Echoes of Aristotle in No Child Left Behind

Although some might argue that the ideas of philosophers such as Confucius, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are outdated or irrelevant in our modern society and global economy, there are remnants of each incorporated into everyday classroom environments. On a more general level, these influences reach into America’s overarching educational policies and effect contemporary education as a national system.

For example, the utopian ideal that was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), although failed in many aspects, recognized the necessity for all learners, as rational beings, to acquire a set base of knowledge. Successful completion of this aim would send students into society as well-rounded citizens ready to contribute to society and attain fulfilling lives. This echoed the ideals of Aristotle, who proposed that ‘education in schools could be planned deliberately as a process to guide students to the goal of human happiness’ (Gutek, 2011, pp. 62)

Despite the repeal of NCLB, legislation such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and school district mantras such as ‘Every Child, Every Day’ hold faithful to its tenets while setting more realistic and non-punitive expectations. As educators, we have an understanding that every child can learn, but often the knowledge is mastered at a different pace or through different methods of instruction. Through differentiation, we are adhering to a backwards-design philosophy that Aristotle would be likely to support (‘this is where the student needs to be’) while melding our instruction to benefit the individual (‘this is how I am going to take them there’). This individualized instruction also echoes the mantra of Confucius, who established goals for his students and devised an instructional plan catered to their individual strengths and weaknesses (Gutek, 2011, pp. 20).

Plato was an adherent to the equal educational opportunity that we see in today’s idea of compulsory education. There is legislation in place within our society to ensure that not only are all students given a public education, but also that they are not shortchanged based on their intellectual ability. Special Education Legislation ensures that students with learning disabilities are given equitable resources to those in a standard classroom. There are IEPs and 504s to ensure that classroom teachers implement supports to further the learning of all students. Despite this, we still see inequity within our system. Demographic variance causes many issues of inequality – urban schools and rural schools alike see a lack of funding based upon income-tax discrepancies and other resource disparities. The home life of a student greatly impacts their chance to succeed. On one hand, certain students have technology and other supports at home, while on the opposite side of the spectrum, other students are working full-time after class to care for their family and cannot even finish homework assignments because of the burden they carry. Perhaps this is why Plato called for children to live and study outside of their family unit (Gutek, 2011, pp. 37–41). Perhaps he understood the socioeconomic pressures that occur and the need to remove those obstacles from the equation in order to truly build an equitable society? And if so, how do we mimic that today?

Certainly one way that we can counter the different social contexts of our students it to build relevancy within our classroom discussions, and serve as a facilitator that helps our students question what they are learning and relate it to their particular situations. This idea of teacher as moderator, in contrast to a ‘sage on the stage’, is very similar to Plato’s ideas garnered from his mentor Socrates and his Dialogue. In addition to the more informal method of questioning and leading to problem-based discovery and peer group work in a classroom, formal systems that are similar to the Socratic Method are on the rise. In the English classroom, many educators are experimenting with the Harkness Method, which provides for a small group discussion of a particular work, with the larger group listening and critiquing. The chairs are then switched. This model allows students to both think and question, while also ensuring that all students are actively participating in the discussion. Socrates felt that the ‘teacher’s task is to draw ideas out of students’ minds by asking them probing and challenging questions that cause them to think critically, deeply, and reflectively about their beliefs’ (Gutek, 2011, p. 35). If educators are doing the majority of the ‘teaching’ with students only ‘absorbing’, then the student is a passive learner, and is not reaching the upper echelons of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which should be the end-goal of all learning.

Finally, all of these philosophers would likely support a cross-curricular approach within a liberal arts education in order to ensure students become well-rounded, ethical citizens. This cross-disciplinary approach is becoming more prevalent in today’s schools, for our global economy is requiring that learners be well-versed in multiple arenas to compete internationally. Social skills that come into play with business and marketing are just as important as reading and writing skills, mathematical skills, or technical knowledge. When teachers help to build connections for their students, and consider real-world application of concepts from Aristotle, Confucius and Plato together, these educators are creating stronger, more prepared students that will enter greater society.

Gutek, G. L., (2013) Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction(5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, NJ: Pearson Education.

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