Excerpt from: Teachers, Schools, and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education p. 200-207
Traditionally, teacher-centered philosophies emphasize the importance of transferring knowledge, information, and skills from the older (presumably wiser) generation to the younger one. The teacher's role is to instill respect for authority, perseverance, duty, consideration, and practicality. When students demonstrate through tests and writings that they are competent in academic subjects and traditional skills, and through their actions that they have disciplined minds and adhere to traditional morals and behavior, then both the school and the teacher have been successful. The major teacher-centered philosophies of education are essentialism and perennialism.
Essentialism strives to teach students the accumulated knowledge of our civilization through core courses in the traditional academic disciplines. Essentialists aim to instill students with the "essentials" of academic knowledge, patriotism, and character development. This traditional or back-to-basics approach is meant to train the mind, promote reasoning, and ensure a common culture among all Americans.
American educator William Bagley popularized the term essentialism in the 1930s,1 and essentialism has been a dominant influence in American education since World War 11. Factors such as the launching of Sputnik in 1957, the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, intense global economic competition and in-creased immigration into the United States have all kept essentialism at center stage. Some educators refer to the present period as neoessentialism because of the increased core graduation requirements, stronger standards and more testing of both students and teachers.
Whether they call themselves essentialists or neoessentialists, educators in this camp are concerned that the influx of immigrants threatens American culture. In response, they call for rigorous schools teaching a single, unifying body of knowledge for all Americans. One of the leading essentialists, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., authored Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know and The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. Hirsch provides lists of people, events, literature, historical facts, scientific breakthroughs and the like, lists that specify what students at every grade level should know to be "culturally literate."
Most of you reading this chapter have been educated in essentialist schools. You were probably required to take many courses in English, history, math, and science, but were able to enroll in only a few electives. Such a pro-gram would he typical in an essentialist school.
The Essentialist Classroom Essentialists urge that traditional disciplines such as math, science, history, foreign language, and literature form the foundation of the curriculum, which is referred to as the core curriculum. Essentialists frown upon electives that "water-down" academic content. Elementary students receive instruction in skills such as writing, reading, measuring, and computing. Even when studying art and music, subjects most often associated with the development of creativity, students master a body of information and basic techniques, gradually moving to more complex skills and detailed knowledge. Only by mastering the required material are students promoted to the next higher level.
Essentialists maintain that classrooms should be oriented around the teacher, who should serve as an intellectual and moral role model for the students. The teachers or administrators decide what is most important for the students to learn and place little emphasis on student interests, particularly when such interests divert time and attention from the academic curriculum. Essentialist teachers rely on achievement test scores to evaluate progress. Essentialists expect that students will leave school possessing not only basic skills and an extensive body of knowledge, but also disciplined, practical minds, capable of applying schoolhouse lessons in the real world.
Essentialism in Action: The Coalition of Essential Schools The Coalition of Essential Schools, headed by Theodore Sizer, offers several tangible examples of essentialism in action. The 200 coalition schools pledge to promote intellectual rigor, test students for mastery of information and skills, have teachers and students work closely together, and develop strong thinking skills across subjects. But is the Coalition of Essential Schools purely essentialist? Not entirely. Coalition schools recognize and promote individual student differences, a clear departure from a strict essentialist interpretation. In fact, schools in the coalition do not share a fixed core curriculum, but each school continually analyzes and can alter core contents. The coalition also stresses "less is more," since Sizer believes that teachers and students should focus on fewer topics, but go into them more deeply. In fact, these essential schools also incorporate components of perennialism, which happens to be the next teacher-centered philosophy that we will discuss.
Reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill Companies.
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