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Aristotle’s Theory And Philosophy Of Education

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Introduction

This essay aims to explain Aristotle’s theory of education before evaluating the contemporary significance of his philosophy of education today. Aristotle is understood to have lived from 384 BC to 322 BC in Ancient Greece which today would span a geographical area that includes Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and parts of Afghanistan (Malam, 2006). He was a philosopher, scientist and teacher who is still viewed today as one of the most significant thinkers in the field of ethics and psychology (Cooper, 2006). His intellectual musings however extended beyond this and he is known for his contributions to a wide variety of areas including physics, botany, ethics, logic, agriculture, medicine and politics (Gotthelf, 2012). This discourse will argue that he is of immense value to teachers today in reinforcing and strengthening the values of moral education which we can imbed within our own teaching philosophy and providing a theoretical rationale for the value of inquiry based learning approaches and hands-on experiences (Carr & Harrison, 2015). Rather than accepting Plato’s belief in contemplation and self-reflection, Aristotle argued that we gain understanding of the world around us through logical, methodical discovery (Curren, 2000).

For Aristotle the development of a moral character was to be the aim of education (Carr & Harrison, 2015). As such the education of children and young people should extend beyond learning about academia and useful skills to a greater understanding of moral and social values and to a cultivation of a personal moral character (Carr & Harrison, 2015). He believed that education was crucial if man was to achieve fulfilment of the possibilities of one’s character (Lobkowicz, 1970). Aristotle believed that the supreme good to which we all aspire to is happiness but the happy man is neither a noble nor savage but instead he is an educated man (Lobkowicz, 1970). “The happy man, the good man, is a virtuous man, but virtuous is acquired precisely through education” (Hummel, 1999; p. 2). Virtue for Aristotle involves behaving in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of excess and deficiency which are both vices (Leunissen, 2017; MacIntyre, 2013). For Aristotle intellectual virtue develops and grows because of teaching while moral virtue emerges from a result of habit (Leunissen, 2017). The development of a habit is tied into a well-rounded education where students learn by engaging in an activity or task repeatedly whether that habit be a skill such as a musical instrument, completing an ethical act or making virtuous decisions education can assist in this process (Leunissen, 2017). When it comes to moral education then Aristotle believed that practice to form the habits should come before theoretical study of morality (Hall, 2018). Therefore the teaching of virtue and morality comes second to the actual practice of it in the classroom and school environment (Hall, 2018). Indeed moral education’s purpose is not to make people good but rather to demonstrate to them what is good, why it is good and how we might be able to generate goodness in our society (Natali, 2013). “Children will need to be taught not just to do right because it is imposed upon them, but they will need to aspire it for themselves, as they turn their virtuous behavior into habits” (Loosman, 2013; p. 9). Jean-Jacques Rousseau adopts similar viewpoint arguing that moral excellence is a virtue and that education should work towards nurturing morality in students (Natali, 2013).

Intellectual virtues represent traits of character such as being able to judge the truth of the matter and understanding the nature of things while moral virtues are habits of living that involve the whole person and include justice, temperance, prudence and fortitude where they are characterised by desire and emotion (Aristotle, 1984). Aristotle explores these ideas in The Nichomachean Ethics, a text which consists of ten books and from where he argues that ‘The man who is to be good must be well trained and habituated’ (Aristotle, 1984; p. 11). Happiness for Aristotle can only become accessible through education with it being the touchstone of Aristotelian ethics with the virtues, wisdom and happiness acquired through this (Curren, 2000). Virtue for Aristotle comes when we obtain happiness or goodness with goodness lying across two categories; goodness of intellect and goodness of character (Curren, 2000). Goodness of intellect can be enhanced through education and is the result of training and experience while goodness of character occurs because of habit which can be engineered by keeping good habits (Curren, 2000).

Aristotle held the view in this theory of education that it was the responsibility of the state to provide for education and therefore he is a strong advocate for public education (Carr & Harrison, 2015). Indeed the only extended discussion of his theory of education that survives is that held within Book VIII of the Politics where Aristotle argues that schooling should be provided by the state and ‘one and the same for all’ (Randall, 2010). He was also interested in continuing education recognising that it was not limited to children and young people but that it needed to take a whole-life perspective with this being organised in stages of seven years at a time (Carr & Harrison, 2015). Pre-school education denotes the very first stage with the parents, and specifically the father responsible for their children’s education as noted in his text The Nichomachean Ethics (Leunissen, 2017). Games should be used as the basic tool of education until a child is five, between five and seven they should merely be spectators in the lessons they will later go on to learn and at seven the child should attend school up to twenty one years of age (Kristjánsson, 2015; Natali, 2013). Unfortunately much of Aristotle’s work has been lost so we do not have the details of how schooling was structured or any details about adult education (Leunissen, 2017). However what we do know is that Aristotle believed in a system of continuing education and in supporting learning throughout the lifespan. Ultimately Aristotle’s theory of education sees a well-educated person as somebody who seeks out a balanced life, is capable of pursuing a range of interests including in music, public speaking, philosophy etc. (MacIntyre, 2013).

This paper will now set out to evaluate the contemporary significance of Aristotle’s philosophy of education today. Firstly we will argue that he has an important significance in arguing for the need for the public provision of education that is available to everyone. As highlighted above Aristotle believed that education had an important role in the political community in helping to cultivate the intellectual and moral virtues, as the primary tool of statesmanship, in order to bring about happiness (Randall, 2010; p. 544). He argued strongly in Book VIII of the Politics that school should be publicly provided ‘one and the same for all’ (Randall, 2010; p. 544). His arguments have important ramifications on the education system and on state parties because he believes that societies have a collective duty, which falls on governments, to help develop young people into ‘good and flourishing adults’ (Randall, 2010; p. 544). Legislation should be in place to regulate birth and early training to help ensure that children grow up healthily in body and mind (Randall, 2010). This suggests a quality education is required and that the Government has a responsibility to introduce legislation, policies and best practice guidelines to support the development of healthy adults through the education system. We can see this in Ireland when free secondary school education was established in Ireland in the 1960s alongside free school buses in rural areas to help facilitate school access for rural children (O’Donoghue et al, 2017). However it remains that in many countries across the world children do not have access to a quality education owing to a range of barriers such as poverty (Iwunze, 2009). In the Central African Republic for Instance 25% of 15 to 24 year olds have no education at all while 42% have an incomplete primary education (Education Policy and Data Centre, 2014). Indeed Aristotle’s argument for the equitable provision of education remains a compelling one today even though unfortunately he was not in favour of extending this equity to people with disabilities as he perceived it to be a waste of the State’s resources (Onora-Oguna, 2018; Curren, 2010). However fortunately the development of special education and inclusive policies in Ireland have extended the rights of all children to receive education and this is supported in international legislation such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN, 2006).

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Aristotle argues that an important educational objective is the encouraging of habit formation which is virtuous (Elliott et al, 2016). However a challenge of this is that habits are not neutral and they require the educator and the government to provide a more concrete commitment to specific behaviours that most people can justify and implement (Curren, 2000). As such a system of education needs to be provided to the public which provides for adequate moral, political and disciplinary education which prepares children for work and to live in the society in which they were raised (Curren, 2000). A common schooling approach then which brings together children from a variety of diverse backgrounds together in classrooms and promotes equal respect and status is important to support this system (Elliott et al, 2016). Additionally employing cooperative methods of instruction which encourage children to work together and deliberate are important in sharing the values implicit within a given culture (Curren, 2000; p. 212).

Aristotle is of value to our understanding of contemporary education and in providing a theoretical rationale for the approaches taken today. He argued that the education system should place a strong emphasis on a holistic, well-rounded and balanced development of all learners (Elliott et al, 2016). For him, he believed that a balanced curriculum should be provided to the child which included opportunities for play, physical training, music, debate, and the study of science and philosophy which were needed to assist the child in developing their body, mind and soul (Elliott et al, 2016). Aistear, the National Early Years Curriculum Framework for instance recognises the critical role of play in providing a context to a child’s overall learning and development (NCCA, 2009; Kernan, 2007). Standard Six of the National Quality Framework for Early Childhood also recognises that each child has ample time to engage in freely available and accessible opportunities for exploration, creativity and meaning making through play (CECDE, 2006). The importance of a balanced approach to education is also recognised within the Primary School Curriculum (Government of Ireland, 1999a). Within the Physical Education Curriculum for example it seeks to foster and support the balanced and harmonious development and general well-being of children through the curriculum’s key themes (Government of Ireland, 1999b).

Another important implication for teachers within the education system is that Aristotle believed that educators should employ a pedagogy which is infused with a clear philosophy of life and a concern for what is ethical and virtuous and model this for children and young people in their classrooms (Kakkori & Huttunen, 2007). The teacher’s pedagogical ethics should as by exhibiting friendliness which is related to sincerity such that a teacher has a high self-esteem but no interest in boasting (Kakkori & Huttunen, 2007). Such a teacher should be self-confident and provide honest recognition to others. The teacher is also a leader for Aristotle and to best serve her students she should lead with dignity so they are not stubborn and are willing to listen to students and accept criticism from them (Kakkori & Huttunen, 2007). A good teacher should also exhibit gentleness or temper so that they are even-tempered in order to have a positive effect on pupils (Kakkori & Huttunen, 2007). Courage is also needed from teachers so that they can challenge superiors if needed and stand by their convictions while having the power to rely upon their own judgement and the strength to resist including with respect to classroom management (O’Donoghue et al, 2017). For Aristotle too the teacher must be The Just, in that she should be lawful and fair in relation to her pupils and colleagues (O’Donoghue et al, 2017). Aristotle’s work is extended by Kakkori & Huttunen (2007) who argues that teachers need to adopt a democratic attitude in the spirit of John Dewey’s conceptualisation of education. If a teacher consistently engages in an authoritarian way then pupils will not learn to adopt a democratic attitude themselves while a teacher is not able to teach democracy without themselves adopting a democratic attitude (Kakkori & Huttunen, 2007). Many of these virtues are explored and expanded upon by the Teaching Council of Ireland’s Code of Professional Conduct for Teachers (The Teaching Council, 2012). It recognises the ethical values of care, trust, integrity and respect as underpinning the teachers conduct in relation to teaching and learning (The Teaching Council, 2012). This too is seen in the draft Code of Conduct for early years teachers as introduced by Schonfeld (2018) thus providing a theoretical rationale for their importance in underpinning education provision.

Aristotle also provided the early seeds for active learning, hands on learning and inquiry based education all of which are seen as crucial methodological approaches to quality teaching in the primary school context today. Aristotle stood apart from Plato in that he believed that knowledge and truth could be discovered externally while Plato, a rationalist, believed we could discover this through self-reflection (Hammond et al, 2001). Aristotle then developed a scientific method of gathering data from the world around him (Hammond et al, 2001). As such the inquiry methods we use in our classrooms today derive much of their theoretical base to Aristotle while in contrast pedagogical approaches which call for discourse and reflection to be used to uncover truths rely more upon the works of Socrates and Plato (O’Donoghue et al, 2017). This makes Aristotle highly relevant and significant for contemporary education because he helps provide us with a theoretical justification for the adoption of inquiry learning opportunities into our classroom teaching. Inquiry based learning posits that letting students investigate solutions to open problems themselves helps true learning to be achieved which can include utilising research projects, group work opportunities and field work to provide children with learning opportunities (Chambliss, 2017).

Aristotle remains highly relevant in providing the theoretical underpinnings for contemporary practices in the early learning centre (ELC) setting. We can see examples of Aristotle in the Montessori Classroom for instance where Aristotle argued that people acquire particular principles which help facilitate their discovery of knowledge and truth through inductive learning (Buckenmeyer, 2009). The introduction of the diverse materials by Maria Montessori is to support inductive learning on the part of the child so that they can use all their senses to investigate the world around them (Chambliss, 2017). Those theorists most closely linked to inductive learning are John Dewey, Maria Montessori and Jerome Bruner where knowledge and skills are learned through investigative or creative activities (Shavinina, 2009). Moreover both Aristotle and Montessori shared the belief that Eudaimonia, or the highest good for human beings is actualised by intrinsically motivated work (O’Donoghue et al, 2017; Eiford, 2007). Montessori’s philosophy posits that education should be more than about material gains in the future but instead focusing on encouraging children to derive pleasure in completing work (Buckenmeyer, 2009; Eiford, 2007). Montessori promotes self-correcting materials in order to support children’s inductive learning which does not always require direct feedback from teachers in order to support confidence and self-efficacy amongst children (Buckenmeyer, 2009; Kakkori & Huttunen, 2007).

Conclusion

This discourse has thus provided a comprehensive outline and description of Aristotle’s theory and philosophy of education. The aim of education for Aristotle was the development of a moral character with the education of children extending beyond academia to one of a greater understanding of moral and social values in the cultivation of a personal moral character (Carr & Harrison, 2015). This discourse demonstrated that Aristotle’s theory of education remains significant for contemporary education today as it provides a theoretical underpinning to inquiry based learning, inductive learning and the need for moral education to be at the heart of teaching. It is important then that educators are capable of constantly reassessing how they can promote human flourishing and identify the best ways to support students in achieving goodness and happiness in their lives (Kakkori & Huttunen, 2007).

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Aristotle’s Theory And Philosophy Of Education. (2021, September 03). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-theory-and-philosophy-of-education/
“Aristotle’s Theory And Philosophy Of Education.” Edubirdie, 03 Sept. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-theory-and-philosophy-of-education/
Aristotle’s Theory And Philosophy Of Education. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-theory-and-philosophy-of-education/> [Accessed 30 Sept. 2022].
Aristotle’s Theory And Philosophy Of Education [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 03 [cited 2022 Sept 30]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/aristotles-theory-and-philosophy-of-education/
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