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.
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.
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.
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.