Education theory

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Education theory seeks to know, understand and prescribe educational practices. Education theory is informed by many disciplines including history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and neuroscience.

Educational thought[edit]

Educational thought is the "reflective examination of educational issues and problems from the perspective of diverse disciplines."[1] It does not necessarily aim to prescribe educational practice as do normative theories, nor does it necessarily set out to describe or explain the way things are, as does descriptive theory. Rather, it is general reflection on what is prescribed and what has been described.


Classical education[edit]

The Classical education movement advocates a form of education based in the traditions of Western culture, with a particular focus on education as understood and taught in the Middle Ages. The term "classical education" has been used in English for several centuries, with each era modifying the definition and adding its own selection of topics. By the end of the 18th century, in addition to the trivium and quadrivium of the Middle Ages, the definition of a classical education embraced study of literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, history, art, and languages. In the 20th and 21st centuries it is used to refer to a broad-based study of the liberal arts and sciences, as opposed to a practical or pre-professional program. Classical Education can be described as rigorous and systematic, separating children and their learning into three rigid categories, Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric.

Contemplative education[edit]

Contemplative education focuses on bringing spiritual awareness into the pedagogical process. Contemplative approaches may be used in the classroom, especially in tertiary or (often in modified form) in secondary education.

Contemplative methods may also be used by teachers in their preparation. In this case, inspiration for enriching the content, format, or teaching methods may be sought through various practices, such as consciously reviewing the previous day's activities; actively holding the students in consciousness; and contemplating inspiring pedagogical texts. Waldorf education was one of the pioneers of this approach.[2] Zigler suggested that only through focusing on their own spiritual development could teachers positively impact the spiritual development of students.[3]

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society's Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education was set up to foster the use of contemplative methods in education. Parker Palmer is a recent pioneer in contemplative methods.

Critical pedagogy[edit]

Critical pedagogy is an "educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action." Based in Marxist theory, critical pedagogy draws on radical democracy, anarchism, feminism, and other movements for social justice.

Democratic education[edit]

Democratic education is a theory of learning and school governance in which students and staff participate freely and equally in a school democracy. In a democratic school, there is typically shared decision-making among students and staff on matters concerning living, working, and learning together.

Normative theories of education[edit]

Normative theories of education provide the norms, goals, and standards of education.[4]

Normative Philosophies[edit]

"Normative philosophies of education make use of the results of philosophical thought, factual inquiries about human beings, the psychology of learning, what education 'should be', what dispositions it should cultivate, why it ought to cultivate them, how and in whom it should do so, and what forms it should take. A full-fledged theory of education based on the philosophical normative includes: 1. Basic normative premises about what is good or right; 2. Basic factual premises about humanity and the world; 3. Conclusions, based on these two kinds of premises, about the dispositions education should foster; 4. Further factual premises about such things as the psychology of learning and methods of teaching; and 5. Further conclusions about such things as the methods that education should use."[5]

Examples of the purpose of schools include:[6] develop reasoning about perennial questions, master the methods of scientific inquiry, cultivate the intellect, create change agents, develop spirituality, and model a democratic society :[7]

Common educational philosophies include: educational perennialism, educational progressivism, educational essentialism, critical pedagogy, Montessori education, Waldorf education, and democratic education.

Normative Curriculum Theory[edit]

Normative theories of curriculum aim to "describe, or set norms, for conditions surrounding many of the concepts and constructs" that define curriculum.[8] These normative propositions are different from the ones above in that normative curriculum theory is not necessarily untestable.[8] A central question asked by normative curriculum theory is: given a particular educational philosophy, what is worth knowing and why? Some examples are: a deep understanding of the Great Books, direct experiences driven by student interest, a superficial understanding of a wide range knowledge (e.g., Core knowledge), social and community problems and issues, knowledge and understanding specific to cultures and their achievements (e.g., African-Centered Education)

Descriptive theories of education[edit]

Descriptive theories of education provide descriptions or explanations of the processes of education.

Curriculum theory[edit]

Descriptive theories of curriculum explain how curricula "benefit or harm all publics it touches".[9][10]

The term hidden curriculum describes that which is learned simply by being in a learning environment. For example, a student in a teacher-led classroom is learning submission. The hidden curriculum is not necessarily intentional.[11]

Instructional theory[edit]

Instructional theories focus on the methods of instruction for teaching curricula. Theories include the methods of: autonomous learning, coyote teaching, inquiry-based instruction, lecture, maturationism, socratic method, outcome-based education, taking children seriously, transformative learning

The nature of the learner and of learning[edit]

Philosophical Anthropology

Philosophical anthropology is the philosophical study of human nature. In terms of learning, examples of descriptive theories of the learner are: a mind, soul, and spirit capable of emulating the Absolute Mind (Idealism); an orderly, sensing, and rational being capable of understanding the world of things (Realism), a rational being with a soul modeled after God and who comes to know God through reason and revelation (Neo-Thomism), an evolving and active being capable of interacting with the environment (Pragmatism), a fundamentally free and individual being who is capable of being authentic through the making of and taking responsibility for choices (Existentialism).[12] Philosophical concepts for the process of education include Bildung and paideia.

Educational Psychology

Educational psychology is an empirical science that provides descriptive theories of how people learn. Examples of theories of education in psychology are: constructivism, behaviorism, cognitivism, and motivational theory

Sociology of education[edit]

The sociology of education is the study of how public institutions and individual experiences affect education and its outcomes. It is most concerned with the public schooling systems of modern industrial societies, including the expansion of higher, further, adult, and continuing education.[13] Examples of theories of education from sociology include: functionalism, conflict theory, social efficiency, and social mobility.

Educational anthropology[edit]

Educational anthropology is a sub-field of anthropology and is widely associated with the pioneering work of George Spindler. As the name would suggest, the focus of educational anthropology is obviously on education, although an anthropological approach to education tends to focus on the cultural aspects of education, including informal as well as formal education. As education involves understandings of who we are, it is not surprising that the single most recognized dictum of educational anthropology is that the field is centrally concerned with cultural transmission.[14] Cultural transmission involves the transfer of a sense of identity between generations, sometimes known as enculturation[15] and also transfer of identity between cultures, sometimes known as acculturation.[16] Accordingly thus it is also not surprising that educational anthropology has become increasingly focussed on ethnic identity and ethnic change.[17][18]

Organizational and leadership theory[edit]

Educational theorists[edit]

Jean Piaget Lev Vygotsky

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Journal of Thought". Retrieved 19 November 2010. 
  2. ^ Alexander Cameron, "Waldorf Teacher Education as Transformative Learning". In Appreciating the Best of What Is: Envisioning What Could Be: The Proceedings of The Sixth International Conference On Transformative Learning, October 6-9, 2005, ed. David Vlosak, Gloria Kielbaso, John Radford. Michigan State University & Grand Rapids Community College
  3. ^ Zigler, Ronald Lee (1999). "Tacit Knowledge and Spiritual Pedagogy". Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in Religion & Education 20 (2): 162–172. 
  4. ^ Dolhenty, Jonathan. "Philosophy of Education and Wittgenstein's Concept of Language-Games". The Radical Academy. Retrieved 19 November 2010. 
  5. ^ Frankena, William K.; Raybeck, Nathan; Burbules, Nicholas (2002), "Philosophy of Education", in Guthrie, James W., Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd edition, New York, NY: Macmillan Reference, ISBN 0-02-865594-X 
  6. ^ Webb, DL, A Metha, and KF Jordan (2010). Foundations of American Education, 6th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merill, pp. 55-91
  7. ^ Barry, W. (2012). Is Modern American Public Education Promoting a Sane Society, in "International Journal of Science" 2nd Ed. ISSN 2225-7063, pp. 69-81,
  8. ^ a b Beauchamp, George A. (Winter 1982). "Curriculum Theory: Meaning, Development, and Use". Theory into Practice 21 (1): pp. 23–27. 
  9. ^ Connelly, F. Michael; Fang He, Ming; JoAnn; Phillion (2008), "Curriculum in Theory", The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction, Sage, p. 394, ISBN 978-1-4129-0990-7 
  10. ^ Scott, Harry V. (April 1968). "A Primer of Curriculum Theory: Descriptive Theory". Educational Theory 18 (2): pp. 118–124. 
  11. ^ Martin, Jane. “What Should We Do with a Hidden Curriculum When We Find One?” The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. Ed. Giroux, Henry and David Purpel. Berkeley, California: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1983. 122–139.
  12. ^ Webb, DL, A Metha, and KF Jordan (2010). Foundations of American Education, 6th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merill, pp. 55-62
  13. ^ Gordon Marshall (ed) A Dictionary of Sociology (Article: Sociology of Education), Oxford University Press, 1998
  14. ^ Comitas, L. and Dolgin, J. 1979. 'On Anthropology and Education: Retrospect and Prospect'. Anthropology and Education Quarterly. 9(1): 87-89
  15. ^ Page, J.S. Education and Acculturation on Malaita: An Ethnography of Intraethnic and Interethnic Affinities'.The Journal of Intercultural Studies. 1988. #15/16:74-81.
  16. ^ Page, J.S. Education and Acculturation on Malaita: An Ethnography of Intraethnic and Interethnic Affinities'.The Journal of Intercultural Studies. 1988. #15/16:74-81, available on-line at
  17. ^ Dynneson, T.L. 1984. 'An Anthropological Approach to Learning and Teaching'. Social Education. 48(6): 410-418.
  18. ^ Schensul, J.J. 1985. 'Cultural Maintenance and Cultural Transformation: Educational Anthropology in the Eighties'. Education and Anthropology Quarterly. 15(1): 63-68.


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