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Philosophy of Education

By Thomas Lyons


To fully comprehend what learning is, we must understand the theories that exist. Over time,
perspectives on teaching and learning have evolved and changed through research and study.
The theories are the foundations of teaching and learning and although are expanded on or
added to throughout the years, the basic structure is solid. These solid bases are formative to
how we impart knowledge and how that knowledge is received, and to understand this is vital
to understanding ourselves as teachers or facilitators of learning. The more we understand
how we teach and how we learn, the more prepared we are to provide the students under our
care with the best education possible to us. My philosophy is profoundly fixed in
constructivism and humanism theories with a little behaviourism theory.

The Master said “A true teacher is one who, keeping the past alive, is also able to understand
the present”
“Reviewing what you have learned and learning anew, you are fit to be a teacher”

The Analects". Book by Confucius (Book Two, Section 2.11)


Teaching philosophy, cognitive approach, humanism, behaviourism.


Having researched and considered various teaching theories available, I have chosen to look
at three main theories that most reflect my own teaching philosophies – cognitivism,
humanism and behaviourism. In relation to my teaching philosophy, I considered my
understanding of “teaching and learning” both of which are essential variables that are
required to gain knowledge and skills in any particular subject area. These variables work
together at opposite ends in the knowledge and skills acquisition process, where teaching
involves the teacher imparting knowledge and skills while the learner works towards their
goal of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Over time, many different educational theories
and perspectives have evolved and emerged; and these have resulted in a diverse range of
teaching practices in education.

This paper will look at some of the foremost educational theorists such as cognitivists and
humanists, as currently in my teaching practices, I employ both these approaches. I will also
review some other theorists such as behaviourists as these introduce opportunities to
investigate theories that may benefit my own development. This philosophy of education
statement will conclude with a personal reflection of my teaching practices.

Literature Analysis on Education Theories

Cognitive Approach Theory

Cognitive approach is a theory that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and focused on
the human mind processes such as thinking, problem solving, and memory (Schunk 2004).
Following extensive study of cognitive development, constructivism evolved (Weegar 2012).
The fundamental concept of constructivism is that human learning is constructed, where the
learners using the foundation of previous learning, can build new knowledge (Bada and
Olusegun 2015). Learners, because of their newly gained experience of the subject matter and
reflection, can create their own understanding and knowledge (Bereiter 1994). This means
that existing beliefs can change and/or information discarded when a new experience is
reconciled with previous knowledge and experience (Bada and Olusegun 2015).

The cognitive approach theory involves both cognitive and social constructivism. Cognitive
constructivism by Piaget ‘which is achieved through observation and experimentation’; and
social constructivism by Vygotsky ‘which is achieved through interaction with more
knowledgeable others’ (Weegar 2015). However both Piaget and Vygotsky viewed learning
as a search for meaning (Rummel 2008). Learning is achieved by active engagement,
problem solving, collaboration (Weegar 2015) and where associating new information with
existing information is encouraged (O’Donnell et al 2015). The teacher acts as a facilitator or
guide as opposed to dispensing knowledge (Weegar 2015) and encourages the students to
build existing understanding knowledge (Oliver 2000). Learning under this theory can be
inefficient as valuable time can be wasted when the student is finding their way to the new
construct, time for learning can be used more efficiently by providing instruction and
guidance (Anderson et al 2000). It has been indicated that students can become ‘lost and
frustrated’ when they learn with minimal instruction (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).
Also, for students to acquire the knowledge, they must connect their knowledge to tangible
objects which constructivism does not support (Alanazi 2016).

Humanist Theory

Humanism is a theory that emerged in the 1950’s (Jingna 2012), becoming more popular in
the 1960’s and 1970’s, and focuses on the human freedom, dignity and potential. Woolfolk
(2008) highlights that; the humanism approach also involves personal freedom, choices, self
determination and personal goals. According to Greathouse-Amadour (2000), humanistic
education addresses the “whole learner as a psychological entity”, and Billings and Halstead
(2009) state that the autonomy and dignity of humans is the primary concern of humanism
theory regarding education. The fundamental concept is that a person has a naturally built-in
ability for learning, but only when that person is motivated and can fully understand the
significance of the topic, will learning take place. Therefore the student’s full potential can be
realised and maximised which is the ultimate objective of humanist philosophy (Billings and
Halstead 2009).

One of the best known humanist theorists is Abraham Maslow who described his hierarchy of
needs in his 1943 seminal paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation". In this hierarchy, which
is made up of five needs; “physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization”, the
student’s physiological needs are at the bottom and the self-actualisation needs at the top.
According to Maslow (1943) it is only possible to move to the next level when the lower
needs are achieved, but to achieve our maximum potential we also need the freedom to grow.

Another leading humanist theorist is Carl Rogers, who believes that humans have one
common purpose – “to fulfil one’s potential and achieve the highest level of human-
beingness” (Roger 1959 and Jarvis 2000 cited in Yi Ling et al 2014). Rogers is also credited
with the principle of “self directed” learning where the teachers task is not to teach but to be a
“facilitator” to the students, so that they learn by themselves (Jingna 2012). The facilitator
should be approachable and give direction to the students to gain knowledge and achieve self
actualisation (Yi Ling et al 2014). Using the theories of Maslow and Rogers to motivate
students according to Woolfolk (2008) enhances competency, self esteem and autonomy and
can change motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic.

Behaviourist Theory

Changes in behaviour which affect learning is the focus of behaviourists, as they believe that
only “observable, measurable and outward behaviour is worthy of scientific inquiry” (Bush
2006) and according to Reber (1985), only appropriate subject matter for investigation is
observable and measurable. It is based on the conditioning process of habits and reflexes
(O’Donnell et al 2015). It relies on stimuli ‘input’ and the reaction to stimuli ‘outputs’ (Race
2015) and was argued by Skinner, that the mind or reasoning does not control behaviour but
the cause and effect. A reward is given if the response is correct, such as marks for a student
and reinforcement is important (O’Donnell et al 2015). The learning process may be
influenced due to the fact that the learner do not perceive the world in the same way (Kolb,
Boyatzis & Maintemelis (2000) cited O’Donnell et al 2015) and can be restricted by pre-
determined responses expected from the subjects. Some of the main behaviour theorists were
Pavlov, Watson and Skinner and most of the early research was carried out on animals.
Pavlov is best known for his work in classical conditioning or stimulus substitution and
demonstrated that it was possible to condition animals to behave in a certain way when
subject to stimuli. This principle was then used by Watson and Skinner on humans and
reinforcement (reward or punishment) was added (Peel 2005).

Although many teaching philosophy theories have developed and evolved down through the
years, I have found that, upon reflection on what I have learnt through the Post Graduate
Certificate in Teaching and Learning and my teaching experience to date, my own teaching
philosophy revolves around the theories of cognitivism, humanism and behaviourism. These
are the theories that I naturally emulate during my teaching and each of these impacts the
activities, assessments and delivery techniques that I implement during lectures.

Piaget, a proponent of constructivism and cognitive development, believed that learning is

achieved by active engagement, problem solving and collaboration, a belief I whole heartily
concur with. I believe too that that it is my primary duty as a lecturer to provide my quantity
surveying and engineering students with the knowledge, understanding and skill-set required
for their careers in the built environment or even future studies. Acting as a facilitator to
guide the students as opposed to dispensing knowledge (Weegar 2015), I use online
discussion forums so that the students can build on existing knowledge as proposed by
(Oliver 2000). These online discussion forums promote learning where the students need to
seek and retrieve information, prepare the information so that it can be presented in the
forum, structure the information and restructure information depending on knowledge
retrieved and information posted by other students, resulting in the students having built on
previous knowledge with new knowledge (Bada and Olusegun 2015).

Similar to Maslow, a leading humanistic psychologist, I am a firm believer that each student
in my class is an individual and to achieve my primary duty, I must ensure that I provide a
learning environment that is safe and that students feel comfortable to ask questions or offer
opinions. As year four tutor for the quantity surveying programme, I put significant effort
into ensuring that the students have a safe and comfortable environment as outlined by
Maslow, address any concerns and strive to develop pleasant professional student/teacher
relationships In my role as lecturer I try to guide the students to fully engage in their own
education by providing them with choices. For example, each student selects a single
procurement topic from a comprehensive list to complete a power-point presentation in class.
This ensures self-directed learning which is credited to Carl Rogers, for each student and how
they display their learning, but also that the learning stays within the programme of study. In
this way, I act as a facilitator so that they reach their maximum potential by encouraging and
stimulating critical thinking as opposed to providing questions and answers. In this safe
environment, the students can construct knowledge through critical thinking and independent
learning but also peer assisted learning and contribution, whereby students are learning from
the presentations of their class peers. I also provide students with practical activities such as
group and individual projects simulating real life examples, and by allocating sufficient time
and resources that reinforce the subject area in question, it creates an opportunity for the
construct of knowledge to occur. The students compile information, collaborate with group
members and are self directed; therefore they can take responsibility for their learning

According to Race (2015) an advocate of experiential learning, learning relies on stimuli and
the reaction to stimuli. To mirror real life working scenarios for quantity surveyors, whereby
late tender submissions are disqualified, I apply rigid marking schemes for assignment
submission by way of penalties and capping marks. To encourage professionalism in their
work, I assign a portion of marks for assignment presentation which includes layout,
grammar, spelling, etc. Providing students with assignments that are completed during class
time, enables me to observe the students and review ongoing work so that I provide continual
feedback and positive reinforcement throughout as advocated by the behaviourist Skinner.
Doing this, I can collect data on the performance and capabilities of each student and adjust
the instructions that I provide and the learning environment. Similar to Watson, to ensure that
students are proficient in completing measurement and cost calculations, I highlight the
importance of developing those skills by repetitive practice. Behaviour is a learned response
which is reinforced by consequences, and therefore to prepare students for assessment
through end of year exams, I provide demonstrations and solutions of various calculations for
the students to practice and repeat.

As a lecturer, I understand that we ourselves are constantly learning, whether from peers,
through continuous professional development or even from student feedback. This coupled
with the rapid advances in technology, industry and education, means that there is certainly
always room for improvement. Understanding the importance of self-improvement for my
own teaching skills, I enrolled on the Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning
programme. Through this, I have been exposed to technologies and techniques that have
opened my mind to new teaching approaches and possibilities, which I have started
incorporating into my classes such as screencast recordings (reusable learning objects) and
the flipped class approach where I get students to work on problems in class and I circulate
and provide guidance and advice.

I find that reviewing student feedback forms and listening to student feedback / comments is
a useful tool for improving my teaching. This important feedback will only be possible if
there is mutual respect between students and lecturer. In addition, I consider feedback from
peers, such as external examiners and programme board members to have also enhanced my
teaching. I also found that the feedback following classes that were peer reviewed by
colleagues on Post Graduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning programme, were very
insightful as these were teachers specialised in other disciplines and viewed the class from a
different perspective..

Having researched the various teaching philosophies and theorists, I have come to understand
and recognise the relevance of these philosophies in how I teach and even in how I myself
learn. I now have a clearer appreciation on how different approaches to teaching can impact
student’s learning and appreciating this means that I also have a better understanding of
myself as a teacher and facilitator of education.
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