Monday, December 31, 2012

Philosophy of Education

It was near the end of the semester. Students were busy--and ready for Christmas break. And in Intro to Education, we broke out the heavy stuff: Philosophy of Education. I think it's fair to say that they were not very excited about this topic when they saw it on the syllabus. But also I'm happy to say that their interest increased pretty quickly as we got started.

To begin, I asked them list as many "-ism"s as they could think of. There were a lot:

- Pragmatism
- Constructivism
- Feminism
- Environmentalism
- Modernism
- Postmodernism
- Calvinism
- Catholicism
- Secularism
- Futurism
- Relativism
- Capitalism
- Communism
- Socialism
- Marxism
- Darwinism
- Existentialism
- Realism
- Transcendentalism
- Rationalism
- Polytheism
- Monotheism
- Theism
- Atheism
- Deism
- Dualism
- Stoicism
- Buddhism
- Hinduism
- Humanism
- Terrorism
- Cannibalism (Wait...what?)
- Elitism
- Feudalism
- Paganism
- Intellectualism
- Anti-intellectualism
- Essentialism
- Perennialism
- Reconstructionism
- Progressivism
Quite a list, isn't it?

I lectured a bit about "ground rules": basic assumptions that everyone has about the way the world works. Many of these -isms have religious or political connotations. Some have more intellectual or educational connotations. All of them offer organizing principles for understanding the world--they are schools of thought that allow people to make sense of the complex world in which we live.

The big point I was trying to make is that every teacher has a philosophy of education--whether it's reasoned or not, whether it's explicitly framed or not--and these impact how we approach our classroom practice, even on an implicit level.

The last four on this list are the philosophies of education we explored together in class, as they are pretty potent forces currently in place in schools. We worked through each of these via a series of questions:
- What is the purpose of education?
- Who are the students?
- What should be included in the curriculum?
- What does instruction look like?

Each of these perspectives answers these questions differently, of course. An essentialist is going to emphasize basics facts and discipline. A perennialist is going to place a high value on transmitting timeless truths to the next generation. A social reconstructionist is going to practice democracy in the classroom and view education as a means to fix what's wrong with society. A progressivist is going to encourage students to experience things first-hand and develop personally as individuals.

They got the main idea. They knew their stuff for their final. Now I hope they can put it all together and build on these basics in future Education coursework.

At my last school, I developed a bit of a reputation as a philosopher. It wasn't unwarranted...and I'll agree that I sort of appreciate the moniker. I do think a lot about how teachers' personal philosophies of education influence our classroom practices. I'm continually working on shrinking the gap between my own (stated) philosophy of education and the way it gets carried out in practice.

Because teachers hold these perspectives quite deeply--ground rules, and all--teachers with different personal philosophies of education are likely to disagree when they have conflict over teaching practices. Imagine four teachers...

The first was an essentialist: she lectured on key topics, assigned textbook readings, valued getting right answers and appropriate behavior in class, emphasized grade-based achievement, and tried to instill in students an understanding of the basic facts and skills that would make them great scholars in the future.

The second was a perennialist: he had his students read great works, assigned reflective essays, valued critical analysis and passing on truths that had stood the tests of time, emphasized literature and writing and rhetoric, and tried to instill in his students a love of the arts and philosophy.

The third was a social reconstructionist: she had her students work in groups, used collaborative projects, valued conversation and discussion and even arguments in class, emphasized a variety of viewpoints and mutual respect even when in disagreement, and tried to put democratic ideals into practice.

The fourth was a progressivist: he told stories, assigned hands-on projects, valued constructivist thinking and application of knowledge, emphasized personal development, and tried to show students the connections their schoolwork had with their own personal lives.

How likely is it that all four teachers are going to see eye-to-eye on educational issues? Not very likely.

Take letter grades for instance. The essentialist and perennialist would likely embrace them. The social reconstructionist and progressivist would likely shun them.

How about arts education? The essentialist would likely see this as fluff--a "soft" option--and downplay the importance. The perennialist would see this as absolutely necessary; how can students understand truth and beauty without them? The social reconstructionist would likely see them as useful for helping us understand each other. The progressivist would want his students to be as well-rounded as possible, and thus would be all for the arts.

Consider something as simple as whether or not to use a textbook as a teaching tool. The essentialist would see a textbook as...well...essential. The perennialist would probably embrace the textbook, so long as it had the right content and perspective. The social reconstructionist would probably avoid the textbook in favor of today's newspaper. The progressivist would probably use the textbooks as props in a play, or as supports for the roller coaster his students were building.

The really amazing thing to me is how each of these philosophies has very real strengths, as well as pretty profound weaknesses. In the end, each of them is reductionistic; that is, it reduces the whole Truth to one aspect of the Truth.
  • The essentialist is right: there is a basic body of knowledge all students should master.
  • The perennialist is right: there are timeless truths that should be passed on to the next generation.
  • The social reconstructionist is right: human beings do live in community and learn in community, and learning to share as a productive member of a group is healthy and important.
  • The progressivist is right: students are unique individuals with differing gifts, talents, strengths, and weaknesses.
  • The essentialist is wrong: memorization of basic facts is not all there is to being educated.
  • The perennialist is wrong: not all truths can be discerned by reading great works of literature and viewing great works of art.
  • The social reconstructionist is wrong: schools are not a panacea that will solve all the ills of society.
  • The progressivist is wrong: overemphasizing personal interests leads to relativism and egocentrism
The key then is redeeming what is good and true of each of these without buying into the whole philosophy. This must be undertaken with care, lest the teacher fall victim to yet another reductionistic philosophy: eclecticism. (Piecemealing together a philosophy of education from disparate parts that may  or may not be logically incompatible.)

The key for those of us seeking to teach Christianly is that we need to be very thoughtful about developing a distinctively Christian philosophy of education; one which might incorporate elements of these other philosophies, but in such a way that it is integral to the truths present in a biblical worldview. Which sounds lovely, right? But in practice...well...that's the part I'm still working on. Give me another 15 years in this profession and I might be closer to being able to put it into practice!

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