Philosophy of education for teachers

Philosophy of education

Philosophy of education and teaching

Do teachers need a basic knowledge of the philosophy of education? Some teachers claim that what they need are well designed practical tips that help them deal with the day-to-day challenges in their classrooms, not some abstract theoretical concepts that are far fetched from reality. While there is some truth in this claim, teachers should be also informed about the different philosophical concepts related to education. Knowledge of the philosophy of education does not only give an intellectual rationale for some teachers’ instinctive or intuitive practices but also provides well-thought-out arguments concerning different theoretical principles.

Here is what this article will deal about:

  1. Philosophy of education and teaching
  2. What is education?
  3. Defining the philosophy of Education
  4. The origin of the philosophy of education
    – Schools of Philosophy
    – Idealism
    – Realism
    – Romanticism
    – Pragmatism
    – Existentialism
    – Postmodernism
  5. Educational philosophies
    – Perennialism
    – Essentialism
    – Progressivism
    – Reconstructionism
    – Critical Theory

Before reviewing some of the most influential philosophical trends in education, let’s first define the term education.

What is education?

The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin terms:

  • ‘educare’ meaning to bring up, rear, educate.
  • ‘educere’, meaning bring out, lead forth.

A dictionary definition of education goes like this:

the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.

According to Jordan (2008, p. 7),

“Education attempts to develop personality in a preferred direction”

For Jordan (2008), the ultimate aim of any educational process is to enable humanity to realize potential, nurture, develop and improve. The nineteenth-century philosopher Emanuel Kant claims that:

“Man can only become man by Education.” Kant (cited in Jordan 2008, p. 7)

Defining the philosophy of Education

Literally, the term ‘philosophy’ means ‘the love of wisdom’. It is a discipline that is concerned with the nature of issues such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. The philosophy of education, however, is the study of the key philosophical ideas that have had an impact on educational theories. A distinction must be made between philosophy and educational theories. Philosophy is concerned with a set of thoughts that reflect a view of the world of which education is only part (Charlene, 2006). The main focus of educational theories, however, is on education, that is the aim, processes, nature, and ideals of education.

Educational systems and curricula are designed according to a philosophical worldview, a set of philosophical principles. The whole body of knowledge provided by the philosophy of education may justify decisions at the level of educational systems. The education of philosophy also provides both a terminology to describe teaching and learning approaches and credence to instinctive or intuitive practices.

The origin of the philosophy of education

A distinction is drawn between two principal trends of philosophies. These can be classified according to whether they see the essence of our view of the world as resulting:

  • From absolute, unchanging ideas and values
  • Or from man’s experience with the physical world.

Schools of philosophy

Six broad schools of philosophy are relevant to education. These are idealism, realism, romanticism, pragmatism, existentialism, and postmodernism. All the major educational philosophies are derived from these schools. Below is a brief description of each one of them.

1. Idealism

Idealism is a philosophy that has stood the test of time. It holds that ideas are absolute and unchanging. According to this doctrine, ideas make up fundamental reality and are even seen as being the only true reality. In other words, the only real things are mental entities, not physical ones. Likewise, truth and values are universal and unchanging.

Although Plato, the father of idealism, says that matter exists, he holds that it is transitory and imperfect. It is a corrupt image of ideas. The true eternal ideas that we perceive directly by our rational soul give matter existence.

In addition to the supremacy of ideas over matter, Plato states that ‘knowledge is but remembrance’ and learning consists of rediscovering knowledge we already possess. Because the body and the senses are the sources of error, the only way to rediscover knowledge is by using (Socratic) questioning and reasoning. Logical thinking, such as deductive reasoning, is favored when making sense of the world. In the process of acquiring knowledge, abstract principles are emphasized.

Descartes, another influential idealist, has two major contributions to philosophy. First, he holds that the body and mind are distinct and that the mental entities may have an existence outside of the body. This dualism is a philosophical viewpoint that goes hand in hand with most theologies, which claim that immortal souls have an independent existence different from that of the physical world.

The second major philosophical contribution defended by Descartes is related to his methodological skepticism, also called Cartesian doubt. This is a systematic process of being skeptical about the truth of one’s beliefs. Descartes used this method to question the truth of all his beliefs in order to decide which beliefs to keep and which ones to discard. Skepticism is the foundation of Descartes’ statement, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). Through this method, Descartes re-establishes ideas in order to get a strong basis for real knowledge. This methodological skepticism has an undeniable relevance in education. It is a tool that may help learners discover the truth.

With regard to the role of schools, idealists believe that schools should help students discover everlasting, absolute principles and values. The aim is to help learners become morally good and discover the truth through rigorous mental and ideological training. The curriculum should give precedence to theory over practice. Theoretical subjects should be favored over vocational ones. The methodology relies on logical thinking, critical thinking, and Socratic questioning. The role of the teacher is to lead students to draw out the knowledge they already possess, question it and organize it coherently.

2. Realism

As opposed to idealism, realism is a philosophical doctrine that holds that external things are real and exist independently of the mind. Put differently, realists say that there is an objective reality, independent of consciousness.

Realism should not be confused with materialism (although they have many features in common). The latter is a philosophical tradition that considers matter prior to ideas. All that is real and that exists for materialists is matter. It is the most essential thing in nature from which everything is derived, even thoughts and consciousness. Realists, on the other hand, believe that reality exists or is true regardless of what one thinks about it.

Realism insists on the direct observation of natural phenomena and tries to explain everything that exists in terms of the laws of nature. Consequently, realists highlight the importance of scientific evidence and on empirical investigation rather than on abstract philosophical reasoning. This positivist stance is the basis of knowledge acquisition according to realists. According to realists, humans reach a knowledge of the world by the senses and the aim is to understand the objective reality through the study of all observable data.

Behaviorism is a learning theory that has its origin in this philosophical tradition. Behaviorists discard any relevance of any unobservable data to investigate how learning occurs. Behaviorists overlook mental processes and contend that people learn through their responses to environmental stimuli.

For realists, educators should favor the subjects that are linked to the physical world (e.g. mathematics, physics, science, etc.) The role of the teacher is to organize and present content systematically to help students to master facts and basic skills through rigorous demonstration and practice. The students’ emotional state and their interests are irrelevant. What matters is what the educator deems essential for students’ intellectual development.

3. Romanticism

Romanticism emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, as a philosophical movement in reaction to the rationalism and empiricism of the preceding Age of Reason. Romanticism shifted the focus from the objective (i.e. the outside physical world, as it exists independently from the mind) to the subjective reality (i.e. the focus on the individual). Romanticism was popular mainly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but it also had its adherents in philosophy.

The scientific rationalization of nature during the Age of Reason stifled the freedom and creativity of the individual. As a result, romanticism, which was linked to the German Idealism and Kantianism, emerged to highlight the importance of emotional self-awareness as a necessary pre-condition to improving society and bettering the human condition and giving free vent to aesthetic experience.

Related to education, the philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century discussed the topic of the noble savage, the idealized concept of the inherent goodness of Man who is uncorrupted by civilization. For example, Jean Jacque Rousseau thought that humans are essentially good without civilization. According to his philosophy, civilization corrupts humans and one way of avoiding this corruption is by keeping children away from society and its formal system of education. Children should learn in direct experience with natural influences using their senses, away from any harmful influence from society. Rousseau presented these ideas about education in his book “Émile” (1762), where he stressed the importance of learning by experience and suggested that educators should start with the child’s emotions before his reason. The emphasis should be on the education of the whole person.

4. Pragmatism

The origins of pragmatism are attributed to the philosophers William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce. The term ‘pragmatism’ comes from the Greek word ‘pragma’, meaning ‘deed’. According to pragmatists, ideas are not absolute. They are always changing and are dependent on what we observe and experience. The focus is on a changing universe rather than an unchanging one. The ultimate objective is not to search for universal ideas but to be pragmatic and focus on the knowledge that helps us achieve desired outcomes. That is, things are viewed in terms of their practical use: whatever works for you is true.

The essential difference between idealists and pragmatists is that idealists are concerned with the world as it should be while pragmatists see the world as it is in reality. Pragmatists are concerned with practical things, things that work to solve actual problems and help us develop our potential.

According to pragmatists, learning should be action-oriented, involving active learning. The focus is more on the process than on the content since the essence of things is changing and cannot be established until it is proven in practice. The methodology is based on experimenting, conducting projects and solving problems. Group work is favored.

The aim of education for pragmatists is to enable learners to deal with any situations they might encounter in life and to help them build a social consciousness so that they can live in a democratic society. For John Dewey, learners must adapt to each other and to their environment where they live and learn.

5. Existentialism

Existentialism is a school of philosophy that emerged as a reaction against the traditional philosophies that aimed at finding some kind of structure and meaning to the universe. That is, unlike the preceding philosophies, existentialism does not seek some rational explanation of the world but holds that individuals actually make decisions on the basis of what has meaning to them in a seemingly meaningless or absurd world. Existence, according to existentialists, precedes the essence or meaning that may be attributed to life. Along the same line of thought, the meaning one gets from a situation (i.e. subjective reality) is far more important than the meaning an outside objective observer may get. Consequently, most existentialists hold that freedom of choice, personal beliefs, and experiences are essential to achieving the truth.

While Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the founder of existentialism, was a Christian believer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other existentialists were atheists. They believed that we must understand that human lives are finite and that we must discard the belief of salvation by God after life.

Educators who base their practices on the existential philosophy focus on the learners’ freedom of choice and the responsibility for one’s decisions. What should matter for teachers is the individual who has to face the others’ views to make sense of his personal experience within society. Students should find the answers by themselves in real learning experiences and their needs have priority over any preset curriculum content. The role of the teacher is to create opportunities for autonomous learning and self-actualization. These teachers are not fervent defenders of standardized tests which, for them, do not measure students’ real potential. The aim of education is to develop students’ character and responsibility for taking decisions.

6. Postmodernism

Postmodernism is a movement that takes its point of departure the criticism of the fundamental institutions of the modern world. Its initial data are the problems of the current modern world such as economic crises, the ongoing existence of poverty, and racial and ethnic conflicts.

Postmodernists repudiate many 18th-century Enlightenment values. For example, they question the concepts of reason and logic and claim that they are not universally valid. They also believe that there is no objective natural reality. Skepticism is another characteristic of the postmodern era. For example, postmodernists are doubtful about whether the progress of science and technology will have a positive impact on society. Postmodern writings often focus on deconstructing the role that power and ideology play in shaping discourse and belief. Postmodern philosophy shares ontological similarities with classical skeptical and relativistic belief systems.

Related to education, postmodernism suggests that curricula are designed by those who are in power to perpetuate their control over the oppressed. Schools teach the officially established authoritative knowledge. Instead, educators, according to postmodernists, should empower and transform learners to become more critical of the narratives/ideologies of the official curricula. Students should be engaged to develop their own identities and contribute to change and transform society. In his book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ (1972), Paulo Freire insisted on the fact that educators should see the narratives of the official curricula with a critical eye; schools should aim at emancipating the marginalized from oppression. He also coined the traditional pedagogy “the banking model of education” because it considers the students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. This traditional pedagogy is also used as an instrument of oppression. Instead, Freire holds that we must consider learners as co-creators of knowledge and encourage them to transform society to become more egalitarian.

Educational philosophies

Idealism, realism, romanticism, pragmatism, existentialism, and postmodernism have given rise to five educational philosophies, namely, perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, reconstructionism, critical theory. The sections below describe each one of them.

1. Perennialism

The term ‘perennial’ means ‘everlasting’. Perennialists claim that education should aim at teaching the universal truths that have withstood the test of time. Since humans are rational beings educational systems should focus on developing students’ mind. Perenialists favor curricula that are general, liberal, and humanistic rather than specialized, vocational and technical. Although perennialism is teacher-centered, followers of this educational philosophy urge teachers and students to engage in Socratic Method, which is a form of open-ended inquiry, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and logical reasoning, the aim of which is to expose contradictions and to guide students to discover underlying presumptions and solid conclusions. Advocates of perennialism are Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.

2. Essentialism

Essentialism claims that education should go back to the basics. It focuses on teaching the essential elements of academic knowledge and character development. In addition to that, essentialists contend that schools should not strive to change or transform society. The role of the teacher is to transmit the traditional moral values and intellectual knowledge that students need to become model citizens. This is done by instilling discipline, promoting reasoning, training the mind, and ensuring a common culture for all citizens. Essentialists design curricula that include traditional disciplines involving the study of the surrounding environment and basic natural laws.
Like perennialism, essentialism is teacher-centered. There is a fundamental difference, though, between perennialism and essentialism. Perennialism puts emphasis primarily on personal development while essentialism’s central preoccupation is on essential skills. As a result, essentialists design curricula that are much more vocational and fact-based, and far less liberal and principle-based.

3. Progressivism

Unlike essentialism, progressivism rejects the idea that there are true or essential traditions to be transmitted to future generations. Progressivists believe in the changing reality. For progressivists, values and knowledge are neither universal nor unchanging; knowledge for them is relative. What is important for progressivists is the present learners’ experiences where learners must take control of their own learning. In this sense, progressivism is a student-centered philosophy that differs considerably from perennialism and essentialism.

Progressivists design curricula that strive to instill the skills necessary for students to solve problems and conduct projects. Content must be relevant to the needs and interests of students who should test ideas by active experimentation: true learning occurs by doing. Less emphasis is put on textbooks and more importance is given to varied learning resources. Nontraditional evaluation is favored. Students are assessed by the progress they make in conducting projects and solving problems. Lifelong learning and social skills are given paramount importance.
John Dewey, one of the founders of progressivism, holds that schools should improve learners’ lives as citizens who enjoy freedom in a democratic society.

4. Reconstructionism

Reconstructionists believe in social reform. Schools are seen as social agencies instead of being mere academic institutions that perpetuate the status quo. Teachers should empower learners to address not only personal problems but also social ills such as poverty, racism, the deterioration of the environment, etc. Reconstructionist teachers are activists who are locally and internationally oriented. Reconstructionism seeks the reform of society; the aim is to create a better society and worldwide democracy.

Theodore Brameld and George Counts are founders of Reconstructionism. Theodore Brameld warned against the destructive aspect of technology and the importance of social reform while George Counts asserted that the aim of education must be to prepare learners to create a new social order.

5. Critical theory

Like reconstructionism, critical theory seeks to address the pathologies of the modern era. In addition to reforming society and finding solutions to social issues, the critical theory aims at transforming society by overcoming oppression.

The followers of this movement seek to resist oppression, refuse to be victims of the dominating class, and aim at developing a critical consciousness towards the established system. According to critical theorists, learners are not empty vessels that are ready to be filled with knowledge. They are rather active participants, on the one hand, in the creation of content and, on the other hand, in the transformation of society. Paulo Freire believed that education is a process through which learners must be able to invent and reinvent the world. Like reconstructionism, critical theorists believe in active learning. Students must experience and take decisions about actual social problems in order to develop a social awareness and overcome oppression.


At least a basic knowledge of the philosophy of education is necessary for teachers. This knowledge not only provides the necessary terminology to describe instinctive or intuitive teaching practices but also makes teachers aware of the rationale behind educational systems. What is more, the philosophy of education allows teachers to have insightful opinions about the aims, roles, and methods of education. On another level, by being aware of the different philosophical doctrines behind the various educational theories, teachers will get a deeper knowledge of the different learning theories and approaches such as behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and critical pedagogy. That is, with at least a basic knowledge of the philosophy of education, teachers will get a taste of the philosophical doctrines that led to the appearance of these approaches.


Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Jordan, Anne, Orison Carlile, and Annetta Stack (2008). Approaches to learning: a guide for teachers: a guide for educators. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Tan, Charlene. (2006). “Philosophical perspectives on education” in Critical Perspectives on Education, Publisher: Pearson, pp.21-4021-40.

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