North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

What is the philosophy of education?

Posted on: February 20, 2023
Teacher standing in front of blackboard talking to group of students

The philosophy of education is a branch of philosophy that considers the nature and the aims of education, from both a theory perspective and a practical perspective. It’s one of the applied or practical branches of philosophy, dedicated to exploring education’s goals, methods, principles, forms, and meaning. 

Common areas of examination within the philosophy of education include:

  • The attitudes, values, and beliefs of individuals and institutions, and how these influence an individual’s teaching philosophy or learning in educational environments – both in terms of core curriculum and implicitly. 
  • Analysis of different pedagogical approaches within education.
  • The nature of knowledge.
  • The relationships between students, teachers, and other educators.
  • The state of education in different contexts and situations.
  • Issues with practical educational policies and practices. For example, debates may focus on topics such as standardised testing and assessments, school funding, and socio-economic influences on educational outcomes.
  • The intersection of the philosophy of education with subject areas such as history, psychology, and sociology, as well as other areas of philosophy, such as epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of mind.

What are the major philosophies of education?

There are several areas within the philosophy of education, although all will typically fall into one of three camps or philosophical traditions:

  1. Student-centred philosophies.
  2. Teacher-centred philosophies.
  3. Society-centred philosophies.


Educational essentialism focuses on what its proponents believe are the essential skills and subjects that all young children should learn as standard in their formative years, although there are also examples of essentialism in secondary schools and in higher education. Definitions of ‘essential’ will vary depending on culture, but typically include fostering reading, writing, and mathematics skills. Essentialism relies on knowledge being passed from teacher to student, and is considered a traditional approach to education and learning.


Educational perennialism advances the idea that pupils should develop the knowledge and skills that will be perennially relevant and important within society, with a focus on principles, rather than facts, and personal development, rather than essential skills.


Educational progressivism, also known as protractivism, is the antithesis of essentialism. With a focus on exploratory, experiential learning, learners are supported in developing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, as well as social skills. Learning is typically collaborative, and focuses on social responsibility, community service, and lifelong learning.

Social reconstructionism

Social reconstructionism in education is focused predominantly on social problems – such as climate change, racism, poverty, and violence – and educating children so that they are equipped to tackle and solve those problems. Prioritised areas of learners’ development include problem-solving skills and social justice awareness and education. 


Educational existentialism promotes student-directed learning, with learners focusing on the areas of study that best develop their sense of self – their character and their beliefs – as well as their own meaning, purpose, and understanding of life itself.


Educational positivism is a teacher-centred philosophy that asserts knowledge is the absolute truth, and that students can learn this knowledge through appropriate, teacher-led instructional methods.


Educational constructivism rejects the notion that learners passively absorb knowledge. Instead, it asserts that students construct knowledge and skills based on their experiences and the information they receive and process.


Educational behaviourism, also known as the behavioural learning theory, examines how people learn, and asserts that all behaviour is learned through environmental interactions. With this in mind, the behaviourism pedagogy relies on reinforcement to facilitate learning – learners receive constant feedback about their performance through graded homework, test scores, and so on.


Educational conservatism is dedicated to traditional curricula and teaching methods. Learners are encouraged to assimilate within an established culture, and are discouraged from expressions of individualism. Religious education is also more likely to feature in the curriculum.


With similarities to both social reconstructionism and existentialism, educational humanism is a student-centred philosophy of education that encourages learners to assert control of their own education. Students are invited to study the subject matter that most interests them, and prioritise activities that engage everything from their intellect and practical skills to their feelings, social skills, and artistic abilities.


Educational pragmatism asserts that education should teach learners the knowledge and skills that are practical for life. Pragmatists also believe that education should encourage students to grow into better people.

Major voices in educational philosophy

Philosophers of education can be traced back as far as Ancient Greece, with early philosophers such as Plato and Socrates advancing ideas about education and its significant influence on society.

In the centuries since, educational ideas and philosophies have evolved with input from a variety of philosophers and educators. Some of these individuals include:

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rather than focusing on practical techniques for sharing knowledge, Genevan philosopher Rousseau believed education should develop learners’ characters and moral education, and helped pave the way for Kantian philosophies to come.
  • Immanuel Kant. German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that education was absolutely necessary, saying, “The human being can only become human through education. He is nothing except what education makes out of him.”
  • John Dewey. American philosopher Dewey advanced the idea that social interactions drive effective education, and that schools should be social institutions.
  • Harvey Siegel. More recently, American philosopher Harvey Siegel has pushed for critical thinking skills development as a fundamental component of education.

What are the aims of educational philosophies?

Educational policies may vary, but typically aim to assist with the development of curricula and teaching techniques that help learners gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the real world. These philosophies may also be used to support important stakeholders within education, such as educational policy makers and high-level education advocates.

The philosophy of education in the United Kingdom is advanced through the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PESGB), which runs the Journal of Philosophy of Education.

What is the difference between the philosophy of education and an educational philosophy?

The philosophy of education is the branch of philosophy concerned with education. Educational philosophies, on the other hand, are often developed within an educational institution or organisation to articulate the body’s core educational beliefs and values.

Advance your career in education

Consider the latest philosophical and theoretical underpinnings related to your practical work in education with the 100% online MA Education distance-learning degree from North Wales Management School. This master’s degree will build on your existing knowledge in education with career-focused curriculum content to help you become more effective as an educator, and more successful in your career.

In addition to core modules in fundamental areas of educational theory and practice, such as learning technologies, critical pedagogy, and critical thinking, you’ll also undertake a module covering theory and philosophy in education. This module will enable you to conduct a critical and systematic analysis of the links between the study of philosophy, education, research, and academic practice. You will critically evaluate philosophical approaches and relevant theories that currently influence education in your context. You will also critically reflect on your own educational values and how these serve as a reference point for your own practice. Underpinning this module is the need for you to critically reflect upon the role of your personal philosophy in your own evidence-based educational practice, educational research, and professional learning.