Creating a Philosophy of Education: Questions to Ask

Dear Reader,

Long ago when I first looked at various approaches to homeschooling, I noticed that they all have something to say (whether knowingly or unknowingly) about two questions: What is the nature of the child? and What is his purpose? Having read much more on education, I feel now that I need to add one more vitally important question: What is knowledge and how do we know?

Within these questions there are others we can ask to help us develop our thinking and to fill out our arguments. Some of these are very big questions which may seem overwhelming initially. I am adding sub-questions to help us understand the big questions and to beign to think about what their answers might be. This list is something of a work in progress but here is what I would put on it thus far:

What is the nature of the child?

There are two questions within this one. We must first ask —

What is the nature of man? We can think here of various areas. We may ask: What is his moral nature? Is he inherently good? Inherently evil? Something in between or some mixture of the two?

We may also ask: What are his abilities? Can he freely choose? Is he bound by determinism? Or again, something in between these two? Can he think? Can he will? Can he reason?

Having made some statements about man in general, we must also ask about the child —

How does he differ from the man? Does he have the same nature (moral and otherwise)? Does he have the same abilities? Are his faculties inherent to him or must they be developed? Is the child in his essence a small man or must he become a man?

Whether we are steeped in a theological tradition or not, I think most of us have some opinion on the moral nature of man — whether the average person is basically good or basically bad or how the good and bad intermingle. And most of us will, I think, say that we have some mental abilities (if we don’t believe it of others, we certainly believe it of ourselves). The big practical question for education is how do these things play out in the child? Does he begin good or morally neutral and learn to do wrong? Does he begin wrong but learn to be good?  As a parent, do you see your job as disciplining against wrong or training for good or cultivating an inherent good?

And how is the child different from the adult in terms of his abilities, particularly his ability to know and learn? Must he be taught to reason, or to use the reason he has?

One way to begin to think about these questions is to imagine a child who has no outside influences (raised by morally neutral wolves, maybe). How will he develop? Will he have compassion and empathy? Will he be entirely self-serving? Will he think (beyond what his wolf-y brothers do)? Will he develop discernment? Will he be able to gather information and form ideas and create new tools on his own?

Another way to begin to get to the answers to these questions is to think of what metaphor you would use for the child — Is he a blank slate to be written on? an empty vessel to be filled? a lump of clay to be molded? a seedling to be nourished and trained to grow upright? or something else? (Philosophies have been built on each of these metaphors.)

Similarly, we may ask about the role of the teacher — Does he fill, mold, train, nourish? Is his ideal role passive or active? Is he an example, a mentor, a source of knowledge, a provider of materials?

What is his purpose?

Education has some purpose or we would not do it. This purpose may be final or it may be a step along the way to a greater purpose.

One of the first questions me must ask, then, is what is the ultimate purpose of man? Or is there any? Which is as much as to say: Is there meaning to human existence and if so, what is it? Is there one purpose for all of us or do we all have different purposes?

If you are a parent, you probably have some vision of who and what and how you want your child to be. Try finishing this sentence: The thing I would most want for my child is __________ . And now think about how you will feel if your child doesn’t finish that sentence for himself they way you would for him. Is that okay?

When we speak about purpose in this way, we are thinking fairly long term. We are looking to the end of life and asking what will make that life good or meaningful or worthwhile.

When we think of education, we need to ask how it relates to this ultimate goal. Is education for the long term or is it for the short term? (It may be some combination of the two as well, though I would argue that one goal will always take precedence over the other.) A question that will help us answer this is: How long does education last? Is it for the young only (or primarily)? Or is it a life-long enterprise?

If we take a long-term view of education, then our purpose for life is also our purpose for education. That is, whatever our ultimate goal is, that is what we are educating towards. If our goal is an ultimate one, education will not end when schooling does.

Alternatively, education might be something we need to get us to the point where we can begin to achieve our purpose. Education in this view is equipping. It is a stage along the way and there will be a time when it ends, or at least changes in some significant way. If this is the case, then we must ask what preparation is needed. What is lacking that education will supply? Is there some body of knowledge that needs to be learned? Some skill to be learned or developed? How can education contribute to the greater purpose?

Notice that there is a lot of overlap here with the previous “big question” — if we believe that the child is born good and with all the abilities of an adult, we are probably not going to have a short-term goal for education. It may point to a greater purpose but there is no real equipping or preparation along the way that is needed. Alterntively, if the child is lacking something the adult has (or should have) then maybe education is simply how he gets from point A to point B so that he is then able to begin living out his purpose.

What is knowledge and how do we know? 

When we are talking about knowledge and knowing, we are in the realm of epistemology. Though it seems backwards, I’d like to begin with the second half of this question: How do we know?

Again, we go back to the nature of the child. Can the child integrate knowledge in the same way an adult does or does he need to be taught how to do so? Does he need to be taught how to think or does he simply need to be given the fodder for thought? Is he already equipped to deal with knowledge if it comes before his notice?  If we say his reason needs to be trained or developed, this will tend towards a short-term goal. At some point we will have done as much as we can for him, and he is on his own, released into the world to do all that thinking.

There is another aspect of the “how do we know” question which leads more directly to educational methods. Whether education is primarily for childhood or is life-long, there is something that happens between reading (or hearing or seeing) and knowing. And what does it even mean to “know” something? Do I know something when it enters my short-term memory? When it enters my long-term memory? Or does knowing go beyond that — does it mean that I can manipulate a piece of information and use it in new ways? Does it mean that I can apply it to real-world situations? Or is knowing about relationship?

Imagine that you are reading a book about birds. You might read the words and then walk away and not be able to relate a single thing you read.  Or you might remember some facts about swallows (for instance) till dinnertime. Or maybe what you read enters long-term memory and you can still recall it years later. Would you say at this point that you “know” about swallows? What if you can recite facts about that swallow but you walk outside and a barn swallow buzzes your head and you don’t recognize him? Would you still say you “know” about swallows? Or does knowledge imply some ability to apply that knowledge? Then again, it’s one thing to say: “Oh, that bird buzzed my head and I think it is a barn swallow” and to say: “Oh, look, a barn swallow! You better duck; they like to buzz people’s heads.” Now there is an application that not only observes but also predicts. On another level still is the scientist who comes up with a new theory which explains why the barn swallow likes to buzz heads.

I think most of us would say that there are degrees here — the person with facts in long-term memory at least knows about swallows. Somewhere along the way there is a transition so that we can say that the scientist not only knows about but actually knows swallows.

As we educate, we have to ask: Which of these levels of knowing is our goal? I hope that most will admit that no one person can know everything about every subject so we will likely have to prioritize. Our answer may vary — we may say it is enough to know about swallows but I want my child to know chemistry and American history. On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t need to know anything at all about jazz music.

Our technique will vary based on the kind of knowledge we are aiming for and how we think it gets into one’s head. Is it enough to memorize lists of facts? Does knowledge need to come in through a more relatable medium, through stories perhaps? Or are hands-on experiences key? The ancients often educated through questioning; perhaps this is the best way. Or maybe, in our scientific age, we value experimentation.

We have been talking about how knowledge gets in; we can also talk about how it gets out. Is it necessary to give practical expression to it? Our society values testing. Often this is to benefit the teacher or adminstrator by letting him know what the student has learned or how the curriculum is working. But testing, in various forms, may also benefit the student. Do you believe this is true? Is there any value to the learner in regurgitating knowledge? And if so, what is of the greatest benefit to him? Are written tests the way to go or recitation or hands-on projects?

Finally, we need to talk about knowledge itself. Depending on our view of the child’s nature, knowledge may or may not be our goal. If what we are aiming at is to teach the child to think, then knowledge may be little more than the fodder for this process. What we learn may not be as important as how we learn to act on that material. It is as if we are teaching the child to build a tower but whether he builds with Lincoln Logs or plastic blocks is irrelevant.

Most of us, however, will place some value on what is taught. So we must ask: Is there one set body of knowledge that everyone needs to know (or everyone in our western society, perhaps)? Or is learning so individualized that while we encourage knowing, each person’s body of knowledge may be completely unique to them? Many will come down somewhere in between — there are some things everyone must learn and some that are optional. We might insist our child learn to read and do math up through algebra but let them off the hook on calculus or give them a choice betwen American and European history. Again, our answers will depend on what we think the goal of education is. If learning is life-long, if we value knowledge for its own sake, we are likely to cast a much wider net. If we have more practical, specific goals, we will gear what we learn towards those goals.

We must look at knowledge itself from a broader perspective as well. How does history or literature relate to science? Is one subject more valuable than another? Is there any overarching truth which ties it all together?

Wrapping it up

I suspect that we could go on and on. There are many possible questions to ask and we don’t need to answer them all. But we do need to begin to think about them. Every additional question you can answer for yourself gets you one step closer to forming your own philosophy of education. I hope I have at least convinced you that there are some pretty big ideas at work here and that they are worth considering. And that as you ask for advice from other parents or as you choose a curriculum that it is important to think about where they are coming from and if their philosophy has anything in common with your own. If you are completely overwhelmed, check out my section on approaches to homeschooling here and my quiz to get you started here.

Nebby

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] And if you are looking for even more questions to help develop a philosophy of education, check out this post (but fair warning — it may make your head […]

    Reply

  2. […] implications for our approach to education.  Who man is, what his nature is and his purpose, these among many other questions will shape a philosophy of […]

    Reply

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