“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” —Friedrich Nietzsche

Each teacher brings a unique philosophy and viewpoint to their interactions with students. Some of these views are more obvious than others. For example, some teachers might state that they choose teaching to help and support new members of their profession. Others may note that involvement with learners is a required and expected job requirement. Taking time to reflect and begin to articulate a personal philosophy of teaching can help teachers understand why they approach their practice in particular ways and how their individual views fit with ‘big picture’ educational issues. Understanding why a teaching approach or action might be advantageous before deciding what content to implement or how to deliver that content helps teachers think critically about their practice.

Any philosophy or expression of beliefs can evolve and grow over time. As teachers strengthen their theoretical knowledge and gain practical experience, their personal teaching philosophy will also change. Although it can seem daunting to try and put beliefs into words, initiating a working teaching philosophy statement and then adding to it throughout your career can support teachers in becoming more engaged, competent and scholarly (Chism, 1998; Goodyear & Allchin, 1998; Owens, Miller & Owens, 2014; Ratnapradipa & Adams, 2012; Schönwetter, Sokal, Friesen & Taylor, 2002 ).

For clinical teachers seeking to identify where they fit in and how best to articulate a personal philosophy of teaching, established philosophical perspectives from the field of adult education offer important direction. Liberal, progressive, behaviourist, humanist and radical perspectives are traditionally considered foundational. Each of these overarching perspectives brings different underlying assumptions about human nature, the purpose of education, the role of the educator, and the role of the learner. Perspectives specific to teaching, such as transmission, apprenticeship, developmental, nurturing and social reform perspectives, provide more explicit guidance for those in higher education. In this chapter we provide a primer on key adult educational philosophies and discuss the process of articulating a personal teaching philosophy statement.

A Primer on Key Adult Education Philosophies

Five Key Adult Education Philosophies

An adult education philosophy or perspective is the categorization of an individual’s beliefs, values and attitudes towards education. In this section we present Elias & Merriam’s (1995) seminal work identifying the five key adult education philosophies of liberal, progressive, behaviourist, humanist and radical perspectives.

A liberal perspective emphasizes the development of intellectual abilities. Liberal education is related to liberal arts, not to liberal political views. A liberal arts education provides general knowledge with an emphasis on reasoning and judgement, instead of professional, vocational or technical skills (Liberal Arts Education, n.d.). A liberal education promotes theoretical thinking and stresses philosophy, religion and the humanities over science.

Liberal teachers are experts who transmit knowledge, direct the learning process with authority, and emphasize organized knowledge. Teachers play a prominent role in this philosophy and have a variety of different intellectual interests. Teaching methods focus on lectures, readings, study groups and discussions. Socrates, Plato and Jean Piaget are considered liberal teachers.

A behaviourist perspective emphasizes skill acquisition. Behaviourist education conditions and shapes individuals through clearly defined purposes and learning objectives. Heavy emphasis is placed on assessing and evaluating whether behaviours taught have been learned.

Behaviourist teachers manage learning environments in ways that promote learning of expected and desired behaviours. Although teachers reinforce or positively acknowledge students when they succeed, both teachers and students are accountable for learning success. Mastery learning and standards-based education are often framed from a behaviourist perspective. Teaching methods include programmed instruction, contract learning and computer-guided instruction. Ivan Pavlov, Burrhus Frederic Skinner and John Watson made significant contributions to this perspective.

A progressive perspective emphasizes an experiential, problem-solving approach to learning. Progressive education liberates learners and equips them to solve problems and apply practical knowledge. Students learn by doing, by inquiring, by being involved in the community and by responding to real-life problems.

Progressive thinking is grounded in five principles. First, education is viewed as a life-long process and not one restricted to formal classroom instruction. Second, learners have the potential to learn more than their immediate interests. Third, learners value diverse instructional methodologies. Fourth, teacher–learner relationships are interactive and reciprocal. Fifth, education prepares learners to change society.

Teaching methods include the scientific method, problem-based learning and cooperative learning. Proponents of this perspective include John Dewey, Francis Parker and Edward Lindeman.

A humanist perspective underscores personal growth and development. Humanistic education supports learners towards becoming fully functional and self-actualized. Humanists believe that individuals are autonomous and have unlimited potential that should be nurtured. They also believe that individuals have a responsibility to humanity.

Learners are viewed as highly motivated, self-directed and responsible for their own learning. Humanist teachers facilitate and partner with students rather than managing or directing their learning. “Humanist adult educators are concerned with the development of the whole person with a special emphasis upon the emotional and affective dimensions of the personality.” (Elias & Merriam, 1995, p.109).

Teaching methods include team teaching, group tasks, group discussion and individualized learning. Theories developed by Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Malcolm Knowles ground this perspective.

A radical perspective highlights social, political and economic change through education. Rather than working within existing norms and structures, radical education often occurs outside mainstream adult and higher education programs. Radical educationalists value non-compulsory and informal learning activities.

Radical teachers coordinate, make suggestions and partner with learners. They do not direct the learning process. Teaching methods include exposure to the media and real life situations. Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and John Holt are well-known radical thinkers.

Table 1. Philosophies of Adult Education

Adapted from Elias & Merriam (1995) and Zinn (1983, 1994, 1998)

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION Develop intellectual abilities. Emphasize skill acquisition. Equip learners with practical knowledge and problem-solving skills. Enhance personal growth, development. Promote fundamental social, political & economic changes in society.
VIEW OF LEARNER Always a learner.

Seeks knowledge rather than information.

Needs to practice new behaviour.

Strong environmental influence on learning.

Learn by doing, experimenting and working with real-life problems. Motivated, self-directed, responsible. Learners have unlimited potential. Equal to the teacher within learning process.
ROLE OF TEACHER Experts who transmit knowledge.

Direct the learning process.

Manage, control and positively reinforce. Predict and direct learning outcomes. Organize, guide and establish interactive reciprocal relationships with learners. Facilitate, support and partner.

Attentive to emotional and affective issues.

Coordinates and suggests but does not determine direction of learning.
METHODS USED Lecture, readings, discussion groups. Programmed instruction.

Computer-assisted learning.

Problem-based learning, cooperative learning. Team teaching, group tasks, individualized learning. Group identifies problems to solve.

Discussion groups.

KEY WORDS Learning for its own sake.

Classical, traditional.


Behaviour modification.

Learning objectives and evaluation of those objectives.

Based on experience.

Democratic principles.


Self-actualization, cooperation, group work, self-direction. Raising of awareness of social problems.

Social action.

Non-compulsory learning activities.

AUTHORS Socrates, Plato, Piaget Pavlov, Skinner, Watson Dewey, Parker, Lindeman Rogers, Maslow. Knowles Friere, Illich, Holt
EXAMPLES University or college lectures. CPR certification and renewal. Problem-based health care programs. Clinical pre-and post conferences. Literacy training.


Creative Strategies

My Favourite Philosophies

Review each of the boxes in Table 1, Philosophies of Adult Education. Put a checkmark beside any comments in the boxes that seem to resonate for you. Do your checkmarks fall into one or two favourite philosophies? Do some philosophies seem to better fit you than others?

Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory (PAEI)

Building on the five key adult education philosophies of liberal, behaviourist, progressive, humanist and radical described above, Lorraine Zinn (1983; 1994; 1998) developed a classic questionnaire that teachers can use to help identify the perspective(s) to which they are most drawn. The Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory (PAEI) is available for free on the LabR Learning Resources webpage. To complete the questionnaire, respond to each inventory question by selecting from a scale ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree. Once you have submitted your responses, an inventory of results will be emailed to you. Most teachers are drawn to more than just one philosophical perspective.

Creative Strategies

Try the ‘Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory’

Visit and complete the Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory. Are the results you received what you expected? Do you agree with the results you received? Did the results help you determine which philosophy (or philosophies) seem a good fit for you?

Five Perspectives on Teaching Adults

General philosophies of education can be contrasted with the specific ideas teachers have about what they do and would like to do in their day-to-day practice. A teaching perspective is an inter-related set of beliefs and intentions that justifies and directs teachers’ actions (Pratt, 1998). Teaching perspectives are more than teaching styles. They “determine our roles and idealized self-images as teachers as well as the basis for reflecting on practice.” (Pratt, 1998, p.35). Pratt, Collins and Selinger’s (2001) seminal work examining teachers’ actions, intentions and beliefs describes five perspectives on teaching: transmission, apprenticeship, developmental, nurturing and social reform.

Transmission teachers strive for effective delivery of content. They are masters of subject matter. They set high standards for achievement and direct students to useful resources. They provide reviews, summaries and objective methods of assessing learning. They clarify misunderstandings, answer questions and correct errors.

Apprenticeship teachers model ways of being. They “reveal the inner workings of skilled performance and must now translate it into accessible language and an ordered set of tasks” (Pratt & Collins, n.d. p.2). They guide students from simple to more complex activities and gradually withdraw as learners assume more responsibility for their learning.

Developmental teachers cultivate ways of thinking. They believe teaching is planned and focused from the learner’s point of view. They seek to understand how learners are thinking and reasoning and then try to support them toward more sophisticated ways of comprehending content. They provide meaningful examples and use questions to move learners from simple to more complex ways of thinking.

Nurturing teachers facilitate self-efficacy. They have confidence in their students. They believe their students succeed because of their own efforts and abilities, not the benevolence of a teacher. They teach “from the heart as well as the head” (Pratt & Collins, p.4).

Social Reform teachers seek a better society. They endeavour to make significant changes at the societal level. They are interested in the values and ideologies that are part of everyday practice.

Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI)

Another highly regarded inventory to help teachers articulate their own philosophy of teaching is the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI) developed by University of British Columbia professor Daniel Pratt and associates (Pratt, 1998; Pratt & Collins, n.d.). The TPI is available for free on the Teaching Perspectives Inventory website. Once you have submitted your responses, a profile of results will be emailed to you. This profile reflects your dominant, back-up and recessive perspectives. Further instructions for interpreting and understanding your profile are posted on the website.

Creative Strategies

Try the ‘Teaching Perspectives Inventory’

Visit and complete the Teaching Perspectives Inventory. Review your profile in relation to the instructions on the Reflecting on Results tab. Most teachers embrace aspects of all five perspectives. However, the TPI will identify dominant, back-up and recessive perspectives that are unique to you. Keep a record of your profile and complete the inventory again from time to time to observe any changes that may occur.

From the Field

What is My Philosophy of Teaching?

A teaching philosophy includes reflections on our beliefs about teaching and how we act on those beliefs in our everyday teaching practice. Although senior clinical instructors may have developed and established their personal philosophy, new teachers may not yet have had such opportunities.

During orientation, take some dedicated time to reflect on the question “What is my philosophy of teaching?” Begin your reflections by thinking about your hopes when you first applied for a teaching position. Write down your thoughts and be sure to revisit and revise your views at the beginning and end of each term you teach.

Beginning to put our beliefs into words is an important first step in the ongoing process of establishing a philosophy of teaching. Teaching is different from bedside nursing. Understanding our philosophy can help create balance during times when teaching tasks such as client assessment seem to override more complex teaching topics such as empathy. It can also help when new areas of expertise and responsibility seem overwhelming.

Kara Sealock RN BN MEd CNCC(C), Nursing Practice Instructor, University of Calgary Faculty of Nursing, Calgary, AB.

The Process of Articulating a Personal Teaching Philosophy Statement

What is a Teaching Philosophy Statement?

Articulating a personal philosophy of teaching is increasingly important among those who teach in health education (Ratnapradipa & Adams, 2012), pharmacy (Medina & Draugalis, 2013), physiology (Kearns & Sullivan, 2011), social work (Owens, Miller & Owens, 2014), recreational therapy (Stevens, Schneider & Johnson, 2012), nursing (Horsfall, Cleary & Hunt, 2012; Spurr, Bally & Ferguson, 2010) and other health disciplines. A teaching philosophy or teaching philosophy statement puts into words what we believe about the general purpose of teaching, how students learn, how instructors can best intervene throughout the process of learning, and how our beliefs will translate into action (Chism, 1998; Goodyear & Allchin, 1998; Grundman, 2006).

A seminal definition explains that a teaching philosophy statement is “a systematic and critical rationale that focuses on the important components defining effective teaching and learning in a particular discipline and/or institutional context” (Schönwetter, Sokal, Friesen & Taylor, 2002, p.84). Crafting a teaching philosophy statement is expected to be an ongoing reflective process that articulates where teachers are presently and their goals for the future (Beatty, Leigh & Dean, 2009). It should be revised and revisited frequently (Chism, 1998). Even when not formally articulated, teachers’ philosophies influence how they plan learning activities, interact with students, and even how they react to student misconduct (Coughlin, 2014).

The content of a teaching philosophy statement will be very different for each individual. According to Chism (1998), it should be written in the first person, not exceed two pages in length, avoid technical terms, incorporate metaphors, and “be reflective and personal” (p.1). Mentioning the names of educational scholars may be valuable, but a substantive literature review is not usually included (University of Toronto, n.d.). Teaching statements are meant to be viewed by others, so starting one with a brief self-introduction may be useful.

Some teachers may choose to start their reflections by reminiscing about their own experiences as a learner. Thinking about teachers who had positive or negative influences can provide valuable insight. Similarly, beginning the reflective process by musing on an inspirational quote or visual image may provide insight. Remembering back to why you first went into teaching may also be valuable. The decision to include these reflections is optional. A Google search using terms such as ‘writing a teaching philosophy statement’ or ‘examples of teaching philosophy statement’ will yield a plethora of examples of how other educators have crafted their statements. Similarly, asking colleagues about their teaching philosophy can provide inspiration.

Generally, four common areas of focus are addressed in today’s teaching philosophy statements (Owens, Miller & Owens, 2014). These areas are

  1. conceptualization of how learning occurs
  2. conceptualization of an effective teaching and learning environment
  3. expectations of the teacher–student relationship
  4. student assessment and assessment of learning goals.

O’Neal, Meizlish & Kaplan (2007) propose a concrete and manageable way to approach these ‘big picture’ areas of focus. They suggest answering the following questions and then assembling the answers into a holistic and personalized essay.

Table 2. Getting Started on a Teaching Philosophy Statement

Adapted from O’Neal O’Neal, Meizlish & Kaplan (2007)

Why do you teach?
What do you believe or value about teaching and student learning?
If you had to choose a metaphor for teaching and learning, what would it be?
How do your research and disciplinary context influence your teaching?
How do your identity or background and your students’ identities or backgrounds affect teaching and learning in your classes?
How do you take into account differences in learning styles in your teaching?
What is your approach to evaluating and assessing students?


Creative Strategies

Getting Started on a Teaching Philosophy Statement

Jot down your answers to the questions posed in Table 2. Although you will likely re-write and polish your comments when assembling your responses into a document to be shared with others, your first responses may be the heart of your beliefs about teaching.

Finally, include a section on goals and how you are implementing and evaluating these goals. Comment on the kind of educator you hope to be in five or ten years. What specific actions are you taking to achieve your goals? Some teachers may include brief mention of teaching materials they have created or revised. However, a teaching philosophy statement is not a curriculum vitae, it is a developing illustration of your reflections and aspirations at a particular time.

The Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation at the University of Toronto (n.d.) identifies the following pitfalls to avoid when writing a teaching philosophy statement:

  • Too general – limited personal expressions of beliefs, experiences and circumstances of the author.
  • Not reflective – lists techniques and approaches rather than describing how these have contributed to the author’s beliefs.
  • Dwelling on negatives.
  • Too clichéd – expressing a belief in a popular or contemporary approach to teaching without noting how that approach is integrated into your teaching.
  • Too few examples – lacking examples of what you are doing and how you know whether it’s effective or not.

Once you have started a working teaching philosophy statement, plan to continue adding to it regularly and systematically. If you are applying for teaching positions at universities, a teaching philosophy statement is often a required part of job and promotion applications. Lang (2010) encourages teachers to write a statement “that doesn’t sound like everybody else” (p.2). He invites teachers to picture a student walking into their class and then imagine in what way the student will be different at the end of the course. Lang (2010) suggests “as soon as you describe your teaching objectives, tell a story about how your objectives played out … an enlightening moment … or even a moment of failure” (p.15). No two teaching philosophy statements will be or should be alike. While they are expected to be readable and well organized, there are no right or wrong processes for creating these living working documents.

Creative Strategies

Share Your Teaching Philosophy Statement

Develop a two-page document from the notes and ideas you have gathered in reading about established philosophies of adult education and the process of articulating a teaching philosophy statement. Organize your points and be sure to balance your narrative with personal experience or anecdotes. Ask a respected colleague or mentor to look at your statement and offer feedback. Think about sharing your statement with students. If you have a professional website, consider posting your teaching philosophy statement on it.


In this chapter we presented a primer on liberal, progressive, behaviourist, humanist and radical philosophical perspectives from the field of adult education. These well-known and enduring philosophical perspectives offer useful foundational knowledge to teachers as they reflect on their own beliefs about human nature, the purpose of education, the role of the educator, and the role of the learner. Each of these perspectives paints a different picture of teachers. A liberal perspective views teachers as experts; a behaviourist perspectives views teachers as managers; a progressive perspective views teachers as partners; a humanistic perspective views teachers as supporters; and a radical perspective views teachers as coordinators. The Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory (PAEI) is a free questionnaire that teachers can complete for help understanding which philosophical perspectives they are most drawn to. The PAEI is available at .

We discussed five perspectives specific to teaching in higher education: transmission, apprenticeship, developmental, nurturing and social reform perspectives. Each of these casts a spotlight on specific aspects of teachers’ roles in different ways. Transmission teachers are masters of subject matter; apprenticeship teachers model ways of being; developmental teachers cultivate ways of thinking; nurturing teachers facilitate self-efficacy; social reform teachers change society. The Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI) is another free questionnaire that teachers can complete to gain a deeper understanding of which perspectives resonate with them. The TPI is available at .

The process of articulating a personal statement of teaching philosophy is seldom straightforward. We have provided guidance with suggestions such as writing in the first person, including metaphors, and reflecting on personally meaningful stories. Most teaching philosophy statements include your beliefs about how learning occurs, what an effective teaching and learning environment looks like, what you expect within your teacher–student relationships, and your views on assessment. Teaching philosophy statements are living working documents that should be revised frequently and shared with others. They can be required for job and promotion applications at universities.

In sum, understanding why teachers do what they do begins with reviewing established educational philosophies. This understanding provides a foundation for the ongoing process of creating a reflective and personal philosophy, one that is unique to you.


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