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Philosophy Statement: A Liberal Approach to a Conservative Curriculum

Copyright © Adam Waxler

If you’re not sure where you’re going, you’re liable to end up somewhere else”

Fable of the seahorse

As I watch my two nephews grow, I can not help but take an interest in their education.  I find it exciting to watch theses two young boys as they learn and discover.  However, Nick who is nine, and Chris, who is seven, seem to be on two different paths already at this early stage in life.  Nick simply loves school, learning is fun and seems to come easy for him, while for Chris school is a chore, a constant struggle to understand and make sense of the information he is being taught.  Many friends and family of these two boys assume that Nick simply applies himself while Chris does not.  However, when taking a closer look at their education, it becomes apparent, that while they are attending the same school, they are not receiving the same education.  On the one hand, Nick’s education is exciting.  He is constantly immersed in various projects including dioramas that involve the whole family, creative story writing, and letter writing.  Chris, on the other hand, brings home difficult worksheets for homework that are unimaginative and in no way connect his real life experiences to his schoolwork.  Is one of these boys “smarter” than the other?  I have the fortunate opportunity to see both of them outside of the classroom, in their natural environments, and therefore I know the answer is undoubtedly “no”.

Rather than suggesting that one boy is smarter than the other, or that one of them is applying himself while the other is not, I would look at the differences in how they are educated and suggest that there are divergent patterns of philosophy among the teachers of each student.  My own philosophy of education would probably be similar to that of Nick’s teachers, not because Nick is doing better in school, but rather because they are addressing not only what children should learn, but also how they should learn it.  In developing a philosophy of education these are the concepts that need to be addressed first, how learning occurs, and what should be taught.

First, we must understand how children learn.  Without understandinghow children learn, what they learn is largely irrelevant.  By blending the ideas proposed by pragmatism with those of constructivism it is easier to understanding how children learn.  A pragmatic theory of education contends that learning occurs best when students are actively engaged in an experience that will have real consequences rather than simply hearing or reading about the experiences of others (Stevens & Richards, 1992).  Constructivists believe that learning occurs when students construct new understandings by interacting with what they already know and that this is done best by problem solving and collaborating with others (Ismat, 1998).  Similar to the pragmatist, the constructivist believes that the key to learning is through active involvement rather than imitation and repetition.  By combining these two theories we see that learning occurs when an individual is engaged in experiences that cause a change in that individual’s knowledge or behavior by interacting with what he or she already knows.

According to John Dewey, the father of pragmatism, children are socially active people who are naturally eager to explore their environment and gain experiences (Rosenthal, 1993).  In doing so children confront both social and personal problems and it is through solving these problems that children learn.  It would be irresponsible for educators to deny this; therefore education must take into consideration the experiences of the child and make a conscious effort to relate what is being taught in school to those real life experiences.  Children do not learn, as many conservative education philosophies would contend, through book-based instruction, authoritarian teaching, or through passive memorization of fragmented bits of information.   As Alfie Kohn (1997) explains, this traditional method of teaching sees children as, “objects to be manipulated rather than as learners to be engaged” (p. 434). The mastery of a subject involves much more than having learning “hammered” in (Kohn, 1997).  It involves learning through experience and solving complex problems that model learning outside of school.  This is a combination of the pragmatic view in education that emphasizes learning through experience and the constructivist view in education that emphasizes learning through solving complex problems (Woolfolk, 1998).  Let’s face it, in the real world, what we experienceare complex problems.

Students learn best when they actively construct meaning around their interests and experiences.  In this way students gain a deeper understanding of material. The use of worksheets, textbooks, and lectures designed only to fill students with information leads to passive learning and rote memorization and places too much emphasis on short-term recall ability.  Our goal as educators should be to create lifelong learners who understand and appreciate that learning does not stop once the test is taken or even after their schooling has finished.  We can better understand how this applies to the classroom by taking a closer look at some educational policies concerning interdisciplinary curriculum, student collaboration, the role of the teacher, and finally, to decide if this applies to all students.

In life, problems are not solved by looking to one source for the answer, therefore, it is rational that children will learn better with an interdisciplinary curriculum.  There are many ways educators can foster learning with an interdisciplinary curriculum.  Making connections between subjects is limited only by the creativity of the teachers involved.  However, this concept should not be taken to the extreme of organizing the entire curriculum around a central theme, as some would suggest.  Forcing integration in a curriculum is worse than having no integration at all.  A forced integration around a common theme defeats the purpose and will make learning more difficult.  In real life situations, problems are not solved by focusing on a common theme, but rather from looking at the problem from various angles.  A curriculum should expand the students’ perspective, not narrow it.  The purpose of an interdisciplinary curriculum is not to revolve learning around a certain topic, but rather to make school learning comparable to learning outside of school.  If teachers regularly collaborate so they know what each other is teaching, then they can come up with ways to help each other make connections between the subjects and show their students how diverse subjects relate to one another.  This will facilitate the learning process for the students since that is how we learn in life everyday.  Understandably so, children will be better able to solve problems when they can and are taught to solve those problems from various perspectives.  One academic subject should benefit another, instead of them being taught in vacuums.

Likewise, if schools foster learning for the students by giving them situations that more closely resemble the real world, than certainly, along with making connections between the academic subjects, the focus within the individual classrooms should be on collaboration rather than competition.  While this is certainly a competitive society, in order to succeed in this competitive society one must be able to work well with others.  As mentioned earlier, constructivist teaching involves complex, real-life learning situations, but it also involves social interaction (Woolfolk, 1998).  This social interaction can come in the form of student collaboration in anything from having students pairing up for one minute, to three week cooperative learning assignments that place the students in groups for the duration of the assignment.  In the latter, students are often given roles and must work together to solve problems and create ideas.  Cooperative learning provides students with access to a learning style that is more likely to resemble life outside of school than does lecturing and competition.  Much of the research seems to indicate that cooperative learning improves students’ ability to see the world from other perspectives, betters relations among different ethnic groups, increases self-esteem, increases willingness to help others, and leads to a greater acceptance of others (Slavin, 1995).  These are the skills that will help children succeed in the real world and should be developed while they are still in school.  What’s more, the research also seems to indicate that cooperation leads to higher achievement than does competition (Slavin, 1995).

Clearly, an interdisciplinary curriculum and cooperative learning foster the natural way in which children learn by making school learning resemble real-life learning.  However, it is important to note the role of the teacher.  Teachers must work more as aids that facilitate the learning process, rather than as knowers who attempt to put their knowledge into the minds of their students (Adler, 1982).  We want to free students from relying on their teacher for answers so they can begin to learn on their own and so they can continue to learn after school is over.  Just like any good supervisor or manager, the teacher should guide the learning process.  As mentioned earlier, information can not just “hammered” in, and it should not just be passed down as if it is the last and all-knowing word.  Instead, there needs to be interaction between the student and the teacher.  Students should raise questions and try to solve problems thereby constructing their own understanding.  The more closely this is done in conjunction with real life experiences and the interests of the students, the easier learning will be.  A differentiated approach to instruction can do just this.

In the differentiated classroom tasks are based on interest and learning style and takes the constructivist approach that students are active participants in constructing their own knowledge with the teacher working more as a guide (Tomlinson, 1995).  Differentiated instruction uses of a variety of teaching strategies, so that all students can explore, understand, and demonstrate what they have learned with an emphasis on understanding rather than rote memorization (Tomlinson, 1995).  Some of these various teaching strategies include: field trips, debate teams, the use of technology to create commercials or web sites, putting on plays, oral presentations, writing in journals, and writing for publication such as classroom newspapers, class brochures, or letters to editors (Vacca & Vacca, 1999; Stevens & Richard, 1992).  Teachers must be flexible and approachable by providing support and adjusting assignments as needed.  To put simply, the role of the teacher is to create an experience that is significant to the students.  As Lucy Calkins states, in Peggy Walker-Stevens’ (1992) article “Changing Schools Through Experiential Education”:

If we asked our students for the highlight of their school careers, most would choose a

time when they dedicated themselves to an endeavor of great importance… On

projects such as these, youngsters will work before school, after school, and during

lunch. Our youngsters want to work hard on endeavors they deem significant. (para.


By using an interest-based approach that addresses a variety of learning styles, teachers are able to reach more of their students.  However, the question must still be asked if learning is possible for allof our students.  The answer is yes, all children can learn, and can continue to learn throughout their lives.  This is not to suggest that all children can learn the same thing at the same pace, but rather, that all children can learn when a teacher uses an interest-based differentiated approach to teaching.  In other words, all children can learn when the teacher uses a variety of teaching strategies to meet the various learning styles of the student and, in doing so, takes into consideration the students’ interests.  The best way to increase student interest is to show connections to real-life.  For example, using popular music to introduce a lesson on poetry.  Another way to increase student interest is to use authentic tasks that create realistic problems that don’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer, such as the issues of capital punishment or abortion.  These authentic tasks can also be connected to real-life situations that students can better relate to.  For example, on the East End of Long Island students can study the problems, causes, and possible solutions of beach erosion, or how the local elections may effect their lives.  These types of tasks increase both knowledge and motivation.  When we use a differentiated approach that focuses on increasing both knowledge and motivation then all children will be able to learn. Teaching all children certainly should be the goal of any educational system.

My philosophy on how children learn clearly follows along the liberal view that children learn from experiences that make clear connections with their real world interests and taps into their prior knowledge.  However, I do not believe the curriculum should be “watered down” or “thinned out” as many critics to the progressive view of education suggest results from basing schooling on student interest.  Making connections to student interests does not mean the entire curriculum must revolve around the interests of the student, but rather, these connections must be made within the core academic classes.  I believe education must concentrate on the core subjects of social studies, language arts, science, and math, but do so in away that all students can learn and enjoy themselves.  We must have a core curriculum, but within that curriculum there should be flexibility, choice, and students’ interest should be a priority.  In other words, taking the liberal philosophy mentioned earlier on how children learn and applying it to the conservative philosophy of what they should learn.  There is no reason why teachers can not associate what is being taught in an academic core subject to a student’s real–life experiences and interests.

The reason for focusing on a core curriculum is twofold.  First, a core curriculum provides all students with a truly academic education that is both general and liberal.  As Mortimer Adler (1982) suggests in his “Paideia Proposal”, this liberal and general education allows all students to acquire knowledge and develop the intellectual skills needed for critical thinking and communication thereby providing children with the opportunity for personal development as well as allowing them to become good citizens.

Secondly, a core curriculum can provide the necessary time needed to properly address how students learn.  Time is needed to implement strategies properly, to go into greater depth in subjects, and for teacher collaboration.  Focusing on the core subjects, not only provides a liberal education to all students, but allows for more time to teach each of those subjects.  The school schedule can be redesigned as it has in some schools to allow for block scheduling in which the core courses are taught in 90-minute blocks as opposed to the traditional 45-minute class.  In doing so teachers can focus on quality rather than speed, courses are taught rather than “covered”, and teachers have the time to make connections between subject areas and the real-life experiences and interests of their students (Raebeck, 1998).  Also, by teaching just these four courses there is the time for teacher collaboration thereby making an interdisciplinary curriculum a possibility.

Essentially, less becomes more.  As Adler (1982) explains, focusing on the core courses, “is as important for what it displaces as for what it introduces”(p. 21).  Concentrating on the core displaces a number of electives that have little or no educational value including those courses narrowly focused on specialized job training (Adler, 1982).  In fact, those students who currently take vocational training classes in secondary school do not even seem to reap the benefits in the job market and may even be less employable or earn lower wages than other high school graduates (Oakes, 1986).  The key issue here is time, therefore everything non-essential must be done away with.  As Barry Raebeck (1998) suggests in his book Transforming Middle Schools: A Guide to Whole School Change, this includes, “prolonged holiday festivals, Friday afternoon video reward parties, hang-out times in the cafeteria, social issue programs, and substance abuse overkill” (p. 99).  All of these, along with the traditional school electives, compete with a school’s attempt to focus on the core.

However, doing away with social issue programs and “hang-out” time is not to suggest that the school’s role is purely academic.  While certainly subject matter is the primary purpose of school, it would be asinine to deny the social aspect of education.  There is undoubtedly a social element of school, even if some wish there was not, as there is any time there is interaction between people.  Schools should work to promote the regular interaction between students, between teachers, and between student and teacher.  There should not be a one way flow of information from the top down.  Students should be active participants in constructing their own knowledge.  We do not want our students to be passive learners that simply memorize fragmented bits of information, but rather we want our classes to be student-centered and education must therefore be a social experience as well as an academic one.

All students can learn and continue to learn throughout their lives if education is gone about in the right way.  First, it must be understoodhow children learn.  Children learn through experiences and by making connections with their interests.  Teachers must make an effort to connect students’ school experiences to their real-life interests and must make school practices more closely resemble life outside of school.  This can be done through an interdisciplinary curriculum, using collaboration in the classroom, and by addressing the various learning styles of the students.  The teacher should be the facilitator of this process thereby creating a student-centered curriculum.

Second, we must understand what children should learn.  The student-centered curriculum should be based on a solid core of academic subjects including social studies, English, math, and science.   Doing away with the non-essentials in the curriculum creates the time needed to go into depth on the core subjects and thereby allows the teachers to apply the strategies that address how the students learn.  By applying this conservative curriculum through liberal means, we are combining what children should learn with how they should learn it, thus creating lifelong learners out of all our children.


Adler, M.J. (1982).  The Paideia proposal: Rediscovering the essence of education. In J.W. Noll (Ed.), Taking sides: Clashing views on controversial educational issues (pp.18-24). Guilford, CT: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.

Ismat, A. (1998). Constructivism in teacher education: Consideration for those who would link practice to theory. [Online] Washington, DC: Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED426986).

Kohn, A. (1997). How not to teach values: A critical look at character education. Phi Delta Kappan, 78, 429-439.

Oakes, J. (1986). Keeping track, part 1: The policy and practice of curriculum inequality. Phi Delta Kappan, 68, 12-17.

Raebeck, B. (1998). Transforming middle schools: A guide to whole school change (2nd ed.). Lancaster: Technomic Publishing Company.

Slavin, R.E. (1995). Cooperative learning (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Stevens, P.W., & Richards, A. (1992). Changing schools through experiential education. [Online] Charleston,WV: Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED345929).

Tomlinson, C.A. (1995). Deciding to differentiate instruction in the middle school. Gifted Child Quarterly, 39, 77-87.

Rosenthal, S. (1993). Democracy and education: A Deweyan approach. Educational Theory, 377-389.

Woolfolk, A.E. (1998). Educational Psychology (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Adam Waxler is a middle school social studies teacher, teacher mentor, and the author of eTeach: A Teacher Resource for Learning the Strategies of Master Teachers. Adam is also the editor and publisher of The Teaching Teacher’s Newsletter. For more information about his ebook or to sign up for your free monthly newsletter log onto: