Caution: Educational Philosophy At Work


The assignment: Explain how an educational philosophy or ideology influences curriculum development. Identify a lesson plan that utilize this philosophy/ideology.

The concept of an educational philosophy is very helpful when creating lesson plans.  This philosophical basis for a lesson determines the “nuts and bolts” of the rest of the instructional plan.  This educational philosophy, or series of thoughts and values that guide an educational intervention, lays the groundwork for the interplay between the learner, the instructor, and the subject matter.  While there are many lists of educational philosophies out there, they are often non-exhaustive and only mention the most prominent philosophies.  If you research “educational philosophies” you will notice several that keep popping up–Essentialism, Perennialism, Progressivism, Social Reconstructionism, Existentialism, etc.–these are the most popular in contemporary educational practices, but by no means the only ones out there.

Today, I will focus on the existential philosophy in education.  Originally identified in philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre discusses existence as being of primary importance.  The importance of existence and free will is what guides the educational construction in the classroom.  Sartre’s contribution to philosophy has allowed us to see the important role that experience plays in education.  As evidenced by the Chinese proverb “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand,” this is not a new concept to how humans learn.  We do, however, have a clearer cultural understanding of how to manipulate this experience in modern educational practices.

Students must learn actively in (or out of) the classroom through experience.  There is a strong focus on the affective (feeling) nature of learning in existentialism.  This information must be in clear relation to other experiences that a student may have.  For example, learning a series of words may be meaningless unless it is clearly connected to how one can use this collection of words to do various thing (i.e. seeing the words as useful in relation to communication, solving a puzzle, understanding directions, etc.).  Problem solving about emotional issues is also an emphasis in existentialism.  It is through the experience of thinking (by oneself or with others) that we are able to better understand a solution to a problem (Vygotski, 1978)

Existentialism is extremely beneficial to learning because it involves the active process of of information input through the entire person.  Many different learning theories depict active interaction with others or with a subject matter as crucial to effective learning.  Theories like Social Learning Theory (Bandura 1977), Situated Learning Theory (Lave, 1988), and Experiential Learning Theory (Rogers 1969) are all major fans of existentialism.  Both Social Learning Theory and Situated Learning Theory advocate for people learning best when we see what we need to do, practice it with other people, and are clear about how it applies directly to our lives or jobs.  Experiential learning theory expresses the need to have the affective or feeling aspects of education in the classroom.  David A. Kolb (1984) has also identified the importance of experiential learning and designed a model in order to better explain this process.

A lesson that I will point out which exemplifies this philosophy is from the website.  It is a lesson on sexual Myths, Facts, Feelings, and Values.  This lesson seems to have existential philosophical roots evidenced by the emphasis on students feelings, the discussion, and the construction of how to apply this to their lives.

Let us look first at the standards that this lesson plan meets.  The first standard for students to “analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology, and other factors on health behaviors” gets at educational interventions that require accessing the feelings evoked by receiving messages from one’s environment.  The activities that follow include much discussion with some educational input from the instructor.  Class discussion is one method of engaging students in problem solving techniques with other individuals.

The second standard that this lesson claims to meet is that during the lesson, the student “analyzes and evaluates the impact of real-life influences on health.”  According to our existential philosophy, this emphasizes the structured aspect of the learning material.  This means that the students will see a direct correlation to the information being processed in class and its impact and application in the real world.  This direct correlation of classroom discussion to their own health allows for the students to experience the discussion in more than just a cognitive manner.

The final activity in this lesson requires the students to recall what they have learned throughout the lesson and share it with the class if they so desire.  Once again, through a metacognitive exercise, students will go through the act of recalling information.  As the activity states, the student will then be able to recall the information at a later time should someone ask them what they learned from the lesson.  The existential philosophy is evident in the practice of doing the recall and experiencing the recollection of information as well as the application to one’s life (i.e. later being asked about the lesson by someone else).

Existentialism is a helpful philosophy in guiding educational interventions.  However, it is not the only helpful philosophy.  Some of the other philosophies can be helpful depending on the educational atmosphere (the needs of the students, the topic being presented, what the learner needs to know, etc).  For those people who learn well through experience, an existential philosophical basis for a lesson plan will make quite a bit of sense to them and suit many of their learning needs.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York, NY: General Learning Press.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning experience as a source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, C.R. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes(M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E. Souberman Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

5 responses to “Caution: Educational Philosophy At Work

  1. Pingback: Caution: Educational Philosophy At Work | Mark Levand's Bloggings·

  2. After reading Mark’s blog which focuses on the existential philosophy in education, I tend to agree that without any connection to previous experiences (either physical or emotional or both) lessons are useless. Many classes I have visited have involved peer interactions after a brief introduction by the instructor. Students are paired or grouped in threes, and are asked to reiterate what the teacher introduced, explain it in their own words, and then, more importantly, connect this to another situation and problem solve (as the author indicated in his blog).

    Regarding the first standard, class discussion is paramount in an activity. From what I have observed in classes, whole group discussions need to be extremely structured to produce valid results. Perhaps dividing the class into smaller groups, who then report out, would be a more effective technique to garner problem solving techniques.

    As for the second standard, analyzing and evaluating these influences on health certainly become more real and personal when correlated to their own health, or the health of someone they know. Because of this first-hand knowledge, these experiences certainly add another dimension to classroom discussion. My only caveat is that the teacher keep these discussions focused and ensure that all students share at least one experience.

    The third activity, recall, is perhaps the most significant of the three. Not only parroting back information but, explaining, reiterating, and applying the information enhances the student’s grasp of the material.

    As my mother always told me, “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it”! Students should also realize that any information learned is expected to be recalled at any time, as well as applied in various present day and future situations.

    In summary, I agree that existentialism is one philosophy that when applied to learning, can be perceived as a model for planning successful and lessons.

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  4. Mark, your post was so detailed and well written I have nothing, really to add. But you did make me wonder if there is any real or theoretical difference between an “educational philosophy” and a “philosophy” (general). You seem to be using existentialism in both senses (summed up neatly by your final paragraph). Do you think there’s any important difference between the existentialism we learn about in philosophy classes and existentialism as an educational model?

    • No. and Yes!

      No because the philosophical reality of having experiences is inextricably linked to all of our experiences–including those in the classroom.

      Yes because while focusing on the educational aspect, we narrow our view. By this I mean that in the classroom context, our experience of death or the transcendent (for example) are still part of the experience, but only in the periphery.

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