Existentialism: A Philosophy of Education

Every educator has their own set of beliefs; what works for them, what they believe is most effective in the classroom, what research has shown works, or perhaps all of the above. Educational philosophies run the gamut from things like essentialism, which is pretty self explanatory (students learn a set of basic subjects through a very disciplined, systematic way) to existentialism.

I, myself, have a bit of a love affair with existentialism. Sometimes I think that this is because in a classroom, traditionally one does not have as much autonomy or say in what one learns. As I had a traditional public school education, this was very much true for me. When I discovered existentialism, I felt a little bit like this:


Existentialism, the educational philosophy, has been developed from the philosophical philosophy (ha!) that is often considered to be founded by Soren Kierkegaard. However, existentialism really took off, if you will in the 1940′s and 50′s with Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, among others. Existentialism as a culture/philosophy states that mind and body are not the only two categories to define oneself.  Sartre was famous for his quote “Experience precedes essence.” This means that there is no general definition for what it means to be human. What is essential to being human cannot be defined by one’s type, but by their experiences, by what they make of themselves in life.

So, you’re probably thinking “What does all this philosophical stuff MEAN, Hillary? How do I apply it to education?” Well, let me explain then! Existentialist educational curriculum’s primary aim is to help learner’s develop their own values and to understand themselves within their own cultural context.  This educational philosophy focuses on an individual and their relationships, rather than a set system of study each day like science followed by math followed by English.  Choice and freedom are fundamental to the way existentialism works in a classroom.

Classroom discussion facilitation is also important. Relationships with peers and the ability to discuss learning is also critical. “But how is this practical, Hillary? What does it LOOK like in action?” Glad you asked! Educators provide students with opportunities to choose what they learn, to choose projects that interest them, and opportunities to teach others. Questions are used to illicit discussion such as: evaluative or hypothetical questions.

Existential classrooms might look a lot of different ways; some could be around a round conference table, an empty room, outside or mobile even! (Think museums, a farm, an orchard!) Ideal settings are places that put the educator and the learner on equal footing. The classroom could include artwork that would evoke a response, this helps students form their own values. In these classrooms, educators would have one on one interactions with students. The curriculum is at the student’s pace and experiential learning is very important.

Two sample lesson plans might include:

Body Concerns: allows learners to consider their own feelings about their bodies from a variety of perspectives. Emphasis of the activity is on learners’ own thoughts and responses.
The Culture Connection: Learners generate information about their own culture’s values and messages around sexuality. Students are free to decide for themselves what values they consider negative and what they consider positive.

3 responses to “Existentialism: A Philosophy of Education

  1. I think I must be very closed – minded as it relates to class structure. I fear that by being so progressive with the structure of the class, that the material would somehow take a back seat or be somehow devalued. For example, I am interested in creating curriculum geared toward little kids in pre-k and k and I would be concerned that modifying the classroom structure so drastically could actually be detrimental to the learning experience in that the kids may be harder to reign in or that the parents/teachers would somehow dismiss a class taught about human sexuality in such an unusual forum. I fear I will be scrutinized enough for the discussion with such young children about bodies, gender identity and sexual orientation that adding another layer of progress could actually work to my detriment.

  2. After studying Victor Frankl’s work pertaining to existentialism in the context of psychotherapy, my fascination has translated to the field of education. I find this theory to be more successful when applied to the higher education setting. Adult learning is a great match for a theory that relies heavily on the activism of the student. Students typically relate what they are learning to their own experience and the value they have placed on the content of the discussion. This theory also builds a solid foundation for human sexuality in postsecondary settings specifically for courses that are electives or basic courses. Existentialism provides an approach for students to apply what they are learning to their lifestyle rather than trying to memorize terms and definitions.

  3. I thought your explanation of educational existentialism was very comprehensible which was great. Think a good thing to note is that to teach from this philosophical standpoint is to except that this may only be appropriate for certain audiences and topics. I believe that it would be mostly academically advanced people, possible some higher level high school courses but mostly college. However, that could just be contingent on the subject matter given the sample lesson plans provided.

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