29 September 2009

Personal Philosophy of Education

We the teachers in order to form a more perfect people, stimulate young minds to pursue lifelong learning, promote just and rational thought and citizen participation in a prosperous democracy must establish a curriculum for the education of America. Standardized, “one-size-fits-all” curriculum of mainstream public education mandated by the government and administered by the government is in direct contradiction with the democratic principles on which our nation was founded. Therefore, I will work within the existing system to promote a student-centered integration of core curriculum with a constructivist design.

What is a Philosophy of Education and Why Does It Matter?
A philosophy of education sets the underlying belief and purpose which guides our actions as educators, administrators, and legislators. When we understand and unify our shared philosophy we are able to develop a cohesive curriculum and concise approach to pedagogy. However, this shared philosophy, as I see it, does not require teachers to utilize the same methods or a standardized curriculum delivery.

The purpose of public education in the eyes of the Founding Fathers is to create an informed citizenry to sustain a strong nation. Thomas Jefferson’s educational policy was one of academic excellence and equality of opportunity. According to Pulliam and Van Patten (2007), he was not “a supporter of strong federal government, and therefore, his efforts to improve were on a local and state level.” So it must be with education. Knowing how to read is important for citizens to become informed of current issues and political leaders. Understanding political and legal processes as well as laws and the foundational values of those laws is vital to sustain rights, freedom, and citizen participation within the nation. These are the only requirements for education which the national government has any right to specifically mandate. All other issues are of local or individual concern because American society is composed of many distinct cultures with varying and even competing values. Individuals must maintain the right to choose the manner in which they will contribute to the national economy. This national concern in regards to individual will and vocation can only properly be addressed by the government offering a broad range of studies from which a young student may choose.

Values and priorities tend to be regionally or locally accepted and should be taught in local school systems with strong parental input and oversight. Of all the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution the most vital is the right to exercise individual conscience. Extreme progressive education as a social agenda inhibits parental control over children’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual education.

Then who should decide what is learned and how it is taught? The answer is: those who are intended to benefit from it. A student will receive no benefit for something he does not want and refuses to use. Therefore compulsory curriculum does not serve the average student. Like the government itself, government mandated and publicly supported education must be of the people, for the people and by the people. This notion was supported by Ronald Regan during his administration where he severely cut back federal power to allow the states more authority by minimizing federal restrictions on educational grant money (O’Connor & Sabato.) We could use another dose of that in future presidential administrations.

Student-Centered Integration
As a teacher, it is my job to help students relate to the material in a way that motivates them to learn. However, it is my hope that each student would come to my class already motivated to learn because he personally chose to be in that class. To focus that interest and make the learning stick, a teacher must show a student how the new knowledge relates or applies to real world experience. This is an assertion of pragmatist philosophy. According to Dean Webb, Arlene Metha, and Forbis Jordan (2007) Charles Sanders Pierce was a mathematician and logician who “regarded learning, believing and knowing as intimate parts of doing and feeling and lamented that educators often ignored this important relationship."

I believe as a science teacher that the best thing I can do for my students is to teach them to see life as a series of hypotheses and verifiable experiments. For example, character education could be emphasized by noting that we do not have to experiment with drugs to know what their effects are. We have already established the damaging effects of that experiment, so there is no need to replicate it. On the other hand, we can utilize scientific method as we observe the actions of people we admire and who are successful and record our impressions of what behaviors contribute to their success in an effort to replicate their achievements, or at least develop a hypothesis for happiness and success which we will likely spend our lives testing and honing.

Condensed Basics As Integrated Electives
The weakness of student-centered progressive education in the past has been a lack of curricular focus. The swinging pendulum of school reform never manages to integrate the best of both approaches (student focus versus curriculum focus). I believe there is a way to reach a middle ground. Early education should be the time to condense basic curriculum to assure a solid foundation for future learning. The key difference with an integrated student-centered approach is that the child picks the primary subject she wants to learn and the teacher uses that primary subject to build divergent subject knowledge upon.

For example: the child’s primary subject is reading. To introduce number concepts the teacher utilizes stories and books which emphasize ordinals and number concepts such as Eric Carle’s Rooster’s Off to See the World. A child who chooses math as his primary subject could integrate writing by telling a story about his favorite number family. Note here that every class or subject is an elective according to the child’s perception but the curriculum is standard for all students. It is just integrated in a child-specific way. The beauty here is that the teacher still has an overriding pattern of education which requires only minor adaptation to tailor to each student group because there are only so many subjects the young ones can choose from. Further, students will naturally choose the subjects for which they have an aptitude which indicates learning style preferences. Students with similar preferences being grouped together will multiply the effectiveness of each students learning.

Once the basic foundation is laid, students should have increasing elective opportunities. The key here is not leaving the student to decide what the curriculum is, but to let the student choose among the essential and elective curriculum studies which are offered. The underlying weakness of post-modern student-centered approach is that it assumes the student is the sole authority in a culturally and morally relativist world. It undermines the absolutes which provide a secure sense of reality for young people. Such relativistic philosophies, given too much credence, lead the student to wonder about the point of learning anything when nothing is real.

Teaching young people that there is such thing as reality and that they can experimentally verify it and share their experience with others who will report similar results makes learning significant and life meaningful. Students with purpose do not suffer from existentialist uselessness. Meaningful lives do not end in suicide. The number of suicidal, angst-filled artists, musicians, and poets who subscribed to post-modernist philosophy attests to the underlying tragedy of its fatalistic tenets. Please let us not teach these things in the school.

Teacher Assessment
It is very important to know what a student is retaining and where she needs more training. Assessment is the only way to do this. However, the student should not perceive testing as the ultimate goal or achievement. Acquiring knowledge should be the goal. Understanding should be the achievement. Students should see the test as a learning tool. For that reason, I am a proponent of open book/ computer tests. There is too much knowledge in the world to stick in any one person’s head. Knowing where to find it and how to use it, on the other hand, is a vital life skill. I would construct tests where the answer might be obvious but the question and answer together teach or reinforce a relevant principle.

High stakes national testing serves a limited purpose. I think SAT’s are an effective filtering method to determine which students are best-suited for colleges who use similar testing methods and achievement-based curriculum mandates. However, I question the methods and effectiveness of those colleges as much as I do the testing.

Every Child Gets Ahead
The No Child Left Behind Act has a legacy of controversy over what student needs are being met and how the mandates of the law meet those needs. The title sounds like it is a student-centered initiative when it is, in fact, a blanket requirement for all students to learn one curriculum. In Howard Smith’s review (2008) of a volume of essays edited by Christine Sleeter, he noted that each chapter seemed to contain a set of core values and beliefs which were “1. Standards and testing alone cannot create meaningful change in schools. 2. Standards, like instruction, must be linked to the needs and realities of the learners. 3. Effective education is a dynamic process that must recognize and include parents, teachers, and students as stakeholders." Smith further highlights a concern of Darling-Hammond, “Will standards and tests built upon a foundation of continued inequality simply certify student failure more visibly and reduce access to future education and employment?"

Though, statistically, the income of the average college graduate is greater than the average high school dropout, we cannot assume that college is the only path to success. Therefore, my classroom will be a laboratory for success that does not exclude the non-college bound. Students will be taught to relate learning to a variety of life-relevant experiences and occurrences. For example, a student who says he does not want to go to college who is interested in construction would be asked to explain how a particular principle of physics applies to a particular piece of construction equipment (such as why a backhoe cannot be operated without setting the support legs).

My classroom is not a place of equality it is a place of achievement. Each student is recognized for his own level of achievement and is challenged to exceed his own expectations without concern for the progress of other students. Material will be organized and taught in group settings where quick learners are given the opportunity to move swiftly through the material and study it more in depth as a group. Slower learners are grouped to allow them to take their time getting through essential material. Each student will be given teaching opportunities within the classroom to reinforce her own learning and share her unique perspective.

The hidden curriculum here is that regardless of the pace at which each person learns, they each have something valuable to contribute. Further, students will be able to imply that equal opportunity to learn does not mean every student has to learn the same things at the same time. Most importantly they will learn that opportunity may be equal, but what each person does with their opportunity separates them from each other, and that is good because each person is doing their best. Disparaging or marginalizing other students will not be tolerated.

Conclusion

Just like all studies I have undertaken, I see philosophy of education as having a number of conflicting views and approaches which I seek to integrate and reconcile. That is the very skill I wish to teach to my students. They must be given the opportunity to determine their own courses, personally relate the information they are receiving while trying to integrate and synthesize divergent views and subjects. Young people are so much smarter than they are often given credit for. When we as teachers believe in their ability to comprehend our complex world we empower them to utilize practical application methods and develop a love for lifelong learning. Absolute truth for absolutely capable students will make the world a much more intelligent place.

08 September 2009

Universalist Perspective

Introduction

The dynamic between the individual and his role in society is molded by early education. How that dynamic is interpreted or criticized has been classed into three perspectives: functionalist, conflict theory, and interactionist. They each have different answers the questions: Who controls what is taught? What is the intent of the teaching? How does what is taught affect the individual and his or her place in society? None of these perspectives, however, adequately addresses these issues in their whole context.

Analysis

Functionalists see education as “essential for an orderly and efficient society” (Webb p.199). Thomas Jefferson could be classed in this philosophical perspective. He promoted education to prepare young people to be responsible citizens of a democratic society. It is a top down view of the dissemination of information for the benefit of those without information. While the intent is justified and admirable, the content of education is dictated by those in power.

Which brings us to the conflict theory: Jefferson did not promote public education for girls, Indians, or slaves. Knowledge was to be disseminated to those deemed worthy of the ruling class (white male democracy). This justifies the conflict theory perspective that the educational system perpetuates social inequality (p. 189). And while conflict theorists opposed the hidden curriculum of capitalist class reinforcement, the tables have turned in modern education where the hidden curriculum reflects socialist principles of government-mandated equality, which undermines individual achievement and identity.

Which brings us to the interactionist perspective: the individual is seen as being influenced by the models of socialization that exist in the microcosm of classroom and school, which by grading and achievement stratification, perpetuates socio-economic stratification.

None of the perspectives address who has the authority to distribute knowledge and how it should be delivered. Truth is free and independent of the agents of dissemination. We live in the information age. Human beings have never had the access to knowledge that we do now. And yet, people are unable to afford formal post secondary education. Because the government sanctions the restriction of knowledge via university accreditation, the government must fund formal education for those who wish to go but are unable to afford it. Furthermore, people like myself, who have read textbooks from used bookstores and made learning a lifelong pursuit are not viewed as being educated because we lack a government authenticated degree.

I enjoy taking classes and am willing to pay for knowledge because I am a capitalist and believe that those who have taken the time to gain knowledge and record or share it should be compensated for their time. However, not having formally completed those courses required by a particular school under their specific format prevents me from being fairly acknowledged for my own independent studies and research. As a result, I lack the formal degree which prevents me from getting a job which would potentially alter my economic status.

For example, for each paper I write at Ashford, I am required to cite a minimum of two sources from scholarly journals. On my last final I was marked down from a perfect score because, even though I met the citation requirements, the instructor assumed that I, as a non-degreed student, could not have formulated the ideas I presented and asked me to give references for my own original words—written before I even did my research.

The reference requirement sends a subtle message that only those with a degree have the authority to credibly speak on a given topic and they must do it through the medium of an obscure journal which is only read by people in that specific field. However, opinion reinforced by opinion does not make it fact, nor should it establish credibility, lest when a president says “And that’s not just my opinion, there are many others who feel this way” na├»ve students perpetuate the error in logic that “Professors say A, therefore A.”

There is a value in formal authentication of personal study. Yet, the great thinkers of the past were only great because they studied and drew conclusions no existing book could teach them. Newton did not learn his theories at university. He learned them from the universe and THEN taught them at the university.

For the government to assume authority for the restriction and/or sanctification of information through curriculum agenda undermines the most basic elements of democracy. I am applying Lockean and Jeffersonian philosophy of social contract theory to knowledge and education. Jefferson held that public education would promote a “natural aristocracy of virtue and talents and eliminate the artificial aristocracy of wealth and birth” (Honderich p. 428). The power of an educator to teach is derived from the consent of the learner. Each man (woman and child) has the divinely appointed right to learn and to choose the nature of that learning. Education must be of the people, for the people, and by the people; from the bottom up, not the top down.

Teaching children from a young age that they must accept what the government has deemed necessary and beneficial for their education contradicts the principles of democracy. It reinforces the power of the state and disenfranchises individual conscience. Many political scientists and social commentators lament the apathy of the American voter. I tell you, we learned apathy in twelve years of mandatory schooling where we were unequivocally taught to work within the system.

As you can see, I relate profoundly to the conflict theory contention against the “prestige hierarchy of schools” (p. 199), and subscribe to a critical view of the hidden intent of public education. However, I also subscribe to the interactionist philosophy that top-down education is not solely responsible for conditions within public school systems, but that teachers reinforce students’ self-perception through their daily activities which has an immeasurable impact on the course of the person’s life.

Bringing it full circle, the course of the person’s life must be acknowledged as uniquely his own. When school is used as a medium to reinforce the value of individual choice in the context of his responsibility to society (functionalist premise) he will more readily acknowledge the consequences of his actions and make responsible choices that will, more often than not, lead him to be a productive and conscientious citizen within his community and the nation.

Conclusion

Clearly, my views do not represent any of the described philosophies. Though attitudes from each theory are present, my perspective warrants its own classification. Therefore, universalist perspective can be stated thus: Knowledge is free to all who endeavor to learn. When governments hinder the flow of knowledge or proscribe educational goals to the general population they restrict natural human liberty. Public education must facilitate perpetual learning in a modern and changing society to prepare the individual for a lifetime of learning by providing resources and teaching study methods. This is the key to a strong democracy and a productive economy.

References

Honderich, Ted (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press

Webb, D.L.; Metha, A; & Jordan, K.F. (2003) Foundations of American Education 5th ed. Pearson, New Jersey.