4 Chapter 4: Foundational Philosophies of Education

A philosophy is often defined as the foundation upon which knowledge is based. However, when you break apart the actual word, a much different meaning emerges. Derived from the Greek “philos,” which means love, and “sophos,” which means “wisdom,” the actual meaning of the word philosophy is “love of wisdom” (Johnson et. al., 2011). In this chapter, we will explore how traditional philosophies have evolved over time by briefly looking at three key branches of philosophy. Then, the schools of philosophy and their influence on education will be presented. Finally, you will hear from educators in the field and see how they put their “philosophies” of education into practice.

Section I: Schools of Philosophy

4.1 Essential Questions

At the end of tis section, the following essential questions will be answered:

  1. What are the four 
 main schools of philosophy?
  2. Who were the 
 key philosophers within each 
 school of 
  3. What are the key implications of 
 each school of philosophy 
on education 

There are four broad schools of thought that reflect the key philosophies of education that we know today. These schools of thought are: Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism.

It is important to note that idealism and realism, otherwise known as general or world philosophies, have their roots in the work of the ancient Greek philosophers: Plato and Aristotle. Whereas pragmatism and existentialism are much more contemporary schools of thought.



Idealism is a school of philosophy that emphasizes that “ideas or concepts are the essence of all that is worth know- ing” (Johnson et. al., 2011, p. 87). Based on the writings of Plato, this school of philosophy encourages conscious reason- ing in the mind. Furthermore, idealists look for, and value, universal or absolute truths and ideas. Consequently, idealists believe that ideas should remain constant throughout the centuries.

Key Philosophers

Plato (ca. 427 – 
 ca. 347 BCE):

Plato believed 
that truth was the central reality. However, Plato did not believe that people created knowledge, instead they “discovered it” (Johnson et. al., 2011). In his book, The Republic, Plato talked about two worlds: the spiritual or mental world and the world of appearance. Reacting against what he perceived as too much of a fo- cus on the physical and sensory world, Plato called for education to “develop in the body and the soul of the pupil all the beauty and all the perfection he is capable of.” (Cohen, 1999, p. 1). In addition, to understand truth, Plato believed you must first understand knowledge.


Socrates (ca. 470 – ca. 399 BCE):

Socrates’ work is only known through the works of Plato. Plato 
observed Socrates questioning a slave boy to help him understand 
what he knew about a specific 
concept. This questioning technique became known as the 
 Socratic Method and was explored in-depth in chapter one. When applied in classrooms, the Socratic method actively 
 engages students in the learning process, improves understanding, and promotes higher-order thinking.

Kant (1724 – 1804):

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who believed in “freedom, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God” (Johnson et. al., 2011, p. 88). He added valuable information about the important role of reason and its’ contributions to knowledge. According to his research, it is only through reason that we gain knowledge of and understand the world in which we live.

Educational Implications of Idealism

Within an idealist educational philosophy, the curricular focus is on ideas rather than the student or specific content areas. Learning is also intrinsically motivated. Teaching methods used within idealism include: lecture, discussion, and Socratic dialogue. Essential to these teaching methods is posing questions that generate thoughts and spark connections. Paul (n/d) suggests the following six types of Socratic questions:

  • Questions for clarification
    • How does this relate to our discussion?
  • Questions that probe assumptions
    • What could we assume instead?
  • Questions that probe reasons and evidence
    • What would be an example?
  • Questions about viewpoints and perspectives
    • What is another way to look at it?
  • Questions that probe implications and consequences
    • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • Questions about the question
    • What was the point of this question?


Realism is a school of 
 philosophy with origins in the work of Aristotle. This philosophy emphasizes that “reality, knowledge, and value exist independent of the human mind” (Johnson, 2011, p. 89). Realists argue for the use of the senses and scientific investigation in order to discover truth. The application of the scientific method also allows individuals to classify things into different groups based on their essential differences.

Key Philosophers

Aristotle (384 – 
 322 BCE):

Aristotle is known as the father of realism and the Scientific Method. His pragmatic approach to understanding an object, by understanding is form, is an example of how he investigated matter. To understand this concept, consider the following example: A plant can exist without being physically present, but it still shares properties with all other plants (form). Finally, Aristotle was the “first to teach logic as a discipline in order to be able to reason about physical events and aspects” (Cohen, 1999, p. 1).


Locke (1632 – 1704):

John Locke believed in the tabula rosa, or blank tablet, view of the mind. According to this view, a child’s mind is a blank slate when they are born. All the sensory experiences they have after birth fill up the slate through the impressions that are made upon the mind.

Educational Implications of Realism

Within a realist educational philosophy, the curricular focus is on scientific research and development. Outcomes of this thinking in classrooms today include the appearance of standardized tests, serialized textbooks, and specialized curriculum (Johnson et. al., 2011). Teaching methods used in realism include:

  • Demonstration
  • Recitation
  • Critical thinking
  • Observation
  • Experimentation


Pragmatism is “a process 
that stresses evolving and 
change rather than being” (Johnson et. al., 2011, p. 91). In other words, pragmatists believe that reality is constantly changing so we learn best through experience.

According to pragmatists, the learner is constantly conversing and being changed by the environment with whom he or she is interacting. There is “no absolute and unchanging truth, but rather, truth is what works” (Cohen, 1999, p.1). Based on what is learned at any point and time, the learner or the world in which he or she is interacting can be changed.

Key Philosophers

Peirce (1839 – 1914):

Charles Sanders Peirce is one of the first pragmatic thinkers. He introduced the pragmatic method in which students are supplied a procedure for constructing and clarifying meanings. In addition, this system helps to facilitate communication among students.


Dewey (1859 – 1952):

John Dewey linked pragmatism 
to evolution by explaining that 
 “human beings are creatures who have to adapt to one another and to their environment” (Johnson et. al., 2011, p. 93). Therefore, learners within the classroom need to adapt to one another and their learning community.


Educational Implications of Pragmatism

A pragmatist educational philosophy calls for teachers who can support students learning by promoting questioning and problem-solving during the natural course of lesson delivery. The curriculum is also interdisciplinary. Teaching methods used in pragmatism include:

  • Hands-on problem solving
  • Experimenting
  • Projects
  • Cooperative Learning


Existentialism is a school of philosophy 
 that “focuses on the 
importance of the individual rather than on external standards” (Johnson et. al., 2011, p. 93). Existentialists believe that our reality is made up of nothing more than our lived experiences, therefore our final realities reside within each of us as individuals. As such, 
 the physical world has no real meaning outside our human 


Key Philosophers

Kierkegaard (1813-1855):

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish minister and philosopher.

He is considered to be the founder of existentialism.


Nietzsche (1844-1900):

Friedrich Nietzcshe stressed the importance of the individuality of each person. According to Johnson et. al. (2011), his work provided a “strategy to liberate people from the oppression of feeling inferior within themselves, and a teaching of how not to judge what one is in relation to what one should be” (p. 95).

Educational Implications of Existentialism

Within an existentialist classroom, the subject matter should be a matter of personal choice as each student is viewed as an individual by the teacher. Furthermore, answers come from within the individual in an existential classroom, not from the teacher.


By examining students lives through authentic thinking, students are actively involved in the learning experience. Existentialists are opposed to thinking about students as objects to be measured, tracked, or standardized. “Such educators want the educational experience to focus on creating opportunities for self-direction and self-actualization” (Cohen, 1999, p. 1). Therefore, they start with the student, rather than the curriculum.


4.2 A Closer Look

Consider the information presented in the 
 following video by Sir Ken Robinson on 
 Changing Education Paradigms. As you 
 watch the video, ask yourself how you can 
 apply the information you learned in this 
 section to the content shared by Sir Ken


 Section II: Defining your own philosophy

4.3 Essential Questions

At the end of this section, the following essential questions will be answered:

  1. What is a philosophy?
  2. What elements do you consider to be most important to include in your philosophy of education?
  3. Think about the elements identified in this section, do you think all of them are essential to include when writing a philosophy of education? Why or why not?
It’s all in how you look at things…..

As discussed in section one, there are 
 several key schools of thought that reflect key philosophies of education. In this section, we are going to look at the “definition” of a 
 philosophy. We will also explore the 
importance of defining your own education philosophy as a future teacher. Finally, we will identify essential elements that should 
 be considered when writing your educational philosophy.

What is a Philosophy?

When asked to think about the following question, what comes to mind: What is a Philosophy?

Common responses 

What is a philosophy?

• A set of beliefs

• A personal platform

• Our personal thoughts


A philosophy is indeed all of these things, and so much more! According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (2005), a philosophy is “the study of the fundamental nature of knowl- edge, reality, and existence” (p. 1278).

When it comes to our educational philosophy, Webb et. al. (2010) state that our “philosophy of education enables us to recognize certain educational principles that define our views about the learner, the teacher, and the school” (p. 50). As such, it critical to determine what school of thought you most align to as this will shape the way you see the students, curriculum and educational setting.

Articulating Your Philosophy of Education

Key Considerations

When articulating your philosophy of education, it is 
 essential to reflect on the multiple dimension of teaching 
that would impact your philosophy. As demonstrated by the diagram, there are a lot of factors to consider. Take a moment to reflect on the diagram, are there any elements you feel are more important than the others? Are there elements missing that you would include? If so, what are they and why do you feel they are important?


When approaching the writing of your philosophy of education, we recommend using the following key elements to ensure that your philosophy of education is well thought out and supported, no matter which school of thought it is based upon.

    • Why do you teach?
    • Why have you chosen to teach elementary, 
 secondary, or a particular content area?
    • What are your values as a teacher?
    • What philosophy of education do you MOST 
 align with and why (revisit Ch. 4 – Ch. 9 of 
 your iBook)?
    • How has education changed historically in the 
 last 50/60 years (revisit Ch. 2 & Ch. 3 of
      your iBook)?
    • What impact have movements like the civil 
 rights had on schools (revisit Ch. 2 of your 
    • How have educational policies like NCLB 
 and the standardized testing movement 
impacted educators and instructional decisions/programming?
    • In what ways has the increased diversity 
 in our educational settings impacted the 
 need for teachers to be prepared to address 
 the needs of linguistically and culturally 
 diverse students in their classrooms now 
 more than ever before?


    • What approaches, methods, pedagogy do you 
 use and why and how are these influenced 
 by the philosophy you MOST aligned with
 (revisit Ch. 4 – Ch. 9 of your iBook)?
    • Which elements of effective instruction do you 
 think are most important to apply to support 
 ALL students learning?
    • What strategies do you apply to actively engage 
 ALL your students throughout the lesson?
    • How do you motivate your students to learn?
    • How do you motivate yourself to be the teacher 
 your students need you to be?


    • How do you create a community of learners 
 (revisit Ch. 1 of your iBook)?
    • What is your “code of conduct” (revisit Ch. 1 
 of your iBook)?
    • How do you engage students to limit disruptions 
 and time off task?
    • If disruptions do occur, what do you do?


    • Do you understand your own bias and how this 
 impacts your teaching (revisit Ch. 2 of
      your iBook)?
    • How are you effective with ALL students (revisit 
 Ch. 2 of your iBook)?
    • How do you create a culturally responsive class
 room environment (revisit Ch. 1 of your iBook)?
    • How do you teach UNCONDITIONALLY so 
 that all your students get the best education 
 possible and you demonstrate respect for the 
 customs and beliefs of the diverse student groups 
 represented in your classroom?
    • What specific strategies do you use to support 
 diverse learners?
    • In what ways do you act as an advocate for your 
 students, their families, and the 

Take a moment to reflect on all the information 
 you read about educational philosophies.
Your challenge is to write at least a one-page, 
 single-spaced philosophy of education paper
 that summarizes your current philosophy of 

Section III: The importance of student voices

4.4 Essential Questions

By the end of this section, the following essential questions will be answered.

  1. What can we learn from student voices?
  2. What insights might you gain from the student quotes?
  3. What did you learn from watching the video clips?
  4. What links did you make between the what the speakers shared in the video clips and the different schools of thought discussed in this chapter?

To best understand the power of an educational philosophy in practice, this section is going to provide you with two different sets of evidence. The first set of evidence comes from KSU students. The second set comes from a student and two educators in the field. As you read and listen to the 
 information being shared, please reflect on the questions to consider. Although you do not need to document your responses to each of the questions, they have been provided to help you critical reflect on the information being presented.

4.5 Student Voices

  • “My philosophical belief is that I want to 
 prepare my children, not for the next grade or college;
 but for their future in society through tools learned in 
 the classroom.” ASU16
  • “I feel that after studying several popular philosophies
 of education my personal philosophy is a medley of all 
 of them, making it completely mine.” DP U16
  •  “Every experience I have impacts the way I look at the 
 world and I will continue to strive to keep my teaching
 the same while as the same time adapting to the needs of my students.” MLU16

4.6 A Closer Look

The following video provides and more in-depth look the importance of having a solid philosophy of education from a student’s point of view. As you watch this video, consider the following questions:

  1. What insights did you gain from the video?
  2. Based on the information shared, what school of thought(s) do you think influenced prior educational experiences of this student?
  3. What school of thought do you think this student is 
 advocating for in the future? Why?

As demonstrated in the student voices, and video by Adora Avitak, being able to articulate your philosophy of education is essential as a future educator. For your philosophy of education shapes your delivery of academic content, but more importantly guides your beliefs when it comes to working with students. To learn more about the importance of how educators view students, let’s watch Rita Pierson.

4.7 A  Closer Look

As you listen to Rita Pierson, consider the following questions:

  1. What insights did you gain from the video?
  2. Based on the information shared, what school of thought(s) do you think influence this teacher?
  3. How might you apply what you learned from Rita Pierson to your own future practice?

Rita Pierson is such a powerful educator and advocate for students. I hope you learned a lot from her TedTalk! As we wrap up this chapter, I leave you with one final question: How will you be a champion for your future students?!

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