on education

thoughts from a graduate student at the university of mary washington
Browsing EDCI 506

idealism, realism, and education. week four.


on idealism

Plato’s The Cave is an allegory for how we attain knowledge. Plato believed that our senses would lead us to false realities and that only our minds and our souls could experience true enlightenment. This is evident in the opening scenes, where we are to envision people living, chained, in a cave, and their only perceptions of reality are the shadows on the walls; the half truths of knowledge. Our sensory world changes, but knowledge is eternal and unwavering, therefore, we cannot trust our senses to tell us what is real. Plato believes that the soul will rise above the mercurial world of the shadows in the cave and  that we should interpret the journey upwards to be “the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world.” (Plato, 380 BCE) Once our souls have been enlightened, we have an obligation to go back into the cave and direct others to enlightenment. The educational implications of the message set forth in The Cave are that educators should be exemplary models and ask leading questions of their pupils to guide them to discover what is true and right. As Socrates states in The Cave, professors of education cannot put knowledge into a soul. It can only be learned by the individual, intrinsically. In other words, only your mind can seek the truth. In Foundations of Education, this pillar of idealism is expressed as well. “The individual, through deep thought and introspection, searches his or her own mind and discovers in it the ideas that are copies of the macrocosmic mind.” (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011, p. 171). Plato also favored arithmetic and geometry for teaching students because math was evidence that there were eternal truths that the mind could come to know. He also believed that everyone should be able to go to school to cultivate their knowledge of these eternal truths, but recognized that learning differences and high intellectual standards left very few able to make it to the top, as it were, and become philosopher-kings.

Emerson’s essay The Over-Soul is also deeply rooted in idealist philosophy, which asserts that a person’s soul “is the permanent element of human nature that gives individuals the power to think and feel.” (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011, p. 170). Emerson writes that knowledge is unchanging and far-reaching, and that the soul creates reality and leaves the human world behind (Emerson, 1841). Like Plato, Emerson thinks that the mind already knows everything it needs, and it is up to us to enlighten ourselves to unlock that knowledge. “[The mind] converses with truths that have always been spoken in the world…” (Emerson, 1841). Emerson also illustrates the idealist notion of the macrocosm, the idea that all things are part of each other and a universal mind when he writes that, “We are wiser than we know. If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know this particular thing, and every thing, and every man. For the Maker of all things and all persons stands behind us, and casts his dread omniscience through us and over things.” (Emerson, 1841)

Like Plato, Emerson believes that knowledge cannot be attained by being told what it is or what to believe. It is intrinsic to the individual mind, having been there for eternity for a person to discover it for themselves. He says that it does no good to teach from without, rather, from within is where knowledge must come. Teachers of this world are simply spectators, and cannot teach things from within. As with Plato, a teacher’s role would be to guide students on the path to enlightenment within themselves.

on realism

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, would it make a noise? 

The short answer? Yes.
Whether you’re there or not, the tree still fell and made a great big boom.

Realists believe that reality is objective. It exists outside the self in the natural world.  Realists believe in experiential learning and using the senses and the scientific method to determine what the world is and how it relates to us. Because of this, a realist would turn to the physical laws that act on all matter, independent of observation. Gravity would pull the tree to the ground, a wave of energy would rise up and and make a noise, probably the aforementioned great big boom.

on idealism, realism, and student learning 

Idealist teachers see themselves as guides for children realizing their fullest intellectual potential (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011). The role of both student and teacher is to be well versed in the universal truths of the classics and to be well entrenched in the finer aspects of their culture. Students would be expected to look within themselves to find the answers to key questions, being guided by Socratic questioning from their teachers. Expectations would be high, and teachers would be very boring, proper people with exemplary status in the community and numerous citizen awards. The quest for the universal truths would be central to an idealist education.

Realist educators teach kids about the world they live in with objective knowledge from that world. Students use experiential learning to bring their ideas about the world “into correspondence with reality” (Ornstein, Levine & Gutek, 2011, p. 175) under a teacher’s guidance. It is important for realist educators to be well-versed in their content area. Everyone should receive an education, and standards would be set to measure student achievement in the content areas.

i know you are, but what am i?

If I were asked to pick between just the two philosophies (and what do you know, I have been!), I should think that I lean more toward a realist philosophy than that of idealism. While I do believe in a higher being and the universal knowledge that it brings, I also believe that knowledge is objective and directly tied to the world and time in which we live. I firmly believe that kids can’t learn if you don’t have them manipulate their environment and apply the knowledge they’re gaining to the world around them. I believe that you cannot be an effective teacher without having mastered your content area, and I also believe that a teacher should be a well-rounded individual with schooling in many disciplines. I believe that understanding the world we live in also helps us to understand why we are the way we are and why we do the things we do. As much as I fancy having a soul, I believe that my power to think comes from my brain and various evolutionary mechanisms, and not from a ball of energy that I can’t prove exists outside my body. And while I appreciate higher-order thinking skills, I recognize that not all children will be able to master them. Every student should be equipped with basic, objective knowledge to help them succeed in the world in which we live.

This is a great clip of the comparison of idealism and realism. He’s not the most enthusiastic, but he’s easy to follow! If you’re interested, he has an entire series on YouTube on the Philosophy of Education, of which this clip is a part. It helped me solidify where I stand between the two philosophies.




Emerson, R. (1841). The over-soul. Retrieved from http://www.emersoncentral.com/oversoul.htm

Ornstein, A., Levine, D., & Gutek, G. (2011). Foundations of education. (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Plato. (360 BCE). The republic. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.8.vii.html

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education through the ages. week three.


Through the storied history of the world, education seems to have served one primary purpose: to indoctrinate people into the culture of the time and place in which they lived. The leaders of society needed citizens to be molds of exactly what they wanted and needed to further their culture. The early days held true to rigid caste systems in China and Egypt, leaving the elite and their offspring always in power and usually in charge of education. The Hebraic tradition left us with good little children who learned how to pray and how to be, well, Jewish. Greece and Rome changed it up a bit and began to mold citizens into political entities capable of carrying on their culture and their cause. Still, though, people were left in their places and didn’t dare move up the social rungs. Education was purely a political machine. The Renaissance ushered in the classical humanists, who believed that people should be educated to be critical thinkers capable of challenging customs (gasp!). Rather than preach ethnocentrism, the humanists thought it prudent to include a well-rounded repertoire of Latin and Greek in their educational system.

It is important to note that through a large chunk of space and time, education and all of its facets were controlled by a relative few. Access was severely restricted, furthering the social structures of cultures and the suppression of new ideas. The key thinkers in the Reformation understood the value of culture and how closely fused to education it was and used it to further their Protestant convictions by educating more people. Though the social system was drastically changing, the end goal was always constant: the leaders wanted citizens to fit into a prescribed cultural mold to further political and/or social causes. This time, they were allowed to be literate.

Enter the Enlightenment, the key to American education as we know it. For us, education means one thing: progress. (Ornstein, Levine & Gutek, 2011, pg. 91)The promise of something better. The promise of moving out of your social class and up the chain to bigger and better things because knowledge is power! Of course, we had to go through some roadblocks like civil rights, women’s rights, and child labor laws to get there… but we got there! Make no mistake, though. We say we want you to break all of the molds and do amazing things and learn everything you can, but we still want you to look and act like we do. And we’re a long way from 2200 BCE. It’s not all bad bananas, though, right? Having a national American identity is, in fact, critical to our country surviving and thriving.

We’ve gotten some good ideas along the way, though, to help us shape the western ideals of education. Comenius and Piaget both told us that children develop in stages, and we can’t teach them more than they’re ready to learn. Pestalozzi developed a teacher education program and introduced us to process-based learning. I think that Addams got it really right, though. Our job as educators is to both infuse the American culture into our students and to help them learn about and understand the others. “…education needed to take on new and broadened social purposes. Teachers needed to understand the economic, demographic, and technological trends that were reshaping American society…” (Ornstein, Levine & Gutek, 2011, pg. 115) Where we stand in history, we are in the midst of change. And it’s our responsibility to make sure that the future generations are ready for it. We need to restore our American community and teach our children how to read, write, and think critically. John Dewey brought with him the idea that children learn best experientially. It is the educator’s job to arrange experiences which engage students and provide for more meaningful future experiences on which their knowledge base is built. He called this the “experiential continuum.” (Dewey, 1938)

Experience has influenced education in profound ways: with each political, social, or economic change in history, education has been re-thought and re-approached based on peoples’ experiences. Experience is tightly interwoven with how we frame curriculum and how our students receive it and process it and apply it. The question lies in where the healthy balance is between creating an experiential learning environment in which the students explore things that interest them and engage them, and reigning in their individuality to make education less about experience and more about preserving a cultural identity through knowledge and ideas that can be useful both on a global scale and as proactive and productive citizens in their own communities and country.

Consider this video:

What do you think? Is he right? Have we progressed so much that we’ve destroyed American education by nurturing the individual student and neglecting the straight content-based education needed to be good, informed citizens as a collective? Was moving to the progressive idea of experiential education a “disaster?”

I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed learning a lot more when it was culturally relevant to me, when my teachers went out of their way to relate it to my life and let me feel and discover and explore on my own. Then again, I got better grades when all I had to do was regurgitate information, though it was far less enjoyable for me.



Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ornstein, A., Levine, D., & Gutek, G. (2011). Foundations of education. (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.



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my philosophy of education: hashing it out. week two.


When I envision my if-money-were-no-object-and-my-principal-were-awesome classroom, this is what I see:
It would be twice the size of a standard classroom. (Let’s not kid ourselves, with the way class sizes are increasing lately, it would have to be twice as big.) It would have a row of windows with lots of sunlight.  Built-in bookshelves under the windows. I would have lamps everywhere – floor lamps, table lamps… anything to keep from using that horrendous (and distracting) florescent lighting in most classrooms. I would like a carpeted floor with area rugs. Several bean bag chairs would be by the bookshelves under the windows, which would be the free-reading center. The desks would be set in rows of 5 and columns of 5 (or whatever, you know, it’s possible to have 6×5 these days), with space between each for me to walk around readily. My desk would be in the front of the classroom facing the students. The bulletin boards in the room would be covered with a brightly colored, themed fabric with organized and easily accessible folders, calendars, lunch menus, etc. The class rules (having been designed by our class as a whole) would hang prominently in the room. Student artwork would be displayed year-round. I would have space for a half-moon conference table, where I can work with students in small groups or one-on-one. There would be 5 computers set along one wall. The students would have classroom responsibilities, like watering the plants, feeding the class pet, organizing the art center, reading center, etc. I plan to make them responsible for their classroom environment; if it’s theirs, they’ll protect and respect it. I would also like to have several round tables available so that group work can be done at those tables, and I can change group members easily without re-arranging desks and upsetting the delicate social network that is an elementary school classroom.

There’s a method to my detailed madness. My classroom will look like this because it facilitates the kind of learning that I want in my classroom: focused and independent learners when they need to be, and collaborative, respectful group members when they need to be.

I take an easy, comfortable, and respectful approach to learning. I want my students to know that I welcome questions and I don’t mind mistakes. I don’t mind repeating myself four hundred times in thirty different ways to make sure everyone is on track. I’ll even make the material into a song and dance routine if I have to! (That’s actually really effective, by the way.) When students can see that you’re approachable and that their classroom is a safe space where they’ll be respected and supported, they open themselves up and don’t mind constructive criticism or making mistakes. How amazing would that be?!

Have you ever seen a child have a lightbulb moment? It’s really something to watch. It’s how you know, as their teacher, that they’ve grasped something. They get a little giddier, they smile at themselves and start working frantically on their assignment. If I can see that they are actively discovering and manipulating information, then I know that they’re well on their way with what I’m teaching them. They may not master it right away, and in fact it may take them all year to do so, but that lightbulb moment lets me know that learning is happening. Recognizing that all kids learn in different ways and at different paces will save your sanity and theirs.

Personally, I’m a big fan of the multiple intelligences theory: that people have many different modalities of intelligence, and no two people are configured the same way (Gardner, 1999). Learning occurs in so many different ways! Some kids need to move their bodies or build things to understand. Others need it said to them or shown to them in a picture. As an educator, it’s my job to target as many modalities as I can in one lesson so that my students have a better chance for success. And, bonus? It keeps you from doing the same tired old routine. Death to worksheets, I say!

One of my biggest goals for my classroom is that we all have fun while we’re there. Now, I’m not suggesting that we’ll stop and play Yahtzee! at 2:00pm every day (how about on Fridays? Acceptable?). What I mean by fun is that we’re all so engaged that we don’t realize we’ve spent an entire day learning! We’ll be sad that the last bell has rung! (Okay, I won’t be sad – I’ll probably flop into my chair at the exact moment my room empties out and crack open a caffeinated beverage and cucumber slices for my eyes.) I want everyone to pass with flying colors, of course. But more than that, I want my students to come away from my classroom having learned about themselves, about society, about the value of interpersonal relationships. And most of all, I want them to be able to ace every single standardized test ever thrown their way, without having spent one minute on dull, repetitive, mind-numbing test prep exercises. I want them to be able to manipulate what I teach them to apply to any situation, any test question. And my goal for myself is to come away from each year feeling like I did the best I knew how to do and helped the kids in my class move forward a little more well-rounded. In short, I want to be a best practices teacher – one that  provides a student-centered environment with experiential, holistic learning. One that challenges students and helps them reflect on what they’ve learned. (Zemelman, Harvey, & Hyde, 2005)

If we teach kids how to survive and thrive in a democratic classroom, they’ll enter society as well-rounded, better educated citizens who are more readily prepared to work and be engaged in their community, their government, and the world. When the paradigm shifts from a monotonous, irrelevant school career to one in which students are taught to think for themselves, ask questions, and problem-solve, then US education will be a force to be reckoned with on a global scale. Until then, we’ll continue to falter and fall behind, which doesn’t bode well for the future.



Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. Basic Books.

Wong, H., & Wong, R. (2005). The first days of school. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications, Inc.

Zemelman, S., Daniels, H., & Hyde, A. (2005). Best practice. (3rd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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so, you want to be a teacher? week one.


In some ways, I think that kids understand from the beginning that there is a difference between teachers. It starts with “Mr. Smith is mean,” or “All right! Mrs. Lundin! Best teacher ever!” And at that young age, students usually equate this with how much homework they have, or how strict the classroom policy is. Or whether or not their teacher ever smiles. (Admit it, you were always nervous about the ones that didn’t smile.)

I became acutely aware of the great divide between teachers when I hit high school. It started in my trigonometry class. Now, I’ve never been very good at math. I was never one to shoot my hand up and volunteer my answers. But on this particular homework assignment, I was sure – absolutely sure – that I’d done it all right. I volunteered to write my answers on the board, but other people got called on instead. As their answers went up, my heart sank. Mine were all different. I raised my hand and asked the teacher – we’ll call him Mr. X – what went wrong. I was sure I’d done it right. And right there, in front of God and everyone, he said, “Well, I didn’t make a blonde answer sheet, Angela. That’s why your answers are different.” Everyone laughed. I was angry. I was humiliated. I was about thirty different things in that exact moment. And I can promise you that anything any other math teacher ever tried to get across to me never once entered my stream of conscious thought. I was ruined. Not because I got the answers wrong and didn’t want to try, but because I didn’t trust my teachers and what they’d do to me if I wasn’t perfect. Mr. X was definitely mean. But more than that, he was a horrible teacher.

So, what makes a great teacher? Definitely the opposite of Mr. X, right? But what does that really mean?

To me, it means having a place in your heart for every last one of the kids in your classroom. It means caring about their well-being. It means working to make sure they understand  and can manipulate the information that you’re presenting to them. It means getting them to think for themselves. Critically. It means creating a safe space for them to get things wrong and plow through their mistakes. Being a great teacher means leaving behind the idea that you’re the gate-keeper of infinite knowledge, and that you have all of the answers. Instead, a great teacher is in there learning with them, guiding them through lessons and experiments and crucial questions. And it means never, ever giving them a reason to give up on themselves.

It is no mistake, then, that there is mounting evidence to suggest that these great teachers are better than others at getting students to succeed. I believe that part of this has to do with the very nature and personality of the person doing the teaching. But more than that, I think that it all falls to how that teacher was taught how to teach. Let’s face it: nobody wants to be second. Nobody wants the silver medal, or worse, to miss the podium all together. So, when faced with evidence that Teacher Q has a smaller success rate than Teacher P across the board, the only take away is that they approach their classrooms very differently. At the base of it, the data has outed Teacher Q as an ineffective teacher. And Teacher Q doesn’t want that any more than I wanted to be humiliated in front of my peers. This failure doesn’t stop with Teacher Q, though. It reflects directly on the institution that trained him/her to be a teacher. In its report titled “Educating School Teachers,” the Education Schools Project found that a significant number of future teachers come from programs that do not measure up in the areas of curriculum, standards, or faculty. (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011, p.16). That means that teachers are entering the workforce in droves unprepared. The faculty at these institutions would be quite insistent on finding flaws in the evidence that shows that they, too, are ineffective teachers. They have not prepared their students for managing and engaging a classroom, and in turn, the K through 12 students in the charge of those teachers don’t have the same chances for success as their peers in a more effective teacher’s class. Noting the human aversion to being the fall guy, it is only natural that these teacher educators and teachers would want to place blame somewhere else for their students not doing well or being unprepared.

So, why is it that more isn’t being done at the school level to alleviate this?

When faced with this student achievement data in their teachers’ classrooms, principals may be reluctant to do much about it. There are so many variables that are traditionally used to determine school-wide performance, such as attendance rates, test scores, and differences in the student body from year to year. Perhaps they feel that using just one set of data gives them a lopsided reflection on student achievement, and they would be remiss to base decisions on one data set.

I believe that the aforementioned data sets would fall under what Kati Haycock, Director of Education Trust, terms as “causes of underachievement” (Haycock, 2000) for students in her organization’s report on student achievement. In her speech Educating for What? The Struggle for Democracy in Education, Deborah Meier suggests that the achievement gap between students rests not with simple achievement scores as Haycock believes, but with the incarceration rate, poverty, and low-wage jobs.(Meier, 2008) She argues that instead of addressing the real problem, we focus on student test scores as the sole basis for measuring achievement, when we should be focusing on the larger picture at a massive, societal level.

Now, I’ve seen Dangerous Minds. And Freedom Writers. And every other success story where a teacher swoops in and rescues his or her students from disaster and impending doom regardless of the students’ circumstances. And though some are fictionalized, we cling to those stories. As educators, we cling to them because they’re more or less true. Nothing else matters – not income level, not language barriers, nothing – as long as there is a great teacher in that classroom willing to go above and beyond to understand his or her students and make sure that they succeed. Can you save everyone? Of course not. But you can try. As Kati Haycock (2000) suggests, repeatedly falling back on all of these other data sets to determine student achievement and make excuses for poor results “makes us wonder, in fact, how much higher the pile of evidence will have to grow before we concede in our professional lives what we certainly know in our roles as parents…and knew as students, as well. Teachers matter a lot.”



Haycock, K. (2000). Thinking k-16. Retrieved from https://canvas.umw.edu/courses/426776/assignments/1996858?module_item_id=4255342

Meier, D. (2008, February 7). Educating for what? The struggle for democracy in education. Retrieved from http://deborahmeier.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/2009_educatingforwhat.pdf

Ornstein, A. C., Levine, D. U., & Gutek, G. L. (2011). Motivation, Preparation, and Conditions for the Entering Teacher.                        Foundations of education (11th ed., p. 16). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.




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