Summer 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA3

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Putting Philosophy Into Practice


Developing a working philosophy.

Barbara A. White
Kellogg Doctoral Fellow
Adult and Higher Education
Montana State University-Bozeman

Ralph G. Brockett
Assistant Professor
Adult and Higher Education
Montana State University-Bozeman


As busy practitioners, it's not always easy for us to find time in our day-to-day responsibilities to reflect on what we do and, more importantly, why we do it. Yet, all of us are continually faced with the need to make choices and to find ways to improve. However, we tend to overlook one of the most practical tools available to us-philosophy!

A myth seems to exist among practitioners of many service-oriented fields that philosophy is the exclusive domain of a few select academicians. Given immediate concerns such as lack of time and the pragmatic nature of Extension work, it's likely that such a view is shared by a large percentage of Extension professionals. While the development of philosophical thought is certainly an appropriate academic activity, the application to "real-life" situations depends on how willing practitioners are to reflect on "why" they do what they do. As Elias and Merriam state:

    Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.

The purpose of this article, then, is to offer some practical suggestions for using philosophy as a tool to improve the effectiveness of practice within Extension.

Why Philosophize?

In developing educational programs, de Chambeau suggests that "the question of why must precede questions of what or how."2 This means, for example, that before deciding on the content or format of a workshop, we need to ask ourselves why we're planning the activity, whose needs will be met, and what the potential consequences are-both positive and negative-of doing the workshop. While Extension staff are expected, indeed required, to address these questions in their planning process, philosophy can make it possible to take a closer look.

Recently, Apps suggested that practitioners benefit from philosophical analysis in five major ways, as summarized in the following quote:

Analysis can assist continuing education practitioners in several ways. It can help us to become critically aware of what we do as practitioners; show us alternative approaches to program planning, teaching, budgeting, and so on; help us to become aware of how values, ethics, and esthetics can be applied to continuing education practice; illustrate to us the importance of our personal histories and how they influence what we do as educators; and free us from dependence on someone else's doctrine.3

Philosophy can be a tool for improving practice; however, the gap between philosophy and practice often seems impossible to close. Elias identified four ways in which this distance can be lessened: explanation, criticism, direction, and imagination.4 For instance, philosophy can be used to explain results and process, while the experience of practice gives new insights into theory.

Criticism refers to determining how well a given theory seems to fit reality. Through criticism, we can examine the mission of Extension and identify some basic assumptions about the clients we serve.

Third, just as philosophy can serve as a guide for practice, practice can give direction to philosophy and research. Experiences in climate setting, instructional planning, and evaluation of learning provide a basis for determining the effectiveness of a theory in a practical manner and can lead to the development of researchable questions.

Finally, imagination can help expand the limits of what's believed to be possible in a given situation and, as a result, make it possible to move in new directions. The growing emphasis on distance delivery approaches, such as satellite teleconferencing, is one example of imagination in Extension.

Developing a Working Philosophy

Apps has used the term "working philosophy" to refer to "an individual adult educator's system of beliefs."5 According to Apps, a working philosophy grows out of common sense. However, common sense isn't always sufficient to deal with the frequent need to make conflicting choices in our daily practice. Extension Service practitioners need to consider such questions as:

  • What is human nature?
  • What is the mission of Extension practice?
  • What value does Extension have in our society?
  • What is my role as an Extension professional?

Such analysis can enable us to make choices with an eye toward the "total picture" of the institution and society, rather than merely relying on tradition.

Everyone has a working philosophy. This philosophy is an outgrowth of the sum of our personal values, experiences, and lifestyles, and is clearly reflected in the way we function as professionals. A key, then, is to be able to articulate this viewpoint. By doing this, philosophy becomes a practical tool that can provide a rationale for certain decisions we make. In other words, a working philosophy can give us greater control over the decisions we make.

How do we develop the ability to state our personal working philosophy? For our purposes, we can focus on two broad questions:

  1. What basic beliefs do I hold about the nature of education?
  2. How strongly do I hold these beliefs?

With regard to the first question, we can look at the many schools of philosophical thought for insights into our own philosophy. Elias and Merriam have identified six major philosophies that have been important in adult education.6 Five of the viewpoints are of particular relevance to Extension program efforts and practice. Each of these philosophies is based on certain assumptions about human nature, the purpose of education, and the roles of the instructor and learner. These viewpoints, with examples of applications to the Extension Service, are summarized in Table 1.

Recently Zinn reported on the development of a scale designed to measure the extent to which an individual adheres to each of these models.? For practitioners wishing to gain a greater understanding of their own philosophical orientation, this scale could be a useful tool. Although few of us are likely to fall completely within any single model, each perspective offers a way of gaining new insights about how we practice as educators and Extension professionals. This instrument therefore may have potential as a tool for helping us gain a more objective understanding of our orientation.

The second key question in understanding one's personal philosophy of adult education is the strength to which we're committed to certain values. Raths, Harmin, and Simon suggest that it's possible to distinguish between three levels of a value.8 Acceptance of a value is a tentative belief in a given position, preference for a value means that we're willing to actively pursue and be identified with the position, and commitment is a strong belief in a position, often expressed as conviction, faith, or loyalty. The value of this distinction in practice is that it can help us know where to focus our energies and "choose our battles." A value to which we're committed would obviously be more worthwhile to defend than one that we merely accept.


Philosophy doesn't provide cookbook solutions to the many dilemmas we face in day-to-day practice. However, it can help us to understand ourselves and why we make certain decisions. The educational role of the Extension professional is much too important to leave to mere chance or tradition. Philosophy provides an informed alternative.

Table 1. Adult education philosophy applied to Extension practice.

Philosophy Description Application to Extension practice
Liberal Probably the most enduring of the major educational philosophies; stresses develop ment of intellectual power of the mind. Emphasizes content mastery with the educator viewed as expert/authority. Educational effort in pesticide education with agriculture specialist providing instruction via lecture with a test following presentation of material; content mastery is essential due to mandatory testing for licensing of pesticide applicators.
Progressive Developed out of the ideas of John Dewey; stresses an experiential, problem-solving approach to learning. Emphasizes experience of learner in determining problem areas and solutions to be considered. Human resource specialist in interior design and household equipment designs an instructional approach directed toward household maintenance via a problemsolving process; participants identify, by experience, problems in home care and then determine appropriate procedure based on alternatives suggested by the specialists.
Behaviorist Emphasizes importance of the environment in shaping desired behavior. Behaviorism has contributed to the development of systematic instructional design models and emphasizes accountability. Family economics specialist provides home study course in estate planning involving a systematic (step-by-step) approach to determining accountable end results; specialist serves as facilitator while participants take initiative to complete process and evaluate each step before proceeding to the next step.
Humanist Based on the assumption that human nature is essentially positive and that each person possesses virtually unlimited potential; places emphasis on personal growth and selfdirection in the learning process. Family development specialist designs instruction relevant to economic stress with emphasis on self-concept and self-esteem (the worth of the individual). Small group workshops, seminars, and forums used to enhance "participatory" approach resulting in a positive feeling by individuals. Specialist serves as facilitator of the learning process.
Radical Stresses the role of education as a means of bringing about major social change; education is used to combat social, political, and economic oppression within society. Public affairs specialist designs instruction relevant to public issues such as water policy. Forums, selfinstructional packages, and other techniques are used to increase awareness of specific issues and, in turn, provide opportunity for possible community change.


1. J. L. Elias and S. Merriam, Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education (Huntington, New York: Krieger, 1980), p. 4.

2. F. A. de Chambeau, "How? What? or Why? Philosophy as a Priority for Educators of Adults," Adult Leadership, XXV (June 1977), 308.

3. Jerold W. Apps, Improving Practice in Continuing Education (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 1985), p. 16.

4. J. L. Elias, "The Theory-Practice Split," in Linking Philosophy and Practice, New Directions for Continuing Education, S. Merriam, ed. (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 1975).

5. Jerold W. Apps, Toward a Working Philosophy of Adult Education, (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Publications in Continuing Education, 1975), p. 7.

6. Elias and Merriam, Philosophical Foundation.

7. L. Zinn. Development of a Valid and Reliable Instrument To Identify a Personal Philosophy of Adult Education (Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, Gainesville, 1983).

8. L. E. Raths, M. Harmin, and S. B. Simon, "Values and Knowing," in Humanistic Education Sourcebook, D. A. Read and S. B. Simon, eds. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1975).