Developing An Educational Philosophy: If You Don't Stand Up for Something, You'll Fall for Almost Anything
Among the difficulties confronting the field of special education is the perceived paucity of intensive, philosophical belief systems on the part of many practitioners. This essay is aimed at those professionals in the early stages of their careers and is designed to present some basic tenets that can be the foundation for a professional philosophy.
When attempting to assist a weak, struggling or ineffective teacher, one often notes that the teacher has no established philosophy of education; no roots, no belief system, no standard upon which she is able to base her policies and practices in the classroom. She embraces every new technique as her own and tends to define progress as adopting what is new because it is new; abandoning what is old because it is old. Conversely, the talented and effective educator seems to base her every action upon the firm foundation of an established philosophy or belief system. Her strength flows from that philosophy and she accepts or rejects materials or practices based upon their compatibility with her established philosophical concepts. This belief system has developed over time and has been adapted, modified and molded by the colleagues and clients that she has interacted with throughout her career.
Little is done in our teacher training institutions to encourage the young professional to develop or examine her own educational philosophy. Administrators sometimes ask for the applicant's educational philosophy in an initial job interview, but the prospective teacher is seldom required to defend these beliefs with theoretical or pragmatic evidence.
This essay is designed to submit three philosophical tenets which the author feels are fundamental to the success and effectiveness of the special educator. The application of these tenets on a daily, ongoing basis can create a classroom environment which better meets the unique needs of the learning disabled. The adoption of these concepts will cause the professional to re-examine three basic educational tenets: competition, fairness and work ethic.
A recently-completed informal poll of over 300 teachers indicated that 1) competitive activities comprise the majority of on-task time and 2) such activities are used primarily because the teacher believes that classroom competition is motivating and offers valuable experience to prepare the students to deal effectively with the "competitive adult world". Could it be that this competitive, highly-charged academic environment is one of the major obstacles to the LD child's success in the mainstream? The motivational benefits of competition are dubious when we examine the nature of competition in the real world. For example, 19,000 adults ran the grueling New York City Marathon in 1985. They dedicated themselves to hours of intensive, painful training to become mentally and physically prepared for the challenge. Yet each runner entered the race with the full knowledge that only two cash prizes would be awarded. For the majority of amateur runners, their motivation was rooted in competition with self or personal best. Their goal was to finish the race and improve upon their previous performance. Most of us do our best work when attempting to improve our own performance, no when trying to surpass the performance of others. Yet, in classrooms we have established the dynamic wherein each child wishes to see his classmates fail. As educators we must recognize that competition is one of our professional tools and, as such, we must learn to use it judiciously. Consider the dynamics of the three basic educational approaches: (Johnson, 1985).
INDIVIDUALIZED EDUCATION: In Individualized activities, the success/failure of Child A has no effect or impact upon the success/failure of Child B. Each child works at this own pace and he competes only against his own previous performance.
COOPERATIVE EDUATION: This strategy emphasizes group goals and interdependence (Johnson, 1985). In cooperative activities the success of Child A is dependent upon the success of Child B. Such techniques foster a climate of friendship, caring and sharing in a classroom setting.
COMPETITIVE EDUCATION: In a competitive classroom, the success of Child A is dependent on upon the failure of Child B. This approach becomes a breading ground for cheating, jealousy and damaged self-concept. Of course, the Learning Disabled child becomes fodder in such a system.
Old habits die slowly. A teacher was having marked difficulty controlling the dynamics of her classroom. Upon observation, it was felt that she was over-emphasizing competition among the students. She was advised to alter her teaching style and place more emphasis upon cooperative ventures. She agreed with the concept and took immediate steps to integrate "cooperation" into her lesson planning. She began by posting a bulletin board with the heading "Let's See Who Can Be the Most Cooperative this Week" and she initiated an intense competition wherein students received points and rewards for demonstrating cooperative behavior. The result, of course, was a corruption of the entire concept of cooperative education.
Many well-intentioned teachers emphasize competition in their classroom in the mistaken belief that they are preparing the child for the intense competition that he will face in society. In their zeal to replicate the "big, bad world" these teachers have created classroom environments wherein the level and intensity of competition far exceeds that of the adult world. Our society does require competition in order to achieve success, but this competition has two fundamental components: a) adults do not compete unless they elect to and b) we compete only against our peers and equals. Most classroom competitive activities (e.g., spelling bees, mathematics games) do not meet those criteria.
Rather than a means to an end, classroom competition has become an end in itself. These methods tend to disillusion and discourages mainstreamed students. It also negatively affects the student's value system and his perception of educational goals and objectives. Competition can be a valuable educational tool when the child participates WILLINGLY and the activity provides him with an opportunity to succeed. Forced, unfair competition, however, can be damaging to class morale and fragile self concepts.
A second philosophical issue for the practitioner to examine is that of "fairness". It seems that, as parents and educators, we mold children's values and morals. We teach them valuable lessons related to honesty, courage, integrity, loyalty and so on. Yet it seems that we allow children to dictate to us the concept of "fairness". When asked to define "fairness," most children respond: "Fairness means everybody gets the same." Unfortunately, we often allow children to convince us that this indeed is the definition of that concept. As a result, we attempt to deal with all children in an identical manner. When a teacher modifies a lesson for an LD child or adjusts the course requirements for him, his classmates charge that the situation is "unfair". Rather than respond to their complaints, the teacher should explain that the mature conceptualization of "fairness" is not equal, identical treatment; rather, "fairness" means that every student receives what he needs. Because each individual's needs are different, "fairness" dictates that their programs and expectations will be different. Children are capable of understanding this concept if it is explained clearly and if it is observed daily in the teacher's modeling behavior.
The third philosophical construct is that of "work ethic." Unfortunately many teachers in our field labor under the following mistaken belief: "You cannot accomplish any meaningful work with Learning Disabled children in September. The students are unable to make the adjustment from the summer months. Of course, you cannot expect to make progress in May or June because the students are anticipating the upcoming hiatus. December is unproductive because of the holidays. You should not expect LD students to be responsive during the first of last period of the day, or the periods before and after recess and lunch. Mondays and Fridays are, of course, unproductive as is any week before or after a vacation." With this philosophy, we are left with approximately one week in mid-April wherein we can expect students to be responsive, motivated and on-task! This self-fulfilling prophecy is unfortunate and the cause of many of the behavior management difficulties that abound in special education classes. The new professional is well-advised to avoid becoming entangled in this web. Experience tells us that Learning Disabled children can remain on task when lessons are presented in a relevant, realistic and stimulating manner. In order to reach their academic potential, children with special educational needs require as much "on task" time as possible. The teacher should present her instructional material in an effective and efficient manner and should expect that her students can and will cooperate with her and her objectives.
Special Education is an art and a science. The practitioner must develop effective and therapeutic skills while, simultaneously, increasing her technical competence. We must develop ourselves as persons and professionals. The adoption of a pervasive educational philosophy is the initial step in this process.
Blatt, Burton, et al. An Alternative Textbook in Special Education, Love Publishing Company, 1977.
Davis, William E. The Special Educator: Strategies for Succeeding in Today's Schools, Pro-Ed, 1983.
Johnson, David W. Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1985.
This article was originally published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, January, 1989.