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Theories on the Philosophy of Education

by Samuel Hamilton, studioD

Walk into any school and you’re likely to find a wide variety of educational theories throughout the building. In fact, one individual teacher can borrow bits and pieces from dozens of different theories without even knowing it. Though there is incredible diversity in terms of theories of education, most every isolatable theory of education can be grouped according to a handful of themes.


Classical theories of education typically hold that each member of a society should learn an established chunk of knowledge. This chunk of knowledge can be anything from a group of disciplines or skills to a library of certain books. According to Ken Robinson, perhaps the most historically famous example of classical education was the trivium and quadrivium of the Middle Ages. The trivium was reserved for younger pupils who were taught three specific subjects: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This prepared them for the quadrivium, or geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. In the 21st century, educational theorists such as Ken Robinson regard standardized tests as a form of contemporary classical education.


Contemplative theories of education, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, focus on an individual’s personal and spiritual development. To this end, contemplative theories of education tend to be closely associated with religious practices as well as educational models that emerge from such practices such as teaching in Catholic schools or in Jewish Yeshiva schools. Contemplative theories of education encourage students to engage in inward-looking activities such as reflection, journaling, meditation and rumination. Though it focuses on personal development, contemplative theories of education exist in many contemporary classrooms in which students are asked to reflect on their own work or anticipate how a certain assignment or activity can be completed.


A sort of hybrid between classical and contemplative theories, humanistic theories of education focus on an individual’s position in a social world. Following John Dewey's theories in "Democracy and Education," humanistic models do emphasize contemplative activities such as reflection and rumination, while also recognizing the importance of significant bodies of knowledge or ideologies as with classical education. The most famous models of humanistic education emerged in the early and mid-20th century in practices such as the critical pedagogy of Paolo Freire and the democratic pedagogy of Ira Shor. While the former encourages students to challenge society’s status quo, particularly in terms of injustices such as classism and racism, the later encourages students to seek methods of developing a more egalitarian and democratic society in spite of such injustice.


With the advent and widespread adoption of digital technologies, the philosophy of education expanded to address students’ interactions with these technologies in addition to students’ interactions with each other, society as a whole and chunks of knowledge from society. Post-humanistic theories of education, according to Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg, recognize that students spend more and more time “interacting” with screens, and these interactions can often have as profound an effect on a child’s development as can their interactions with other children or with teachers. Examples of post-humanistic models of education exist in many classrooms around the world in which students are asked or required to use various digital technologies as a tool in or focus of their daily learning experiences.

About the Author

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.

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