A Note on ‘Teaching Philosophies’

Zhou Ziqian Jan is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication
I received an MA (Philosophy and Politics) from the University of Edinburgh, an MPhil (Philosophy) and a PhD (Philosophy) from University College London. I serve on the General Education Committee (Provost’s Office), CELC’s Faculty Teaching Excellence Committee (FTEC), the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Teaching Excellence Committee, the Residential Colleges Teaching Excellence Committee (RCTEC), CELC’s Department Evaluation Committee (DEC) and the committee in charge of the professional socialization of new faculty members and the career development of existing ones. I hope, one day, to chair the committee to end all committees.

A Note on ‘Teaching Philosophies’

The application for an NUS teaching award requires the submission of a ‘teaching portfolio’ that chronicles the professional development of an educator. Such a teaching portfolio also contains a ‘teaching philosophy’ which is a statement or set of propositions that account for or justify the choices made by an educator concerning most aspects of her teaching. This document offers a critical summary of three sources of teaching philosophies—Socrates, John Dewey and the so-called constructivist school.

  1. Introduction

A ‘teaching philosophy’ (or a ‘theory of teaching’) offers the tutor a set of guiding maxims for matters related to curriculum design[1] and assessment, strategies of classroom teaching and management, student motivation, and other aspects of education. Such a teaching philosophy, lest it contains an arbitrary list of items, should ideally be motivated by the tutor’s best understanding of what the aims of education ought to be. Israel Scheffler, for instance, argues that educators must promote the good of self-governance or autonomy in their students, and do so by surrender[ing] the idea of shaping or moulding the mind of the pupil. The function of education…is rather to liberate the mind, strengthen its critical powers, [and] inform it with knowledge and the capacity for independent inquiry. (Scheffler 1973 [1989: 139])[2]

Interestingly, Scheffler thinks that a liberated mind or one able to engage readily in independent inquiry should also possess the following capacities: self-awareness, imaginative weighing of alternative courses of action, understanding of other people’s choices and ways of life, decisiveness without rigidity, emancipation from stereotyped ways of thinking and perceiving…empathy… intuition, criticism and independent judgment. (Scheffler 1973 [1989: 123–5])

To move on, socio-political thinker Paul Hirst argued for the general claim that knowledge is essential for (and, hence, the goal of education ought to aim at) the pursuing of a conception of the good life.[3] And since, according to Hirst, knowledge comes in seven basic varieties—viz. mathematics, the physical sciences, the human sciences, history, religion, literature and the fine arts, and philosophy and moral knowledge—the function of the curriculum is to introduce students to each of these forms (Hirst 1965; see Phillips 1987: ch. 11).

In contrast to the fairly specific recommendations made by Scheffler and Hirst, a more varied list of what the aims of education might look like is as follows: the fostering of intellectual virtues such as curiosity and inquisitiveness, the enlargement of the imagination, the civilizing of students (say, to be contributing members of a particular socio-political system, e.g. a liberal democracy, a Confucian state), the fostering of self-governing autonomous persons, the fostering of moral dispositions for care and concern of others, and so forth (see Siegel 2007 for a longer list).

Yet, perhaps a more circumspect justification of one’s teaching philosophy is that it be parasitic on a ‘theory of learning’ which specifies conditions that are effective for student learning. Dewey, for instance, posits the following fourfold characteristics of young children:

“Keeping in mind these fourfold interest–the interest in conversation or communication; in inquiry, or finding out things; in making things, or construction; and artistic expression–we may say they are the natural resources, the uninvested capital, upon the exercise of which depends the active growth of the child” (School and Society, quoted in Noddings, 2010, p. 266).

It is a moot point whether Dewey offers one an accurate characterisation of the students one finds in NUS. Regardless, it bears emphasising that insofar as a teaching philosophy ought to find (some) direction from the psychology of one’s students, and research into the latter is never static, one’s teaching philosophy ought also to tract some such changes.

Now, this document contains a highly selective discussion of a set of teaching philosophies known mostly to Anglophone educators. In what follows I attempt a critical (but no less appreciative) discussion of three teaching philosophies in particular—those associated with Socrates, John Dewey and what is known collectively as ‘constructivist’ theories (I devote more space to the former two than the last in the list). These teaching philosophies are so chosen for their widespread popularity amongst Anglophone educators; yet, perhaps because of the popularity these philosophies enjoy, they suffer from misrepresentations characteristic of lazy second-hand citation practices; offering a minor corrective to some such defect is a secondary goal of this document (and a third further goal is to suggest a certain thematic continuity that runs through the three philosophies in question).

  1. Socratic Dialogue

The so-called Socratic method (or elenchus/elenctic questioning) involves leading an interlocutor (not necessarily always through spoken dialogue) to see absurdities, inconsistencies or contradictions in the latter’s own beliefs. On this understanding of the Socratic method, a tutor who does not lead or guide a student, never mind to an appreciation of the problems in the student’s own set of beliefs, cannot be said to be a practitioner of the Socratic method. This brings us to the first misconception of the Socratic method: tutors who engage in classroom tête-à-tête and, in virtue of this, think of themselves as being engaged in ‘Socratic dialogue’ are misconstruing the nature of such a mode of instruction. Yet, it is a difficult question as to what exactly it means for a tutor to lead or guide a student—is leading or guiding a form of interrogation? Is it a type of instruction that stops short of direct telling? Is it to be contrasted with indoctrination? Does the Socratic method apply only to the achieving of certain higher-purpose objects of knowledge, such as those of the good and the beautiful? And, somewhat more mundanely, to what extent is such a method of teaching practicable in classes of 12, 15 or 18 students? Or practicable through online forums? These foregoing questions I raise only to leave unanswered—à la Socratic style.

The Socratic Method yields knowledge or justified beliefs of the ‘negative’ kind—that what was once believed to be true is now shown to be false or having absurd consequences, and that one knows or has a justified belief that this is the case (e.g., justice does not require returning an object to its rightful owner because this entails returning a knife to its owner even though the latter might be mentally unsound). The second misconception is this: to think that the Socratic Method yields knowledge or justified beliefs of the ‘positive’ kind may be to misconstrue the nature of such a mode of instruction (e.g., that justice does not require returning an object to its rightful owner leaves open what the correct definition of justice is).

Closely related to the second misconception of the Socratic method is the following third and final one that I will discuss here. There is the Socrates who claims to know nothing; this Socrates is the individual who confines himself to asking questions rather than answering them—and, this is the Socrates of, say, the Apology, Crito and Euthyphro, that educators tend to know of—this is the Socrates whose dialogues tend to end inconclusively. But, there is also another Socrates—one who is less non-committal and less inconclusive—this is the Socrates that is found in, say, the Republic, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Philebus, who unapologetically offers positive proposals concerning the nature of virtue. I therefore think that the Socrates of folk wisdom—one who professes to ‘know nothing’—is at best a partial characterisation of the individual engaged in ironic performance; and that an effective mode of instruction might involve a mix of aporetic and conclusive styles. One can’t only ask questions; at least not when one is a teacher—that the Socratic method has been construed otherwise is the third and last misconception that bears mentioning here.

  1. Dewey’s ‘Progressivism’

Against the ‘Passive’ Student. It has become a platitude that Dewey has a distaste for the ‘passive’ learner—the student who prefers, in some sense, to be instructed and not part of the co-construction of knowledge with her tutor. What is not as obvious to educators attracted to Dewey is that the latter’s philosophy is influenced by Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau as well as Charles Darwin. So, the first point that I wish to make in this section is that an understanding of Dewey’s scorn for the so-called passive student or passive modes of learning requires that we appreciate some of the main intellectual predecessors of Dewey’s own thinking.

Rousseau’s ideas about education are mainly expounded in his treatise titled Emile (1763 [1979]). In that work, Rousseau advances the idea of ‘negative education’ or ‘child-centred’ education. Rousseau argues that education should be carried out in harmony with the development of the child’s natural capacities and, more importantly, be a process that engages with and refines the child’s ability for autonomous discovery. This is, presumably, in contrast to a model of education where the teacher is a figure of authority who conveys knowledge and skills according to a pre-determined curriculum. Although each stage of a child’s development requires a different manner of instruction, each of these teaching modes emphasises a child’s own search for answers—indeed, it can be argued that such a feature of Rousseau’s pedagogy is consistent with his political philosophy that gives pride of place to the good of autonomy or non-domination (even by a benevolent ruler).

The tutor of Emile (the titular young student of Rousseau’s treatise) is to ‘teach nothing’ but only to raise questions that lead the young man towards desired conclusions—as Rousseau writes, ‘Let him [Emile] not learn science, but discover it. If ever you substitute in his mind authority for reason, he will no longer reason’ (Book III, Emile). At this juncture, I raise a point of scepticism: doesn’t Rousseau assume that effective pedagogy is to be had when the student is moved on his own accord, so to speak? But does this not presuppose a certain type of learner, one whose psychology is, in the required sense, self-directed? And have we the privilege of such learners in our classrooms? Regardless, Rousseau’s ideas about education pave the way for a pedagogy of ‘discovery learning’ as advocated by many ‘progressive’ educators of this present age. Here’s an evocative passage from Dewey:

“Just as the biologist can take a bone or two and reconstruct the whole animal, so, if we put before the mind’s eye the ordinary schoolroom, with its rows of ugly desks placed in geometrical order, crowded together so that there shall be as little moving room as possible… we can reconstruct the only educational activity that can possibly go in such a place. It is all made ‘for listening’”(Quoted in Phillips, 2003, p. 238).

Effective teaching, according to this progressivist approach, should never involve mere listening or the ‘imposition’ of knowledge to a gallery of spectators; teachers ought never to tell, but to arrange a path of inquiry where students discover for themselves what is worth discovering. This idea is developed by Lee Shulman (1987) who, to put things roughly, made a distinction between teachers who possess knowledge of the content and those who know how it is to teach such content—it is the latter group of educators, according to Shulman, who are effective teachers.

Apart from the writings of Rousseau, I mentioned earlier that the ideas of Darwin have influenced Dewey’s own philosophy. Darwin is most widely known for his formulation of the theory of evolution, and we see Dewey’s attraction to some form of this thesis in the following passage:

“The development of biology clinches this lesson, with its discovery of evolution. For the philosophic significance of the doctrine of evolution lies precisely in its emphasis upon continuity of simpler and more complex organic forms until we reach man… The effect [of Darwinian evolutionary theory] upon the theory of knowing is to displace the notion that it is the activity of a mere onlooker or spectator of the world… For the doctrine of organic development means that the living creature is a part of the world, sharing its vicissitudes and fortunes” (Democracy and Education, 1916 [2001], pp. 344 – 345)

I am inclined to think that Dewey’s distaste for the ‘passive’ learner betrays an attraction to a form of so-called social Darwinism, where the passive—i.e. ‘non-adaptive’ or ‘non-competitive’—student gets sloughed off or displaced by those more willing to move with the times, so to speak.[4] But, and here I raise yet another point of scepticism, is the classroom or, indeed, the university, really a social Darwinian microcosm? Further, is the best condition for teaching and learning necessarily understood as being one of ‘survival of the fittest’? If these questions are answered in the negative, then Dewey’s case against the passive learner is no more substantiated than the popular edifice of social Darwinism (which has been roundly criticised).

Dewey on the Psychology of the Learner. A lesser-known feature of Dewey’s teaching philosophy is the collection of observations concerning the states of mind of students. A brief discussion of Dewey’s construal of the psychology of the leaner allows us educators to deliberate on issues such as curricula design and student motivation.

Perhaps it is Dewey’s 1933 book How We Think that one finds his most systematic and developed thoughts on the psychology of students. Consider, for instance, the following passage where we notice Dewey’s wish for children to be acquainted with the intellectual habits of general scientific inquiry:

“The native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind” (How We Think, 1933, p. v).

The influence of Darwin is palpable (for, who else but the founder of evolution theory that best illustrates the virtues of ‘scientific’ inquiry!). Now, by a ‘scientific mind’ it is arguable that Dewey had in mind those habits of thought and action that dispose one towards activities that are characteristic of general scientific inquiry such as the designing and constructing of things and the finding out of how things work and how phenomena occur, and so forth.

Yet, it could be asked at this juncture if such activities—and the dispositions that drive them—are equally characteristic of and valuable across all fields of education. In response to this skeptical worry one can, I think, defend Dewey by suggesting that certain virtues of the scientific mind are also required in success in other disciplines outside of science; in other words, it can be suggested that the skills and dispositions needed to do the following are precisely the ones that motivate success in other domains of inquiry: i.e. the aiming at knowledge in general and the making of successful predications in particular; the making of observations and the conducting of experimentation, the interpretation of data, logical (i.e. inductive and deductive) reasoning, the formation of hypotheses or theories and the subjecting of these to rigorous experimentation or analysis.

Also, in How We Think (1933, pp. 107 – 115), we find Dewey advancing the idea that learning is a process that moves from an initial psychological phase marked by dissatisfaction and doubt towards another state marked by satisfaction over the resolution of a problem. More specifically, the psychology of the learner engaged in rational inquiry, according to Dewey, involves a movement through the following various phases: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) a determination of the nature of that difficulty; (iii) a suggestion of a possible solution; (iv)  reasoning about that possible solution; (v) further observation and experiment leading to an acceptance or rejection of the proposed solution; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief.[5] (Note that all of these steps require an engaging of the imagination, which is a feature of analysis that I will return to below.)

Student Motivation. If Dewey’s understanding of the psychology of the learner is by and large accurate and that the teacher should always resist methods that lure the learner into passivity, then traditional motivational strategies have to be recast. In particular, rather than relying on rewards or punishments, Deweyan teachers do best by identifying specific problems or creating ‘situations’ in which students are encouraged to navigate on their own towards effective solutions. The Deweyan teacher should not so much pass on knowledge ‘like bricks’ (as Dewey puts it in Democracy and Education, 1916 [2001] p. 8); rather, she engages in communication with her students the aim of which is the cultivation of habits of mind and effective patterns of communication that maximise opportunities for the contribution of all interlocutors. Interestingly, this maximally free exchange of ideas is, according to Dewey, needed to resist a ‘despotically governed state’ where

“there is no free play back and forth among the members of the social group. Stimulation and response are exceedingly one-sided. In order to have a large number of values in common, all the members of the group must have an equable opportunity to receive and to take from others. There must be a large variety of shared undertakings and experiences. Otherwise, the influences which educate some into masters, educate others into slaves. And the experience of each party loses in meaning, when the free interchange of varying modes of life-experience is arrested” (Democracy and Education, 1916 [2001], p. 88).

Here I raise another point of skepticism: It is not obvious that there is no value or disvalue to be had with ‘traditional’ methods of teaching; nor it is clear why it is that so-called rote learning is inconsistent with the goals of education that Dewey is attracted to. For, it is arguable that the development of Deweyan intellectual virtues does require a process of habituation—and, how else does a learner become habituated to do something but through rote practices of repetition and appropriately placed rewards and punishments?[6]

The function and value of habits also feature strongly in the early pragmatic[7] philosophy of C. S. Peirce and William James, authors whose work have lasting influence on Dewey. For instance, Peirce’s analysis of thought contains a mention of a number of ‘habits of mind’, such as the inference from premises to conclusions, as well as the idea of belief itself, which is nothing more than ‘some habit which will determine our actions’ (Peirce 1877, ‘The Fixation of Belief’). In his Principles of Psychology (1890 [1981]), James devotes a chapter to the role of habits where he describes how acquiring of a habit entails that the actions become ‘more accurate’ and, along with that, comes ‘diminish fatigue’ and a reduction of ‘conscious attention’. In Human Nature and Conduct (1930), Dewey goes so far as to claim that all habits ‘constitute the self’:

“In any intelligible sense of the word will, [habits] are will. They form our effective desires, and they furnish us with our working capacities. They rule our thoughts, determining which shall appear and be strong and which shall pass from light into obscurity” (Dewey 1922, p. 25).

And in Dewey’s Ethical Principles Underlying Education (1897 [1972]), we see a championing of habits of communication and critical inquiry in particular and a general emphasis on the importance of the child’s interests in inquiry and creative endeavors. But if habits take center stage in the learner’s psychology and are essential to intellectual pursuits, the process of acquiring such habits cannot be displaced from an education. The good of methods that inculcate habits ought not to be thrown out together with a more traditional means of education.

The Curricula. A recommendation of Dewey’s—one that I am sympathetic towards—is that school curricula should, so far as possible, reflect the issues surrounding, and draw meaning from, the student’s own socio-cultural context:

“If we had less compromise and resulting confusion, if we analyzed more carefully the respective meanings of culture and utility, we might find it easier to construct a course of study which should be useful and liberal at the same time. Only superstition makes us believe that the two are necessarily hostile so that a subject is illiberal because it is useful and cultural because it is useless. It will generally be found that instruction which, in aiming at utilitarian results, sacrifices the development of imagination, the refining of taste and the deepening of intellectual insight—surely cultural values—also in the same degree renders what is learned limited in its use. Not that it makes it wholly unavailable but that its applicability is restricted to routine activities carried on under the supervision of others. Narrow modes of skill cannot be made useful beyond themselves; any mode of skill which is achieved with deepening of knowledge and perfecting of judgment is readily put to use in new situations and is under personal control” (Democracy and Education, 1916 [2001], p. 267).

In other words, the objectives of lessons or entire modules are no more important than the means by which such objectives or goals are brought to fulfilment—and, more importantly, such means should contain echoes of themes from the socio-cultural milieu about which the student is most familiar.[8] As one commentator puts it succinctly, ‘Dewey’s curriculum linked child and subject-matter’ (Noddings, 2010, p. 270). This point is hardly new, but often easily forgotten by some educators who are easily seduced by pedagogical trends or fads blindly grafted from commercial practices (e.g. ‘effective communication as elevator pitch’, ‘writing to future-proof oneself’).

Against ‘Evidencing Learning’?. As the title of this sub-section suggests, the upshots of learning need not always be immediate obvious nor showcased by means or methods acceptable to the learned community; as Dewey writes:

“The act of learning is made a direct and conscious end in itself. Under normal conditions, learning is a product and reward of occupation with subject matter. Children do not set out, consciously, to learn walking or talking. One sets out to give his impulses for communication and for fuller intercourse with others a show. He learns in consequence of his direct activities. The better methods of teaching a child, say, to read, follow the same road. They do not fix his attention upon the fact that he has to learn something and so make his attitude self-conscious and constrained. They engage his activities, and in the process of engagement he learns: the same is true of the more successful methods in dealing with number or whatever. But when the subject matter is not used in carrying forward impulses and habits to significant results, it is just something to be learned” (Democracy and Education, 1916 [2001], p. 176, my emphasis).

Learning is an end in itself and need not be instrumental to some further state of the child, much less one that lends itself to being ‘evidence’. Dewey’s musings here make it plain that there is value to be had in the very experience of learning—the ‘effects’ of which (if any) need not be immediately evident much less ‘evidenced’. This is also important, as I alluded to above, given the role that the imagination plays in the Deweyan classroom—but one would be hard-pressed to devise means of evidencing a process as psychologically rich and complex as the engaging of the imagination.

Finally, we espy a caution against pedagogical seduction:

“Conditions more unfavourable to an alert and concentrated response would be hard to devise. Frontal attacks are even more wasteful in learning than in war. This does not mean, however, that students are to be seduced unaware into preoccupation with lessons. It means that they shall be occupied with them for real reasons or ends, and not just as something to be learned. This is accomplished whenever the pupil perceives the place occupied by the subject matter in the fulfilling of some experience” (Democracy and Education, 1916 [2001], p. 176, my emphasis).

Dewey alerts us to the possible dangers of having students ‘seduced unaware into preoccupation with lessons’, one of which is that students engage in a lesson but for the wrong reasons (e.g., to ‘level-up’ in the case of a lesson that has been ‘gamified’).

  1. ‘Constructivist’ Theories

Dewey’s writings have, doubtless, much influence over contemporary theories of teaching and learning—but, perhaps to a lesser extent, so have other so-called ‘constructivist’ theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Montesorri and von Glaserfield. The constructivists are unified in their suspicion of the ‘passive learner’: instead, teaching and learning ought to emphasize (over other things) the psychological processes or mechanisms of the learner. Within the constructivist camp, however, are differences concerning the type and significance such psychological processes play in education. According to Phillips (2003, pp. 239 – 240), while Piaget conceived of the learner as an atomistic subject discovering the world individually, Vygotsky stresses the influences that socio-cultural factors can have on the learner. I am not able to offer a more detailed summary of the particular theories of the constructivists; what I wish to make note of here is the following skeptical worry that I have raised throughout this document. First, the constructivist, according to Phillips, are also united in their attraction towards Darwinian evolutionary biology, an admiration which, as I mentioned earlier, might take one into the murky waters of social Darwinism. Second, to argue that a student- or child-centered pedagogy is valuable is not also an argument against a more traditional method of education.[9] In other words, the goods of a progressivist or constructivist education need not necessarily be in tension or incompatible with more traditional forms of pedagogy; and, determining what aspects of one’s education ought take one form or the other, to my mind, makes for a far more interesting discussion than a bald advocacy of one method over the other (for more on constructivism, see Phillips 1995).

  1. Conclusion

As I stressed at the outset of this document, since there is no canonical definition of a ‘teaching philosophy’, I have restricted my discussion here to a small sampling of teaching philosophies known largely to English speaking communities. But the field of education is vast: since teaching—and reflection on teaching—doubtless goes on in all or most communities, there are, I am sure, other equally valuable philosophies that were not discussed here. So, the first important caveat that I wish to raise in this penultimate section is that the educator would do well studying (and integrating) teaching philosophies from these other traditions.

A second caveat is this: the more broadly we define a ‘teaching philosophy’ the more ‘relevant’ it appears to one’s practice of teaching. And the potential goods of having one’s teaching be theoretically unified may come through an all-too-convenient teaching philosophy that is platitudinous or practically unhelpful (e.g., ‘Always maximize the learning opportunities of students!’). Indeed, an overly broad or trivial teaching philosophy may be all to easily ‘evidenced’, which is, unfortunately, a result that calls for embarrassment over cheer. So, the educator ought to be suspicious of overly abstract or highly general teaching philosophies. For, this allows for the ‘evidencing’ of learning on the cheap.

Next, theoretical abstraction, which is one function of a teaching philosophy, may be needed when the practitioner faces the task of weighing or adjudicating between comparatively concrete matters involving some conflict of sorts: e.g. to what extent should class-time be devoted to student-led discussion as opposed to teacher-talk? On this aspect of pedagogy, a teaching philosophy is handy. But it is not obvious that all aspects of teaching and learning are amenable to being accounted for by theory (as I emphasized above). For instance, recall that in my discussion of Dewey above we noted that the process of learning (which involves the firing of the imagination) is itself non-instrumentally valuable. If so, such a process need not always avail itself of being ‘evidenced’ or at least easily so.

Fourth, the mere fact that one’s teaching practice has an undergirding theory is no reason to think that that theory is beyond reproach. And even if the question of which theory to adopt (for one’s teaching) were to be resolved, matters concerning how such a theory be interpreted or translated in classroom practice remains largely unsettled.[10] Teachers, almost of necessity, are practically minded individuals. But the individuals whose views on teaching I have adumbrated here—Socrates, Rousseau, Dewey—are not obviously so (as a result, it may be that the theoretical well which we drink from need not quench the contemporary thirst for praxis). Teaching has to proceed even in the face of theoretical indeterminacy—and this is not so much an abandonment of ‘reflective practice’ as the observation that a teacher simply lacks the privilege of the theoretician who, presumably, is less unhindered by time, resources, job-security and other constraints; in this respect, the teacher resembles, to name a few types of professionals, a judge, a policy maker or a healthcare worker. Decisions have to be made (in real time) and cannot always await or be made only with the prior approval of theory. This, then, raises the question whether familiar teaching philosophies are fully practicable. Also noteworthy is the question whether teachers (especially those in higher education) compared to those from other professions—say, a healthcare worker, a policy maker—find themselves more compelled to trot out a ‘theoretical underpinning’. If so, then is the issue here really one of raising the level of reflection or competency of teachers as opposed to, for instance, an increased need for teachers to ‘account’ for themselves to university administrators?

I end on a personal note. In the experience of this author, I find myself muddling through my role as a teacher and the great many issues I face in and out of the classroom—and attempting to cope without recourse to theory. Of course, it is possible that my choices and action may be retrospectively described by some theory or other—but what this suggests is that a teacher need not be committed, intentionally or consciously, to a theory for her to do what she does and, in some cases, to do this well. When pressed for an answer to ‘account’ for my own teaching choices and practices or, to use the altruistic code of colleagues, to ‘share’ what it is that I do in my classes, my immediate answer, banal as it may be to some, is that I do what I do because of what I have learned from my parents, the community and other immediate socio-cultural institutions. To be sure, I am not so much making an appeal for a ‘common-sense’ approach to teaching (which can itself go disastrously wrong) as offering the suggestion that even though the cry for a teaching philosophy might have originated from a creeping over-professionalization of the vocation of a teacher, it ought to aim at the interests of students and end in the court of one’s experience.


Dewey. J. (1897 [1972]). Ethical Principles Underlying Education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The Early Works, 1882-1898 (Vol. 5, pp. 54 – 83). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

———. (1916 [2001]). Democracy and Education. Electronic Classic Series, The Pennsylvania State University.

———. (1930). Human Nature and Conduct. N. Y.: Modern Library.

———. (1933). How We Think. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Company.

Hirst, P. (1965) Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge. In R. D. Archambault (Ed.), Philosophical Analysis and Education (pp. 113–138), London: Routledge.

James, W. (1890 [1981]). The Principles of Psychology, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Noddings, N. (2010). Dewey’s Philosophy of Education: A Critique from the Perspective of Care Theory. In M. Cochran (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Dewey (pp. 265 – 287). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Phillips, D. C. (1987). Philosophy, Science, and Social Inquiry: Contemporary Methodological Controversies in Social Science and Related Applied Fields of Research. Oxford: Pergamon.

———. (1995). The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Many Faces of Constructivism. Educational Researcher, 24(7), pp. 5 – 12.

———. (2003). Theories of Teaching and Learning. In R. Curren (Ed.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Education (pp. 230 – 245). Malden, M.A.: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Rousseau, J. J. (1763 [1979]). Emile. A. Bloom (Trans.). N. Y.: Basic Books.

Scheffler, I. (1973 [1989]). Reason and Teaching. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform. Harvard Education Review, 57(1), pp. 1 – 22.

Siegel, H. (2007). Philosophy of Education, In Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/philosophy-of-education/108550>

[1] Examples of decisions concerning curriculum design are as follow: issues such as the proper ordering or sequencing of topics in the chosen subject, the time to be allocated to each topic, the type of assessment (e.g., lab work or excursions or projects that are appropriate for particular topics); what to be excluded (such as ‘creation theory’, wartime atrocities, etc.).

[2] Scheffler’s remarks call to mind a false dilemma that clouds ordinary perceptions of what the aims of education should be: namely, that the educator is presented with a strict choice between the production students who are effective in the furthering of some socio-political interests and/or interests of a dominant group, or the production of students who are autonomous in their thinking and behavior. This is a false dilemma for three reasons. First, it mistakenly assumes that the good of self-governance can be understood in the absence of a knowledge of any existing socio-political ideals and practices; second, it is not obvious that students who have undergone a rigorous education in self-governance are competent in evaluating pre-determined socio-political ends or those associated with a dominant group; third, the dilemma presented is also false for the trivial reason that a state of indoctrination as with the capacity for self-governance are things that admit of degrees. As a result, educational policies and institutions need not pretend to be cleaving to one at the complete expense of the other; indeed, as is quite often the case in practice, educational policies and institutions offer students a mix of social engineering and self-governance—for, social engineering may lead to desirable ends as easily as self-governance to less desirable ones.

[3] If so-called ‘value pluralism’ is true—that there is no one unique conception of the good or flourishing life that is the good or flourishing life for everyone—then the aims of education ought to contain only those aims that allow students to determine for themselves what constitutes a good or flourishing life (and, ought not to steer students towards a certain leaning over others, e.g. a life of solitary deliberation over communal or institutional interaction).

[4] Or to go attend Skills-Future classes.

[5] In an earlier essay ‘The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology’ (1896), Dewey proposes a fairly similar idea in which learning is a process that takes a learner through various psychological states. Incidentally, this essay of Dewey’s also contains a construal of the student not as a passive recipient of external stimuli but as an agent who actively engages in processes of discovery.

[6] We develop habits intentionally but, more often, unintentionally without appreciation of the reasons for engaging in such habitual action—but surely this is the stuff of rote mechanical learning. Also, wouldn’t an education in a vocational field require rote learning or habituation of various skills?

[7] Pragmatism or pragmaticism refers to a philosophical movement in the United States developed most notably by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), John Dewey (1859-1952), Chauncey Wright (1830-75) and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr (1841-1935). Very roughly, this movement is guided by the maxim that what is ‘meaningful’, ‘true’, ‘valuable’ or ‘proper methodology’ must that that which can guide action to desired ends and/or that which is or can be empirically verified. This movement grew out of the desire to make ‘progress’ in philosophical thought, one whose development is believed to be encumbered by long-standing metaphysical disputes.

[8] Dewey offers a discussion of how the subject of geography ought to be taught. The teaching of geography, according to Dewey, ought never to fill students up with deadening pieces of facts—e.g., the names of places, the types of cloud formations. Instead, Dewey conceives of geography as a subject with special emphasis on human interactions with the physical word—on [particular occupations, on particular means of subsistence, and so forth. As I read Dewey, the subject of geography is not so much an instructional manual for exploitation of the world and its resources as a means to understand the livelihoods of particular groups or communities of persons.

[9] To my knowledge, many classical forms of education (in both Eastern and Western societies) involve, first and foremost, a deep and familiar knowledge with works already set in the canon.

[10] Here is a helpful analogy: A political theory that says ‘All social institutions must be just and working in the interests of the least well-off group’ hardly provides one with useful practicable advice.

Leave a Reply