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Foundations. Educational Administration. Question #5 Comments

Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.


edited 8/10/10



1. Discuss the major themes in Rationalism and Empiricism (as they have developed in Western thought)

2. Discuss what you believe are the most significant implications of these theories for education

3. Identify organizational practices/structures that in most schools constrain educators from a full-blown commitment to any "pure philosophy." - derived Empiricist or Rationalist practice



Rationalism and Empiricism are two themes that have played a role in the development of Western thought. Both themes try to explain the way in which knowledge is acquired. Rationalism was adopted by such philosophers as: Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz.

Better put: philosophies belonging to either theme offer explanations about the way knowledge is acquired.

Rationalism is based on the idea that the universe follows a specific set of laws.

Many Empiricists believe this also. Rationalism is based on the idea that knowledge comes from other sources than through the senses. Empiricists tend to deny this. Lawfulness in nature doesn't bear on this.

Therefore, ...

Rationalists believe that knowledge is based on reasoning and intellectual insight.

Not "therefore".

But most importantly that its sources may be other than merely through the senses.

Often supporters of this particular theme use Rationalism to explain already adopted educational practices.

Many Empiricists are supporters of already adopted educational practices, e.g. B. F. Skinner on "passing on The Culture," or NCLB.

Philosophers such as: Locke, Berkley, Hume, and Rousseau ascribed to the theme of Empiricism. Within the realm of Empiricism, one embraced the ideology of knowledge that originated from perception and experience. "Nothing is in the intellect that has not been previously in sensation."

Roughly correct. However, Berkeley was not a Materialist, i.e. he did not accept that we could tell what was Material from what was Spiritual.

"Only through perception" is the slogan of Empiricism. Watch out. "Experience" is too vague a term. Kant, who is not an Empiricist -- nor a Rationalist -- makes the term central to his theories.

Four influential educational philosophies evolved out of the Rationalism and Empiricism schools of thought.


One philosophy was known as Essentialism. The Essentialists promoted teachers as authority figures with strong discipline control. They believed that students needed the essentials to survive – computer literacy, vocational skills, etc… Another philosophy embodied ideologies supported by Progressivism. Progressivists believed that knowledge should be continually re-defined. They supported that notion that students should be taught to become problem solvers, and they valued the idea that education should focus on how students think not what they should think. A third philosophy that evolved was known as Perennialism. Perennialists supported curriculum which focused on disciplined knowledge. For example, they promoted the integration of the Great Books because it was thought that the Great Books provided insight into the human condition. Finally, Reconstructionists believed that teachers should act as change agents, and promoted the idea that students should be made aware of current social issues. The emphasis, in the minds of Reconstructionists, was to remain on equality education.

One could be either a Rationalist or Empiricist and still be an Essentialist, a Progressivist, a Perennialist or a Reconstructionist. These latter four focus on curricular controversies.

Essentialist, e.g. Wm. Bagley, tend to be quite at home with technology education. Is technology a basically Rationalist undertaking?

You are dodging the issue. Discussing these so-called "philosophies of education" -- really curricular ideologies -- does not get you to answering the questions. (I say "so-called" because the distinctions were invented in the 1930's by Van Cleve Morris and are thought by many philosophers of education to be muddled, at best.)

Why not illustrate with real educational debates:
Skinner vs. Chomsky on the nature of language;
audio-lingual vs. grammar-translation in foreign language ed;
the phonetics vs. whole language debate;
behavioral objectives vs. (many things);
time on task vs. "holistic" measures.

Both Rationalism and Empiricism have played a role in not only in early educational schools of thought (1600 – 1800), evidence of their effects can be found within the past thirty years. For example, the "Back to the Basics" movement in the 1980's-early 1990's follows the Rationalist school of thought. Whereas current movements such as Constructivism and Brain Research have strong roots embedded in the ideology of Empiricism.

"Back-to-Basics" is about what is central to the curriculum. It does not bear on the issue of Rationalism vs. Empiricism. Do "Back-to-Basics" enthusiasts advocate doing away with Science?

Constructivism is a confused ideology. It is actually closest to the thought of Immanuel Kant, often mistaken for a Rationalist, although definitely not an Empiricist.

John Dewey, taken by many to be a prime source of Constructivism, certainly, like Kant, would not accept the distinction Empiricist/Rationalist.

Personally, I have embraced the philosophy of constructivism. I have committed myself to the investigation of brain research and personalized learning practices. In fact, I lead instructional faculty meetings that support educational techniques and strategies such as: performance assessments of students, active engagement of all students through hands-on learning experiences, differentiated instruction, developmental practices, and the importance of identifying individual learning styles, etc… Furthermore, I sincerely encourage teachers to function as facilitators and support/guide students as they explore and attempt to construct their own meaning and understanding.

And what does this all have to do with whether knowledge is acquired only through the senses (Empiricism) or by other means as well (Rationalism)?

It is my belief that students learn by "doing;" therefore, it is up to the educational community to provide inquiry based learning opportunities within the curriculum. School systems are expected to prepare students for an undefined future workforce. No longer can we predict the types of professions and jobs available and in high demand. The technological age and scientific developments have created opportunities and pathways that we never dreamed possible I thought you were off-track here. This first paragraph is confusion. It seems, however, you are addressing part three of the question.

. So it is left up to the schools to teach students how to investigate through the scientific exploration and experimentation and to apply problem-solving/higher-order thinking skills to real life scenarios. Today's goal is to teach children not what to think but how to think. Knowledge is only truly learned once it is successfully applied and not solely memorized. What an awesome educational responsibility!

Even though I strongly believe that this is what we as educators need to guide our students, there are many obstacles that hinder educators from solely supporting and committing to this school of thought. For example, standardized testing is one very significant obstacle. Often these assessments evaluate what the students do know verses how they are able to apply and use this knowledge. Even though many of these assessments are beginning to integrate more and more open-ended problem solving scenarios, many questions still solicit regurgitated information/facts. This is evident in SATs, Terra Novas, IOWAs, etc..

Furthermore, parents often serve as a barrier, too. Since constructivism is such a different way of thinking and learning, many parents do not approve of the newer approaches. For example, the most common parent and veteran teacher complaint heard of many constructive math programs (Everyday Math, Trail Blazers, Investigations, Connected Math, etc…) is that the basic facts (drill and practice) are missing! (This is believed because the facts are taught through integration.) Therefore, schools often try to compensate by teaching basic facts in isolation anyway. This technique seems to make everyone happy.

Isn't "what to think" more in the Empiricist tradition, with "how to think" in the Rationalist?





"versus" is spelled with a "u."

Don't confuse "regurgitation" with Rationalism. It is perfectly Behavioristic, i.e. Empiricist.



When parents complain that "basic facts" are lacking, does this make them Rationalist? What kind of person believes in "basic facts?"




The structure of the traditional teaching schedule itself hinders 100% commitment to Empiricism. Schedules are often structured in such a way that support traditional subjects taught in isolation. Thematic and interdisciplinary instruction are often too difficult to accommodate; therefore, students often only experience this type of learning once or twice a year as a "treat."

You are again identifying "traditional" with "rationalist." But perhaps you wish to argue to the point. This will take time and not get you to a response you need.

Politically sensitive environments tend to foster the Rationalist school of thought. In accordance with this belief, ...

If this is so, it would seem to follow that politically sensitive environments tend to be most traditionalist, or traditionalist environments tend to be most politically sensitive. That is hard to believe!

I would assert that the No Child Left Behind Legislation provides an obstacle to Empiricism as well. For example, NCLB requires only two specific subject areas to be assessed. This not only sends a message that there are only two academic areas of importance, it supports the "Back to the Basics" school of thought – reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, NCLB has established extraordinarily high expectations and includes a threat of severe consequences which looms over those who do not perform successfully on standardized tests.

NCLB is supposed to be the quintessential Empiricist approach to education. I you are going to assert something, be prepared to support it.

How does this train of thought address the question? This wanders away from the target. Not only that, you seem to be arguing the case for a more Rationalist approach; not that that's wrong -- but it is a reversal.

The No Child Left Behind Legislation has been a recent source of panic in the educational community. As a result, I am aware of many school districts who have chosen to dedicate their elementary school instruction solely to the traditional approaches (reading, writing, and arithmetic)/drill and practice type instruction..

Such traditional subjects are historically found in that most Empiricist of approaches to education: vocational education.

Due to the need to produce statistics and percentiles many districts have limited time/exposure for student exploration and investigation

Isn't statistics just the sort of thing Empiricists are thought to be thrilled with?

These types of experiences are now being considered to be the "fluff" that fills our educational community and not the component needed to provide our students with the necessary opportunities to learn, practice, and exercise their critical thinking/problem-solving skills that are required for an unknown future.

Aren't critical thinking skills precisely what traditional Rationalists have emphasized? Consider logic, mathematics, geometry, theology, theoretical studies of all kinds!

-- EGR