essentialism, behaviorism, and positivism are educational theories
that espouse an authoritarian approach to subject matter, classroom
organization, teaching methods, and assessment. Although each
theory forms a distinct cohesive whole, all four are rooted in
an authoritarian principle; that is, that truth and goodness are
entities that are best understood by the person with expertise
who is in authority. The students' role is, then, to attempt to
master and follow the directions of those in power who have experience
and authority. This chapter will present each educational theory's
ideas on curriculum, teaching, and learning. In addition, for
each theory we will describe a representative program along with
an illustrative class activity.
The basic educational view of perennialism
is that the principles of knowledge are enduring. The term
perennial may be defined as "everlasting," and the perennialist
seeks everlasting truths. Although there are superficial differences
from century to century, the perennialist views nature, human
nature, and the underlying principles of existence as constant,
undergoing little change. Because of its emphasis on ageless truth,
perennialism is closely associated with idealism.
Perennialists stress the importance of time-honored
ideas, the great works of past and present thinkers, and the ability
to reason. To know reality, perennialists maintain, one must examine
individual things and concepts so as to find their essence. To
find the essence, one must discard the particulars and search
for the unchanging underlying essentials. The essence of human
beings lies in what they have in common-the ability to reason.
For the perennialist, the intellect does not develop
merely by contact with relevant experiences. The intellect must
be nourished by contact with ideas because truth ultimately resides
in the nature of the things rather than in the sensory aspects
of things. Perennialists contend that instead of focusing on current
events or student interests, educators should teach disciplined
knowledge, with particular emphasis on students' mastery of established
facts about the great ideas and works found in literature, the
humanities, mathematics, science, and the arts.
PERENNIALIST FOCUS OF LEARNING
The focus of learning in perennialism lies in
activities designed to discipline the mind. Subject matter of
a disciplinary and spiritual nature, like mathematics, language,
logic, great books, and doctrines, must be studied. The learner
is assumed to be a rational and spiritual person. Difficult mental
calisthenics such as reading, writing, drill, rote memory, and
computations are important in training the intellect. Perennialism
holds that learning to reason is also very important-an ability
attained by additional mental exercises in grammar, logic, and
rhetoric, as well as through use of discussion methodologies.
Reasoning about human matters and about moral principles that
permeate the universe links perennialism to idealism. As the individual
mind develops, the learner becomes more like a spiritual being.
The learner is closer to ultimate knowledge when he or she gradually
assumes the mind qualities of God. Idealism also harmonizes with
some findings on the psychology of learning-findings suggesting
that the mind can combine pieces of learning into whole concepts
that have meaning.
Perennialists believe that early schooling is
best directed toward preparing children for maturity, and they
emphasize the three Rs in the elementary schools. In this view,
perennialism and essentialism (described below) share some thoughts.
Some lay and ecclesiastical perennialists consider character training,
enhanced through Bible study, to be as important as the three
Rs at the elementary level. A perennialist program for the secondary
level is directed more toward educating the intellectually elite.
Perennialism favors trade and skill training for students who
are not engaged in the rigors of the general education program.
Perennialists agree that the curriculum at the secondary level
should provide a general educational program for the intellectually
gifted and vocational training for the less gifted. However, not
all perennialists agree on a curriculum design for general education.
THE GREAT BOOKS: A PERENNIALIST PROGRAM
The Great Books program, associated with Robert
M. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, has brought attention to perennialism.
Proponents of the Great Books program maintain that studying the
works of the leading scholars of history is the best way to a
general education. Perennialists debate the use of contemporary
sources. Some contend that students can draw upon modern sources
to obtain knowledge and that the Great Books program should be
flexible enough to include newer works of literature, science,
and so forth.
Essentialism holds that there is a common
core of information and skills that an educated person in a given
culture must have. Schools should be organized to transmit this
core of essential material as effectively as possible. There are
three basic principles of essentialism: a core of information,
hard work and mental discipline, and teacher-centered instruction.
Essentialism seeks to educate by providing training in the fundamentals,
developing sound habits of mind, and teaching respect for authority.
The back-to-the-basics movement is a truncated form of essentialism
because it focuses primarily on the three Rs and discipline.
Although essentialism shares many of the same
principles as perennialism, there are several important differences.
Essentialism draws equally from both idealism and realism. Essentialists
are not so intent on transmitting underlying, basic truths; rather,
they advocate the teaching of a basic core of information that
will help a person live a productive life today. Hence, this core
of information can and will change. This is an important difference
in emphasis from the notions of everlasting truth that characterize
the perennialist. In addition, essentialism stresses the disciplined
development of basic skills rather than the perennialist goals
of uncovering essences or underlying principles. (See the Essentialist
Class Activity box.)
ESSENTIALIST FOCUS OF LEARNING
Essentialism's goals are to transmit the cultural
heritage and develop good citizens. It seeks to do this by emphasizing
a core of fundamental knowledge and skills, developing sound habits
of mental discipline, and demanding a respect for authority in
a structured learning situation. The role of the student is that
of a learner. School is a place where children come to learn what
they need to know, and the teacher is the person who can best
instruct students in essential matters.
The essentialist curriculum focuses on subject
matter that includes literature, history, foreign languages, and
religion. Teaching methods require formal discipline and feature
required reading, lectures, memorization, repetition, and examinations.
Essentialists differ in their views on curriculum, but they generally
agree about teaching the laws of nature and the accompanying universal
truths of the physical world. Mathematics and the natural sciences
are examples of subjects that contribute to the learners' knowledge
of natural law. Activities that require mastering facts and information
about the physical world are significant aspects of essentialist
methodology. With truth defined as observable fact, instruction
often includes field trips, laboratories, audiovisual materials,
and nature study. Habits of intellectual discipline are considered
ends in themselves.
Essentialism envisions subject matter as the core
of education. Severe criticism has been leveled at U.S. education
by essentialists who advocate an emphasis on basic education.
Essentialism assigns to the schools the task of conserving the
heritage and transmitting knowledge of the physical world. In
a sense the school is a curator of knowledge.
With the burgeoning of new knowledge in contemporary
society, essentialism may be contributing to the slowness of educational
change. In this context, essentialism has been criticized as obsolete
in its authoritarian tendencies. Such criticism implies that essentialism
does not satisfy the twentieth-century needs of U.S. youth. Essentialist
educators deny this criticism and claim to have incorporated modern
influences in the system while maintaining academic standards.
ESSENTIAL SCHOOLS MOVEMENT
The Essential Schools movement is a contemporary
school reform effort developed by Dr. Theodore Sizer. Sizer contends
that students need to master a common core of information and
skills, and he encourages schools to strip away the nonessentials
and focus on having students "use their minds well." The Essential
Schools movement does not specify what specific content is essential
in a given culture at a given time. Rather, "essential schools"
are required to analyze clearly what this core of information
should be and to change the curriculum to emphasize this core.
B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), the Harvard experimental
psychologist and philosopher, is the recognized leader of the
movement known as behaviorism. Skinner verified Pavlov's
stimulus-response theory with animals and, from his research,
suggested that human behavior could also be explained as responses
to external stimuli. (See the Behaviorist Class Activity box.)
Because of its focus on the careful examination of environment,
behaviors, and responses, behaviorism is closely linked to realism.
Other behaviorists' research expanded Skinner's work in illustrating
the effect of the environment, particularly the interpersonal
environment, in shaping individual behavior. In the words of Charles
Wolfgang and Carl Glickman, Behaviorists share a common belief
that a student's misbehavior can be changed and reshaped in a
socially acceptable manner by directly changing the student's
environment. The Behaviorist accepts the premise that students
are motivated by the factor that all people will attempt to avoid
experiences and stimuli that are not pleasing and will seek experiences
that are pleasing and rewarding.
BEHAVIORIST FOCUS OF LEARNING
Behaviorism is a psychological and educational
theory that holds that one's behavior is determined by environment,
not heredity. This suggests that education can contribute significantly
to the shaping of the individual, because the teacher can control
the stimuli in a classroom and thereby influence student behavior.
Behaviorists believe that the school environment must be highly
organized and the curriculum based on behavioral objectives, and
they hold that knowledge is best described as behaviors that are
observable. They contend that empirical evidence is essential
if students are to learn and that students must employ the scientific
method to arrive at knowledge. The task of education is to develop
learning environments that lead to desired behaviors in students.
REINFORCEMENT: A BEHAVIORIST PRACTICE
The concept of reinforcement is critical to teacher
practices in behaviorism. The behaviorist teacher endeavors to
foster desired behaviors by using both positive reinforcers (things
students like, such as praise, privileges, and good grades) and
negative reinforcers (things students wish to avoid, such as reprimands,
extra homework, and lower grades). The theory is that behavior
that is not reinforced (whether positively or negatively) will
eventually be "extinguished"ówill cease to occur. In general,
behaviorists contend that learning takes place when approved behavior
is observed and then positively reinforced.
A teacher may provide nonverbal positive reinforcement
(smiling, nodding approval) or negative reinforcement (frowning,
shaking the head in disapproval). Similarly, nondirective statements,
questions, and directive statements may be positive or negative.
Both children and adults respond to the models other people (peers,
adults, heroes) represent to them by imitating the model behavior.
Behaviorists contend that students tend to emulate behaviors that
The behaviorists have supplied a wealth of empirical
research that bears on the problems of attaining self-control,
resisting temptation, and showing concern for others. Behaviorists
do not attempt to learn about the causes of students' earlier
problems. Rather, the teacher must ascertain what is happening
in the classroom environment in order to perpetuate or extinguish
The educational theory of positivism stems from
what the social scientist Auguste Comte (1798-1857) described
as "positive knowledge." Comte divided the thinking of humankind
into three historical periods, each of which was characterized
by a distinct way of thinking. The first was the theological era,
in which people explained things by reference to spirits and gods.
The second was the metaphysical era, in
which people explained phenomena in terms of causes,
essences, and inner principles. The third was the positive period,
in which thinkers did not attempt to go beyond observable, measurable
The positivist position rejects essences, intuition,
and inner causes that cannot be measured. Empirical verification
is central to all proper thinking. This theory rejects beliefs
about mind, spirit, and consciousness and holds that all reality
can be explained by laws of matter and motion. In sum, positivism
limits knowledge to statements of observable fact based on
sense perceptions and the investigation of objective reality.
Positivism became a rallying point for a group of scholars in
Vienna. Because the group consisted largely of scientists, mathematicians,
and symbolic logicians, positivism became known as logical positivism.
POSITIVIST FOCUS OF LEARNING
Practiced as an educational theory, positivism
focuses learning on the acquisition of facts based on careful
empirical observation and measurement of the world. Positivism
requires schools to develop content standards that represent the
best understandings of experts who have already uncovered important
ideas based on their own observation and measurement. Students
are encouraged both to master these expert understandings and
to develop their own skills of observation, classification, and
OBJECTIVE TESTING: A POSITIVIST REQUIREMENT
Testing students' acquisition of content standards
is a valued activity for the positivist educator. Creating objective
tests that are free from bias is critical to education. Because
empirical knowledge is proven by years of careful analysis, there
is a set of truths that students should master and understand
according to a clear set of criteria. The only way to ensure that
such knowledge has been attained and understood is to test all
students according to the same objective set of criteria.