The five Key Educational Philosophies


There are many different forms of philosophy used in our education system today. It is not unusual too see more than one philosophy incorporated in a school or classroom setting. When incorporating the different educational philosophies in the classroom, one must consider the makeup of their classroom community. A good educator will always continue to expand their knowledge and adapt with the changing times. In the end this will help them create a more successful classroom.


The essentialism approach to education has been noted throughout history. It started back in the days of the Greek Philosophers, and has continued throughout American history. In the 1930’s William Bagley helped popularize this philosophy with his writings and lectures. As interest in space grew, so did the interest in the essentialism way of education. Even in today’s society we see President Bush pushing this form of educational philosophy with his “No Child Left Behind Act.” All throughout education history, society has tended to go back to questioning the “traditional” approach of going “Back to the Basics.”

Educators of the essentialism approach teach the basic skills of math, natural science, history, foreign language (ex. Latin & Greek), and literature. The teacher is responsible for installing moral values that will help the student on the road to becoming an ideal citizen. The students are taught factual information and are not offered any vocational training. The classroom setting is very rigid and disciplined. Students are rated academically by testing. Both the teacher and the administrators decide what is best for the student. This creates an atmosphere where students do not expand their minds creatively.

Schools that use the essentialism philosophy encourage academic competition. This type of educational approach tends to create longer academic days, school years, and the need for challenging textbooks. Today we may find this approach used in private, parochial, and some small town rural schools. I believe we may see an increase of the essentialism approach as school systems comply with state mandated testing requirements. It is my opinion that essentialism combined with other approaches can create a stronger academic day.


The influence of Greek Philosophers Plato, and Aristotle still appear in education today. These two philosophers taught their students by influencing them to question the facts. In more recent time Mortimer Adler, and Robert Hutchins have been known to influence the perennial approach of education. Mortimer Adler helped design the “Great Book Program” in 1946. Robert Hutchins supported this educational philosophy when he implemented the use of Adler’s “Great Books” in his “Chicago Plan.” They believed in teaching all students the same information and having the teacher initiate discussions to help the student question the validity of the topics.
In Perennialism the belief was that you taught “everlasting” information to the students. The main idea was to stimulate thought provoking discussions from different topics presented to the student. As in essentialism the teacher is the center of the instruction. The educator was responsible for teaching principals not facts. Their goal was to open the students mind to scientific reasoning, and that factual information may be proven false. A major difference between the two philosophies is in perinnialism the student input is important. Using this approach helps the individual thinker in each student blossom.

Nowadays you can find this philosophical approach in boarding schools, and very elite private schools. Both charter schools, and magnet schools have been known to use curriculums based on this approach. Through perinnialism it was recognized rote recitation wasn’t the only way to educate the students. It is my belief that this approach should be incorporated with other educational philosophies to be beneficial in our current school systems. However, with the new state mandated test requirements there may not be enough time in an academic day to include this approach. The philosopher in the students may never be released.


In the 1920’s with the founding of the Laboratory School, John Dewey created the foundations of the progressive education movement. In this school both John Dewey and his wife taught children to learn by doing. He felt that learning facts wasn’t the only way to educate. John Dewey realized that not every student could learn by the same approach. Perhaps, it is this reasoning that made him incorporate several different methods into educating students at his school.

This is the first philosophical approach that takes into consideration the three learning types (auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners) of students. In a progressive approach classroom you will see thought provoking games, books, manipulative objects, experimentation and social interaction between the students. This approach also uses field trips outside of the classroom for educational purposes. Progressive philosophy isn’t center around the main goal of educating students for adulthood. Instead this approach was meant to enrich the educational growth process.

This educational philosophy can still be found in our public school systems today. It is not just limited to urban, suburbia or rural areas and can be used with all social economic classes. By using this approach our schools systems take into consideration the abilities of the whole student population. This approach is suitable for the diverse population of students that attend today’s schools. In my opinion the reason for the popularity of this approach is that it incorporates the practice of various educational philosophies.


A.S. Neill is perhaps the most noted influence when it comes to the existentialism philosophy being applied in a school environment. Neill helped to promote existentialism with the creation of his Summerhill School. Jean Paul Sarte along with Soren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzche helped to strengthen the popularity of the existentialism movement. Each of these famous men contributed to the belief that it was “not just the mind that needed to be educated, but the whole person.”

An existentialism school didn’t enforce formal education. Instead it nurtured the creativity, and individuality of the student. It was felt that in time a student would mature by themselves, and decide what direction was suitable to pursue. In an existentialist school children would be given a variety of subjects to choose from. Vocational courses were to teach the student about themselves, and not to prepare them for a future occupation. The student pursued the subject of their choice, learning method, and worked at their own pace. They received one-on-one guidance from their teacher. Existentialism was an independent study program rather than a traditional class.

In today’s society we would find this approached used to some degree with home schooling. However, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s some private and public schools experimented with this form of learning. I was a student in one of these independent study programs in ninth grade during the seventies. At the time I was too immature to handle making my own choices. This approach to education lacks structure in the academic day. It is my feeling that most children need some form of organization to achieve academically.


John Watson is known as the founder of the behavioral movement. His belief was that any human being could be reprogrammed to acquire any skill. This theory was backed up by the experiments of both Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. Pavlov trained dogs to respond to different stimuli. Skinner created a learning machine that would use operant conditioning to train students to learn. Through experimentation, these psychologists realized that they could both recondition and condition the responses of their subjects.

According to behaviorism we can teach our students by reprogramming them. It is possible to change students’ behavior by reconditioning them. This may be done by taking the negative stimuli away from the student. In time the student learns to control the behavior. The behaviorism approach also states that the student can be condition to learn or perform anything taught to them. This can be done by using rewards for an appropriate response. Both of these methods can be effective when used over a long period of time.

In today’s society behaviorism approaches can be found in all forms of education. It may be used to change negative behavior. The student may not earn a point for that day if they use an inappropriate manner. On the other hand a teacher may reward the class with stickers for doing a good job. In our present school systems this method is used quite often for behavioral modifications, and motivating children of special needs. Realistically, a teacher cannot totally reprogram a student. This would be an idealistic world if we could reprogram the students to grow up to be perfect individuals.


It can be surprising to discover that you don’t know yourself as well as you think. I had thought for sure that progressivism would be the winner, and essentialism would come in next. Instead it was almost a tie. I was really stunned to see behaviorism trailing not far behind. This has not changed my belief that an individual can’t be totally reprogrammed. However, I do understand when behaviorism can be implemented. As I was doing my research it wasn’t a surprise to discover that I already adhered to several philosophies. Contemplating on each philosophy opened my eyes to the benefits they all offered. The trick is to know when to apply what you learned from each educational philosophy in a real classroom situation.

The Importance of Being Familiar with the Five Philosophies of Education
The need will exist for different teaching strategies, as long as the classroom stays a diversified “melting pot” of learners. Due to this reason it is important to understand the makeup of all educational philosophies. The toughest battle a teacher has is the constant challenge for new ideas to motivate the hidden learner inside of all students. This is followed by the ability to control a class of assorted behavioral issues. A well prepared educator is one that can apply any of the strategies from the key philosophies to win the battle. The reward is to witness the accomplishments of the struggling-learner that the educator has motivated.

Brubacher, John S. Modern Philosophies of Education. United States: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1962.
Palmer, Joy A., et al. Fifty Major Thinkers on Education. London, New York: Routledge, 2001.
Palmer, Joy A., et al. Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education. London, New York: Routledge, 2001.
“Perinnialism” Westga. 26 January 2005
“Philosophies of Education” school-for-champions. 26 January 2005
“Robert Hutchins” 26 January 2005 .