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What is Philosophy of Education?

Diane Goettel
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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“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.

Theoretical Approaches

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.

Practical Approaches

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.

Specific Examples

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.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
In addition to her work as a freelance writer for PracticalAdultInsights, Diane Goettel serves as the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. Over the course, she has edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter “Sapling,” and The Adirondack Review. Diane holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Aug 24, 2012

@irontoenail - That's something that even the best philosophies of education often fail to take into account. Times change, people change, cultures change and the philosophy needs to change with them. You can keep core values and goals without sacrificing the ability to adapt.

I took a couple of education classes at university and that was the topic of my philosophy of education essay. Kids are so versatile, if you don't keep up with them, you don't survive.

By irontoenail — On Aug 23, 2012
One of my friends went through teachers' college to get a Bachelor of Education and he was originally a big fan of Waldorf Schools, because they followed a philosophy of education and teaching that he could relate to.

Steiner schools believe in a very hands on and arts based education, with emphasis on fine art, music, literature and so forth. Teachers are supposed to nurture the unique spirit of each child and to encourage their creativity.

My friend still thinks those are admirable goals; what he objected to is the fact that these schools still follow the exact same philosophy they did when Steiner was alive and there doesn't seem to be any room for adaptation or new ideas (ironic considering they are trying to foster creativity in students).

By FitzMaurice — On Dec 25, 2010


A philosophy of education which is devoid of clear morals and instead relies purely on the ethos, or ethics of a people group, is a very fluid and unreliable system. I can see how it would be easy to see that Public Schools can become an easy tool for peer pressure and indoctrination under the guise of political correctness. We have a relatively free country, but there are ways in which people can be coerced into a system of thinking which is not really "free" at all. A good philosophy of education should address this tendency.

By BigBloom — On Dec 22, 2010


State-funded schools seek to follow the common ethics which have been set down by Americans. I disagree with you: the Public Philosophy of Education is a very democratic process which takes into account the beliefs of people everywhere and avoids stepping on toes. It is not up to the Public school to determine where a culture goes, it is up to the culture itself.

By JavaGhoul — On Dec 20, 2010

It is sad to see that state-funded public schools seem to have an agenda of indoctrinating the masses in liberal and shallow ideas. Education can be a great tool for empowerment but can also prove to be a mental slavery. The subtlety with which the modern public school system defines the cultural zeitgeist is an upsetting phenomenon of the modern day.

Diane Goettel

Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for PracticalAdultInsights, Diane Goettel serves as the executive editor...
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