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Analysis of the Philosophy of Education: Idealist Versus Realist Conception of Reality in Teaching and Learning

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Question: Compare and contrast the idealist and realist conception of reality, relating this to the teaching and learning process in the 21 century.

In order to be able to compare and contrast the idealist and realist’s conception of reality in relation to teaching and learning process, the concepts must be thoroughly understood. Idealist are those philosophers associated with the theory or philosophy of idealism which states that our reality or knowledge is shaped by our thoughts and ideas Ceciliod (2006).They believe that ideas are only true reality. Idealism is the school of educational thoughts promoted by a prolific writer Plato in 400 B.C and his thoughts was that humans could be improved from within, by correcting their thoughts and discovering knowledge they have since birth. Bali (1997) explains idealism saying that it is a philosophy which view God as the source of all knowledge and that values are absolute and unchanging. Idealism focuses on reasoning and how a person can bring knowledge up from insight of himself. According to idealist, reality or knowledge is fundamentally mental, mental constructed or otherwise immaterial.

Realist, on the other hand, are the philosophers who are associated with the theory of realism which deals with the fact that reality has an absolute existence independent from our thoughts, ideas, and even consciousness Bali (1997). Realism is the school of educational thoughts promoted by Plato’s student Aristotle. Marlow and Bhakara (2010) stated that realists holds the view that the only reality is the material world that is, studying of the outer world is the only reliable way to find the truth. Akinpelu (1981) added that realist tend to believe that whatever we believe now is only an approximation of reality and that every new observation brings us closer to understanding of reality. From the online notes by Dr Makoni(2019), realists also advocate sense training because they suggest that it is the senses which are gateway of knowledge.

Before going into detail, it is necessary to clearly illustrate that for any education system to be meaningful and effective, it has to be based on a clearly thoughtful philosophy as stated by Ankipelu (1981). This means that it has to rest on a set of beliefs about nature of human and his universe, a system of values of both individuals and the society and a scheme of knowledge that is considered most desirable to have. In this writing l will focus on only two schools of philosophy which are idealism and realism. Realism and Idealism are two competing philosophies in the field of education because they influence both teaching and learning process in a number of ways. According to Bali (1997), the difference between the two philosophies will be clearer by considering them in terms of the aims of education, the curriculum, the role of the teacher and the methods of teaching. These four parameters will enable one to get the full concept of the two different philosophies in relation to teaching and learning process.

The first parameter that will help us to compare and contrast the idealist and realist conception of reality in relation to education is their viewpoints on the aims of education. Powell (1974) states that, for Aristotle a realist, education was considered to be means of helping human beings in their pursuit of happiness and he also believed that the curriculum should conform to the patterns of human growth and development. From realist point of view aims of education include, to cultivate human rationally through the study of organized bodies of knowledge, to encourage human beings to define themselves by framing their potentiality for excellence to the fullest and to integrate themselves by ordering the various roles and claims of life according to a rational and hierarchical order. According to realist education must give learners a complete knowledge and understanding of human society nature, motives and institutions as stated by Farrant (2011).In other words realists asserts that education must explain to the learner how he or she is related to the world of man and world of nature. The realist view clearly shows that education in twenty first century must be based on preparationism that is is its main aim must be to prepare learners for their life.

In terms of the goals of education, idealist and realists agree at some point although there are some difference in their aims of education. They both agree that self-realization or exhalation of personality is the first aim of education that is education must involves knowledge of self thus making actual or real personality of the self as outlined by Ozmon (2014). However idealist have their aims of education which are different from those of realist outlined by Duka(2006) as to ensure spiritual development, intellectual development and character development. Idealist give greater importance to spiritual values in comparison with idealist which emphasizes with material attainment. According to idealist education in the twenty first century must aim to develop the learners mentally, morally and above all spiritually. In addition education must also aim for preservation and transmission of culture.

The second parameter that differentiates idealist and realist is the curriculum. According to the idealists, education must concentrates on the mental development of the learner and their curriculum emphasizes the study of the humanities outlined by Curren (2003). Idealist asserts a fairly normal curriculum with a heavy emphasizes on subjects like history, religious studies and literature. Botor and Ortinero (1994) add that idealistic viewpoints are found in subjects such as fine arts, classic humanities, theology, philosophy and history. This clearly shows that idealist deals with subjects that emphasizes intellectual process and acuity of the mind. The proper study of mankind, history and literature are the center of the idealist curriculum. Pure mathematics is also included in the curriculum as it is based upon universal or prior principles and provide methods of dealing with abstractions Duka (2006). The library is the center of the activity in the idealist school. The last point about idealist’s curriculum is that there cannot be change or innovation in the curriculum and the reason was given by Farrant (2011) by stating that idealist holds that certain truths are universal and permanent. From idealist point of view, twenty first century curriculum must emphasizes inner discipline, moral and religious instructions.

Again the idealist curriculum does not deal adequately with social policy, self-contentedness is paramount. The teacher applies a crucial position in the idealist school and serves as a living example of what the student can became intellectually, socially and ethically outlined by Ediger and Dingumati (2010). The teacher’s role is to pass on the knowledge of reality as they stands closer to the absolute than the students do, but the realists disagree to this curriculum as illustrated below.

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Realist on the other hand think that the primary aim of education is to teach children laws of nature and those values that will lead to good life which conforms to the natural law as stated by Ozmon (2014). The realist views the curriculum as reducible to knowledge that can be measured. According to realists, science is above the liberal arts because of its engagement with the real world in a concrete manner. Bali(1997) states that, realist curriculum includes sciences in all its branches and it included the subjects such as mathematics and social sciences. Botor and Ortinero(1994), to the realist, mathematics represents a precise abstract symbolic system for describing the laws of the universe and the social sciences are seen as dealing with the mechanical and natural forces which bear on human behavior. In the idealist school a teacher occupies a vantage point and his role is that of a guide and also teachers role is to introduce the students to the regularities and rhythm of nature so that they may comprehend the natural law. But the realist asserts that knowledge transmitted by the teacher should be free of bias and his or her personality. To remove teacher bias from factual presentations, the realist recommends the use of teaching machines. Teaching is best when it is most objective and dehumanized.

The third parameter that help in comparing and contrasting the idealist and realist conception of reality in relation to teaching and learning is the role of teacher in education as stated by Curren(2003). According to Powell(1974), the teacher in the idealistic approach is autocratic who has more knowledge and pedagogical strength than a learner. Idealists emphasizes the importance of the teacher and states that the teacher should not only understand the various stages of learning but also maintain a constant concern about the ultimate purpose of learning. Dhawan (2005) added that idealist stress the importance of emulation in learning because they believe that the teacher should be the kind of person we want our children to become.

In addition, Ellen (1903) referenced in Ozmon (2017), is of the view that idealists holds that the teacher is the center of the educational process and a person closest to absolute reality. From this viewpoint a teacher is seen as a facilitator that is the teacher takes the role of absolute authority, but as a gentle guide for the learners. Idealist see a teacher as the highest authority, a figure to which learners must answer rather than a guide who can be questioned Joseph (2017). They prefer alternative ways of approaching learning but they still like to see at least an informal dialectic in operation. In questioning and discussions during which the dialectic operates, the teacher can help learners to see alternatives they might otherwise have missed and the teacher should participate fully in order to maintain the integrity of the process. Also idealists asserts that the teacher select the content and learning experiences for whatever he or she thinks is suitable and effective for the learners Duka(2006). According to idealist in twenty first century, the role of a teacher must be that of facilitator guiding students towards truth and spiritual guide.

While the teacher, for the realist, is simply a guide. According to Bali (1997), realists has of the view that the real world exists, therefore the teacher is responsible for introducing the student to it. To do this he uses lectures, demonstrations, and sensory experiences. The teacher does not do this in a random or haphazard way; he must not only introduce the student to nature, but show him the regularities, the “rhythm” of nature so that he may come to understand natural law. Both the teacher and the student are spectators, but while the student looks at the world through innocent eyes, the teacher must explain it to him, as well as he is able, from his vantage point of increased sophistication CHAND(2017). For this reason, the teacher’s own biases and personality should be as muted as possible. In order to give the student as much accurate information as quickly and effectively as possible, the realist may advocate the use of teaching machines to remove the teacher’s bias from factual presentation. The whole concept to teaching machines is compatible with the picture or reality as a mechanistic universe in which man is simply one of the cogs in the machine Akinpelu(1981).

Again, according to realists a teacher should be educated and well versed with the customs of belief and rights and duties of people, and the trends of all ages and places Dhawan (2005). This means that a teacher must have full mastery of the knowledge of present life. Powell (1974) stated that a teacher must guide the learner towards the hard realities of life. A teacher must be able to expose children to the problems of life and the world around. That is to the realist a teacher is seen as an arranger of experience and help learners to discover facts rather than contemporize facts.

Lastly, teaching methods also helps us to compare and contrast the idealist and realist conception of reality in relation to teaching and learning process. According to Bali(1997), idealist merely rely on lectures and group discussions as their method of instruction. Dhawan (2005) add that according to idealists, learners also learn by imitating the teacher or some other persons who is closely attuned with the absolute reality. Idealist rely heavily on deductive logic and they have little uses for field trips and sensory data. Other method of instruction used by idealists include storytelling, question and answer and debate. According to idealist in twenty first century, teaching methods must focus on handling ideas through lectures, discussion and Socratic dialogue.

Realists on the other hand involves teaching for the mastery of facts in order to develop an understanding of natural law and this is best accomplished by using drills and exercises as stated by CHAND(2017). According to Powell(1974), realists asserts that learning is enhanced through direct or indirect sensory experiences such as field trips, the use of films, records and filmstrips. Realist favor the use of inductive logic. Other methods of education advocated by realist include critical observation, exploration, self-study and experimentation. Realist point of view enables twenty first century teachers to use teaching methods that focus on mastery of facts and basic skills through demonstration and recitation. Students must also demonstrate the ability to think critically and scientifically using observation and experimentation.

As illustrated above there is evidence that both idealist and realist conception of reality have implication to the teaching and learning process in the twenty first century. It is necessary to sound a note of warning here that no one school of educational thoughts can be regarded as sufficient to guide a teachers classroom activities. A teacher have to adopt ideas from a number of schools of educational thoughts and employ them in what is called eclectic fashion in teaching.


  1. Ankipelu, J.A.(1981).An Introduction to philosophy of education. London: Macmillan.
  2. Bali.D.R (19997).Introduction to Philosophy. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.
  3. BHARATI CHAND, 2017, Advance Philosophy of Education, Notion Press: Chetprt Chennai
  4. Ceciliod. Duka, 2006, Philosophy of Education (revised), Rex Book Store.
  5. Celeste O.Botor and Aniceta M.Ortinero, 1994, Philosophy of Education concerns: Purposes, content and methods of education, Rex Book Store
  6. Howard A.Ozmon, 2014, Philosophical Foundation of Education (ninth edition), Virginia Commonwealth University.
  7. J.S.Farrant, 2011, Principles and Practice of Education (twenty-fourth impression), Longman Group UK Limited 1964&1980, printed in Malaysia.
  8. John Powell, 1974, Philosophy of Education (third edition), Manchester university Press Oxford Road, Manchester M139PL.
  9. Marlow Ediger and Bhakara Rao Digumarti, 2010, Effective School Curriculum, Discovery Publishing House Pvt. Ltd: NEWDELHI-110002.
  10. M.L.Dhawan, 2005, Philosophy of Education, published by Isha books in India.
  11. Randall Curren, 2003, A Companion to the Philosophy of Education, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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