Why we teach the way we do: philosophically speaking

Simran Luthra

If you’ve undergone any professional training in education, it is unlikely that you are a stranger to the term ‘philosophy of education’. And if, like me, you’ve ever had the need to prepare for the UGC NET (soon to be the NTA NET), the very first chapter of the study material, you will have noticed, is on the philosophy of education, where you are told in clichéd terms that education and philosophy are like two sides of the same coin. Or that (this one’s good) education and philosophy are like two flowers on the same stem. Basically attempting to drive home the fact that education is the practical side of philosophy, which by nature is theoretical.

While I may poke fun at the myriad unremarkable and tedious ways in which this is articulated in some of the available literature, the truth is that the relationship between education and philosophy has for long been a matter of considerable debate and discussion. One can regard this to be true, given that many philosophers argue that teaching is the second-oldest profession.

The terms – ‘education’ and ‘philosophy’ attempt to bring together two such categories of concepts, which in themselves are highly contested. For example, while there may be some internal differences in opinion among quantum physicists, there is largely a high degree of agreement on what the domain comprises, and what sort of work qualifies as meaningful contribution in the field*. However, both ‘education’ and ‘philosophy’ are broad umbrella terms and there are also significant differences between various schools of thought within these two domains; so what would constitute as meaningful and relevant for one school of thought may not be so for another.

The reason I am beginning with a brief discussion of philosophy of education is because the domain refers to the application of philosophy to the problem of education; that is to the concerns of the aims and means of education. Philosophy primarily seeks to answer the ‘why’ questions. Why do we teach? Why do we teach the way we teach? Whether conscious of it or not, teachers live their innate or learned philosophies of education through their pedagogy and how they deal with disciplinary issues. Every teacher already, always has a ‘teaching philosophy’.

Articulation of one’s teaching philosophy has the potential of being an immensely helpful exercise. While some of us as teachers maybe conscious of a few aspects of our teaching philosophies, other aspects may be blind spots and not as easily accessible without honest reflection and introspection. And given that philosophy and education are highly diverse and context-dependent, there are no strictly right or wrong answers.

With the aim of exploring teaching philosophies, I reached out to five teachers to share their personal teaching philosophies. Here are some excerpts from the interviews along with my interpretation.

Pooja-in-school “It’s being honest to my work and reaching to all the students.” It was in one sentence that Pooja shared in quite a broad sense her teaching philosophy. Her response summarizes how one could interpret philosophy in a more general sense – a guiding principle for how we choose to do something. Pooja Makhija is a teacher at an IB school in Hyderabad, where she coordinates the Early Years Program.

Gargi chose to share a core aspect of her teaching philosophy: “My teaching philosophy is to ‘agree to disagree but only after understanding why’.” Gargi Mukherjee is an English teacher at a private ICSE school in Kolkata.

Jayashree pared down her teaching philosophy to the values she believes to be core to her work. She shared four Ds which constitute the core of her philosophy – Democracy: “treating all the children and myself equally within the classroom space. No superiority or inferiority and trying to make the classroom environment as child friendly as possible.” Discipline: “Making it clear that the time devoted to an activity should be fruitfully utilized to the maximum whether it is a game or study or an activity.” Dignity of labour: “I try to set a good example of how work in the class should be a shared activity by all. Most activities that I endorse are thus group based activities.” And finally, Digitalization: “It is most imperative that students should be well-versed and updated in the latest forms of learning and very tech savvy so that they can challenge the information in the textbook and even the teacher or authority.” Jayashree Raveendran is the principal and a teacher at Vidyadhiraja School, a community slum school at Bhandup, Mumbai.

Gurveen’s response was more elaborate and she wished to focus on three components. First, that “the child is not just a mind or just a student”. Gurveen shared that as a teacher, she begins by getting to know the person that the child is, “however minimally – as an individual and building a relationship of respect, trust with space for the student to say ‘no’ if she wants to. Space for me and them to relate and function as individuals rather than get reduced to our prescribed roles. That it is not worth teaching just the mind, when I teach, I teach a person,” she said.

Second, she believes that the relationship between teacher and student is one based on “respect for the individual, trust, values of honesty/truth and sensitivity”. Conveying faith in students and getting them to a point where they actually believe it may take time, but in her experience is something that does happen.

Third, she pointed out that in order to impart information or even teach a skill, what matters is to get the student to engage with the quest: to spark an interest, to generate excitement in learning the topic, to reveal the relevance and importance of what is being taught. “I do not teach answers, I attempt to plant questions. If the questions take root, the students come to their answers by and by through their experiences and considering any evidence and information that comes their way. And their answers will keep growing and getting refined as they grow, their capacity and understanding grows. I hope that whatever I teach will inform and transform the person.” Finally, she also aims to engage with questions critically and reflectively. She does this by means of demonstrating questioning in the classroom. She also makes an effort to integrate different disciplines to convey how knowledge is not fragmented but interrelated. Gurveen Kaur is the founder and a teacher at Centre for Learning in Secunderabad, an open education centre for the youth and adults.


On being asked about his teaching philosophy Rohit explained: “I am not sure if it’s a philosophy, but something I hold important is that education can be one of the many, and probably one the important ones, processes for social dialogue and change and it must be engaged with from that perspective.” 50 per cent of the curriculum walks into the class when our students walk in,” Emily J. Style has said in Are their life stories part of the curriculum?” Rohit Kumar is the founder of Khoj Community School in Mumbai.

From the lengths of the descriptions of their teaching philosophies to the nature of what they shared, the variety in responses is evident. However, each response is honest and complete in its own right and its context of evolution. The question of evolution is what in fact was next. The teachers were asked if their teaching philosophies had evolved from the time they had started teaching. One would expect a unanimous ‘yes’ to this question, but interestingly enough, two of the five respondents shared that their teaching philosophies hadn’t fundamentally changed, only become more refined and gained clarity over time.

On being asked about the kinds of changes that had taken place, Pooja said: “I had to completely let go of what I learnt and adapt to the new philosophy of a different curriculum.” Her answer illustrates the fact that very often the teaching philosophy evolved is one that is heavily influenced by the philosophical underpinnings of the curriculum one teaches. She went on to share: “I started my career in a traditional school where my job was limited to come, teach and go. I used to teach 40 students in a class and it was very difficult to reach and understand the needs of all the students. Once I moved to Hyderabad and started working in an international school my perspective towards education changed. It took some time for me to soak in and implement, but it was an eye-opener to be given an opportunity to work in a school where the education was child-centric. So, with a lot of training and workshops my perspective to education has changed.” Jayashree’s response resonated with Pooja’s as she too attributed the schools she has taught at, as the factor impacting the nature of her teaching philosophies.

Gargi pointed to a completely different source of influence on her teaching philosophy when she said: “I had to change my approach to students’ understanding as they are suspicious of and indifferent to anything new the teacher has to offer. I have had to add to what they already knew and make them aware of what they saw or heard but did not notice or know the implications of.” Gurveen too identifies students as an influence on her philosophy, but in a very different manner. She talks about how over the years she has bettered her understanding of “…how much we can expect from a child of a certain age. A very young child cannot engage reflectively or critically as they are just encountering it for the first time, so with the young one aims to generate interest in it and curiosity about it. With the older ones it is about examining the topic/theme, exploring its connections to other things that we know and the implications for/on our lives.” In this sense, Gurveen is really pointing to the understanding of child and human development as a guiding light for her teaching philosophy.


Rohit described how his unique journey and foray into education is also witness to how his teaching philosophy has changed: “I started teaching as a volunteer at a spoken English program run by the software company I worked in. My position then was a ‘charitable; one. I believed that ‘I’ could change someone’s life just by teaching them two hours of English. It seemed legitimate to me. Today, I think, I have to continually remind myself what I am here for, which is to co-create meaningful dialogues with the help of which I can grow and so can my students.” Rohit again looks at his students as the source of inspiration for his teaching philosophy which is essentially one of co-creation of meaning. Rohit went on to share how Paolo Freire’s path breaking work – The Pedagogy of the Oppressed – was also responsible for a paradigmatic shift in his understanding of his teaching work when he was working at Akanksha Foundation’s Service Level Program with youth aged between 16-20.

When probed further on the question of how they came to develop their individual philosophies of teaching, Pooja shared honestly that she had never thought of this question before, but reiterated the role of the school, its vision and mission as having the potential to shape a teacher’s teaching philosophy. Gargi, like Gurveen, identified her every-increasing awareness of students’ psychology and subsequent sensitivity to their needs as the source of her teaching philosophy.

Jayashree attributed the source of her teaching philosophy to be her own experience of schooling and how she coped with a deficit learning environment: “Learning for the SSC exams and the subsequent XI and XII standards helped me to develop my own self-study technique with lot of personal time frame and logic. Thus I have a strengthened caliber in self-learning and logic that helped to treat my students also in the same frame and provide them with freedom and joy in learning new ideas and concepts. This combined with the professional learning of various philosophical concepts has helped me to consolidate my role as a ‘humanist’ in the classroom,” she shared. Gurveen shared that her experience was also similarly shaped by her own positive and negative experiences as a learner and “got further developed by my engagement with the purpose and task/aim of education.”

Rohit’s varied experiences of teaching across schools with students from remarkably different socio-economic backgrounds had encouraged him to engage in considerable reflection. “Praxis,” he shared, “a combination of reflection and action” is the key to how he has developed his teaching philosophy.

When asked, all the teachers agreed that it was important to have a teaching philosophy. Gurveen’s answer summarized what most others said: “You cannot not have one. You can only choose to be aware of it and choose it consciously or work by default with an unconscious philosophy. It helps become more reflective and critical of one’s teaching.” While Rohit’s response came with a cautionary warning that while it is important to have one, getting tied to one leading to rigidity and no space for “reviewing, renewing and continually redefining one’s philosophical standpoints” was undesirable.

While one can wax eloquent about philosophy in general, one’s teaching philosophy becomes manifest in one’s practice of teaching and strategies. Rohit for instance shared how he ensures “that there’s space for bringing in the students’ life stories, views and perspectives into constructing our shared knowledge of the given subject. I use a lot of visible thinking protocols and dialogue-based pedagogy”. Similarly, Jayashree shared: “Some of the methodologies that I use when I am teaching subjects like science and maths are well-defined such as learning by doing, group learning, and self-assessment. But with the other subjects of personality development and social service it is always based on discussions, debates, reasoning, self-evaluation and refinement of views.”

The teachers also reflected on how their teaching philosophies derived from their own experiences as learners. This in fact, is another significant theme not paid adequate attention to either in research or in teachers’ own reflections, that their socialization as professionals has its starting point in their own experiences with their teachers. There is considerable research that says that when teachers begin they often slip into modes and ways in which they themselves were taught (not when they were taught to teach) – however good or bad that might be. It is only with conscious reflection and effort that they evolve their own philosophy and methodology.

In several countries, during the recruitment process teachers are asked to explicitly share their teaching philosophy, which is perhaps a great idea. To start on the journey of identifying one’s own biases and positionality as a teacher, one can start with the following questions, some of which were used for the purpose of this piece as well.

  • Why do you want to teach?
  • What do you believe about how people learn?
  • What is your teaching philosophy?
  • Has it changed from when you started teaching?
  • What changes have you had to make and why?
  • How did you develop your teaching philosophy?
  • Is it important to have a teaching philosophy?
  • Is your teaching philosophy related to how you learn?
  • How does your teaching philosophy manifest in the teaching strategies you use? What are some concrete examples of how you put your philosophy into practice?
  • Does teaching philosophy assist in professional development?
  • How do you assess your effectiveness as a teacher?
  • How do you assess student learning?



The author is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai, and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.

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