Differences Between Philosophy and Theory in Education

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Educational philosophies and theories, though distinguishable from each other, go hand in hand. Philosophies set the foundation for how teachers go about educating their students. Educational theories attempt to solve problems or answer questions about how students learn, which in turn help inform a teacher's educational philosophy. In short, proven theories are the evidence that supports a teacher's philosophy.

Defining Educational Philosophy

  • Effective teachers have always known they wanted to teach, and perhaps spent their years in grade school helping struggling peers through material that came naturally to them. Their perspective regarding educating others looks toward the outcome of learning rather than the process. The old "teach a man to fish" adage is a perfect example of educational philosophy: It focuses on the purpose of education, which is to leave others with the ability to survive on their own (rather than give them a fish). A philosophy of education is an innate sense of why one wishes to become a teacher, and what drives a person to learn more about the educational theories that have been most successful.

Deriving Educational Theory

  • Educational theories form the "nuts and bolts" of how a teacher goes about implementing her educational philosophy. Theories are testable and measurable; they can be used to decide the best way to go about a specific task. In terms of educating the youth of our world, teachers can utilize information gleaned from applying popular educational theories to help accomplish the goals they've set through their educational philosophy. While many teachers go into the field knowing what goals they want to accomplish, an understanding of educational theory helps them understand how to accomplish them.

Combining Philosophy and Theory

  • Teachers of the heart have their own philosophies of education, and teachers of the mind understand the theories and practices that support these philosophies. Revisiting the "teach a man to fish" example, a teacher who ascribes to this notion would do well to study the theory of constructivism, which hypothesizes that children create their own understanding of their world not by listening to teachers lecture, but by actively working within their learning environment.

    A humanistic philosophy of education operates under the belief that children learn best when they are within a safe and comfortable environment. Theories that support this philosophy include Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which focuses on children's ability to "discover themselves" when free from danger and harm. Teachers can expect success when they are informed about the theories that support their overall philosophies.

Using Multiple Theories

  • Although a teacher may have a single foundational philosophy of education, he may use methods taken from many educational theories to create a flourishing classroom. For example, although a teacher may operate as a constructivist, he also may use behaviorist methods when dealing with disciplinary actions (such as removal of a stimulus causing distraction to a specific student). Similarly, though a teacher may believe it is most important for children to understand the concept of multiplication, she may also require her students to recall multiplication facts through rote memorization, taught by direct instruction. Successful teachers use various theories of education to accomplish the goals they have set on the basis of their educational philosophies.

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