Philosophical and Theoretical Basis of Learning and Instruction

An essay on the philosophy of education



A paper written for my Preliminary Examination in Curriculum & Instruction at Texas A&M University, Fall 2009.


Some time ago I read a fairly recent book on the philosophy of education (Barrow & Woods, 2006). It is an analytical treatise of the subject belonging to the British/USA tradition of philosophy. However, the questions that I have been asked to answer prompted me to approach the subject differently.

In explaining my understanding of the philosophical and theoretical basis for learning and education I would like to first of all to equate education with ‘instruction’ and thus treat learning and education as completely separate issues, at least initially. The reason is that even though the concepts are related, they have different origins and operate according to different structures.

Learning is an internal, hidden process that is influenced by neurological, psychological and sociological conditions. Teaching or instruction instead, is an overt, public activity. Instruction is primarily conditioned by political and sociological conditions.

To illustrate this distinction consider a student sitting in the classroom. The mathematics teacher is explaining linear equations and the student listens. She is writing on the board and the student observes. In addition, the student is taking notes and may even come up with correct answers to problems given in class as practice. However, none of all this behavior is an indication of whether the student has learned anything about linear equations. Menotti and Ricco (2007) discuss some instructional situations (didactic contracts) where there may be only the appearance of understanding by the students. “Formal reproduction” occurs in the classroom when the teacher gives the procedure needed to solve the problem to the students with no further interaction. The students in this setting will operate “by imitation” or “under orders.” A key component of this method is repetition, drill. Another instructional technique is called by the authors “Socratic maieutic.” In this case the teacher will interact with the students, but will only respond to answers that she considers correct and will disregard all other. Eventually a student will give the correct answer and that concludes the activity. The final situation is called “empiricism.” Here the teacher relies on sensory perception. The teacher will use for instance objects to represent a mathematical operation. The students will simply observe the outcome and “see” the result.

To establish whether students actually learn and understand a subject it is useful to consider recent advances in neurology considered relevant for education. Battista (2001, p. 55) used the term “scientific constructivism” for a scientific theory grounded in this type of research. He unequivocally stated that scientific constructivism is extremely well supported by the results of neurological and psychological research and that therefore they are not in discussion (pp. 42–84).

There is also a more philosophical understanding of “constructivism.” The education researchers who are foundational in constructivism are Jean Piaget (Dimitriadis & Kamberelis, 2006, pp. 167–177) and Lev Vygotsky (pp. 191–199). The main publications that I have read on this subject are Steffe and Nesher (1996, pp. 303–449), Richardson and Adams St. Pierre (2005), and Guba and Lincoln (2005).

In contemporary educational research two main paradigms are followed. Often they are called “quantitative” and “qualitative,” but that is not a rigorous definition. Roughly, quantitative research assumes a positivist or post-positivist paradigm, and qualitative research is framed within a constructivist or critical theory paradigm. Both types of research can be used concurrently in what is called a “mixed method” approach. However, positivism is only commensurable with post-positivism and constructivism is commensurable with critical theory, and unlike the methods themselves, we can not mix these positivism and post-positivism with constructivism or critical theory (Guba & Lincoln, 2005, p. 192). We need to keep the concepts of epistemology separate from methods. Constructivism in a nutshell is an epistemology. Janvier (1996, pp. 449–450) defined it as a

philosophical theory or position about knowledge and knowledge acquisition. …Its main feature …is to acknowledge, as its starting point, the fact that the “knower,” in the development of his or her knowledge, is dramatically isolated and individually confronted with his or her experiential contact with reality. It basically means that the notion of truthfulness is challenged in the sense that similarity between what is known and what is the source of the knowledge is claimed to be unverifiable.

In addition the author explains that constructivism is not purely a philosophy, but was by Piaget complemented by some psychological concepts. We have to be careful with the concept of ‘knowledge.’ Both constructivism and positivism are epistemologies, thus it follows that their concepts of knowledge are very different (Glasersfeld, 2000, pp. 4–5).

Explanatory Deficiency of the Philosophy

Constructivist worldviews face at least two criticisms. The first one is that constructivism leads to relativism and self-refutation. If all knowledge is constructed and is only, at best, indirectly related to the “real world,” then also constructivism is a constructed notion, a social construct that may or may not have a referent to objective reality. There is really no way to be sure.

While a constructionist may brush of this critique as a sterile sophism, the second critique, which is a consequence of the first one, questions the axiology of the paradigm itself. According to constructivism our understanding of reality is socially determined. The main social factor is believed to be language. Richardson and Adams St. Pierre (2005, p. 961) wrote “What something means to individuals is dependent on the discourses available to them.” However, the constructivist researcher is supposed somehow to be able to transcend these limitations and have a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of society. It would seem that these researchers have to be free of the cognitive constraints that normal people are trapped by. A constructivist would the have to belong to an elite group of people who were able to leave Plato’s Cave (The Republic, 7.514a–7.520a) and see the light. They would not be determined by their environment and can show the ‘others’ who are how to free themselves from their fate.

I do not think that a coherent and convincing reply to these criticism does exist. I think that those who espouse constructivism, such a myself, do so because it appears to enable us to make sense of what one sees and experiences. In the case of Michel Foucault, certainly a controversial figure, it has been written that what he says is ‘right enough to be disturbing’ (Marshal, 1990, p. 14).

No theory can explain everything. Plato in his Timaeus (Lamb, 1925) distinguishes between the physical world and the eternal world. The first one is subject to change unlike the second one.

[27.d] …Now first of all we must, in my judgement, make the following distinction. What is that which is Existent always [28a] and has no Becoming? And what is that which is Becoming always and never is Existent? Now the one of these is apprehensible by thought with the aid of reasoning, since it is ever uniformly existent; whereas the other is an object of opinion with the aid of unreasoning sensation, since it becomes and perishes and is never really existent. …

Explanations about the eternal world will be

[29b] …abiding and unshakable …

Then Plato refers to the physical world

[29c] whereas the accounts of that which is copied after the likeness of that Model, and is itself a likeness, will be analogous thereto and possess likelihood; for I as Being is to Becoming, so is Truth to Belief. …Wherefore, Socrates, if in our treatment of a great host of matters regarding the Gods and the generation of the Universe we prove unable to give accounts that are always in all respect self-consistent and perfectly exact, be not thou surprised; rather we should be content if we can furnish accounts that are inferior to none in likelihood, remembering that both I who speak [29d] and you who judge are but human creatures, so that it becomes us to accept the likely account of these matters and forbear the search beyond it.

Thus, according to Plato we can not be certain about how we understand the physical world and can do no better than have an approximate understanding (likely account). Plato was correct in encouraging us to ‘be content’ of limited explanations, because it is against our tendency to belief that we can really understand the world (Glasersfeld, 2000, pp 4–5). A contemporary understanding of Plato’s “eternal world” would relate it to the abstract fields of logic and mathematics.

In the field of education this controversy has a special intensity because uniquely among academic disciplines, its epistemology has been decreed by nothing less than the U.S. Congress (House, 2005, p. 1078). The federal government will only recognize as a valid method for obtaining knowledge the scientific method. This is not just an academic, theoretical discussion because there are large financial implications in the form of research grants.

What does all this mean for me personally? I have chosen not to use the positivist paradigm in my research. Rarely in education are we able to perform truly randomized experiments. The majority of educational researchers use quasi-experiments (e.g. Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). In my opinion, when we employ quasi-experiments we are trying to walk on the edge of a sharp blade. We are positioning ourselves at the edge of the scientific method by asking research questions whose answers have questionable value unless we are extremely careful in our analysis and interpretation of the data. We have issues with generalizability, replicability, and objectivity, just to mention but a few (pp. 39-63). My skepticism is not universal though. In many fields, such as medicine, engineering, physics, astronomy, and chemistry, the application of the scientific method is perfectly appropriate. More than that, without the scientific method we would have astrology instead of astronomy, alchemy instead of chemistry, and quackery instead of medicine. For many questions there is an unequivocal yes/no answer (Barrow & Woods, 2006, p. 111). In education research, due to its complexity, it is not so. This discipline is not a “pure science” such as chemistry, or a distinct field of scholarship such as French Literature, but an application of several sciences and disciplines in combination. We all can think about what these are and come up with slightly different lists. I would place psychology, sociology, politics, history, on this list. In addition, we have to add the specific content fields such as mathematics, literature, and science.

Recapitulating, I have positioned myself in the structuralist field, and not because of any ontological reason, I am still a realist, but rather because of epistemological and methodological reasons.

Implementation of Education Philosophy

In the first paragraph I conceptually divided education in ‘learning’ and ‘instruction’ Here I would like to briefly discuss the second concept. How do we implement our theoretical understanding of how we learn in a school setting? It has been said that “in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” Implementation is where problems and controversies happen. In the field of mathematics education we can point at the “Mathematics Wars” and the achievement gap as great struggles in our time (Loveless, 2001; Latterell, 2005).

According to Janvier (1996, p. 449) “constructivism is only concerned with learning and not with teaching.” All it can do for teaching is to guide us in implementing conditions by which “good learning” occurs (p. 449).

At any rate, this matters only until a certain point, because I do not consider instructional practices the today’s most important issues in education. In my opinion, they are the quality of the teaches and the motivation/culture of the students. Both have to be present for learning to occur.

Regarding the first point, I would just skip all sorts of confabulations and cut the Gordian knot. As Plato already knew, we need to pay teachers well (Laws, 7.804cd). Once we do so all sorts of good things will happen. People will compete for teaching positions instead of considering them fall-backs. Teachers will acquire status in society. Students become aware of the high status of teachers and change their behavior in school. Instruction will improve simply because more capable people now are teaching.

The second point that we have to pay attention to culture. I find the sociological research of Pierre Bourdieu very relevant here (Dimitriadis & Kamberelis, 2006, pp. 65–73; Johannesson & Popkewitz, 2001, pp. 229–234; Bourdieu, 1982). It is not possible to here discuss his very detailed sociological theory of practices, habitus, field, and capital, but I agree with Bourdieu’s understanding that it is the particular culture of many students that is hurting their academic progress.


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