3 Philosophical Foundations of Curriculum

“Philosophy points out to the society what. . . is to be achieved through education.” –Thomas Ogwara, et. al.

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Philosophy is at the heart of curriculum development. It helps educators in formulating beliefs, arguments, and assumptions and in making value judgments. Philosophy develops a broad outlook, and it also helps in answering what schools are for, what subjects are important, how students should learn, and what materials and methods should be used. Philosophy provides the starting point . . . in decision making about education in its totality (Ogwara, et. al, 2013).

Essential Questions 

  • How is philosophy a “crucial determinant” in curriculum trends and development?
  • What are the broad categories of philosophy, and what beliefs are espoused in each?
  • What do you perceive as the pros and cons of each philosophy?
  • What is your philosophy of teaching and learning as it relates to curriculum?
  • How does your philosophy of teaching and learning drive your future personal and professional choices?

Philosophical Foundations

Welcome to the philosophical foundations of curriculum. In this chapter, we will explore idealism, realism, pragmatism, existentialism, and educational philosophies which are perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, and reconstructionism.

Many sources consider philosophy to be “the study of basic ideas about knowledge, truth, right and wrong. . . and the nature of meaning of life.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Locke defines philosophy as a “process of liberation from ignorance and prejudice” (Curriculum Studies, 2020.)

According to Doll (1992: 28), philosophy has the multifaceted effect of helping us to:

  • indicate in general what we mean,
  • make what we mean more specific and definite, and
  • develop what we mean into a useful construct.

Thus, philosophy is a crucial determinant of curriculum trends and the curriculum development process by helping clarify our thought process. And, because philosophy is a process of the mind, there are a variety of philosophical thoughts that need consideration.

To start with, there are two broad categories of philosophy: the traditional and modern philosophies. In each of those categories, there are major philosophies such as idealism, realism, pragmatism, and existentialism, as well as educational philosophies arising from those major philosophies. These include perennialism and essentialism in the traditional category, while progressivism and reconstructionism fall under the modern philosophies.


Idealism is considered one of the oldest philosophical systems, whose main proponent was the Greek philosopher, Plato. Idealism advocates that ideas constitute what is real and permanent, i.e. ideas are the only true reality. Idealism also emphasizes the spiritual component of man, i.e., man is a spiritual being.

According to this philosophy, education is the process of development of a person, his/her conscious and spiritual self. The ultimate responsibility for learning rests with learners. The school exists to develop character, increase knowledge, and cultivate aesthetic taste. The teacher is expected to be a model, friend, and guide to the learners.


The realist’s school of thought is traced back to Aristotle, another main, Greek philosopher. According to this philosophy, matter or objects that we see exist by themselves, i.e., they exist absolutely with or without man. In other words, matter is not a construct of the human mind.

The following principles are therefore upheld:

  • the principle of independence of matter,
  • the principle of orderliness of the world behind its organization, this means that law and order prevail in the universe,
  • the principle of the world as real as discovered by the scientist.

Thus, it is possible to have objective knowledge of the world. Our senses are also a source of knowledge. The philosophy also advocates that values exist objectively; they are absolute and eternal.

What then are the educational implication of realism? Following are a few:

  • The ultimate educational aim is achievement of knowledge of nature and inner workings of the universe.
  • Education is essentially transmission of inherited culture from one generation to another.
  • Disciplines of curriculum should contain certain elements of culture.
  • Students should learn disciplines to develop intellectual skills to discover important principles and theoretical insights.

Based on this philosophy, there should be a core curriculum for every learner.


The main proponent of pragmatism was John Dewey (1859 -1952). The proponents of pragmatism were reacting against what they considered as failures or shortcomings of the traditional school system, supported by idealism and realism. Some of the criticisms included:

  • Traditional curriculum content included a lot of meaningless and needless content.
  • Traditional curriculum did not give a “utility education.”
  • The curriculum was rigid and did not cater to individual needs of particular learners.

Pragmatists, therefore, advocated for reality being considered as instrumental, i.e., used as an instrument to solve problems. Philosophy is therefore built on practical usefulness, i.e., “cash value of ideas.” Hence, truth is what works, what turns out all night. Truth also should be the idea that has been tested, verified, and found effective in solving problems.

What are the educational implications of pragmatism?

Learning from Experience

If experience is the source of knowledge, it is also a source of education. We learn by doing. However, not every experience is educative; experience must be productive, i.e., produce growth.

Educational Aim: Develop Learners’ Ability to Deal with Future Problems

That is, to develop intelligence to solve problems. According to Dewey, the process involves:

  • identifying the problem,
  • formatting a hypothesis(es),
  • gathering or collecting data and tools to solve the problem,
  • testing each hypothesis, and
  • storing the unity of knowledge for use in some similar situations.


Pragmatists propose a curriculum based on problems that arise out of daily living. School is therefore an extension of home and community.

Methods of Study

These should include:

  • problem-solving,
  • activity,
  • projects, and
  • group involvement.

Teachers should be a resource and guide; thus a motivator. Teaching must be child-centered.

For pragmatists, all subjects are vital. However, sciences are favored because the child is able to explore new knowledge.


According to Akinpelu (1981), existentialism is defined as “the philosophy of existence.” Sartre (1957) also states that “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” A person is therefore free to choose the type of life to live and is in control of his/her destiny. An individual is thus free to make choices and be responsible for them.

Reality, therefore, is subjective. Values emphasized are those that the individual chooses freely according to his/her perception.

Implications of Existentialism on Education and Curriculum

The main implication is an emphasis on knowledge and abilities for personal choice. Hence, the need to acquire knowledge and principles of the human condition and acts of choice-making.

Curriculum should have a broad range of subject matter from which learners can choose, i.e., electives, and an inclusion of subjects that involve:

  • human emotions,
  • aesthetics, and also,
  • philosophical subjects.

Most important is that philosophy can free learners to expand their learning and what they believe. Thus, there should be no standard guides for teachers to follow, given that learners are unique.

The following video links philosophies to curricular designs and design considerations:

The preceding video does not have a designated Creative Commons license and may only be used in compliance with the Standard YouTube licensing guidelines which allows streaming but forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution.

Educational Philosophies

Based on the major philosophies so far discussed, certain educational philosophies were developed by various scholars. Let us examine some of them.

We begin by pointing out that there are two broad categories of educational philosophies: the traditional and the modern philosophies.

Traditional educational philosophies include perennialism and essentialism; while modern educational philosophies include progressivism and reconstructionism.


Perennialism draws from both idealism and realism. The perennialists believe that the “cement of education, is the common nature of man” (Doll, 1992:29). With that focus, education should be the same for everyone.

Education must therefore pursue perennial truths. These truths are absolute and universal. The philosophy presupposes that there are permanent studies and knowledge that is available, particularly from the great books, which should be taught to all students.

The stress is on significance of reason and intellectual development. Curriculum is expected to contain “important” subjects taught in their customary separate form, e.g., history as history, geography as geography, and civics as civics, rather than combining them and naming them “Social Studies” for example.

Other subjects emphasized on include literature, philosophy, and theology because of their ability to “sharpen the mind.”


Essentialism focuses on traditional subjects, reading, writing, and mathematics. This philosophy aims to instill students with the “essentials” of academic knowledge and character development. In the following video, Dr. Thomas Lickona describes the importance of respect and responsibility in schools.

The preceding video does not have a designated Creative Commons license and may only be used in compliance with the Standard YouTube licensing guidelines which allows streaming but forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution.

As with perennialism, essentialism is also on the major traditional philosophies of idealism and realism. Essentialist’s educational aims are to develop intellectual powers, as well as educate competent persons. Schools should therefore not be side-tracked into catering to the personal problems and social needs of students. Cultural heritage needs should be considered for curriculum making. Essential skills especially reading, writing, and arithmetic (three Rs) and academic subjects such as English, science, and mathematics are given priority in the education process with an emphasis on mastery of concepts and principles of subject-matter.

As with perennials, the curriculum is subject-centered and emphasized separate organized disciplines as opposed to integrated subjects. The teacher in this case is considered an authority in his/her subject field. Moving from traditional educational philosophies, let us now examine more modern ones.


Progressivism is one of the educational philosophies originating from pragmatism. Hence all that we discussed earlier about pragmatism holds true for progressivism.

Besides Dewey’s contribution, other scholars in this area include Montessori, Cornelius, and Rousseau. Their studies and research were geared towards identifying the most appropriate type and nature of curriculum for learners.

Progressivists education seeks to promote democratic schooling as well as social living. The other major emphasis is on a child or learner-centered curriculum. The curriculum therefore is based on the learners’ interests, needs, abilities, and aspirations, among other characteristics of the learners.

Progressive education curriculum emphasized five approaches to the teaching/learning process, namely:

  • teacher-pupil planning of curriculum activities,
  • flexible curriculum and individualized instruction, and
  • learner-centered teaching and learning methodology.

Selection of study material in line with the expressed interests and concerns of the learner. Non-formal curriculum activities and physical training in areas like games, related hobbies, and other co-curricular areas.

The aim of this form of education is to provide a learning atmosphere that allows children maximum self-direction and to reduce teacher domination in the teaching/learning process.

Concerning progressivism, the emphasis is on a child-centered curriculum, which necessitates a flexible and broad curriculum. There is also an emphasis on practical skills.

In general, it is possible to identify elements of past education in the present-day curricula in many education systems within the United States and the rest of the world, depending on the past history.

The following video shows a real classroom of 4th- and 5th-grade students who are participating in a constructivist social studies lesson. Constructivism is often considered to be an offshoot of progressivism.

The preceding video does not have a designated Creative Commons license and may only be used in compliance with the Standard YouTube licensing guidelines which allows streaming but forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution.


Reconstructionists hold on to an anthropological–sociological philosophy that would put schools at the forefront of remaking society. Reconstructionism evolved from a critical perspective of the work of the progressivists who put much emphasis on the needs of the child, sometimes at the expense of societal needs.

Reconstructionists’ educational aims are to improve and reconstruct society as need be, as well as education for change and social reform. Thus, the study of contemporary social problems become the centerpiece of curriculum content.

The critical social problems might be national or global including such issues as oppression, poverty, hunger, racial/ethnic strife, war, and health issues such as HIV/Aids.

The reconstructionists believe that resources are available to solve these problems and the education profession could be the catalyst to prepare and organize future generations to make this possible. They, however, try to avoid indoctrinating children; rather, they seek to lead them in rational discussion and critical analysis of issues.

Reconstructionists use multiple teaching materials, and they consider the inclusion of subject matter that would be useful to serve the central cause of the issue of concern. Planning of curriculum often involves various stakeholders including learners, parents, and community leaders.

Table 3.1 below summarizes the various educational philosophies. The summary highlights the philosophical base of each of the educational philosophies, the educational aims, the knowledge emphasized, the educational role, and it suggests what the curriculum should focus on as advocated for by each of the respective philosophies.

Table 3.1 Overview of Educational Philosophies

Educational Philosophy Philosophical Base Education Aims Knowledge Focus Educational Roles Curriculum Focus
Perennialism Idealism


Educate the rational person.

Cultivate the intellect.

Focus on past and permanent studies, mastery of facts, and timeless knowledge. Teacher helps students think rationally.

Explicit teaching of traditional values.

Classical subjects

Constant curriculum

Essentialism Idealism


Promote the intellectual growth of the individual.

Educate the competent person.

Essential skills and academic subjects

Mastery of concepts and principles of subject matter

Teacher is an authority in his or her subject field.

Explicit teaching of traditional values.

Essential skills (three Rs – reading, writing, and arithmetic)

Essential subjects (English, science, history, math)

Progressivism Pragmatism Promote democratic, social living. Knowledge leads to growth and development.

Focus on active and relevant learning.

Teacher is a guide for problem-solving and scientific inquiry. Based on students’ interests.

Involves the application of human problems and affairs.

Interdisciplinary subject matter; activities and projects.

Reconstructivism Pragmatism Improve and reconstruct society.

Education is for change and social reform.

Skills and subjects needed to identify and solve problems of society. Teacher serves as an agent of change and reform.

Helps students become aware of problems confronting humankind. 

Emphasis on social sciences and social research methods.

Examination of social, economic,  and political problems.

Source: Adapted from Ornsten and Hunkins (1988).

Theories of Subject Matter

From Curriculum Studies, pp. 55-58

Based on the educational philosophies: perennialism, essentialism, and progressivism, certain theories of subject matter have been advanced. The theories, as stated below, highlight the type and purpose of subject matter in the curriculum.

  • Theory 1: Subject matter should be taught for its own sake.
  • Theory 2: Subject matter should be taught for use.
  • Theory 3: Subject matter is merely a medium for teaching intellectual processes, skills, attitudes and appreciations.

Theory I

“Subject matter should be taught for its own sake.” Supporters of this theory believe that everything has intrinsic value. They believe that each subject has value in and of itself.

Naturally then some subjects are more valuable than others, not because they are more useful than others but because they have greater intrinsic value. According to this position, whether or not the pupil will ever make use of subjects like algebra, Latin, or physical education does not matter. The important thing is that the learner should study subjects that have the greatest value. The task for the curriculum developer is to identify those subjects deemed to have more value.

Theory 2

“Subject matter should be taught for use.” Supporters of this theory hold that the value of a subject depends upon the use that is made of it. This position derives from the philosophical belief that value is operational instrumental.

Basically, this is an essentialist’s position. According to this belief, in planning curricula, priority should be given to those studies that the learners will most likely need to know. In this sense these subjects are essential.

Theory 3

“Subject matter is merely a medium for the teaching of intellectual processes, skills, attitudes, ideals, and appreciations.”

Supporters of this theory are mainly the progressivists. They believe that in this changing world of changing values, no subject matter is essential for its intrinsic value; and that it is very difficult to tell which subject matter is likely to be most functional.

Therefore, the progressivists believe that it is not the subject matter but the process of education that matters. In their view subject matter is only a medium by which to teach students the skills they need to become independent individuals.

Following now is a discussion on sociological foundations. Changes include:

  • Family-life disintegration in many of the U.S. and other countries and globally; which forces the schools to take on more responsibilities previously assumed by the family.
  • Movements of the population, for instance, rural-urban migration.

These issues need consideration in curriculum development. Also, some of these issues affect formal schooling for some people necessitating the need for other modes of education, such as distance education.

Transmission of Culture

Culture in any society incorporates valued traditions. In this context, curriculum can be considered to be a reflection or a piece of the culture. These traditions include those in the wider society as well as traditions upheld in the school system.

Influence of various interest groups. Certain groups who influence school curriculum include parents, religious groups, parent-teacher associations, school boards, and the media. Each of these groups has certain values that they would want incorporated into the curriculum. When aligned with accuracy and fairness, their inputs should be considered.

Insight 3.0

There are many philosophies and entities that influence curriculum. It is worthwhile to consider how these influences affect the education and development of students as individuals and future members of society.

Are we teaching them the “right stuff” that is fair  and presented from multiple viewpoints?

ILA 3.0

Use the ILA Responses Group in the Hypothesis annotation tool to respond to the following questions.

  • In your experiences as both a student an as an educator, what educational philosophies have been most impactful on you as an individual?
  • In retrospect, do you see these experiences as positive, negative or both? Why?


Philosophy is indeed at the heart of curriculum development. It guides educators in formulating beliefs, arguments and assumptions, and in making value judgments. It also helps provide a broad outlook in answering what schools and what subjects are important, how students should learn, and what materials and methods should be used. This is, however, just a starting point. Since there is a strong political element involved in curriculum, it is important for us as educators to recognize what philosophy underlies the curriculum and to decide how curriculum in educating students who will become members and leaders in society.


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Curriculum Essentials: A Journey Copyright © 2021 by Linda J. Button, Ed.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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