Student-Centered Philosophies of Education (page 3)

Updated on Nov 5, 2013


The existentialist philosophy of education stresses the following:

  • Freedom. Kids should be afforded free will with the expectation that they will respect the free will of others. Cursing at school is an example of acceptable expression, while calling someone a nasty name is not considered acceptable.
  • Development of the individual. Existentialists believe that students should be given the power to define themselves as individuals, and an adult’s role as an educator should involve encouraging, but not dictating, this journey.
  • Subjective view of success. When it comes to achievement, students aren’t expected to live up to anyone’s expectations besides the expectations that they have for themselves.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception of existentialism was based on the concept that “existence precedes essence.” This means that one’s individuality (existence) should take precedence over one’s artificial essence, the cumulative result of society’s attempts to assign one an identity. An individual should be free to define his or her own “true essence” by independently defining life’s meaning.

Existentialism in education focuses on giving students the ability to develop their own creativity and personal modes of self-expression. In schools that incorporate existentialism, historical figures are never held up as unassailable models of virtue or behavior, but as figures for students to analyze and explore. The same is true of the existentialist approach to art—established models are there to inspire students and enable them to unleash their own personal creativity and imagination.

Career-oriented education is seen as a means for students to become aware of their individual talents and potential, with “success” as a concept that’s open to interpretation by the student. Progressive educator and existentialist Alexander Sutherland Neill is noted for saying that he’d rather see his educational efforts produce a “happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar.”

Existentialism in the Classroom: The Summerhill School

Founded by Alexander Sutherland Neill in 1921, the Summerhill School is based on Neill’s principle, “The function of a child is to live his own life—not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best.” At his school—still active today in Suffolk, England—students are allowed to attend classes as they please, and all lessons are optional in accordance with Neill’s principle, “freedom, not license.” School rules and discipline are both determined democratically, with students having the same voting rights as staff members.

Proponents of the school argue that this freedom allows for classes to be more rigorous. Neill observed that students learned more quickly and deeply because they were intrinsically motivated, learning by choice, rather than to earn extrinsic results.

Critics of the school argue that the perceived lack of structure ill-equips students for the “real world,” which includes the job market and society at large. However, advocates argue that because students are expected to be in control of their own lives at the school while playing an active role in a functioning, democratic community, students leave the school with a high degree of empathy, maturity, and ability to think critically.

Student-Centered Philosophies Today

Although these three student-centered philosophies of education may have been more prominent in the past, their influence can still be seen today. There may be only one School of Organic Education and one Summerhill School, but the spirit behind them persists in secular and non-secular schools around the world.

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