Theories of Education Essay

Educational theorists are not formulated in terms of philosophical beliefs (such as metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology). However, their proposals in the field of education contain philosophical grounds. Contrariwise, these proposals are imbued with different assumptions thoroughly, although not always well defined. The formation of educational theories has been largely a phenomenon of the twentieth century. Many theoretical attributes existed informally, but their detailed development has caused a conflict that flared up since the early 1900s. In the late 19th – early 20th century, progressivism was a part of extensive socio-political movement of the overall reform that characterized American life. America was in searching of the solution to mass urbanization and industrialization. Leaders of that time Robert La Follette and Woodrow Wilson followed the issues of political progressivism to curb the power of trusts and monopolies and create a democratic system functioning virtually. On the social scene, progressive Jane Adams worked in the housing sector to improve the well-being of Chicago and other densely populated cities. Reform efforts of various progressives were numerous. Progressivism should be also viewed in the broader context in education.

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According to Norris (2004), progressivism is a theory of education originated as a reaction to traditional education, which attention was focused on the formal instruction methods and learning literary classics of Western civilization. John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had the greatest intellectual influence on the progressive education foundation. Dewey made ​​a contribution as a pragmatic philosopher of the school (Norris, 2004). He has written a lot about philosophical justification of education and tried to confirm his ideas in experimental school at the University of Chicago. Therefore, pragmatism can be called the basic teaching that influenced progressive education theories. Freudian psychoanalytic theory has the second most important influence on progressivism in education. Freud’s theory has supported the desire of many progressives, who fought for children’s expression freedom and providing more extensive learning environment for them, in which children could realize the energy of their instinctual impulses in action. Rousseau’s work “Emile” (1762) had the third most important influence. This book has made a special impression on those supporters of progressivism who were opposed to the intervention of adults in setting learning goals or children’s curriculum. It should be noted that extreme progressives, focused on the child, was more in tune with ideas of Rousseau and Freud than with Dewey’s ones, although the latter was often accused by critics of progressive education (Norris, 2004). Eventually, all these intellectual issues have evolved the theory of progressive education due to an outstanding group of teachers who were active in applying to theories in school practice. Carleton Washburn, William H. Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg, George S. Counts, Boyd H. Bode, and John Childs contributed to the development of various sides of progressive thought in education. Through their influence and power, progressive education theory has become the dominant theory in American education from 1920 to 1950 (Norris, 2004).

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Progressives should not be considered as a group that was united in all theoretical matters. However, they were united in their opposition to some school practices. Allan Ornstein (1995) defined that in general. They denounced – authoritarianism of a teacher; – preference to books and book-learning methods; – cramming of factual material; – “Four walls” approach, which isolates the formation of social reality; – using of fear or physical punishment as a form of discipline.

Humanistic Education

The  ​​progressive idea continued to exist in many different directions in education, known as Humanism. Humanists have adopted most of the progressive principles, including the principle of child at the center, not authoritarian role of the teacher, student’s activity and his involvement in the learning process, as well as the principles of cooperation and democracy. However, Progressivism is not the only source of Humanism. As a result, humanity has made more emphasis on the uniqueness and originality of a child. This emphasis on the individuality of a child has been strengthened by view of psychologists on Humanism in education. Psychologists in this direction are presented by Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Arthur Combs. These psychologists have contributed directly and significantly to the humanistic education. Their main concern was to help students become “humanized” and “actualized” that is to help reveal the individuality of a student, and develop a true “I” and its hidden potential. The following incentive of Humanism tradition took upon their works writers of Romantic Criticism. These writers have appeared in a climate of social disorder in the 60th years and were characterized by violent protests against repressive, insane and inhumane conditions in the schools. They argued that schools have become intellectually moribund and psychologically destructive as they are full of excessive organization procedures and punishments and, consequently, have no place for healthy and increasing philanthropy. Typical pedagogical works are John Holt’s “How Children Fail” (1964), Herbert Kohl’s “36 children” (1967), and George Dennison’s “Children” (1969). The works of romantic critics were eloquent, incisive, and popular. For this reason, it has made a big impact on the reading public and laid the foundation of sympathy for experimentation in the field of humanistic education. Central issue to the humanistic movement in education was to create a learning environment where children were free from the competition, strict discipline and fear of failure. Humanists wanted to get away from the relationship of hostility, which were so common among students and teachers. On the other hand, they had an intention to create a relationship of trust and soaked sense of security. They were convinced that such an atmosphere would free students from the devastating and absorbing energy of fear, and released energy would be spent on individual growth and development of creativity. Expressing his attitude towards learning, Holt (1995) showed his humanistic view of human nature. He wrote that children were naturally smart, energetic, inquisitive, and thirsty to learn. They do not need to be bribed and intimidated. Moreover, when they are happy, active, involved, and interested in what they do, they learn better. On the contrary, they do not learn when they are bored, they are intimidated, humiliated, and when they are threatened (Holt, 1995).

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The emphasis on the individuality of the humanists has spawned a number of different approaches to schooling. The three most influential ones were an open class, a free school, and schools without setbacks. They were widespread alternatives to traditional approaches to teaching in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Open class is a form of school experience, which aims to break the traditional rigor. It is decentralized classroom where desks are shifted by groups and space allocated by areas of study. These areas are separated by screens, bookcases, and other objects. Such classroom should have a specially designated area for reading, mathematics, and art. Movement for free school can be seen as an expression of protest against public education, which cannot provide the appropriate conditions for humanistic education because of their guardianship and ideological functions. Free schools were established by dissatisfied parents and teachers who wanted to spare their children from an authoritarian system with its accents on a structured training program and the requirements of conformity. Free schools were housed wherever possible from slums to the converted army barracks and stables. William Glasser (2011), a psychiatrist who developed the “reality therapy”, offered a humanistic approach to education in his book “Schools without Fail”. According to Glasser, schools are usually doomed to failure because they have not established warm interpersonal relationships through which students’ need of love and sense of self-worth are satisfying. The role of schools should ensure a warm and not threatening environment in which these needs can be met. This atmosphere creates a good environment for learning. At the same time, Glasser calls for individual responsibility of each student, as well as it is linked with its own significance closely. “School without Fail” invites a reader to understand how these goals can be achieved. Open class, free school, and school without fail are just three of many options offered by Humanists in the field of education aimed to humanize the school. It should be also noted that many of humanist’s proposals are used in elementary school.

Critical Theory of Education

Pedagogical movement that closely linked to Reconstructionism and less closely related to Futurism is known as Critical pedagogy. In addition to its Reconstructionist heritage, Critical Theory is based on School of Social and Political Thought, known as the Frankfurt School or Critical Theory. Originated in Germany in the 1930s, Frankfurt School has combined the idea of ​​social theory and philosophy in order to termination of all domination forms through transformation of society. Critical theorists have adopted Marxist’s critique of capitalism and remained faithful to central provisions of Renaissance.

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A particularly strong influence on the development of critical pedagogy has had a Third World Liberation and Educational Program Development. This program is based on the revolutionary theory of education, which is designed to make changes to the culture of the world by teaching the lower classes about their political, social and economic rights and opportunities in favor of the healthy future. Paulo Freire’s book “Pedagogy of Freedom” took central stage in this movement. This truly revolutionary theory of education is closely linked to various movements of liberal theology of underdeveloped countries and disadvantaged minorities in developed countries. Freire has a huge impact on critical pedagogy. According to Peter McLaren (1995) “Critical pedagogy is fundamentally connected with understanding the relationship between power and knowledge.” This understanding is important because the curriculum is more than a program of training.  According to McLaren (1995), it provides an introduction to a specific form of life and serves to prepare students for a partial position of domination or subordination in the existing society. Thus, the curriculum should be seen as a form of “cultural policy.” The traditional function of the school was a social reproduction and preservation of social, economic relations and the principles necessary to underpin the existing economic and class structure. In the spirit of Reconstructionist, Critical pedagogy theorists offer to school a revolutionary role. Schools should lead to the creation of a fair society. McLaren stated “the tradition of critical pedagogy is an approach to teaching that calls students to give freedom of action to change the world social order in the interests of justice and equality”. Critical tradition, as a cultural and political activity, indicates the necessity to start a struggle for the production and creation of knowledge in a broader attempt to create a social category of people who will implement the task of the authorities in their lives and especially in the production and acquisition of knowledge. The mainstay of this concept is education that instills knowledge, skills and habits to study the history in such a way to be able to review facts authenticity in accordance with contemporary forms of life.

Social Efficiency Theory of Education

While both the Progressivism and Humanist theories are focused on needs of people’s education system and the appropriate responses required by those needs, the Social Efficiency Theory provides social criticism on the effect of education on certain populations. In particular, Social Efficiency Theory does not focus on learning philosophies but provides answers to the question “What are the real consequences of our education programs?” Proponents of Social Efficiency paradigm claim that schooling is a way to control the society through imposing of existent position acceptance. By different, sometimes veiled ways, school system replicates the hierarchy that had already prevailed. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (1976) noted that public educational requirement appeared at the time when the capitalists needed a competent, obedient, and disciplined labor force. Legislative consolidation of universal secondary education meant that schools immigrants would not only learn English but also comprehend cultural values ​​that justify capitalism. Obedience, punctuality, and discipline are parts of what the proponents of Social Theory is called latent program (implicit introducing of political and cultural ideas in the classroom).

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Similarly, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, discussing American education system implications, argue that different social classes exhibit different cognitive processes due to differences in the education received by each of them. Those who will take lower-level jobs, learn to follow the rules obediently, while who will take elite position will receive “elite four-year college education,” where “they learn social relations adopted in the higher layers of the hierarchy” (Bowles & Gintis, 1975). The content and structure of school socialization is the same as labor socialization. Neo-Marxists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argue that the education system contributes to the reproduction of social inequality, offering children internalize the same roles, rules, and meanings, which are the basis in labor relations. Student-teacher relationship is similar to the relationship of an employer (or head) and hired worker in insubordination, degree of control over the content of activities, and motivational system. Bowles and Gintis call this kind of system correspondence principle. Isomorphism of schooling world and the world of work ensures the reproduction of inequality and social order as a whole. Afterwards, Bowles and Gintis proceed to discuss what they would determine as an effective education system. They mention the following three goals:

  1. Education should be equal. It should overcome the inequalities which arise in society.
  2. Education should be developmental. It should offer students to grow physically, cognitively, critically, and emotionally.
  3. Education should continue social life of the student. It should provide the integration of young people as fully functioning members of the country.


Educational traditions, which are discussed in this essay, were generated by educational problems that are more than philosophical ones. Modern theories of education have changed the form of education over the past century. These theories have generated numerous pedagogical experiments and issues with the goal to reach broad and professional audience. In the theorists struggle, Progressive theory placed a central position. Progressivism served as a stimulus and catalyst for agreeable and discordant with its underlying assumptions pedagogical practices. The catalyst gave an opportunity ​​to formulate the modern theory in the era when educational debates penetrated from the lonely academic sphere into the public. The main issues faced by theorists chained interest among many layers of the reading public. A reader may have noticed that each of these theories has something to say about three things: humanity, education, and society. Such understanding, including the fact that many of the ideals and practices of these theories correlate with everyday experience, made ​​educational theories as main forces in the ongoing dialogue about learning and education. Therefore, if their assumptions are correct, they shed light on the sustainable practices of education.

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