Implications of Underlying Educational Perspectives and Approaches

Jeanette R. Daines, Ph.D.
E4581 330th Avenue
Menomonee, WI 54751
Tel:  1-715-235-7442 or 1-651-298-1104


Presented at the Inter-University Centre Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 14, 2004



            The historic role of education as a purveyor of culture embodies critical implications for the development of cultures of peace. Distinctive educational approaches that have evolved through the experiences of persons in communities—and ultimately in regional or national affiliations—reflect the underlying perspectives and values of those involved. Consequently, it is important to seek understanding of these dimensions through the study of related assumptions, meanings, and actions, as these emerge in various contexts. A conceptual framework that focuses on technicist, communicative/interpretive, and emancipative perspectives can encourage the dialogue necessary for the study of meta-ethics and cultural meanings that influence (a) ways educators create conditions for learning, and (b) ultimate aims of education. In an increasingly globalized world, messages conveyed through educational perspectives and approaches can open doors to peace—or close them.



            The intent of this paper is to encourage discourse by examining the ways that educational systems influence the development of cultures of peace.  The paper reflects a personal perspective, and makes no claims of  being fully representative of the many others whose thoughtful contributions have been referenced here.  Nonetheless, it provides a starting place—a beginning from which to form the questions that need to be asked, and a place from which to build the personal and professional relationships that can nurture continued discussion and critique of the ideas. In the first section, an attempt is made to show that personal meanings and values emerge from family and cultural contexts and in turn contribute to the conceptual systems of that society. Among these systems are those associated with education.  Cultural meanings and values related to learning shape the aims and processes of the educational systems that evolve. The second section focuses on understanding these aims and processes, first by proposing a set of questions that can be used to help in reflecting upon a certain situation, and secondly by presenting several different theoretical/philosophical perspectives that can also be helpful. Finally, the third section will examine implications of using these approaches in the context of globalization and conflict. This inquiry is shaped by a steadfast respect for  cultural contexts and the ways that meaning is shaped within them.


To what degree does the environment influence individual learning?


            Learning is a fundamental characteristic of human development, and is dramatically linked to the growth and maturation of an individual. Even in one’s earliest interactions with the environment the impetus and contributions of sensory experiences result in pathways of learning that lead to further capacity for exploration and understanding. Perceptions resulting from observations and experiences within one’s environment are either reinforced or negated through further interactions. Environments that both nurture and challenge the persons within them help to optimize the biological capacity and processes that cause development to become more complex and differentiated. Typically these are family environments; however, the community is a critical influence as well.  The nature of interactions and relationships within the family and community provides the intellectual, emotional, and social base from which to build the capacity for the moral judgments and decision-making that is essential for ethical action. 


            The philosophical and theoretical position of human development taken here is contrary to the theory of individualism, which “. . . assumes that the individual has an absolute, rational capacity independent of a socio-cultural context” (Taylor, 1989, p. 99).  Rather, all thinking is situational (p. 104). Individuals have independent perceptions, but concepts are never individual constructs.  The source of concepts is social, and, because concepts are the basis for communication and embody agreements about some aspect of reality, so are their uses. (p. 114).   Decisions about what to do are consequently made within the context of the conceptual system.  In part, this applies to decisions involving moral judgments or ethics. 

What is held to be true, or good, etc. must be decided by the individual, but
 insofar as he is a rational thinking being.  However, this rationality is not
 something especially in his possession but something common to all men in
 his society—to all men whose minds are structured by the fundamental
 conceptual system which underlies the whole. (p. 114).

This conceptual system forms the knowledge base that defines and gives meaning to a particular society. 


            Noted social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1934, as cited in Morris, Ed., 1962) also explained that organisms have a structure or gestalt of sensitivity within them that selectively and relatively determines the character of external objects perceived and consequently experienced by the organism.  Mead wrote, “The organism, then, is in a sense responsible for its environment.  And since organism and environment determine each other and are mutually dependent for their existence, it follows that the life-process . . . must be considered in terms of their interrelations” (p. 130).  In Mead’s view, the mind of an individual human being arises and develops within the context of social processes (p. 133).  It is through social interaction that a person begins to see himself or herself as others do, and make subsequent adjustments. 


How does a society influence individual learning?


           At various stages of an individual’s life, learning becomes more systematized and usually is formalized through the cultural processes or institutions functioning within a particular society.  Schools are established as representative of the society, but, as Abraham Edel, Professor of Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University, observed, “. . . schooling is not the whole story of education . . .” (1985).  Protocols of behavior and one’s orientation to life within a community are introduced within the family, together with attitudes and values that become fundamental  for later years. As the individual becomes involved in community life, these experiences, many of which are relatively informal, contribute to the repertoire of meanings that influence individual actions. Identification with a particular group within the society strengthens and reinforces the meanings held by this group for the individual, as he or she learns what it is expected of those associated with the group. 


           Institutionalization of learning occurs through schooling, religious instruction, and participation in other systems that prepare people for life and work.  The structure of these institutions, the pedagogical approach, and the substance of the curriculum all reflect the values and characteristics of the culture, the aspects which are deemed to be important to a particular community, region or country.  Inevitably, what is learned in these institutions goes beyond the explicit subject matter of a curriculum. The “lessons learned” also reflect the unwritten—and perhaps subtle—yet ever significant influences of the beliefs, power relationships, and ideologies inherent in the culture. 


Understanding Educational Systems


            Formal schooling and other institutionalized educational systems have existed since ancient times. However, it was not until the time of the Enlightenment, after the Middle Ages, that people began to believe that mankind could influence its own destiny through rational thought and action.  This belief led to the conviction that improvement of the human mind was the key to human progress and survival.  This premise had far-reaching effects; according to Ingemar Fagerlind of the University of Stockholm and Lawrence J. Saha of Australian National University, “Education in the modern sense, as a formal and deliberate process by which the cultural and normative heritage of a society is transmitted from generation to generation, and through which that heritage is improved through scientific discovery, had its roots in the Enlightenment” (1983, p. 32).


           Opportunities for formal schooling did not come easily to the populous, however.  Most people gained the basic knowledge and skills needed for daily life through family or community processes inherent in the culture. The early opportunities for study that were available to the elite of society focused on literature, philosophy, and other classical aspects that were not deemed relevant or even desirable for most persons. There was a clear disconnect between the liberal education of the day and a practical curriculum. Even as the industrial era began to make its mark, formal schooling continued to be restricted to the disadvantage of the “common people.” In the United States, it was only  upon the demand of the general citizenry that  public schools providing  practical as well as general education  were developed.


           Purposes of education, however, reflect the complexities in a culture.  For example,   Fagerlind and Saha contend that even in early times the political purposes of formal education were paramount.  They state, “From the beginning, it appears that schools and their skilled products were seen as serving the State and the society as a whole” (p. 32).  However, the inevitability of that Realist position is contested by Kern Alexander, Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia.  In a discussion of purposes of education, Alexander notes that an educational idealist would maintain that “. . .  an educated people do mold the government while an uneducated people, with less knowledge and correspondingly lower aspirations, will require less of government” (1983, p. 18). This position would be consistent with the outcomes of interaction between persons and their environment as described by Mead in the previous section. These diverse positions underscore the importance of understanding educational systems along with the cultures they represent, especially if there is concern for conditions that influence others outside of a particular society. 


What basic questions should be considered?


            Embedded within any institution or system are the underlying assumptions that influenced its development and purpose. The assumptions reflect philosophy and world view, cultural traditions and values, and expectations as well as related conditions, resources, and constraints. Identifying and examining these aspects is critically important to understanding an educational system or institution and the meanings it holds for a society and its learners.


            Questions that can be helpful in structuring an inquiry focused on education include the following:

  1. What are the origins of the system or institution?  What factors contributed to its development, and who was involved?  Where did the resources come from? What did the founders hope to accomplish? Have the purposes changed?

  2. Who controls the system or institution?  In what ways does the nature of this control influence learning within the system or institution?  How are the leaders designated, and what factors are considered in their selection?

  3. Who is served by the system or institution?  Why?  What assumptions underlie the participation of these learners?  Why are these assumptions held and not others?  What are the effects of holding these particular assumptions? Are all learners served in the same way and to the same degree?

  4. What is the nature of the curriculum provided? What assumptions underlie the selection of curriculum?  How are these assumptions tested or examined?  Does the curriculum have the capacity to address the purposes, and is it relevant for the needs of learners and the society? How is it developed, and by whom?

  5. What pedagogical processes are used?  What role(s) does the teacher fill?  What is the nature of the interaction with students?

  6. What values are reflected in the curriculum and pedagogy?  What do these particular values reveal about the society? 

  7. What are the roles fulfilled by the community throughout the educational processes?  


           Certainly there are other questions, but these are the types of questions that influence the planning and development processes of educational institutions and systems.  The assumptions and meanings the questions reflect are embedded in the context of the planning models and daily functioning of the organization, and  thereby in the educational opportunities provided.


What perspectives underlie the development of educational institutions and systems?


            Planning for the development of the formal education institutions and systems within a society occurs as a result of dominant beliefs and assumptions which  are expressed in existing structures and power relationships; the planning model used reflects the culture.  In this regard, three interesting planning models,  the technicist, political, and criticial/consensual, have been described by Dennis Herschbach of the University of Maryland and Cynthia Davis of Barry University in Miami, Florida (2000, pp. 5-21). Herschbach and Davis suggested that international approaches to vocational technical education reflect these models. However, the capacity of the models is broad-based and they can be applied to general education as well. Education patterned after these models will not be completely discrete in its characteristics; it is likely that there will be elements of other models also inherent in a particular situation—even if this does not occur systematically or at the same levels.  If overlapping occurs the question can be raised as to whether it is possible to support competing conceptions or alternative paradigms.  That is one of the issues to be considered as part of the search for understanding.


           Technicist planning models are grounded in positivism and its reliance on empirical/ analytical science as the source of rational knowledge that can ultimately be used to control conditions faced by a society. This model assumes a universal reality which can be reflected objectively through quantitative data, with little modification for particular contexts. Systems are instrumental in their purposes and structured bureaucratically to seek stability. Macro-level planning, influenced by human capital theory and economic conditions, is used to guide decision-making and action. In this model, with its values of efficiency and economy, there is a high reliance on technology. Goals are externally defined, and their implementation takes into account a comprehensive array of complex data.  (p. 8-14).


           Political planning models are often exemplified by the influence of a persuasive, charismatic leader or through the actions taken by dominant groups within a society.  They are also considered to be transactive or incremental.  In this approach, the assumptions are made that strong leaders or political processes will control the planning processes, and that the environment is dynamic. Participation is fragmented, with an uneven distribution of power that subsequently results in coalition-building among competing groups as a way to effect change. Social demand, with a corresponding political process, is the impetus which drives planning; generally the theoretical base is limited.  The planning data that is gathered and compiled tends to support political decisions.  According to Herschbach and Davis, the political model is criticized because groups with little political influence tend to be marginalized and dispossessed and dominant groups retain control of resources and agendas. (p. 14-16).


           Consensual/Critical models have evolved from critical theory. They are based on the belief that society has institutionalized class, gender, and ethnic differences to the detriment of many of its members..  Consequently, this approach aims to empower and emancipate the participants within the society.  Communication and consensus-building among stakeholders is of paramount importance, as is unstable environment. Decision-making is shared throughout all aspects of the development process, including the modification of goals as necessary. In the critical approach to planning, priority is given to “participation, decentralization, value specificity, and qualitative data” (p. 9-10).  Herschbach and Davis observe that planning for use of  the consensual/critical model can be “messy and inconclusive,” for competing interests of participants can prevent the consensus needed.  However, its underlying concern for equality and opportunity is a strength. (p. 16-19).


What perspectives underlie curricula?


           The curriculum offered to learners provides the most direct evidence of societal priorities.  Of the conceptual frameworks that could be used to identify these priorities by examining underlying assumptions and resulting characteristics, there is one that can be particularly helpful. It emerged in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s through the work of Marjorie Brown, Professor of Home Economics Education at the University of Minnesota (Brown & Paolucci, 1979; Brown, 1980; & Brown, in Hultgren and Coomer, Eds, 1989). In addition to guiding extensive further study of curriculum, pedagogy, and research, Brown’s studies of the philosophical and theoretical roots of home economics resulted in (a) description of actions as being technical/instrumental, communicative/interpretive, or emancipative; (b) examination of the ways that empirical/analytic science, interpretative science, and critical science modes of inquiry influenced professional action; and (c) development of curriculum models that reflect technical, interpretive, and critical approaches.


           Home economics educator Edith Baldwin’s discussion and critique of the technical, interpretive, and critical curriculum models highlights the key distinctions between them (1989, In Hultgren and Coomer, Eds., pp. 238-241), some of which are noted here.


           Technical Curriculum. Stability and preservation of the status quo are among the important ends sought by this curricular approach, which is purposive-rational in its orientation. It is grounded in positivism and a reliance on empirical/analytic science as the source of rational knowledge that can ultimately be used to control conditions faced by a society. Primary questions of concern about the technical model include those which assume cause-effect relationships or ask “how” something might be done.  Curriculum is designed to respond to what is, and to prepare students to understand and follow directions rather than questioning or critiquing the ends or means. “Whether incorporating scientific inquiry, the management process, or more didactic teaching procedures, the technical model anticipates that students will understand certain facts, theories, and principles, and apply technical rules for the performance of certain tasks . . .” (pp. 239-40). Task analysis influences the development of objectives, which specify the competencies to be developed.


           Baldwin’s critique of technical curriculum notes that—besides the limitations placed on the model because of its reliance on empirical science—its significance results less from what happens in the classroom as from the hidden curriculum of unstated norms, beliefs, and values that are transmitted to students through the underlying rules that structure routines and social relationships. A mechanistic view of human life prevails as management and input/output feedback processes are emphasized. This approach inhibits the development of critical and reflective capacities, and “. . . places constraints upon the development of a society in which free or autonomous persons participate in the determination of social goals for the enhancement of quality of life.” (p. 249) 


           Interpretive Curriculum. Baldwin points out that this approach is grounded in the assumptions of hermeneutic science.  The model relies on the development of communicative competence, followed by reflection and a search for understanding of the meanings therein. What is learned is interpreted in light of one’s own experiences and insights, but there is a respect for the meanings held by others with subsequent action to develop mutual understandings and shared meanings. Authentic, free communication is critical to the resolution of the practical problems considered in this approach, which is concerned with participatory decision-making.  The process of inquiry does involve critical thinking, and the kinds of questions that may be considered include those which question the appropriateness of a particular social norm or ask which actions should be taken in a particular situation within a specific context.  Baldwin’s critique of the interpretive model points out that even though the emphasis is on developing more complete understanding and learning how to examine the various meanings put forth in the development of consensus, the approach does not question the fundamental nature of society or search for hidden motives and meanings that may influence action.  In this way it fails to “reveal the ways we are deluded about the true nature of society” (p. 249).


           Critical Curriculum is based on critical science, which seeks to overcome repressive social conditions through enlightenment and action.  The critical model embodies the critique of ideology, especially in terms of self-criticism of one’s beliefs.  Included in this scrutiny are the institutions of society which may perpetuate false beliefs or suppress human freedom because of an interest in maintaining the status quo.  The questions asked by this approach are those which focus on the interests being served by what is done; for example, who benefits by a particular action and who pays? How does a particular practice or belief system serve to maintain a power structure or systematically disenfranchise those outside of it? What are the ways in which various forces affect people’s lives?  What would contribute to the emancipation of human beings?  Baldwin’s critique of this model points out that even when there are substantive efforts to make beliefs explicit and to make necessary changes, the process is never infallible in changing the participants.  Many beliefs are difficult to overcome, and dominant ideologies are well entrenched. In addition, she states that the self-corrective process must be continually re-applied (p. 248).  According to Baldwin, the critical model recognizes the need for technical action in order to provide for the physical necessities of life, but it also guards against it being dogmatically implemented.  The need for interpretive and communicative action is recognized, but it also tries to eliminate ideology so that rational consensus on social goals can be achieved.  As Baldwin states, “The critical curriculum model fosters the development of skills for purposive rational action and for communication; moreover, it seeks to generate enlightenment where needed to remove oppressive constraints on thought and action” (p. 249).


What is the interface between the planning and curriculum models cited?


            It is not evident that the presentation of the technicist, political, and consensual/critical planning models by Herschbach and Davis was influenced by Brown’s work on technical, communicative/interpretive, and critical curriculum models.  The approaches are not parallel, but there are some commonalities that bear noting. The technicist planning model and the technical curriculum model are instrumental in nature, with primary interests in efficient and economical transmission of practical knowledge and skills—particularly with regard to technological competence. Both are accepting of what is and assume or seek stability. The political planning model and the communicative/interpretive curriculum model recognize and accept the dynamic nature of society. Both rely on communication to achieve the ends that are sought, although it appears that the political planning model is less benign or neutral than the communicative/interpretive curriculum approach with its underlying search for meaning and understanding. A similarity is that neither approach takes a strong value position with regard to what is right, unless the communicative/interpretive model also reaches into the critical realm through the reflective process. The political approach relies on social demand to determine the ends that are sought. The last approaches, namely that of the consensual/critical planning model and the critical curriculum, seem to be more closely aligned.  Both are concerned with the effects of the actions taken, particularly as these affect less dominant or disenfranchised groups within the society. Broad participation in consensus-building, decisions and subsequent action is valued, and—while the processes are time-intensive and easily digress to explore tangential matters—there is a definite interest in empowerment and emancipation of people.


            Given these somewhat tenuous similarities, for purposes of discussion and further reference within this paper the planning and curricular models presented will be referred to as the technicist, communicative/interpretive, and emancipative perspectives.


Implications for Developing a Culture of Peace


What can educational institutions or systems do to develop a culture of peace?


            In an ideal situation, countries throughout the world would seriously examine the educational institutions and systems within their realm and thereby begin to consider what should be done to create  learning environments that foster a culture of peace.  Certainly that is a critical need, for widespread conflict and dissension mar global as well as local relationships everywhere. But even small steps forward and small achievements can be sought and nurtured.  It is the premise of this paper that each of the perspectives described can contribute—provided that this is a priority made explicit and supported as a key responsibility. On the other hand, each of these perspectives can detract, limit, or even contravene efforts to achieve peace. 


            Almost two decades ago, Abraham Edel (1985) wrote that a search for a set of criteria to provide a moral agenda for contemporary education has to begin with the needs and problems of the community, and then consider the special relevance of educational processes.  He suggested going first to human ideals and then determining which were of particular significance to education.  Priorities and policy decisions in ethics could then be guided through the use of a “valuational base” consisting of inquiries related to universal needs, perennial aspirations and major goals, necessary conditions, and critical contingent factors. Edel assumed that among the resulting elements the following themes were mandated on a moral agenda: global perspectives, expanded equality, more thorough democratization, sensitive response to modern technological economy, examining competitiveness of the culture, cultivating a sense of community, restoration of humanistic quality, and reassessment of the institution of schooling. (pp. 129-151). He also urged development of sound ideas of rationality, autonomy, and relativism. (pp. 153-174). 


            These challenges are even more daunting now, twenty years later, in the context of far-reaching globalization and a milieu of terrorism and conflict. The issues remain and have become more complex; action is needed.  First, perhaps, is the need to understand what meanings are embedded within the words, “culture of peace.” “Peace” is a reasonable purpose of education, and we can strive for peaceful lives, for peaceable and peace-loving communities, and for conditions of peace throughout the world.  Even if peace is nothing more than the absence of war, it is a step in the right direction.  Second, if the context of learning is a critical influence and concern, it behooves us as educators and  human beings to commit to professional and personal action that creates a context of peace and harmony. We must critically examine the nature of education and engage in processes that have the capacity to contribute to development of cultures of peace. And, finally, we must ground our actions for peace in sincere respect and appreciation for cultures beyond our own. Even then it is an insufficient effort—but it is a place to begin.



           Alexander, K.  (1993). The purpose of education: Peace, capitalism, and nationalism.  In K. Alexander & D. Freitas (Eds.), The faces of education: A world view. (pp. 17-28).  Oxford, England: The Oxford International Round Table on Education Policy.


           Baldwin, E. E.  (1989). A critique of home economics in secondary schools.  In F. H. Hultgren & D. L. Coomer (Eds.), Alternate modes of inquiry in home economics research. Yearbook 9, American Home Economics Association.  (pp. 236-250). Peoria, IL: Glencoe Publishing Company.


           Brown, M. M.  (1980). What is home economics education? Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota, Department of Vocational and Technical Education.


           Brown, M. M. (1989). What are the qualities of good research. In F. H. Hultgren & D. L. Coomer (Eds.), Alternate modes of inquiry in home economics research. Yearbook 9, American Home Economics Association.  (pp. 257-297). Peoria, IL: Glencoe Publishing Company. (p. 257-297).


           Brown, M. M. & Paolucci, B. (1979). Home economics: A definition. Washington, D. C.: American Home Economics Association.


           Edel, A. (1985). Interpreting education: Science, ideology, and value. Vol. 3.  New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.


           Fägerlind, I. & Saha, L. J. (1983). Education and national development: A comparative perspective.  New York: Pergamon Press.


           Herschbach, D. R. & Davis, C. (2000) Planning, efficiency, and equity: A conceptual framework. In D. R. Herschbach & C. P. Campbell (Eds.), Workforce preparation: An international perspective. (pp. 5-21). Ann Arbor, MI:  Prakken Publications, Inc.


           Mead, G. H. (1962). The self. In C. H. Morris (Ed.), Works of George Herbert Mead, Volume 1: Mind, self and society. (pp. 135-222). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


           Taylor, S. (1989). Conceptions of institutions and the theory of knowledge. Second Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.   


Back to Top

Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.
2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice