Pick your philosopher

19th March 2004 at 00:00
The strategy is going back to the great thinkers for ideas on how children learn. Whose theories would you choose?

Primary strategy director Kevan Collins has said he wants to consider the ideas of great philosophers in developing the teaching and learning framework. This is a radical idea. Educational philosophy has not for some time been considered a priority for government. At the core of educational philosophy is the understanding that education is primarily concerned with the moral process of helping students to be "better" people, and thus create a more civilised society. Until now this has not been seen as a core purpose of national strategies, which have focused on raising attainment in basic subjects.

Which philosophers do you think should inform learning and teaching to support the primary strategy? Here are some of the contenders:

* Socrates (469-399 BC) believed that reason is the key to understanding the world. He established the Socratic method of questioning, in which counter-examples are given of the proffered definition in order to pursue the meaning of terms such as justice. Perhaps he can be considered the father of Assessment for Learning?

* The key bequest of Aristotle (384-322 BC) was his notion of virtue. He saw it as the disposition to act well within a given social context (for example, courage was the balanced position between cowardice and foolhardiness). Aristotle argued for the use of the senses and intuition, as well as reason. He thought children should be taught to act morally so that, as they matured, they would be able to understand how to live their lives virtuously. He believed that the teacher's role was to help pupils establish an understanding of the world. Happiness could be achieved through a process of contemplation, leading to intellectual understanding.

* Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that man is naturally good, and that there is no original sin. He counselled against the acquisition of a moral vocabulary before the age of reason, believing that the child could not grasp the concept of being moral until puberty.

* Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), a major figure in early-childhood education, is seen as the originator of the concept of child-centred education. He meant by this the placing of children at the centre of their world, not, as this term has often been misinterpreted to mean, the centre of their schooling. Froebel is saying that a teacher should think of the world a child lives in - their experiences and knowledge - and help them to build on their understanding. He did not mean the child should be at the centre of the process in an indulgent, egotistical way.

He promoted the idea that a child's learning experiences should be rooted in first-hand, practical situations. As the young child learns about the world through the senses, not through reason, early childhood (0-8) should be spent in purposeful play.

* John Dewey (1859-1952) stressed the fostering of democratic principles in schools in order to develop these principles in the community. The curriculum should be linked to the interests and play of the child. He criticised the notion of an extreme child-centred focus, believing that freedom was not an end in itself. For him, the role of the teacher was to nurture the pupil's interests with positive educative experiences and sustained intellectual development.

* Maria Montessori (1870-1952) disagreed with distinctions between the worlds of home, school and community, arguing that education should treat them as a continuum. She wanted each school to represent the model of an ideal family. The school environment was to be secure and loving, encouraging the development of the right character. Learning should be individualised and encourage each child to care for others. She maintained that putting children in the wrong environment would lead to abnormal development and ultimately create dysfunctional adults.

* Martin Buber (1878-1965) explored how real meetings (implying a deep communication) can be achieved. He described two types of relationship: I-Thou and I-It. The I-It relationship is functional and allows us to negotiate our daily existence. I-Thou relationships give the sense of being really alive. In the school setting it implies that the key relationship of teacher and pupil is at the heart of the teaching process. The teacher must establish the trust of students, and be able to be empathise with them.

* Nell Noddings currently asserts that the focus on a narrow curriculum, based mainly on verbal and mathematical achievement, cripples many whose talents and abilities lie elsewhere. She contends that radical change is needed in the curriculum and teaching as a whole to reach all children, not just the few who fit our conception of the academically able.

She argues that the curriculum should be based on our growing understanding of multiple intelligences and the great variability of children. Such a basis would support a drive for the human dimension to be put back into schools, which she says have become dehumanised.

As a fundamental human need is to be cared for and to care, the general focus of the teacher should be to promote the concept of care. The aim of education should be re-established as a moral one, that of nurturing the growth of competent, caring, loving and loveable people.

Neil Hawkes is a senior adviser in Oxfordshire. His latest book is How to inspire and develop values in your classroom (LDA, pound;9.95).

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