Philosophies of Education Comparison

Every teacher has a (subconsciously or consciously held) philosophy of education that affects their everyday decision-making and choice of teaching and discipline methods. Perhaps you do not know what your foundational beliefs about learners and learning are, but you do know that you firmly believe in certain methods. If so, you may find it helpful to know what philosophical beliefs those methods are grounded in. I hope the following comparison of different educational philosophies will prove as enlightening to you as it was to me as I researched and compiled it.

Note: Please don’t feel like you have to subscribe to one of these philosophies in it’s entirety. There is truth and error in every one of these philosophies. As Christians, we can and should have an entirely biblical foundation, and from there we can pick and choose parts of any and all philosophies that are in agreement with biblical principles.

Philosophies of Education

Idealism: All About Ideals

Basic Beliefs

The world experienced through the senses is nothing but shadows of true reality (Layman, 2003a). Reality is found in the thoughts and ideas of the mind, and truth is obtained when there is consistency within those thoughts and ideas (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). The universal, eternal essences of reality can be found only in the mind (Layman, 2003a). Thus, it is possible to discover truth, but only when the focus is diverted from “the investigation of the material world to the world of universal truths (forms or ideals)” (Layman, 2003a, p. 23). The values of pure reasoning and wisdom, unhindered by the “distractions” of the sensory world (Layman, 2003a, p. 23), are to be developed in education. “Goodness is an ideal state” that individuals must strive to reach (Kurtus, 2001, para. 6). Value is placed on morality and on “human worth” (Layman, 2003a, p. 25). The physical nature of the human is unimportant—their mental state is what counts (Layman, 2003a). Plato believed that those who focus on the sensory world are living in the darkness, substituting shadows for true enlightenment (Layman, 2003a). From that it can be deduced that idealists view learners as basically delusioned and in the process of enlightenment.

Educational Practices

The teacher’s role is to model integrity and strength of character and to inspire students to learn (Layman, 2003a). The teacher is to exemplify ideal living, thinking, and learning (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). The focus is on passing down the ideals and “wisdom of the ages” (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d., para. 4) found in ancient, classical subjects that develop deep thinking. Study of the material world is held in low esteem, even discouraged (Layman, 2003a), while nearly all the time is devoted to subjects that use and develop mental rigor (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). Teachers pass down time-tested truths via lecture and example (Traditional Theories, n.d.; Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). Students participate in discussions, written work, and reading classic literature (Traditional Theories, n.d.), but mostly passively internalize the knowledge that passed down to them by teachers (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). It is said that idealism is too relativistic (Layman, 2003a) as well as contradictory. It denies the reliability of the senses, but then attempts to pass down objective ideals, wisdom, and morals. Without a tangible world to base them on, Plato’s concept of universal forms is too “vague and unverifiable” (Layman, 2003a, p. 25).

Neo-Scholasticism: All About Truth

Basic Beliefs

Aquinas’ mantra was that God is truth, and thus whatever is of God is also truth, no matter where it is found (Layman, 2003a). The senses can be trusted, and the material world is objective and tangible, the study of which can lead to a rational understanding of the universal forms all material objects (Knight, 2012). Aquinas believed that a knowledge of the truth could be obtained through “faith and reason” (Traditional Philosophies, n.d.)—through divine revelation as well as a study of the natural world (Layman, 2003a). All that is true is valued as God’s truth (Layman, 2003a). All creation is valued, both animate and inanimate, for it through the medium of the material world that knowledge of God is obtained (Knight, 2012). Human beings are seen as having special worth, however, for the fact that they not only live, but also possess the ability to think rationally (Knight, 2012). Thus, the sanctity of human life should be upheld. Humans are made up physical body, rational mind, and spiritual soul (Knight, 2012). Human nature is basically bad, corrupted by sin and in need of “redemption, accountability, and discipline” (Traditional Philosophies, n.d.). At the same time, humans are one of God’s creations (Knight, 2012), and thus have intrinsic value and worth.

Educational Practices

Teachers are to lead students to discover the universal truths in God’s creation (Layman, 2003a). Teachers must give students an understanding of “both spiritual and natural laws,” which are prepare students for temporal and eternal life (Traditional Philosophies, n.d.). Students are given an education that reflects their dual nature (body and soul), being taught both factual information (Kurtus, 2001) as well as religious (Traditional Philosophies, n.d.). The study of nature (Layman, 2003) and mathematics (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.) are prized, as well as “classical literature and languages” (Traditional Philosophies, n.d.). Again the dual nature of learners is emphasized: Students minds must be developed to be sharp and active (Traditional Philosophies, n.d.), while at the same time, they must be physically involved in their learning, using their senses to learn about the world around them (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). Idealists criticize Neo-Scholasticism’s focus on finding metaphysical truths through the medium of physical truth, Protestants notice the heavy reliance on “Catholic tradition” (Layman, 2003a, p. 27) rather than Scripture, and evolutionists are offended by the fact that Neo-Scholasticism does not allow for the naturalistic theory of evolution (Knight, 2012).

Pragmatism: All About Experience

Basic Beliefs

Truth is whatever achieves the purposes of the individual (Layman, 2003b). It is the “production of desired consequences” (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d., para. 9). Reality is what is personally experienced, whether it be what a person does, or what happens to them (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.). Since truth is whatever happens to come in handy, and reality is akin to life experiences, then it follows that truth and reality can be discovered through doing and experiencing—“the interaction of man and his mind with his environment” (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d., para. 9). Thus, until the human stops experiencing, he or she never stops learning (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.). Value is found in “reflective deliberation” on experience and consequences (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d., para. 11). When new generations arise who experience new things and find new ways to accomplish their purposes, they will also arrive at new value systems (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.). Whatever meets the needs of the individuals and causes them to grow and learn is of value (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.). Human beings are basically good, and students are intuitive creatures who know what is best for themselves, and thus must play an active role in their learning (Layman, 2003b). Students are experimenters and interactors with their environments, and possess individual mental capabilities to problem solve in their unique situations (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.).

Educational Practices

The teacher’s role is to prime the environment for learning—to provide students with the opportunities to engage in learning experiences in authentic environments that match their personal interests and their individual goals (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.). Teachers are guides, facilitators, and motivators who capture, shape, and develop children’s natural curiosity for learning. (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.). The curriculum is built around whatever currently holding the student’s interest (Layman, 2003b), since no matter what curricular material you present a child with, that child is going to see “only what is, at the moment, important to him” (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d., para. 32). Students are also involved in projects and discussions revolving around making society a better place (Layman, 2003b). Involving students in authentic hands-on experiences is the number one learning method, followed closely by group learning and decision making, and teacher-facilitated but student-led discussions (Layman, 2003b; Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.). Problem solving is focused on issues current to the individual students’ lives, rather than textbook examples (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.). In fact, textbooks and “rote memorization” are rarely used (Layman, 2003b, p. 41). Common criticisms of this theory are as follows: Students’ opinions and whims have too much precedence over academic decisions, and learning is too sporadic and individualized, without building a concrete set of foundational skills and knowledge (Layman, 2003b). Pragmatism has no objective source or solid foundation for truth—values are too individualistic and relative (Bansal, Maheshwari, & Agarwal, n.d.).

Existentialism/Humanism: All About Freedom

Basic Beliefs

Reality is found within individual experience, and truth is found deep within oneself (Layman, 2003b). Thus, while all might experience the same reality, it is seen from different perspectives (Modern Philosophies, n.d.). Likewise, truth can be something different for everyone (Layman, 2003b). Reality and truth are individually defined (Kurtus, 2001; Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.), and thus can come to be known when an individual awakens to his or her experiences and discovers what is his or her own personal truth. Existentialism places “emphasis on individual worth and de-emphasis on materialistic values” (Layman, 2003b, p. 43). Value is whatever the individual deems to be important or of worth (Kurtus, 2001) and morality is based on “personal preference” (Modern Philosophies, n.d.). We are what we decide we will be, as Jean-Paul Sartre said (Modern Philosophies, n.d.). Human beings possess light, truth, reality, and goodness within themselves (Layman, 2003b). It is only through freedom of expression that these natural qualities can become actualized (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.).

Educational Practices

Teachers must become their students’ peers and take an active role in building students’ self-esteem and confidence (Layman, 2003b). Teachers must help students find their own inner truth and freedom of expression (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). Students learn about whatever is important to them (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). They must be given room to explore their own interests and express themselves freely (Layman, 2003b). The purpose of education is to “aid children in knowing themselves and their place in society” (Kurtus, 2001, para. 13). Students are awakened to their own inner personalities, and are given environments where those personalities can be freely expressed (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). Thus, students are not regimented with teacher-chosen curriculum or defined by tests or “labels” (Layman, 2003b, p. 43). A common criticism is that schools that are built on the existentialist philosophies do not give students a real-world experience, where there people are expected to abide by “order, discipline, and content standards” (Layman, 2003b, p. 43).

Perennialism: All About Rationality

Basic Beliefs

Truth is the eternal elements of wisdom and knowledge that have been passed down since the beginning of time (Kurtus, 2001; Smith, 2011). Reality is the rational perception of the world in accordance with the views of past great thinkers. Truth is arrived at both through rational thought and careful study, and also sometimes through supernatural revelation (Five Educational Theories, n.d.). Reality can be discovered through careful rational thought, compared with the philosophies and beliefs held by those gone before. Reason and rational thought are valued above all else (Kurtus, 2001). In fact, “goodness is to be found in rationality itself” (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d., para. 3). Human nature is unchanging (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). At the same time, humans can “develop morally” (Smith, 2011), and learn from role models (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.).

Educational Practices

The teacher’s role is to impart eternal truths of wisdom and knowledge to his or her students (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). Teachers must train and discipline their students’ minds, and provide a structured environment conducive to these purposes. Students must be given a well-rounded foundation of basic knowledge (Layman, 2003b). Students are instructed in logic and rational thinking and reasoning and given mental training and discipline (Kurtus, 2001; Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). History and literature are two main subjects (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.). To prepare students for the rigors of life, they must be taught basic skills in a highly structured environment (Five Educational Philosophies, n.d.). Drills and lectures and metaphysical discussions are commons methodologies. Perennialism is accused of being “elitist and impractical” (Layman, 2003b, p. 46). Too much authority and power is given to the teacher that classrooms run the risk of becoming too focused on structure and discipline and not enough on the changing, individualized needs of the students (Layman, 2003b).

Essentialism: All About Essentials

Basic Beliefs

Essentialism is based on the philosophies of Aristotle (Layman, 2003b). Aristotle believed that truth is reality, and reality is the material world (Layman, 2003a). The truth in this reality is the universal characteristics that make objects in the material world what they are in essence (Layman, 2003a). It is through a thorough study of the material objects in nature that the abstract essential properties—the truths within the reality—can be discovered (Layman, 2003a). Students should be taught to value high academic standards, the traditional foundation of knowledge being passed down, and scientific study of the real world to gain an understanding of ultimate reality (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.; Traditional Theories, n.d.). Essentialism is influenced by Calvinism (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.). Calvinists view humans as naturally evil (Vial, n.d.). Children must be bent one direction or the other through strong teacher leadership and discipline.

Educational Practices

The teacher’s role is to strictly follow a curriculum of basic knowledge and skills (Figures, 2013). They must maintain an atmosphere of structure and discipline so that students can reach their potential of high academic excellence and gain a complete grasp of the essentials of a well-rounded education (Educational Philosophies Definitions and Comparisons Chart, n.d.). The curriculum includes all the traditional foundational subjects: “reading, writing, math, and science” (Figures, 2013, para. 2). There is an especial focus on scientific study (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.). Community spirit must be built (Figures, 2013), and students must learn their place in the world (Educational Philosophies Definitions…, n.d.). The method teachers use is of no concern—they may use whatever methods achieve the purpose of academic achievement and student acquisition of the basic set of knowledge (Figures, 2013). However, methods are typically traditional in nature and involve frequent assessment and standardized testing (Figures, 2013). It is said that essentialism is too traditional in nature, and thus does not meet the new and changing needs of this new generation of learners, who are not growing up in a traditional society anymore (Layman, 2003b).

Behaviorism: All About Training

Basic Beliefs

Behaviorism is based on realist and positivist philosophies (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.). Positivism says that reality is only that which can be experienced through the senses (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.). Thus, anything metaphysical (including the mind, spirit, soul, and truth, which is an abstract concept) does not exist (Layman, 2003b). It can be inferred that proper training coupled with sensory interaction with material world can lead to a knowledge of reality. However, there actually is no such thing as an abstract concept of knowledge (which requires the mind), so really all that can be obtained is an internal, synoptic response to external stimuli which can be labeled as knowledge (Foreman, n.d.). Behaviorism takes a deterministic view of morality (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.). In other words, morality and values are things that can only be trained or conditioned into a person. Again, any reference to values or morality in the abstract sense, refers to things nonexistent: there are only “physical reactions that are occurring inside your neural network” (Foreman, n.d., slide 11). Humans are neither basically good or bad, but are as empty whiteboards on which the transcript for good or evil can be written by the circumstances of life (Smith, 2011). The deterministic forces of life can be overcome and students shaped in a desired direction by a teacher who carries out the proper training or programming (Watson in Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.).

Educational Practices

In behaviorism, it is the teacher, rather than the students (as in pragmatism), who are the scientists and experimenters (Layman, 2003b). Teachers devise effective means by trial and error to use consequences and rewards to train and program their students to learn and act in the way desired. Behaviorists are less concerned with the curriculum content as they are with the methods used to implement it (Smith, 2011). After all, learning is only that which can be tested and measured outwardly (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.). Still, belief in a reality of the senses leads of a study of all that is concrete and observable, and student interests are incorporated “as a part of the conditioning process” (Layman, 2003b, p. 47). Children are trained much like animals to respond to stimuli, signals, rewards, and consequences, (Smith, 2011). This process is called behavior modification (Layman, 2003b), but also applies to learning, as knowledge really is just a complex behavior (Foreman, n.d.). The criticisms of this theory are as follows: The behaviorist views of neutral human nature and determinism and the pursuit of utopia are unbiblical (Smith, 2011), as is behaviorists’ extreme version of materialism. Behaviorism allows for too much teacher control and even brainwashing (Educational Theories for Transmission, n.d.). It does not acknowledge or allow for students’ individuality, unique personalities, and learning styles (Layman, 2003b).

Reconstructionism: All About Social Change

Basic Beliefs

Reconstructionism is inspired by Communism (Layman, 2003b) and is very similar to the pragmatic philosophy of education (Simon, n.d.). “Therefore, its answers to basic questions are the same” (Simon, n.d., para. 1). Reality is what can be personally experienced and truth is whatever is convenient and useful at the time (Simon, n.d.). Since reality is equatable with personal experience (Simon, n.d.), then reality can be known through personal interactions with the environment. Since truth is whatever is convenient, it can change depending on the circumstances and can only be known through “trial and error” (Simon, n.d., para. 1). The values that should be upheld and taught are those that the majority of society agrees upon (Simon, n.d.). The goal of reconstructionts is to achieve a Utopian society (Simon, n.d.), and thus it follows that morality is whatever brings about the most good for society. Since reconstructionism shares foundational beliefs with pragmatism, it answers this question the same as pragmatists would (Simon, n.d.): Human beings are basically good, and students must take an active role in constructing their own learning. At the same time, students are prospective agents of social change and must be given the proper education and opportunities along those lines (Layman, 2003b).

Educational Practices

The teacher’s role is to guide and facilitate students’ personal educational goals and decision-making (Simon, n.d.), to take a decided stand for social equality and educate students on current issues of injustice in society (Layman, 2003b), and to inspire students to take an active role in bringing about societal betterment (Smith, 2011). Reconstructionists do not typically use traditional textbook curricula (Simon, n.d.). Instead, teachers focus students’ attention on exploring their personal interests (Simon, n.d.), but do all in their power to help students become interested in issues of social injustice (Layman, 2003b).  Students study “social sciences” (Simon, n.d., para. 4), and current events. Reconstructionists are not ashamed to use open indoctrination on current issues in society (Layman 2003b). This is accomplished through much classroom discussion between students and teacher, and by creating opportunities for students to gain hands-on, direct experience being agents of social change (Simon, n.d.; Kauchak & Eggen, 2014). However, it is said that young students are not mature enough to understand social issues and engage social change “for the right reasons” (Smith, 2011). There is too high of a risk that students will merely adopt the mindset of their teachers without fully understanding all sides of the issues and taking their own informed stances (Layman, 2003b). Reconstructionism disregards and undermines the wishes and views of parents (Layman, 2003b).

Critical Pedagogy: All About Critical Thinking

Basic Beliefs

Truth is not so important as how what people believe to be true affects the atmosphere of society (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Even something that is not factual can have profound effects on people’s actions and how they treat others. Thus, advocates of critical pedagogy are concerned not so much with truth as with the effects of those facts (Burbules & Berk, 1999).  Truth and reality can be known through “empirical evidence” (Burbules & Berk, 1999, para. 36). However, it is not as important to find out whether or not something is true (or a fact) as it is to find out who did the research behind the facts being propagated, what their agenda might be, and how those facts will affect society (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Social justice and equality are valued. Morality is akin to the passionate pursuit of these values in society—not just holding certain beliefs about justice and equality, but rising up and taking action on those beliefs (Burbules & Berk, 1999). In a sense, any beliefs are of value that will lead one to dedicate all time and energy to the cause of humanity. Critical pedagogy is based on Marxist ideology (Smith, 2011; Burbules & Berk, 1999). Marx believed that it is human nature to seek “social and individual satisfaction” (Byron, 2012, para. 4). However, many are subject to the oppression injustice and inequality in society and completely unaware of their dire state (Smith, 2011).

Educational Practices

The teacher’s role is to awaken students to the fact that they are either oppressed or oppressors (Smith, 2011), as well as to give them the skills necessary to recognize and criticize foundation beliefs that lead to such oppression (Burbules & Berk, 1999). The curriculum focuses on literacy, not just in reading and writing, but also in being be well-versed on social issues and well-equipped to take action against them (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Literature of famous critical thinkers is read and students are taught lessons that will increase their “awareness of oppression” and the solutions for it (Smith, 2011). Students are taught critical thinking skills, but not so much to build their logical reasoning abilities as to further the “pursuit of social justice” (Burbules & Berk, 1999, para. 19 f. 17). Students are brought to know and accept their place in society through the reward of merit, systematic assessment and grading, and career and college preparation courses (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Critical pedagogy comes under the criticism of feminists for being a male-dominated philosophy (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Also, the purportedly free discussions held on social issues are, in actuality, quite biased and do not allow the opinions of those who disagree with the philosophy to be presented (Burbules & Berk, 1999).



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Burbules, N. C. & Berk, R. (1999). Critical thinking and critical pedagogy: Relations, differences, and limits. Critical Theories in Education. Retrieved from:

Byron, C. (2012, October 9). Marx’s view of human nature. Retrieved from Socialist Worker:

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Foreman, M. (n.d.). Proposed solutions to the mind/body problem transcript. Retrieved from Blackboard:

Kauchak, D. & Eggen, P. (2014). Introduction to teaching: Becoming a professional [5th ed.]. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Knight, K. (2012). Neo-Scholasticism. Retrieved from New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

Kurtus, R. (2001). Philosophies of education. Retrieved from Ron Kurtus’ School for Champions:

Layman, J. (2003a). Early history of educational philosophy. In J. Braley, J. Layman, & R. White (Eds.), Foundations of Christian school education (21-33). Colorado Springs, CO: Purposeful Design Publications.

Layman, J. (2003b). Modern educational philosophies. In J. Braley, J. Layman, & R. White (Eds.), Foundations of Christian school education (37-51). Colorado Springs, CO: Purposeful Design Publications.

Modern philosophies

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. (n.d.). Retrieved from Blackboard:

Simon, L. H. (n.d.). Reconstructionism. Retrieved from Elon University:

Smith, S. (2011). Educational learning theories and their impact on exceptionalism . Retrieved from Blackbaord:

Traditional philosophies

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. (n.d.). Retrieved from Blackboard:

Vial, T. (n.d.). Religion library: Presbyterian and reformed. Retrieved from Patheos Library:


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