Philosophical and Social Perspectives in Education

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Both sociological and philosophical perspectives provide diverse standpoints from which the social world can be viewed. While a perspective merely refers to a way of inferring the world, a theory goes much deeper because it includes a set of interconnected principles or propositions whose purpose is to elucidate a particular phenomenon or provide answers to distinct questions. Theories, therefore, help in creating a perspective. Accordingly, the primary perspectives concerning education are broadly classified into conflict, symbolic, and functional interactionist approaches (Gutmann, 1999). There also some philosophical perspectives that explain how education should be conducted as well as how learning occurs. These theoretical viewpoints include cognitivism, behaviorism, historism, cognitive constructivism, and situativity theory (Dewey, 1916).

The proponents of the conflict point of view argue that education often endorses social inequality because of its reliance on tracking and standardized tests, as well as the overall effect of the ‘hidden curriculum’. The significant differences in learning conditions and funding between schools are also a form of inequality that contributes to learning discrepancies that further buttress social inequalities. Symbolic interactionism, on the other hand, concentrates on the social relationships that are formed in classrooms, playgrounds, and other places inside a school. Advocates for this point of view assert that interactions among students and other members of the school community play a considerable role in the growth of gender roles. Research also shows that the expectations of teachers concerning the learners’ abilities and competencies determine how much students learn (Noddings, 2009). Further, it has been noted that some educational problems are deeply rooted in social expectations and interactions. Finally, the functionalist view avows the practical significance of education, including socialization, social placement, integration, as well as cultural and social innovation. Other underlying functions of education include the development of peer relations, childcare, and decreasing unemployment by ensuring that students are kept out of the permanent labor force. However, certain intrinsic shortcomings in the educational systems are detrimental to the society because not all the above functions can be adequately met (Delors, 1996).

According to the functionalist perspective, the educational system helps in fulfilling certain core needs of the society. One of the most important aspects in this case is socialization. Education has been touted as a prime instrument through which the values, skills, and norms needed for effective functioning in a society are imparted on children. Teachers do not merely teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also edify most of the society’s core values and norms. While these aspects may vary from one society to the other, the most common include respect for authority, punctuality, patriotism, and competition. Functionalist also emphasize on the role of education in social integration. It is imperative that for any society function accordingly, its members have to subscribe to a universal set of values and beliefs. The progress of such shared values was one of the primary goals of the free and mandatory education system that was developed during the nineteenth century (Gutmann, 1999). Currently, in the United States, a great number of immigrant children are learning the history of the United States, the English language, and other important disciplines that are crucial for their integration into the American way of life and to prepare them for the labor force. Over and above these core functions, the educational system serves several covert functions, most of which are mere derivatives of attending school and being educated as opposed to being direct effects of education. However, it is highly unlikely for any educational system to adequately fulfill all its purposes and obligations to the society, the repercussion of which is problems that can only be solved by reforming the system (UNESCO, 2015).

While the conflict theory hardly disputes any of these core functions of education, it also emphasizes of the inequalities that are propagated by the educational system. Practices such as tracking do have some important advantages, but also perpetuate social discrimination by classifying and placing learners in fast or slow tracks. In some cases, social class, ethnicity, and race are used as determinants of students’ tracks, potentially overlooking their potential and intellectual abilities (UNESCO, 2015). The consequence of such a system is that students who are unfairly tracked lose self-esteem and believe in their supposedly lower academic abilities, thereby causing them to perform poorly in school. Further, standardized tests are said to be culturally biased because they favor middle-class and white students whose social and economic statuses as well as other life experiences and backgrounds allow them to answer the tests (Noddings, 2009).

Numerous philosophical perspectives, such as cognitivism, behaviorism, historism, cognitive constructivism, and situativity theory are the primary backbone of learning and school instruction. Even though they differ depending on their epistemological and ontological postulations, theories of learning and instruction are created and connected to particular suppositions that are consistent with distinct philosophical perspectives. Learning theories describe the process through which learning occurs in diverse environments. The schema theory, for instance, which is consistent with the cognitive perspective, asserts that learning occurs through accretion, turning, and restructuring. On the other hand, instructional theories are typically prescriptive and provide direction in the design of educational instructions. They the appropriate learning methods and stipulate when such techniques should or should not be used. According to the elaboration theory, for example, instruction should be progressive so that the entire learning process becomes meaningful and motivational. It allows for the simplification of learning content without the deconstruction of tasks into pointless and decontextualized fragments (Delors, 1996)

The behaviorists define learning in terms of the precise discernible outcomes that show that learning has indeed occurred. Knowledge is believed to be a mirror of the world, implying that instructional materials can be planned, programmed, and organized with specific expected results. Skinner’s operant conditioning, for instance, equates learning to conditioning, whereby reinforcing behavior increases its probability or frequency. Programmed instruction, therefore, is an exemplar of an instructional technique that enhances learning by making use of reinforcement and feedback (Noddings, 2009). Cognitivism, on the other hand, preserves the objectivist ontological viewpoint whereby content is scrutinized and sequenced in simple, complex, or hierarchical manner. The focus in this case is usually on the knowledge structures of learners as a unit of analysis. These theorists organize information in such as way as to facilitate its acquisition by the student. Gagne’s theory, for instance, outlines five learning aptitudes, including verbal information, intellectual skills, motor skills, cognitive strategies, and attitudes. Cognitive constructivism has its roots in realism. It acknowledges the existence of the world and asserts that learning proceeds from the student’s distinctly and individually created construal of the world. Although this view supports the cognitivist emphasis on the significance of the enhancement of cognitive structures, it does not presume that information is prestructured and mapped into the student’s mind (Gutmann, 1999). These and other philosophical perspectives offer a framework through which models of learning and instruction can be developed and facilitate the eventual learning in the classroom. They help in the creating of different learning methods for different classes or types of learners depending on their strengths, competencies, abilities, and skills. Each of these standpoints stipulates what an ideal learning system should be, how it can be achieved, and how information can be passed on the learners.

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  1. Delors, J. (1996). Learning: The treasure within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first century. Paris, UNESCO.
  2. Dewey, J. (1916). Education and Democracy – Dewey, J. My Pedagogic Creed. In The Curriculum Studies Reader. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 34-41.
  3. Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic Education. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  4. Noddings, N. (2009). The Aims of Education. In D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (3rd ed) (pp. 425-438). New York: Routledge
  5. UNESCO (2015). Rethinking education: Towards a global common good? Paris, UNESCO
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