Teaching Philosophies: Teacher versus Student versus Society-Centered in Simple Terms

teacher in front of class main

Teaching involves the spread of knowledge. Many people can be teachers in a variety of ways. Pedagogy, the study of teaching, can help make you a better teacher. The study of teaching includes teaching philosophies, methods of teaching. They include teacher, student, and society-based approaches. Five examples are: essentialism, perennialism, progressivism, reconstructionism, and existentialism.

Everyone Can Be A Teacher 

A teacher is someone who imparts knowledge to others. A person does not have to be a paid professional at a school to be a teacher.  

Teaching is something that is done by a diverse group of people in a range of ways.  It is on a basic level part of being human.  

Teachers of all types might wish to learn themselves.  An ancient thinker once noted that the path to true wisdom is to know when you are ignorant.  

Learning is helpful as well.  And, part of learning is to discover how to be a better teacher.  Again, this is a helpful tool for teachers of all types.  For instance, successful  training at the workplace requires good instructors.   

Study of Teaching 

Pedagogy is the study of the method and practice of teaching, particularly as an academic study.  It is basically the theory of teaching.  Biology is the study of life.  

Pedagogy is the study of teaching.  The examination of teaching will help you become a better teacher yourself.  

The study of teaching has led to the discovery that there are different philosophies of teaching as well.  Philosophy is literally the “love of wisdom.”  

Ancient Greek philosophers tried to use reason to explain the nature of the world and human conduct. Later on, the Enlightenment aka the Age of Reason helped to bring Western Europe into the modern era.  

A teaching philosophy is a method of instruction, including the beliefs, values, and understanding used to expound knowledge to others.  

Photo by Yasin Yusuf

Why Is Teaching Philosophy Important? 

Let’s say you are teaching history.  You have a class on the American Civil War.  You have notes, assisted by such useful resources as this website.  You check the calendar. It’s time for school!

How exactly do you try to teach this material?  What will work best with the material, the students, the demands of the school, and your own personal style and abilities? 

This is where teaching philosophy comes into play.  It provides a helpful approach to transmitting the material from teacher to student in the best way possible for all involved.  

For instance, this essay tries to explain why we teach history:

We ultimately teach history not to indoctrinate or propagandize or excuse or render judgment, but to nurture understanding. Our students need to grasp the complexities of human character, the diversity that lies across time and space, the dynamics of social change, the costs and benefits of progress, and the exotic nature of the present.

The essay is putting forth a specific teaching philosophy.    

Breaking Down Teaching Philosophies 

A teaching philosophy includes your beliefs, ethics and principles.  If you are asked during an interview, for instance, “what is your teaching philosophy,” these general concepts will come to mind.  We can boil these down to two basic things: why and how you teach.  

Those who study this sort of thing over the years have determined that it is helpful to classify the different methods into helpful “schools” or types of teaching philosophies. 

A human, for instance, fits into various groups of living things: animals, mammals, primates, and so on.  This is a helpful means of classing like with like.  The alternative is a whole mass of things unorganized.

Teaching philosophy can be divided in a range of ways.  A helpful way to look at the situation is to break things into easy-to-digest morsels (yummy). 

First, there are basic categories and then there are specific philosophies that fit in each.  We will focus on five philosophies.    

There are three basic categories of teaching philosophies: teacher-centered, student-centered philosophies, and society-centered.  

Teacher-centered philosophies of education are focused on methods put into action by the teacher.  Student-centered philosophies are formed according to the needs and learning styles of individual students.  Society-centered philosophies are focused on groups of students.  


Perennialism and essentialism are the two types of teacher-centered philosophies of education.

A perennial plant is one that lives a long time.  Perennialism is based on the understanding that there is certain fundamental knowledge, which is basically fixed and everlasting. 

This approach is often focused on “great works,” which are used to help students to learn how to think and act.  Mortimer Adler, for instance, developed a curriculum based on 100 great books of western civilization.  This approach is not individualized to student needs.

Essentialism argues that there are certain basic “essentials” of learning, a “common core” that is necessary for education. This harkens back to the basic idea of the “three rs” (reading, writing, arithmetic; spelling not included).  

Creativity is not encouraged.  After all, the basics would work for all students.  Nonetheless, unlike perennialism, there is an acceptance that some change is possible.  

Photo by Brooke Cagle


Progressive and existentialism are two student-centered philosophies of education. 

Progressivism is a student-focused approach that invites students to experiment and question.  The scientific method, which invites an open mind, one that allows questioning even well-accepted beliefs, is promoted.  “Learning by doing” is also encouraged.  

The teacher serves as a facilitator, a guide, instead of leading the way.  John Dewey was a leading proponent and this philosophy grew out of the Progressive Era in the 1920s.  

Existentialism arises from philosophical thought from such thinkers as Jean Paul Sartre.  Existentialism argues that the individual has a special ability to determine one’s existence. 

Existentialism as a teaching philosophy rejects essentialism.  Each individual student should have wide discretion and one-on-one learning between the teacher and student should be encouraged. 

Individual expression is encouraged, including in classroom discussions.   

Photo by Yasin Yusuf


Reconstructionism is a society-focused approach that aims to address social problems and advance a better society.  Social reform (“reconstruction”) is itself a basic aim of education.  

Education here is intended to consider current problems, which contrasts with perennialism’s belief that there are certain fixed everlasting concepts that work as much today as in the past. Critical race theory can fit into a reconstructionism philosophy.  

What Method Is Best For You?

Okay.  So, we are back to preparing for class.  Now, besides knowing the material, you have various methods of teaching it.  Five basic ways that explain how and why education is done.  

What method is best for you?  That is ultimately your call.  The method used is going to be influenced by your own personal philosophy, where you are teaching, and the needs of the students. 

Sometimes, for instance, your discretion is going to be restricted in various ways.  

Nonetheless, it is likely that some combination of these philosophies will be best.  Flexibility will provide you with the best chance to teach to your full potential.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

Recent Posts