Regardless of whether we choose to send our kids to public school or private school or to homeschool them, we — their parents — are the ultimate directors of their education. We decide how, when and where they are going to learn.
So shouldn’t we have a basic understanding of what education is and how it happens?
Shouldn’t we think through the choices and prayerfully figure out what we believe about education? It’s one of the most impactful decisions we will ever make as parents. Shouldn’t we do it carefully and diligently? We think so.
On our weekly radio show, we are currently doing a series on educational choices. We timed it at this point in the year because March and April tend to be the months when we parents make educational decisions for the following school year. Private schools often begin enrolling students this time of year. Homeschoolers begin making plans for the next school year and preparing a list of curriculum needs and questions for the May homeschool conventions.
Today, we want to encourage you to start thinking about your child’s education by first figuring out your own education philosophy.
Your philosophy can (and probably will) change as you become a more experienced parent and as your kids grow and change. So write down today’s philosophy, and save it. Then, next year, pull it out, and see what worked, what didn’t and how your thoughts have changed.
Here are some questions you can use to shape your philosophy, and some basic information on education models and educational philosophers.
Questions to Help You Prepare an Education Philosophy
What are your goals for your kids’ education?
What are their goals for themselves?
What do you value? (faith, health, community, friendships, art, the environment, etc.)
Is your kids’ popularity important to you? How does it play a role in their education?
Does education happen primarily in a structured environment?
Does there need to be a trained teacher present for education to happen?
Who is ultimately responsible for educating our kids? Some might say it’s the government’s. Some might say it’s the school’s. Some might say it’s the parent’s. We think that ultimately, it’s the student’s responsibility. Parents and schools and government may have a role in it. They may oversee it and offer guidance, but ultimately, we believe it’s the learner’s duty to learn. What do you believe?
Do you think education should include motivation and inspiration?
Is a connection to the community important to you? If so, how will their education facilitate that?
How will your child discover his talents and interests? And once he’s aware of those, what role will it take in the education process?
Should education always be fun? We know a few people who think so. We think education should be engaging, but it doesn’t always have to provide pleasure or amusement. In fact, we believe strongly that an important part of education is building stamina. Like the runner who has to push his muscles to an uncomfortable place in order to increase speed and distance, we think a learner has to push himself to uncomfortable places in order to increase understanding and application. What are your thoughts on fun and stamina in education?
Should education be practical? Last week, we wrote a blog on how we think education should prepare kids for life. What do you think?
We think it’s important to understand at least the basics of what’s out there in education. I’m not saying you should read volumes or take classes on it. I’m not even suggesting you read whole books on different education movements and philosophers, but I am saying that we should all at least be familiar with these things because how much we know impacts the decisions we make for our kids.
The Internet makes summarized information quickly available, right in our homes, whenever we’re free. There’s no excuse for ignorance. We can skip reading junk email and checking in on social media for a half hour a day to do a little homework that will help us make more informed choices. (Okay, stepping off the soap box now. Thanks for indulging me!)
Classical Education – This model embraces the study of a classical canon of literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, history, art and languages, especially language
Humanistic Education – This model emphasizes issues of moral autonomy, personal freedom and tolerance. There were different subsets of this movement, stretching as far back as classical Athens and ancient Rome. Existentialist humanism emphasizes issues of freedom and identity and questions modernism’s focus on the primacy of rational thinking. Whereas, radical humanism (also known as critical pedagogy) emphasizes social and political engagement
Contemplative Education — This model focuses on bringing spiritual awareness into the pedagogical process. Contemplative might include the use of inspirational content, and various practices that actively draw attention to the students’ consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action.
Democratic Education — This is a theory of learning and school governance in which students and staff participate freely and equally in a school democracy. In a democratic school, there is typically shared decision-making among students and staff on matters concerning living, working and learning together.
Social Reconstructionism — This model focuses on achieving social change (with the goal of achieving social justice and equity) by altering social systems. Key points are: 1. social systems that marginalize and oppress others need to be changed and 2. achieving this change requires both creating a system that serves as a change agent and a having a willingness to change the system’s purposes and structures as the social contexts in which it exists evolve. Educational reconstruction purposefully and explicitly requires that schools function as change agents, empowering students to question systems in which they live and work and to create a society that is more equitable and just. Social reconstructionism rests upon the idea that schools need to actively assist students in changing the world that they are a part of; it directly prompts the recognition that human beings tend to adopt authoritarian systems which can become controlling, manipulative, and which perpetuate the status quo and thus lie in opposition to ideas of free will.
Unschooling — This education model includes is a range of educational practices centered on allowing children to learn through life experiences, reading material and select courses, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities led by the children themselves, facilitated by the adults. Unschooling differs from conventional schooling principally in the thesis that standard curricula and conventional grading methods, as well as other features of traditional schooling, are counterproductive to the goal of maximizing the education of each child. For more information on unschooling, listen to our podcast on the topic.
Prussian Industrial Model — Horace Mann, credited as the father of the American public school system, studied a wide variety of educational models before implementing the Prussian system designed by Fredrick the Great. King Frederick created a system that was engineered to teach obedience and solidify his control. Primary goals of this method include teaching students to following directions and learn basic skills and conformity. Mann chose the Prussian model, with its depersonalized learning and strict hierarchy of power, because it was the cheapest and easiest way to teach literacy on a large scale.
This system was perpetuated throughout the early twentieth century by social efficiency theorists who sought to industrialize the educational process. Led by educators such as Ellwood P. Cubberley, they used education as a tool for social engineering:
“Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” (Cubberley, 1917)
Building upon the depersonalized uniformity and rigid hierarchy of the Prussian system, they constructed an industrial schooling model designed to produce millions of workers for Americaʼs factories.
Believing that most of America’s students were destined for a life of menial, industrial labor, these theorists created a multi-track educational system meant to sort students from an early age. While the best and brightest were carefully groomed for leadership positions, the majority was relegated to a monotonous education of rote learning and task completion.
Consequently, our schooling system is still locked into the Prussian-Industrial framework. For both students and teachers, procedure is emphasized over innovation, uniformity over individual expression and control over empowerment.
Americaʼs classrooms still operate under the Prussian-Industrial Model.
Philosophers of Education
Socrates (c. 469 BC – 399 BC) — Socrates’ important contribution to Western thought is his dialectic method of inquiry, known as the Socratic method. To solve a problem, it would be broken down into a series of questions, the answers to which gradually distill the ultimate answer a person seeks. The influence of this approach is most strongly felt today in the use of the scientific method, in which hypothesis is the first stage. The development and practice of this method is one of Socrates’ most enduring contributions.
Plato (424/423 BC – 348/347 BC) — Plato’s educational philosophy was grounded in his vision of the ideal Republic, wherein the individual was best served by being subordinated to a just society. He advocated 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 by his standards would include facts, skills, physical discipline and music and art, which he considered the highest form of endeavor.
Plato believed that talent was distributed non-genetically and therefore must be found in children born in any social class. He insisted that those suitably gifted should be trained by the state so that they may be qualified to assume the role of a ruling class.
Plato’s writings contain some of the following ideas: Elementary education should be confined to the guardian class till the age of 18, followed by two years of compulsory military training and then by higher education for those who qualified. While elementary education made the soul responsive to the environment, higher education helped the soul to search for truth which illuminated it. Both boys and girls receive the same kind of education. Elementary education consisted of music and gymnastics, designed to train and blend gentle and fierce qualities in the individual and create a harmonious person.
At the age of 20, a selection was made. The best students would take an advanced course in mathematics, geometry, astronomy and harmonics. The first course in the scheme of higher education would last for ten years. It would be for those who had a flair for science. At the age of 30 there would be another selection; those who qualified would study dialectics and metaphysics, logic and philosophy for the next five years. After accepting junior positions in the army for 15 years, a man would have completed his theoretical and practical education by the age of 50.
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) — Only fragments of Aristotle’s treatise On Education are still in existence. We 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. He considered repetition to be a key tool to develop good habits. The teacher was to lead the student systematically.
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.”
Avicenna (980 – 1037) — 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), 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.
Avicenna 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).
Avicenna refers to the secondary education stage of maktab schooling as the period of specialization, when students should begin to acquire manual skills, regardless of their social status. He believed children after age 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 graduate, as the student’s emotional development and chosen subjects need to be taken into account.
Ibn Tufail (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, 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”.
John Locke (1632-1704) — Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education is an outline on how to educate the mind: he expresses the belief that education makes the man, or, more fundamentally, that the mind is an “empty cabinet.”
“I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.”
Locke also wrote that “the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences.” He argued that the “associations of ideas” that one makes when young are more important than those made later because they are the foundation of the self: they are, put differently, what first mark the tabula rasa.
In his Essay, in which is introduced both of these concepts, Locke warns against, for example, letting “a foolish maid” convince a child that “goblins and sprites” are associated with the night for “darkness shall ever afterwards bring with it those frightful ideas, and they shall be so joined, that he can no more bear the one than the other.”
“Associationism,” as this theory would come to be called, exerted a powerful influence over eighteenth-century thought, particularly educational theory, as nearly every educational writer warned parents not to allow their children to develop negative associations. It also led to the development of psychology and other new disciplines with David Hartley’s attempt to discover a biological mechanism for associationism in his Observations on Man (1749).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (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 Emile 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 his 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.
He once said that a child should grow up without adult interference and that the child must be guided to suffer from the experience of the natural consequences of his own acts or behaviour. When he experiences the consequences of his own acts, he advises himself.
Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776 – 1841) — Considered the founder of pedagogy as an academic discipline, Herbart established a system of pedagogy built on the preparation and then presentation of engaging material (for example, using genuine works of literature rather than school readers), analysis with the class, review of the material, and drawing conclusions relevant to larger contexts. He strongly influenced the development of pedagogy throughout Europe and beyond.
Horace Mann (1776 – 1859) — Mann was an American education reformist who argued that universal public education was the best way to turn the nation’s unruly children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens.
Mann won widespread approval from modernizers, especially in his Whig Party, for building public schools. Most states adopted one version or another of the system he established in Massachusetts, especially the program for “normal schools” to train professional teachers. Mann has been credited by educational historians as the “Father of the Common School Movement.”
He advocated for and helped implement the Prussian-Industrial model of education (see above).
Charlotte Mason (1842-1923) — Mason was a British educator who invested her life in improving the quality of children’s education. Her ideas led to a method used by some homeschoolers.
Mason’s philosophy of education is probably best summarized by the principles given at the beginning of each of her books. Two key mottos taken from those principles are “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life” and “Education is the science of relations.”
She believed that children were born persons and should be respected as such; they should also be taught the Way of the Will and the Way of Reason. Her motto for students was “I am, I can, I ought, I will.”
Charlotte Mason believed that children should be introduced to subjects through living books, not through the use of “compendiums, abstracts, or selections.” She used abridged books only when the content was deemed inappropriate for children. She preferred that parents or teachers read aloud those texts (such as Plutarch and the Old Testament), making omissions only where necessary.
John Dewey (1859-1952) — In Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Dewey stated that education, in its broadest sense, is the means of the “social continuity of life” given the “primary ineluctable facts of the birth and death of each one of the constituent members in a social group.”
Education is therefore a necessity, for “the life of the group goes on.” Dewey was a proponent of Educational Progressivism and was a relentless campaigner for reform of education, pointing out that the authoritarian, strict, pre-ordained knowledge approach of modern traditional education was too concerned with delivering knowledge, and not enough with understanding students’ actual experiences.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) — Steiner founded a holistic educational approach on the basis of his spiritual philosophy (anthroposophy). Now known as Steiner or Waldorf education, his pedagogy emphasizes a balanced development of cognitive, affective/artistic and practical skills (head, heart and hands).
Steiner’s theory of child development divides education into three discrete developmental stages predating but with close similarities to the stages of development described by Piaget.
Early childhood education occurs through imitation; teachers provide practical activities and a healthy environment. Steiner believed that young children should meet only goodness.
Elementary education is strongly arts-based, centered on the teacher’s creative authority; the elementary school-age child should meet beauty.
Secondary education seeks to develop the judgment, intellect, and practical idealism; the adolescent should meet truth.
In all stages of schooling, learning is interdisciplinary, integrating practical, artistic, and cognitive elements and emphasizing the role of the imagination in learning. Schools and teachers are given considerable freedom to define curricula and instructional methods within collegial structures.
Maria Montessori(1870-1952) — The Montessori method arose from Dr. Maria Montessori’s 1907 discovery of what she referred to as “the child’s true normal nature.”
Montessori conducted an experimental observation of young children given freedom in an environment prepared with materials designed for their self-directed learning activity. The method itself aims to duplicate this experimental observation to bring about, sustain and support their true natural way of being.
William Heard Kilpatrick (1871-1965) — William Heard Kilpatrick was a U.S. American philosopher of education and a colleague and a successor of John Dewey. He was a major figure in the progressive education movement of the early 20th century.
Kilpatrick developed the Project Method for early childhood education, which was a form of Progressive Education organized curriculum and classroom activities around a subject’s central theme. He believed that the role of a teacher should be that of a “guide” as opposed to an authoritarian figure.
Kilpatrick believed that children should direct their own learning according to their interests and should be allowed to explore their environment, experiencing their learning through the natural senses.
Proponents of Progressive Education and the Project Method reject traditional schooling that focuses on memorization, rote learning, strictly organized classrooms (desks in rows; students always seated) and typical forms of assessment.
A. S. Neill (1883-1973) — Neill founded the Summerhill School, the oldest existing democratic school in Suffolk, England in 1921. He wrote a number of books that now define much of contemporary democratic education philosophy.
Neill believed that the happiness of the child should be the paramount consideration in decisions about the child’s upbringing, and that this happiness grew from a sense of personal freedom.
He felt that deprivation of this sense of freedom during childhood, and the consequent unhappiness experienced by the repressed child, was responsible for many of the psychological disorders of adulthood.
Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980) — Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist known for his studies of how children progressively develop knowledge of the world, studies that eventually described the genesis of an exceptionally wide spectrum of human understanding.
Piaget placed great importance on the education of children. As Director of the International Bureau of Education, he declared in 1934 that “only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.”
Jerome Bruner (1915- ) — Bruner’s The Process of Education and Toward a Theory of Instruction are landmarks in conceptualizing learning and curriculum development. A major contributor to the inquiry method in education, Bruner argued that any subject can be taught in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.
This notion underpinned his concept of the spiral curriculum — curriculum that revisits 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 motivations 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 Holt (1923-1985) — In 1964 Holt published his first book, How Children Fail, asserting that the academic failure of schoolchildren was not despite the efforts of the schools, but actually because of the schools.
Not surprisingly, How Children Fail 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.
In his follow-up work, How Children Learn, published in 1967, Holt tried to elucidate the learning process of children and why he believed school short circuits that process.
Holt is considered the father of the unschooling movement (see above).