“Philosophy of education” can mean one of two related things: it is either an approach to or a theory of learning, and it usually sets out unified or widely accepted views of how education can be best achieved at pretty much any level. Most schools have formal philosophies that guide the way teachers and administrators interact with students, parents, and regulatory officials, and in many cases these are written out and formalized as a way of streamlining or unifying everyone’s efforts. This is the more theoretical definition. The term also has a more practical side, though. Educators typically have their own individual philosophies that help guide them when drawing up curricula and structuring classroom discussions. These tend to be more approach-based, and are often much more personal. Teachers are usually able to explain their own philosophies of education, but they are rarely written down and tend to adapt quickly to student needs.
The formal philosophies that guide school administrators tend to be theory-based, which is to say that they are based on broad understanding of educational practices generally. These typically take a very broad approach to formal pedagogy, its goals, and its problems. Some people call this sort of philosophy a "learning theory." They tend to be closely related to the field of applied philosophy, and as a result they are often very concerned with the “hows” and “whys” of teaching. A school may commit itself to valuing creativity and independent thought, for example, then set out specific rubrics to govern classroom happenings that are in line with this goal. Parents, teachers, and school regulatory bodies can use these sorts of theoretical philosophies to understand what a school’s primary mission is, or as a way of determining whether a school will be a good fit for a particular student.
Philosophies don’t have to be so structured, though, and there are many instances where a looser, more flexible approach makes sense. Most people who teach or work in schools have their own personal beliefs about how things should be taught, often based around certain assumed truths or larger guiding principles. These are not so much statements about how education should progress, but rather are patterned ways in which learning does take place. Teachers and professors typically structure their courses according to their own philosophies of how material should be presented and how to maximize student learning. These, unlike more formal institutional statements, do tend to change over time, and typically adapt more readily to immediate student needs.
Why Educational Philosophy is Important
At a school-by-school or classroom-by-classroom level, overarching philosophies of education can sometimes seem somewhat contrived. On a broader scale, though, the central beliefs and guiding principles of educational institutions can say a lot about a culture’s value system. Sociological scholars often spend considerable time looking at the educational philosophies of different countries, national regions, and economic classes in order to draw conclusions about larger social beliefs and priorities. How schools, governments, and individual teachers approach learning often says a lot about how they view the world and students’ place in it.
Where and How Philosophies Are Taught
Education students typically spend a great deal of time thinking about different philosophies as a part of their studies. Teacher training programs are one of the most common places to find this sort of discussion, but the topic also comes up in courses designed for school administrators and government education officers. Universities as well as professional training centers tend to highlight educational philosophy in their course offerings, challenging participants to think about the larger goals and criteria governing formal learning.
The Montessori philosophy of education is perhaps one of the most well known. It is based on the approach of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who studied child development in the early part of the 20th century, and places a particular emphasis on child independence, free space for discovery, and ample unstructured “free” time in the classroom. Montessori schools throughout the world subscribe to a more or less fixed philosophy, which means that the guiding principles of each school are comparable no matter where the schools are or what the cultural or social background of the students is.
Waldorf schools operate similarly. Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who dedicated the bulk of his career to studying early childhood development, started the Waldorf movement in Germany in the late 1800s, and schools following his teachings typically place an emphasis on imagination in learning. They often encourage students to spend a lot of time on the creative arts, and usually stay away from strict grading rubrics or assessment mechanisms.
Educational philosophies are certainly not unique to modern times. Plato and Aristotle each proposed theories of learning and communal education that are widely understood to be some of the earliest examples of formalized educational philosophies, for instance. The educational hierarchy and academic structure of Ancient Greece and Rome is believed by many scholars to have given rise to the different schools of thought with regard to how modern education is carried out, and the goals formal learning sets out to achieve in modern times.