Fulfillment is to be found in the life of inquiry, the life of persistent questioning, discovery and amazement. This fulfillment finds its beginnings in the first moments of a child’s education and continues to flourish in any individual life which pursues knowledge about the learning process itself and which seeks to understand matters of intense curiosity in a natural curriculum that naturally matters (Schubert, 1996).
Education is not an institution. It is not a value. It is not a system of ideas. It cannot be claimed as the province of any single entity –be it a school, a government, a family unit, or an individual person such as a teacher, probation officer or a parent– and it cannot be reduced to an ideology.
Education needs to be recognized for what it is: an ongoing dialectical process of teaching and learning that is taking place all the time in every possible social configuration. Parents teach their children. Hipsters in the local music scene teach one another about the current trends in art. Firefighters teach and train novices in the safety measures and protocols of saving lives. And drug addicts teach one another how to angle for a morsel of cash for the next fix. Education is life in action. Regardless of the particular aims or values of those who participate in its process, it is a universal phenomenon –one that is taking place naturally all the time in every possible context.
Understood in this way, education can be regarded as an immediate and deeply human response that is both fundamental and transcendent to the imbroglio of polemical hostility in which it seems to have become entangled. It is unfortunate that so many of our leading thinkers and educators have become entrenched in fixed positions regarding a phenomenon that can be appreciated with more compassion and conceptual flexibility than is commonly recognized. But a possible resolution can be found in our return to the fundamental reality that matters most: the student herself.
In this paper, I will elucidate the ways in which the student-centered approach to teaching and learning is foundational to some of the important aims of other established teaching theories such as the tradition of the Scholar/Academics, the paradigm of Social Efficiency and the philosophy of the Social Re-constructionists. Instead of comparing each theory in a logical sequence, I will present specific contributions from each theory as they relate to specific educational issues with the understanding that the insights mentioned are relevant in a philosophy of education which considers the whole student.
The student-centered approach can provide a reconciling foundation for the various aims of these and other theories, because it begins with the irrefutable existence of the child herself. Whenever this irrefutable existence is fully acknowledged, appreciated, and attended to by a thoughtful and responsive educator, the child has already emerged to experience a fuller, more mature and individuated sense of herself; she has already stepped further along the path in her journey towards –ironically- the possible actualization of the some of the ideals and objectives set forth by other educational theories.
However, it is important to consider that this approach, like any phenomenon or process, cannot occur outside a specific context –a consideration that will necessarily lead us to appreciate at least some of the insights offered by other theories -especially those offered by Paulo Freire (1970) regarding the “existential necessity” of dialogue in our quest for a world that is more “transformed and humanized.” (p. 148) As we will see, the nature and sustainability of the events taking place in the classroom are very much connected to the quality of the dialogue that is happening on all levels of society from the national level of political discourse to the level of individual faculty members sharing lunch in the teachers’ lounge.
As my philosophy of education recognizes the interconnectivity of phenomena, including ideas and feelings and their impact on individuals, I will sometimes use the word “person-centered.” This I will do in recognition of the fact that the human being we know as the educator is not a separate agent acting upon a student or colleague, but a co-participant in the dynamic process of mutual influence which takes place within the comprehensive reality we know as the school