Donate Today! Help us help others.

Lynch Coaching


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Liberals and Human Learning Theory

Philosophy shapes research. Research shapes practice. Education Philosophy and Theory: Experience, Influence, Practice

     Education has long borrowed from and been influenced by different philosophies, some rooted in classical traditions, and some modern or post modern. From these philosophies, researchers have developed specific theories to understand and improve the process of learning. Education has a rich and complex wellspring of philosophical traditions and theory upon which to draw and practice. Among these philosophies are liberal, progressive, behaviorist and humanist schools of thoughts, which continue to influence and complete for attention among American educators.
Click on "read more" below for further discussion and insights.
Philosophy can be defined as a way of viewing the world, characterized by certain attitudes, desires, and values, with cultural, ethnical, and religious connections. Gutek  (2004). offers a useful explanation of philosophy and its relation to education: Metaphysics, or reality is what we know, as formalized in curriculum; epistemology, or knowing, shows us how to teach; axiology, or ethics, supports character development and logic help to organize pedagogy approaches and curriculum development.
     A theory (for learning or whatever) can be understood to be something that helps to explain what we observe in the world. In science, theory is not just a casual idea tossed about; it is based on analysis and usually follows scientific method of reasoning and step-by-step process. Gutek (2004) suggests theory can be ideas or principles formed to be used for practice. Theory can be based on deductive, inductive, or simply what we observe around us. Gutek further explains that theory can link philosophical perspectives to practice.
Although there is seems to be a compulsion to classify concepts into neat divisions, philosophy and theories often overlap and certainly influence others. By the same token, some philosophies and theories are quite opposite to the other. This simply reflects human nature, which is at times consensual and conflicted.  For example, Smith (1999) came up with four orientations of learning: behaviorist, cognitive, humanistic, and social-situational.
Liberal Philosophy
A liberal philosophy in education is strongly rooted in American life, beginning with the Revolution. Liberal ideas came our of the philosophers of the enlightenment, which emphasized reason over religion, as life became more industrial and urban, and a middle class developed. Diderot, Rousseau and Locke believed in the progress through economic, social, political and educational avenues (Guteck, 2004). The liberal emphasis on individual progress and the right to espouse ideas permeates American education, although ideas of community good and national goals are interwoven into policy. The liberal belief in pluralism is also reflected in the American higher education system, which is the most diverse in the world, and lacks a central governing authority (Trow, 1999). 
John Locke’s ideas of individualism and a free market continues to influence American life and American education (Gutek, 2004). American higher education is as competitive as the business world, especially as state support has been reduced, and education increasingly reacts to a consumerist society (Trow, 1999). Another influential philosopher was John Stuart Mills, who taking Jeremy Betham’s work, believed that liberal ideas of progress and improvement may require active government intervention. Mills also pushed the marketplace of ideas, in which all ideas, bad or good, were free to compete and thrive or die on their own merits (Gutek, 2004 & Noddings, 2007)    
Liberal education philosophy reflects these traditions, which combine original classical liberalism characterized by individualism balanced with government inducements for social progress and reforms. Liberal education balances individualism with community, is optimistic in temperament, and continues to believe in constitutional ideas of separation of church and state and private property. Liberals tend to be flexible, process oriented and incremental in reaching goals. 
In schools, liberal ideas are expressed through flexible and creative curriculum designs and instructional methods. Students are encourages having individual initiative, but also collaborating with others in groups. Change is linked to current needs and interests (Gutek, 2004).
Learning theory associated with Liberal philosophy includes dialectic instruction, critical thinking and reading. Liberal pedagogy puts an emphasis on teacher as expert, directing instruction. Instructional methods may include lecture, dialectic, study groups, reading and discussion (Zinn, 1983). A liberal arts education appreciates knowledge for its own sake, learning is for enrichment and life growth, not merely vocational.
Progressive Philosophy
     Progressive ideas have their roots in liberalism and pragmatic philosophy. Similar to liberalism, progressivism seeks incremental change and reform using consensus and pragmatic ideas. Reflecting its liberal, enlightenment roots, it emphasizes reason (Gutek, 2004). The progressive philosophy is exemplified by the progressive era, in the 1900’s, in which individuals and organizations sought to improve unjust and dangerous social and economic conditions at grassroots and political levels.
     John Dewey was a major influence in progressive philosophy, particularly his ideas on discovery based, experiential learning that followed scientific method ideas, which reflects earlier influence of use of inductive reason. Rousseau’s naturalistic approach to learning in the environment was also used a complement to Dewey’s pragmatism of children exploring the environment(Noddings, 2007). Progressive education is collaborative and holistic, and encourage ongoing interaction with the community.
Progressive philosophy developed divergent schools – student centered and social reconstruction. The student- centered philosophy is individualist and bottom up in approach, with learning that begins with the child’s interests. Children learn to employ activities and ideas that will lead to a better world. The administrative school took a social, group approach to reform, with schools viewed as laboratories to change the world.
These approaches reflect the ongoing tension in American life of individualist and communitarian approaches to solving problem. People leaning toward individualism may be suspicious of the aggressive, activist attitude of social reconstructionists, which focus on social policy, while social reconstructionists feel that a student centered approach may neglect larger issues. The Progressive Education Association formed the following principles for progressive education: natural development, motivated through interest, teachers as guides, holistic development, including psychical health, to include children’s home in process, and experimentation (Anderson, 2004).    
Theories associated with progressivism encourage self directed and experiential. Constructivism has been a major outgrowth of progressivism. The components of constructivism include creating knowledge of prior experience (or constructing knowledge); active learning that adapts and modifies understanding with new understanding. The process requires a teacher as facilitator with students focusing on their interests (Hoover, 1996).
Jermome Bruner created a constructivist learning theory called Discovery Learning.  It is an active, problem solving learning process that uses experience to seek and discover knowledge.  Learning may involve objects, ideas, and experiments.  Types of learning include guided discovery, problem based, simulation, case base and incidental. Learning encourages independence, responsibility, motivation, creativity and is customized to students needs (Learning Theories, N.D.)
A more recent learning theory that can be traced to progressive ideas is Problem-Based Learning (PBL), in which learning is hands on, directed to problems in collaborative, context rich settings. There is no right answer, and students learn critical thinking skills. PBL was developed at a medical school to replicate conditions on the job (Learning Theories, N.D.)
Behaviorist Philosophy
Behaviorial education philosophy has its roots in the psychological studies of John B. Watson in 1920’s. Watson determined that understanding people (or any subject) can be best through objective observation. Watson moved psychology from the mind and consciousness (and unconscious) of Fruedian psychology and self-direction and exploratory learning of John Dewey to a more mechanistic model of understanding people and learning. Significantly, Watson also thought that observed behavior is possible to control, and therefore responsive to stimulus. In this view, even thinking is a type of behavior. During this same period other researchers developed the concepts of classical conditioning (Ivan Pavlov’s bell experiment, with involuntary response) and B.F. Skinner’s operatant condition (voluntary response to reward and punishment)(Burger, 1986 and Carboneli, 2004).  
As a philosophy, Behaviorism has a materialistic view of the world, and discounts mind/body dualism. It takes a reductionist view, “what you see is what it is”. If a thought cannot be verified (such as a belief) then it is simply termed a disposition. Behaviorism can be characterized as a pedagogy that is concerned with practical, testable knowledge. Behaviorism puts learning in an environmental context, with people shaped by their environment. This does not necessarily mean that a learner is a passive recipient, but will actively seek to change a behavior (or make an effort to learn) in order to change the outcome (or reward). In other words, there is a strong element of trial and error in behavioral learning. In this view, we learn from experience. This view fits in with the idea that learning is a process of change, and then develops into habit and expertise. Learning emphasizes mastery of a skills and tasks through reinforcement and practice that eventually leads to expertise (Carbonelli, 2004).
Behaviorism is still widely used for behavior modification and therapy, such as systematic desentization, in which are slowly exposed to a source of phobia. It has had a large influence in American classrooms, through direct instruction teaching methods, and as exemplified with current accountability measures that lead to test preparation (NCLB) is still widely practiced. Most people have experienced behavioral instructional methods, such as lectures, drills, and the like. This type of learning lends itself to computer based instruction, with tutorials and games, which often replicate classrooms experiences, albeit in a more stimulating form (Chen, N.D.)
An example of an approach to behaviorist instruction is The Personalized System of Instruction created by Fred Keller, a noted behaviorist. This method emphasized self-pacing, mastery, motivation, teacher-student communication, proctors for testing and scoring, and personal-social support (Gallup, 1997).
Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory is an outgrowth of Behaviorism. Bandura asserted that learning theory should target disposition, structure, ease of learning, effective sequencing, and a way to reward or punish (Kearsley,2009) (Bandura theorized that people learn from others through observation, imitation and modeling. The elaboration on behaviorism is the interplay of thoughts, behavior, and the environment. Bandura theorized that not only are we responding to the environment, our presence shapes the environment. Bandura went beyond the observed aspects of behaviorism and acknowledged the role of language and imagination. In other words, Bandura acknowledges both external forces (the environment) and internal states (the mind). While there might be reinforcement from the outside, self-regulation is a primary motivator. This explains why so often people’s belief remains unchanged in the face of external persuasion (Burger, 1986).
Humanist Philosophy
As with many other educational philosophies and approaches, Humanism in education was influenced by psychology. A humanistic approach to learning emphasizes personal freedom, dignity and potential. Learning is intentional, value-laden, and is set on discovering and constructing knowledge. There is a holistic aspect to humanistic pedagogy ( The overarching philosophy of humanism is that humans are rational, have morality and free will, and also have imagination and creativity. There are also political views of humanism in which people are governed by ethics such as equality, justice and plurality. In teaching, humanism is applied to help people reach their full potential (Aloni, 1999). There are commonalities in humanistic and progressive philosophies, with the emphasis on discovery and construction of knowledge.
Humanism has several roots from classical to modern times. such as  existential philosophers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegard, and Sarte, and Frankl and American psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. Frankl’s experience in a concentration camp led him to expound of the importance of search for meaning, even when struggles lead to doubt about life’s purpose (Burger, 1986).   The work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are often cited as the major contributors to humanistic psychology. Rogers believed that people should be open to life, are worthy of positive regard, and direct their own experience. Maslow posited that people are motivated by seeking what they lack, and also the need for growth, as demonstrated by his well known model, Hierarchy of Needs  (Burger, 1986).
The classical education of Athens, with a curriculum of arts and humanities retains some influence in educational debates concerning curriculum and purpose of education. A classical approach embodies an idealistic vision of man. This tradition stayed alive through Roman, Renaissance, and Enlightenment times. Classical humanism balances liberal egalitarian ideas with traditional concepts of virtue and nobility (Aloni, 1999). 
Humanism is also associated with Critical Pedagogy, in which education is seen as interacting with crucial social and political issues. Theorists such as Paul Friere and Jonanthan Kozal view learn as transformative and action oriented (Aloni, 1999). Education is viewed as an important, perhaps most important source of social change at the individual and institutional level.
Rogers suggested attitudes and characteristics of that would facilitate learning with humanistic qualities. Note that Rogers encourages facilitation of learning, not instruction. These elements include genuine, prizing and acceptance, and empathetic understanding (Smith, 2004).
 Discussion of Philosophy and Theory: My Perspective
My philosophy, my way of viewing the world is influenced by my status as a “younger baby boomer” with older depression era parents. My attitudes reflect my roots as a democrat, unionist and literally my growing of age in the 1960’s. I was raised Roman Catholic primarily in the post Second Vatican Council era, in a predominantly protestant and Jewish community. My friends came from all faiths and backgrounds. I was raised to believe that I should pursue my goals, no matter what they may be, and that God would help guide me in the direction of His intent using the talents and tools He had given to me. I value the lives, experiences, perspectives and views of those around me and even made it a career, first as a journalist and later as a teacher, to help others to understand diverse perspectives.     Theories that are related to behaviorist, progressive, and humanist philosophies have had the most impact on my worldview, values, beliefs and attitudes, in both positive and negative ways. As an educator, I am now in the position to influence others just as I was influenced.
     I admit to some ambivalence about behaviorism philosophy, although my reaction is probably more emotional than rational. I am not comfortable with the Pavlov analogy, or the overall materialistic emphasis. I do not believe the core of human existence and behavior is always conditioned by environment or personal reward, at least beyond the level of basic survival. However, there is no denying that I was impacted by behaviorism, since it was so widely used in schools as I was growing up. I learned best when I was able to explore and experiment, as opposed to memorization, testing and grades. I put little value in teacher’s attitudes toward me or their rubrics. When a 5th grade teacher tried to hold me back a year due to test scores, my parents and I decided to move forward. I was placed in a low level track III based on testing. I later proved them wrong by advancing from C to A track in just a year and a half. In doing so I did miss key foundation material, including spelling and lower level math. Yet I advanced to become a writer, high school newspaper editor and to the highest level of math taught at a very college prep centered public high school. As a trained actor, I am aware that behavior affects us on many levels in terms of interpersonal communications, how we react to the world around us and how others react to us. Certainly much of my experience as a student was through direct instruction, with lectures, drills, and demonstrations. As an instructor, I use lectures, and many students want and need this type of teaching, particularly if they are resistant to reading or have poor reading literacy levels.
     Albert Bandura’s social learning theory is interesting to me as a communications professional. As an example, the belief that people learn through observation, imitation and modeling is something I use as a teacher of speech and theater. For this reason, group learning is much more effective. Imagine trying to give a speech without ever seeing someone give a speech, or getting on the stage without ever seeing someone else perform.
     I can see a practical side to behaviorism, and there remains a strong place for direct instruction in education. But there are inherent limitations with behaviorism. My general philosophy, carried out in my values and aspirations, is to see behaviorism as a useful tool, a starting point, but also an easy out and a limitation. The trial and error and active aspects of behaviorism are appealing. I tend to be creative and think outside the box. From an educational policy standpoint, too much emphasis on drilling and testing creates superficial knowledge but lack of understanding.  Linier thinking has its place but the broader scope of exploration allowed through other methods of exploration may better prepare students for the rapidly changing world in which we live and work. Philosophically, I am a strong believer in the power and importance of critical thinking, which we need more than ever to solve problems. Critical thinking involves examining assumptions, understanding bias, self-understanding, use of logic, values reality based perspective but is also able to use imagination (Brookfield, 2005).
     I admit to some attachment to progressive philosophy having gone to Chicago schools, given John Dewey’s work. More particularly, I appreciate Constructivist learning theories, which emphasize self directed and experiential learning. The activist and changing nature of Constructivism appeals to my curiosity and creativity. Life in our rapidly changing world is fluid without the limitations and boundaries of a traditional industrial society. Students today face the reality of multiple careers in their lifetime where once the only prospect was multiple jobs and with my Depression era parents, a single employer was the expectation of life’s work experience.
     Bruner’s Discovery Learning theory fits in with my general philosophy that life should be stimulating, fun, and challenging. The idea of teacher as a facilitator also fits in with my general philosophy of wanting to help others.
     I was the beneficiary of Constructivism in school, with the opportunity to take an Experimental, Self Designed Curriculum as part of my studies in college. I was also part of an experimental program in high school, classrooms without walls.
     Humanism’s emphasis on personal freedom, justice, and search for meaning is a good match for my ideals and values, although I think it is a difficult thing to attain and maintain in an educational system that often seems too immersed in conformity and consumerism. Humanism can be found in classroom with teachers that inspire and students who thrive in a nurturing environment. The liberal arts component of humanism is also important, particularly as education becomes increasingly specialized and career oriented. I am saddened by the decrease in liberal arts curriculum and the focus on material aims. I prefer inspiring students to think in terms of the entire person, the society in which they live and in applying a diverse life and intellectual experience to any task they take on.
     It is difficult for me to think of my philosophy in an intellectual way, because my values are so intertwined with what I do as person in every aspect of my life. As a journalist, I was also a teacher, and journalism ideals of freedom and justice, and trying to figure out what it means. As an actor I was both teacher and entertainer, inspiring thought and perspective. I also appreciate the transformative power of learning at an individual and social level, as elaborated by Paul Fiere. When we teach a student, we may change that student, and then may change the world.
     At its most basic teaching and learning is a relationship that is based on trust. Following the ideas of Carl Rogers, learning requires trust, respect, and openness. Learning can also involve transformation, which can be painful as we confront ourselves and the world, and if possible improve our world, as Paul Friere and others believe. The process of transformation may involve conflict. Most of all, learning should be a pursuit of passion, in whatever form it takes. Philosophically, I believe learning requires fearless curiosity and conviction.

Aloni, N. (1999). Humanistic education. [Encyclopedia Philosophy
of Education].   Retrieved on February 7, 2009 from

Anderson, C.J. (2004). Selling the postwar pea: James L. Hymes,
Jr.’s Interpretations of Progressive Education Philosophy.
American Education History Journal, 31(2). Retrieved from
Barone, C (N.D.) The new academy. Retrieved from

Burger, J.M. (1986). Personality: Theory and research. Belmont,
CA: Wadsworth.
Cassel, M. (2005). Philosophy of education. Retrieved from

Chen, I (N.D.) Overview of behaviorial theories. Retrieved from

Creswell, J.W. (2008). Educational research: Planning,
conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
Dede, C. (N.D.) Planning for neomillennial learning styles:
     Implications for investments in technology and faculty.
     Retrieved from
Elam, C, Stratton, T. & Gibson, D.D. (2007). Welcoming a new
generation to college: The Millenial Students. Journal of College Admission. Retrieved from
Gallup, H.F. (1997). Fred Keller and PSI.

Gutek, G.L. (2003). Philosophical and ideological voices in
 education. Mass: Allyn & Bacon.

Gutek, G. (2004). Educational philosophies and changes. Boston:
MA: Pearson

Hiemstra, R. & Sisco, B (1990). Moving from pedagogy to
     Andragoy. Retrieved from

Hoover, W.A. (1996). The practice implications of
      constructivism. SEDLetter. Retrieved from

Kearsley, G. (2009) Explorations into learning & instruction:
The theory into practice database. Retrieved from   

Kingsley, K.V., Boone, R. (Winter 2008/2009). Effects of
     Multiple software on achievement of middle school students
in an American history class. Journal of Research on
Technology in Education, 41(2). (N.D.). Discovery Learning (Bruner). Retrieved from http:www.learning theory-bandura.html
McGlynn, A.G. (2005). Teaching millenials, our newest cultural
     chort. Education Digest, 71, 3. Retrieved from
McNeely, B. (N.D.) Using technology as a learning tool, not just
     The cool thing. Retrieved from
Noddings, N. (2007). Philosophy of education, 3rd ed. Boulder,
Co: Westview Press
Obgliner, D. (July/August 2003). Boomers, gen-xers, millenials:
Understanding the new students. Educause
Oblinger, D. Oblinger, J.  Is it age or IT: First steps toward
understanding the net generation.
Olsen, L. (1999) The progressive era’s misunderstood giant

Onwuegbuziem A.J. (Spring 2002). Why can’t we all get along?
     Towards a framework for unifying research paradigms.
     Education, 122 (3), p. 518.
Patterson, C.K. (2007). The impact of generational diversity in
     The workplace. Generational Diversity, 15(3).
Pew Research Center (2008). Baby Boomers: the Gloomiest
Generation. Retrieved from
Ranker, J. (2007). Designing meaning with multiple media
     sources: A case study of an eight-year-old student’s
     writing processes. Research in the teaching of English.
Ramaley, J. & Zia, L. (N.D.) The real versus the possible:
     Closing the gaps in engagement and learning. Retrieved
Reith, J. Understanding and appreciating communications styles
      of Millenials. Retrieved from
Roberts, G.R. (N.D.) Technology and learning expectations of the
net generation. Retrieved from
Rubin, A. & Babbie, E. (2001). Research methods for social work.
     (4th ed.).  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

Sandars, John
Work Based Learning in Primary Care; Sep 2006, 4 (3)
Standfort, M. (2002). Whassup? A glimpse into the attitudes
     And beliefs of the Millenial generation. Retrieved from
Sweeney, R. (2006). Millenial behaviors and demographics. –
Trow, M. (1999). American higher education, past, present, and
Future in J.L. Bess & D.S. Webster (Eds.) Foundations of
American Higher Education.  (PP. 7 – 22). Needha Heights,
MA: Simon & Shuster.
Yancher, S.C., Williams, D.D. (Dec 2006). Reconsidering the
     compatibility thesis and eclecticism: Five proposed
     guidelines for method use. Educational Researcher.

Gutek, G.L. (2003). Philosophical and ideological voices in education. Mass: Allyn & Bacon.

first published on this blog ( 4/11/2010

No comments: