Philosophical Influences in American Education Research Paper

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Educational Philosophies

Richard D. Mosier (1951) discusses two views of American education, one which frames education as experience, as formation from without, and the other that sees education as growth or development within. These two ideas can also be defined as traditional and progressive approaches to education.

In traditional educational settings educators teach the skills, facts, and standards of moral and social conduct that are necessary for the learners material and social success. Students are expected to be passive and compliantly receive and believe these fixed answers. Teachers are the instruments by which knowledge is communicated. Traditional education is teacher centered and the student teacher relationship is irrelevant. Students are grouped by their abilities and achievements and learning is measured by standardized bench marks. Furthermore, students compete against one another, curriculum is prescribed, and demonstration of mastery is fixed.

John Dewey was a proponent of the progressive education movement. He felt that learning was active and that schooling was unnecessarily long and restrictive. He believed that children came to school to do things and live in a community which gave them real, guided experiences and fostered their capacity to contribute to society (Neil, 2005). This belief spawned the development of experiential education programs.

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Dewey based his philosophy on the supposition that humans are social animals who learn best in real life situations. His proposed that children learn as scientists, and developed a five step model of learning through discovery. Teachers in this setting strive to provide not just reading and drill, but also real-world experiences and activities that center on the real life of the students.

Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism

TOPIC: Research Paper on Philosophical Influences in American Education Assignment

Idealism, realism, pragmatism, and existentialism are four philosophical schools of thought that provide frameworks from which the foundation of the different educational philosophies in American education are derived. The origins of idealism and realism can be traced to the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, while pragmatism and existentialism are more contemporary.


The goal of idealism in education is to assist the student in discovering and developing their individual abilities and full moral excellence in order to reach their full potential. Curriculum focuses on literature, history, philosophy, and religion. The teaching methodology is centered on exploring ideas through lecture, discussion, and Socratic dialogue, a method of teaching that uses questioning to encourage students to discover and clarify their thoughts. Introspection, intuition, insight, and whole-part logic are used to bring to consciousness the forms or concepts which are latent in the mind. Development of character is established through the emulation of the examples set by heroes (Cohen & Gelbrich, 1999).


The educational object of realism is to examine subject matter of the physical world, principally science and mathematics. The teaching methodology is centered on mastery of facts and basic skills through demonstration and recitation. It necessitates that the student demonstrates the ability to think critically and scientifically, using observation and experimentation. Curriculum should be scientifically approached, standardized, and discipline based. Development of character is established through rules of conduct (Cohen & Gelbrich, 1999).


Unlike the Realists and Rationalists, Pragmatists believe that reality is constantly changing and that we learn best through applying our experiences and thoughts to problems, as they arise. Pragmatists promote teaching methods focused on hands-on problem solving, experimenting, and projects. Often students work in groups. Curriculum should strive to bring the disciplines together, focusing on solving problems in an interdisciplinary way. Pragmatists believe that learners should apply their knowledge to real situations through experimental inquiry. This prepares students for citizenship, daily living, and future careers (Cohen & Gelbrich, 1999).


For existentialists individual choice and individual standards rather than external standards are central, thus the nature of reality is subjective. Existentialists reject anyone else's predetermined philosophical system believing it is the individual's responsibility for deciding who they are in relation to the outside world. The focus is on freedom and the development of authentic individuals. Existentialists feel the subject matter of classrooms should be a matter of personal choice. It is the job of the teacher to view the individual as an entity within a social context in which the learner must confront others' views to clarify their own. Existentialists oppose thinking about students as objects to be measured, tracked, or standardized, and place focus on the student, rather than on curriculum content. The educational experience should create opportunities for self-direction and self-actualization. Real answers come from examining life through authentic thinking in genuine learning experiences. Character development emphasizes individual responsibility for decisions (Cohen & Gelbrich, 1999).

A Side by Side Comparison:

Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism

Educational Philosophies



Pragmatism (Experientialism)


Guiding Tenet

Ideas are the only true reality and the only thing worth knowing. The quest for truth, beauty and justice is enduring

Reality exists independent of the human mind. The ultimate reality is the world of physical objects. Truth is objective and can be observed.

Only things that are experienced or observed are real. Reality is constantly changing and the universe is dynamic and evolving.

The nature of reality is subjective and lies within the individual. Individual choice and individual standards rather than external standards are central.


Philosopher/s & Proponent/s

Plato (c. 428-348 B.C.)

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). John Dewey (1859-1952)

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Educational Significance

Assist student in discovering and developing individual abilities

Examine subject matter of real world.

Learn by applying experiences and thoughts to solve problems

Create opportunities for self-direction and actualization

Instructional Methodology & Curriculum

Emphasis on literature, history, philosophy and religion. Ideas explored through lecture, discussion and Socratic dialogue. Introspection, intuition, insight, and logic utilized to reach understanding

Emphasis on subject matter of the physical world, particularly mathematics and science. Lessons organized systematically within a discipline to facilitate mastery of facts and basic skills through demonstration, recitation and ability to think scientifically using observation and experimentation

Emphasis on hands-on problem solving, experimentation, and projects, often having students work in groups. Bring disciplines together to focus on problem solving in an interdisciplinary manor.

Emphasis is on the student. Teachers view individual s entity within social context where learner must confront other's views in order to clarify their own. Students are not objects to be tracked measured, tracked, or standardized.

Character Development

Established through the emulation of the examples set by heroes

Established through rules of conduct

Established through experimental inquiry

Established through emphasize on individual responsibility for decisions


The problem with applying any one of these philosophies exclusively in the classroom is that children learn in different ways. While some students may flourish within a classroom based on one philosophy, others may whither. These learning differences can be explained through the concept of styles of thinking.

A style of thought is a preference for using abilities in certain ways. Sternberg and Zhang (2005) point out styles are preferences, not abilities. Styles are not "good" or "bad," but rather matters of fit between learner and teacher or learner and material. What one teacher considers a good style, another may consider bad, and vice versa. Styles can vary across tasks and situations. Students can and do, vary their styles, at least somewhat, to fit what they are doing. Students also do not have one fixed style and differ in strengths of stylistic preferences. Some students strongly prefer certain styles while others have only weak preferences. Students differ in stylistic flexibility while some easily can switch among styles others cannot. Thinking styles are socialized, they are learned through interactions with the environment.

It's important to note that styles can vary across one's life, they are not fixed and individuals may change their styles over the years. The very thinking style that leads to success in one school or one job may lead to failure in another.


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