schooling, like "Deschooling Society" by Ivan Illich, 1970, and "No More Public School" by Harold Bennet, 1972 (which went so far as to offer advice to parents on how to keep their children out of school illegally). Then, in 1976, he published "Instead of Education; Ways to Help People Do Things Better". In its conclusion he called for a "Children's Underground Railroad" to help children escape compulsory schooling. ["The Old Schoolhouse Meets Up with Patrick Farenga About the Legacy of John Holt" ,] In response, families from around the U.S. contacted Holt to tell him that they were educating their children at home. In 1977, after corresponding with a number of these families, Holt began producing a magazine dedicated to home education (which he called unschooling: Growing Without Schooling.Fact|date=June 2008) Today, "unschooling" is synonymous with Holt's educational philosophy.

Holt's philosophy was simple: "... the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don't need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it." [] It was no great leap from there to arrive at homeschooling, and Holt later said, in 1980, "I want to make it clear that I don’t see homeschooling as some kind of answer to badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were." []

Holt actually wrote only one book about homeschooling, "Teach Your Own", 1981, and continued to hope for more expansive reform within education until his death in 1985.

Richard Mitchell

Date: 1929-2002

Richard Mitchell, a professor at Glassboro State College and author of "The Underground Grammarian", criticized the state of modern education, especially public and higher education, while developing theories regarding language, ethics, and the relationship of education to these, in four books and many essays written between 1977 and 1991.

Allan Bloom

Date: 1930-1992

Allan Bloom, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, argued for a traditional Great Books-based liberal education in his lengthy essay "The Closing of the American Mind".

Marshall Rosenberg

Date: 1934-

While Marshall Rosenberg is most well known for his work with conflict resolution through his system of "life-serving" Nonviolent Communication (NVC), he has also made education reform a major component of his work.

Building on the ideas of Neil Postman, Riane Eisler, Walter Wink, Carl Rogers and others, Rosenberg's contribution to this field involves reforming schools into "Life-Enriching" organizations, with the following characteristics: [Rosenberg, Marshall B., Life-Enriching Education, 2003, Puddle Dancer Press]

* The people are empathically connected to what each is feeling and needing—-they do not blame themselves or let judgments implying wrongness obscure this connection to each other.
* The people are aware of the interdependent nature of their relationships and value the others’ needs being fulfilled equally to their own needs being fulfilled—-they know that their needs cannot be met at someone else’s expense.
* The people take care of themselves and each other with the sole intention of enriching their lives—they are not motivated by, nor do they use coercion in the form of guilt, shame, duty, obligation, fear of punishment, or hope for extrinsic rewards.

The goals of such schools being

* Make life more wonderful
* Get everyone's needs met
* Connect with self and others
* Motivate through the joy of natural giving, i.e., contributing to the well-being of others
* Learning how to receive freely from others

This is in contrast with traditional "domination culture" schools which

* Prove who's right and who's wrong (e.g., grades)
* Teach students how to obey authority
* Dispense labels, evaluations, diagnoses, and moralistic judgements (e.g., Learning Disabled, Special Needs, Emotionally Disturbed, Culturally Disadvantaged, Hyperactive, ADD, etc.)
* Motivate desired behavior through punishment, reward, guilt, shame, duty, or obligation.

Rosenberg borrows the term Dominator Culture from Riane Eisler, and builds upon the theory by Walter Wink that we have lived under a domination-culture paradigm for about 8,000 years. Rosenberg says this culture utilizes a specialized language and system of education to allow a small minority to rule over the vast majority of the people, so that the majority is not serving their own life-needs, but serving their masters'.

Critical responses and counter-philosophies

Critics have accused the philosophy of education of being one the weakest subfields of education, disconnected from the broader study and practice of education (by being too philosophical, too theoretical). The philosophy of education is generally less well respected than even continental philosophy by professional philosophers (if one defines "professional" as meaning philosophers in the analytical rather than the continental tradition), for being frequently incoherent, contradictory, inconsistent, and insufficiently rigorous.

Its proponents state that it is an exacting and critical branch of philosophy and point out that there are few major philosophers who have not written on education, and who do not consider the philosophy of education a necessity. For example, Plato undertakes to discuss all these elements in "The Republic", beginning the formulation of educational philosophy that endures today. This response is sufficient to prove the point that the philosophy of education is practiced and taken seriously by individuals who have nothing to do with professional philosophy.

Professional organizations and associations


Further reading

*"A Companion to the Philosophy of Education" (Blackwell Companions to Philosophy), ed. by Randall Curren, Paperback edition, 2006, ISBN 1405140518

External links

* [ Thinkers of Education UNESCO-IBE website]
* [ Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Education]
* [ Philosophy of Education Society (U.S.)]
* [ Canadian Philosophy of Education Society]
* [ Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain]
* [ Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia]
* [ International Network of Philosophers of Education]
* [ Society for the Philosophical Study of Education]
* [ StudyPlace]
* [ Minnesota State University, Mankato Masters Degree in Experiential Education]
* [ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

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