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A Philosophy of Education: Start Simple and Build From There.

So you need a philosophy of education? How do you craft a philosophy of education that is more that word soup, hastily typed out to complete an application? Lets face it, there are a confusing variety of philosophies of educational: essentialism, pragmatism, behaviorism, reconstructionism, existentialism, perennialism, and so on. While each of these has something interesting to say, there is an easier way to come up with a philosophy of education. Below I model how you can “Start Simple” and build from there.

I. What the heck is a “philosophy” of something? I have a degree in philosophy and I know the word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” However, that isn’t what people usually mean when they talk about a philosophy of art or philosophy of history. At its most basic level, a philosophy of anything is a second order question. Second order questions are not questions that ask historical, artistic or science issues (e.g. why did World War 1 start, what temperature does water boil at 10,000 feet above sea level). Instead, secondary level questions are questions ABOUT the whole field and practice of history, or ABOUT the field of science or the whole practice of art. A simple way to get at this is with – “What/why/how” questions ABOUT that field. These will do the job of helping you to create a philosophy of that field.

Take history for example, What is history? Why do history? How can we best do history? What is art? Why do we do art? What are we doing when we do science? Why bother with science? How do we best go about science? These aren’t questions about using a titration device, or picking a color pallet. Those are first order questions. These are SECOND order questions about the doing-of-the-subject itself.

2. So, what is a philosophy of education?

The same applies with education. Here we aren’t asking questions about what to teach tomorrow, but instead asking What/Why/How of the-doing-of-teaching itself. Therefore:

WHAT “What are we doing when we do education/teach?”
WHY “Why do we educate/teach?”
HOW “How do we best going about educating/teaching?”

Immediately you can see that you are thinking on a completely different level! Answering second order questions requires a higher level, critical-thinking skills. Below I will look at the three basic What/Why/How questions in regards to education. I will follow each with a brief suggestion; one that I am willing to abandon if pushed. Suggestion -> History helps us answer the what question. Worldview helps us answer the why question. Practical experience and science helps us answer the how question.

3a. The What – What is education supposed to accomplish?

Now we’ve made our “simple” start. Let’s build out from there. Philosophies of education are often are dominated by one POLE of a pair of issues related to the questions above. Consider the spectrums below. These are not all the “What” questions we can ask, but they should help you understand what is going on here:

[What interests should dominate education?] Society’s <——-vs——-> Individual’s
[What is the teachers role in education?] Dispenser of Knowledge <———vs———> Facilitator
[What are students doing when they learn?] Receiving Knowledge <———vs———> Constructing Knowledge
[What content do we teach?] Perennial Themes <———- vs ————> Existential Issues

You can imagine people answering these questions by saying “The needs of the wider society should dictate what students learn.” “No, no, education should cater to students individual interests.” Or, “Teachers are dispensers of knowledge; the sage on the stage!” “No, no teachers are merely a guide on the side, facilitating students own learning journeys.” Feel the tension? You may feel like each of these is right in some respect.

I’m going to suggest that is a mistake permanently commit to any one pole in the above spectrums. What needs to happen is that as learners are younger (or older persons who are absolute beginners in a discipline) the WHAT of education should focus on the left side of these spectrums. As students age or become advanced in a subject, educational approaches can shift to the right. A young child’s interest should not guide education. By contrast adult learners will suffer if the education process does not bring their own interests into play. Graduate students will and should begin to construct knowledge in their particular fields. By contrast, younger learners should not do so. Beginning learners need to begin with the perennial themes and essential topics/skills of a field but eventually move to engaging contemporary issues and creatively tackling unsolved problems.

Sure, I get it, if you are taking a saturday sculpting class to ward off boredom, this may not apply. However, if one wants a real education in theology or art, it is vital to learn certain essentials, to know the dialectic that has gone before you, to become familiar with the perennial themes, to accept certain things the teacher is telling you (before you go off and start creating your own spin on the field).

3b. Why did I say that history guides the “What” question? I draw this answer from philosophy of science. In philosophy of science (or history for that matter) there were people who attempted to declare up front what official history or science was (e.g. logical positivism, 19th century Modernism). However, when historians took a look at what scientists were actually doing throughout the centuries, it turned out they in fact were not doing what the philosophers said they were. Who cares? Well, the point is that we can try to force a discipline into a tidy abstract box. Often, looking at what people ACTUALLY do historically, and noticing that they fare pretty well even if they don’t do things like we thought, can serve as a sober corrective to our favorite answer to the what question. Often reality is more complex than we take it to be (as I’ve suggested above with the idea of shifting emphases as the learn matures).

3c. What about Classical or Liberal Arts Education? Classical education, or “liberal arts” classically understood, is a time tested philosophy of education stretching deep into western civilization. It originally answered the What question in terms of skills needed by worthy free persons to participate in greek society (especially the Trivium of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric). The Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music) has its ancient roots in an ancient greek approach to thinking that sought to tap into the universal nature of all things. The seven liberal arts passed down through Roman culture and became codified in Medieval education. This form of education persisted in the West until the 20th century. Given disappointments with secular modernist and postmodern education, classical education is experiencing a comeback in the U.S. and elsewhere. The contrast between Classical Education, and the late 21st century turn to “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) make for a great way to think about the “what” and “why” of education.

4a. The Why – Why do we educate and teach?

How do we answer “why” questions? As a Christian, I trace my “why” of education back to the Judeo-Christiain scriptures, because they give an account of the human story in which education occurs. However, any worldview has a story to tell and it could be used to ground answers to “Why” questions. A materialist, who believes the physical world is all that exists would answer the “why” questions out of a different story about humanity. A person who sees the State as the highest human realm would answer “Why” questions from the perspective of the State. Obviously this raises a tertiary level question of, “Which worldview provides the best account of humanity?” Anynow, you (the reader) would need to provide and defend your own worldview from which to answer “why” questions for any discipline – including education. I’ve provided some of my own below:

So, why educate? I sketch a few thoughts to illustrate the “why” component. Why do we teach? We teach because. . .

(a) …humans have a natural desire to know Goodness, Truth, and Beauty because we are created by God with an openness to the world and freedom to make our way in the world. Paul argues to the athenians (and writes to the Romans) that God created humans with the capacity to grope after God (think inquiry and discover about life’s greatest questions) and to know at least basic things about God from nature.

…Scripture brings repeated narrative forms of truth and error, worldview adjudication, and other issues which implicitly call for the ability to think logically and pursue truth. In other words, learning can be a joy in its own right, and is driven by the natural human desire to know all truths about all things – what Bernard Lonergan called “the notion of being.”

…Our being created in God’s image implies that we are are creative and artisans like God. Because God created certain things in a pre-fallen world with beauty, and created humans with the capacity to see things as beautiful, this calls for a need to practice with beautiful things. Because God is good, and we are called to be good like God, there is a mandate for training learners in justice and goodness.

(b) … God gave a creation mandate (i.e. develop, cultivate ,and care for earth) in Genesis. This tasks humans with stewardship of the planet. This relates to our being created in the image of God. Accomplishment of this mandate requires education. It requires science, for example when looking at literal care for the earth. In caring for humans it requires medical knowledge, psychology, etc.. This is a huge topic. The point is simply that the creation mandate requires that we educate humans if we are to pull it off.

(c)… in the scriptures God gives his people mandates to provide for their families, children, aged relatives, and even to neighbors. This is perhaps the most down to earth and practical thing you think of. Get educated so you can get a job and provide for your family. While this is not the loftiest of motivations, it is important.

(d) … in scriptures there is also Biblical mandate to participate in society well. Virtue and character formation comes in here. This goes for God’s theocracy (Israel as a nation) or Jesus followers who live scattered among the nations. In both cases people are instructed to love their neighbors, to support the governmental structure God allows to be in place, to live at peace with others. This too requires education. People need to understand what makes for a just, stable and peaceful society. Minimally, people will need some level of education to participate with their own society.

(e) … there is a mandate in scripture for parents to teach their children. This is quite basic like (d) above. We protect and equip our children for future life by educating them. We harm them by failing to prepare them. Several scriptures tap into the common sense notion that parents are to provide for their children both materially and intellectually.

Yes, there is the unique case of civil disobedience. This also comes to us from several examples in Scripture (e.g. Hebrew midwives under Pharaoh, Rahab and the spies at Jericho, the apostles in early Acts). One could argue that people need a certain level of education to know when to recognize where leaders overstep their boundaries and begin to call citizens to do what is immoral. This is not a primary “why” of education but it certain is one of the many other answers to the “why” questions.

4b Why did I say that worldview helps to answer the why question? Worldview is our attempt to answer questions like: Where did humans come from? What does it mean to be human? Where is history going? What is the good life? Etc.. If humans are merely animals, determined by physical stimuli alone, then behaviorism may provide more fitting answers to the why question than perennialism. In short, it is in worldview where we find answers to why questions such as at the origins and telos of humans.

5a. The How of education.

The HOW of education brings us into the territory of METHOD. One might argue that we’ve left philosophy and gone into method. I’ll leave that question to the side and say a few things.

5b. Why did I say that science and practical experience answer the how question? I think it helps to put this question first this time. We find out how children learn best by empirical exploration. “Golly gee, students can remember vocabulary better if they generate their own mnemonics, than when they try to brute-force memorization.” Even if you don’t know why mnemonics work, you can immediately put this discovery to use in helping kids learn better. It seems almost unethical to ignore something like this.

Some people seem to prefer traditional traditional looking methods. This however, seems to confuse How and What. How we do things should further what we are doing. There seems to be something unvirtuous about the teacher who insists, “I had to do it the hard way when I was in school, even though there is an easier way today, I’m going to make you do it the hard way – just because.” If we are not careful something else can take the place of “What” or “Why” above. When we ask “What are we doing when we learn” the answer should not be “Doing tradition” at all costs. One should use traditional methods if we know that it fulfils a what or why question above. If we knew a traditional learning method worked better, we should use it. However, we would only know that empirically – by knowing that students taught in a traditional method perform better on tests, excel better in college, enjoy education more, etc… That supports my point about science and practical experience guiding the “How” question.

Again, it just is an empirical discovery that, on the main, children who come from homes that prize/push education will be more focused on education. Children from violent unstable homes will struggle more. We have all sorts of empirical findings about what helps students focus, remember, comprehend, enjoy, learning. There are thousands of these suggestions. Some of my own (below) come from my own years of teaching and learning.

(1) Heart-Head Link. There are affective/emotional components to learning. It is important to discover what individually drives a student. It is nearly impossible to teach a course tuned to the individual interests of learners. However if a teacher can connect a students interest to a subject area, that interest will motivate a student internally. It is also important for students to know that the teacher values them as a student, believes in them, expects the best of them, and so on. The heart affects the head – so to speak.

(2) Motivation is the powerhouse of accomplishment. Motivated people can accomplish almost anything. I am particularly interested in the research of Ryan & Deci on Self Determination Theory regarding student motivation because of how it resonates with my own life and learning. Teachers ought not to brute force content on students and ignore the ebb and flow of student motivation. Rewards, recognition (positive affirmation), realization (of personal goals) are powerful motivators.

(3) Telos is important for curriculum design. In terms of curriculum design I appreciate the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implement, Evaluate) model as a useful shorthand for some time tested important steps in creating learning experiences that actually achieve what they were intended to achieve. The first step (analysis) establishes the telos (or the gap to be filled) by the learning process.

(4) Build scaffolds for students. Most people aren’t tall enough to work on most buildings. They need scaffolding to make their way around a large structure. In education scaffolding strategies/activities given by a teacher to build a manageable/graduated/age-appropriate approach to what would otherwise be too difficult of a task. Scaffolding includes breaking up the content, modeling how to go about something, using visual aids, frontloading various learning needs, and so on.

On socratic Method – this is related to scaffolding, because it is a structured method designed to guide students in the exploration and self-comprehension of ideas.

(5) Neurons that fire together wire together. We know things about the way the brain works (e.g. mnemonics) that can and should be used. Students should work smarter not harder.

(6) Mind-Body-Environment. The Mind is affected by the body. The body is part of a larger environment. It is unrealistic to ignore the impact of the body, home and neighborhood on a students performance in a school.

(7) Much of our communication is body language. Learners of every age will say, “Yes,” if you ask them, “Do you understand what I’m showing you?” Students will behave differently based on the group around them. There are a variety of body language interactions that subtly affect the teaching-learner interaction.

(8) Don’t be an Ad Hoc teacher. Clarify up front where you are going. Rubrics and up-front clarifications should be present to students to inform them what is expected and how they will be evaluated. Models and examples are helpful to students visualizing how they might go about their own projects.

(9) The Golden Triangle. Instructional goals, assessments and content form a trio/triangle that should regularly be aligned. Assessments that are not aligned to what is taught won’t properly assess anything. Instructional content not aligned to learning goals will fail to achieve learning goals. A properly aligned triangle will produce learning that accomplishes goals.

(10) Give students the benefit of the doubt.

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