Functionalism and Education

"First Corinthians chapter thirteen, verse eleven states “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”. As with everything: time, knowledge and understanding tends to alter the perception one initially had in their mind. For instance, the purpose of education to a primary school child in Trinidad and Tobago is to: [a] attend school daily [b] complete homework [c] study for test [d] get commendable grades [e] complete Secondary Entrance Assessment (S.E.A.) Examination [f] with the ultimate purpose to pass for his or her “first choice” school. The same can be said for secondary school children, with their main purpose of education is to complete Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate® (C.S.E.C.®) whilst scoring high in the examination resulting in the passing of all the subjects testing. This cycle continues to the undergraduate and postgraduate university level students whose purpose of education is to submit a dissertation and to be rewarded with a high class honour degree. As a young adult, the purpose of education is to earn a degree along with its benefits of new knowledge and applied skills. This introduce the notion that he or she will be legible for a well-paying job at this stage of life. It is clear, that at each stage of life, the purpose of education changes based on one’s perception of life and his or her social norms.

Theoretical perspectives on education

Philosophy means “the love of wisdom”. It is a dedicated pursuit of wisdom through a systematic inquiry into the nature and meaning of the universe and of human life. Philosophy of education is the study of key philosophical ideas that have influenced educational thought and developments in the world. Philosophy means “the love of wisdom”. It is a dedicated pursuit of wisdom through a systematic inquiry into the nature and meaning of the universe and of human life. Philosophy of education is the study of key philosophical ideas that have influenced educational thought and developments in the world. Philosophy of education is the analysis of significant philosophical concepts that influenced educational thought and developments in society which apprise the verdicts and behaviours of persons involved in the establishment of education including curriculum decision-making. Throughout this paper three named Philosophers of Education will be discussed along with his or her main theory. To begin;

John Dewey and the Progressivism

Dewey (1859-1952), an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer, was an advocate of Educational Progressivism. Dewey proposed that education is a “participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race”. He further stated that is divided into two parts; [a] the psychological, which shapes the foundation of the child’s aptitude, and [b] the sociological, on which the instinct will be used to develop the evidence around him or her. He hypothesized that one is unable to learn without active motivation.

John Locke and the Tabula Rasa

Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher and physician, suggests that the mind is a blank slate or tabula rasa. This implies that men are born without inherent notions, and that knowledge is derived from prior occurrence and beliefs, rather than predetermined good and evil nature, as believed by other philosophers. In his treatise “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”, he accentuated that the information imparted during childhood are more prominent than those during maturity because it will be the infrastructure of the human mind. Due to this method of connotations of ideas, he strongly implied that punishments are unhealthy and educators should teach by examples rather than rules. Locke believed that education ought to be holistic—producing a “virtuous man” rather than a scholar.

Immanuel Kant and Idealism

A renowned German philosopher, Kant (1724–1804) was an activist of public education and of learning by action, the process of training, as he clearly stated of both vast differences. He claimed “Above all things, obedience is an essential feature in the character of a child…”. As opposed to John Locke, Kant surmises that children must, at all times, obey and learn the virtue of responsibility, because children’s proclivity to earn or do something is undependable. And disobediences should be dealt with punishment, thus enforcing obedience. Also, he theorized that man, by birth, has a deep-seated evil in their nature. However, learning and obligation can expunge this.

Educational psychology is the theoretical and examination division of modern psychology concerned with the learning processes and psychological difficulties related to the teaching and training of students. Educational psychologist studies the cognitive growth of students and the numerous influences involved in learning, including aptitude and learning measurement, the creative process, and the motivational efforts that impact dynamic between students and teachers. In addition, this paper will discuss three named Educational Psychologists along with his or her main theory. To begin;

Edward Thorndike

Edward Thorndike was a dominant psychologist who is discussed as the founder of modern educational psychology. He was best-known for his well-known puzzle box studies with cats which led to the development of his law of effect. The law of effect suggests that behaviours followed by dissatisfaction or discomfort will become less probable to transpire. Thorndike's principle also played an imperative role in the growth of behaviorism and B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning.

Educational sociology is the analysis of the social aspects that influence and are influenced by all educational arrangements and processes, both within and between societies. As a separate area within the two disciplines of sociology and education, educational sociology is also known as the sociology of education. After identifying the distinct characteristics of a sociological perspective in the study of education, this article briefly discusses its historical background, some important theoretical perspectives, and its recent development in some countries. The article then reviews some major themes in current educational sociology, namely micro/macro perspectives, critical theory, critical pedagogy and postmodernism, equality and excellence, gender and education, cultural diversity and multicultural education, and alienation in schools. The article concludes with a discussion of the relevance of educational sociology for the formation of educational policy and planning.

Functionalism Theory in Education

In the sociologist’s perspective, the functionalist theory emphases the ways that general education aids the requirements of society. Functionalists initially see education in its apparent role: communicating fundamental knowledge and skills to the succeeding era. French sociologist Emile Durkheim (the founder of functionalist theory) acknowledged the latent role of education as one of socializing people into society's mainstream. This “moral education,” as he called it, assisted in forming a close-knit social structure by integrating persons from varied backgrounds, which echoes the historical apprehension of “Americanizing” refugees.

Functionalists point to further latent roles of education such as transmission of core values and social control. The essential ideals in American education mirror those characteristics that support the political and economic systems that formerly powered education. Therefore, children in America obtain rewards for following schedules, directions, meeting targets, and obeying authority. Another advantage that functionalists have in education is sorting—grouping students on the basis of excellence. Society's needs mandate that the most proficient people get guided into the “significant” professions. Schools distinguish the most skilled students early. Sociologists Talcott Parsons, Kingsley Davis, and Wilbert Moore referred to this as social placement. They saw this technique as a useful purpose in society. However, John Dewey, philosopher, deemed their approach faulty because it overlooked both the continuity of human behaviour and its connotation in terms of adaption. In contrast, functionalism required to ponder the total as it functioned in the environment—an active perceiver rather than a passive receiver of stimuli. After sorting occurs, the next function of education is networking (making interpersonal acquaintances), is expected. This function of education is considered important to most. For example, parents inhibit their children's possibilities for college to safeguard that they attend schools where they can potentially find “Mister or Miss right” to marry.

A concluding and debatable function assumed by education in the latter half of the twentieth century is replacement of the family. Matters of career development, discipline, and human sexuality—once the domain of the family—now play a routine part in school curriculum.

Psychologist Social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development. In contrast to Jean Piaget’s understanding of child development (in which development necessarily precedes learning), Vygotsky felt social learning precedes development. He states: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological).” (Vygotsky, 1978).

Critical Theory on Education

Sociologist Conflict theory sees the purpose of education as maintaining social inequality and preserving the power of those who dominate society. Conflict theorists examine the same functions of education as functionalists. Functionalists see education as a beneficial contribution to an ordered society; however, conflict theorists see the educational system as perpetuating the status quo by dulling the lower classes into being obedient workers.

Both functionalists and conflict theorists agree that the educational system practices sorting, but they disagree about how it enacts that sorting. Functionalists claim that schools sort based upon merit; conflict theorists argue that schools sort along distinct class and ethnic lines. According to conflict theorists, schools train those in the working classes to accept their position as a lower?class member of society. Conflict theorists call this role of education the “hidden curriculum.”

Conflict theorists see education not as a social benefit or opportunity, but as a powerful means of maintaining power structures and creating a docile work force for capitalism.

In the application of Critical Theory proper, offshoots have been born that seek to shed light on how various aspects of culture function. In that regard, there are various “cross-pollinations” between critical theory and other theoretical arenas. These include education and pedagogy, contemporary feminism, and critical race theory, among others. In this section, we will offer an explanation of some of these areas and how they fit into the larger tradition of Critical Theory more generally. Each of these theories is legitimately linked to Marx’s original conception of Critical Theory as they each seek to analyze and create change within various aspects of culture where oppression exists. In terms of Critical Theory in Education, Marx would evaluate the ways in which education, curriculum, and classroom interactions are socially constructed and to what degree these interactions are based on what the participants truly believe is right.

Critical theories of education recognize that (a) educational systems are at least complicit in oppression (though many would go farther and state that these systems are the most powerful mechanism for the reproduction of social inequality), and (b) there must be a corresponding plan for emancipatory action through education. Further, if Marx’s notion of consciousness is correct, then what are the implications for teachers who are critically reflective? This perspective might suggest that teachers engaged in critical reflection and dialogue will understand that they can change their reality, and create mechanisms for doing so.

Philosophical Critical theory is rooted in Existentialism and Postmodernism, with influences also from Marxism. Leading critical theorists include Henry A. Giroux, Peter L. McLaren, Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. Critical theory is “critical” in the sense that it aims to analyse social and educational conditions in schools and society in order to surface exploitative power relationships, and introduce reforms that will produce equality, fairness and justice (Gutek, 2004). Critical theory is predicated on the Marxist premise that human history was a struggle for economic and social control, and that educational institutions are used by powerful groups to control those who lack power (Ornstein & Levine, 2003). This conflict over control of curriculum and teaching, and the need to elevate the status of marginalised groups, echo the concerns of Postmodernism. Critical theorists share the same belief as the reconstructionists in arguing that schools should be centres of social change. Its Existentialist influence is evident in its emphasis on the students’ own experiences, history, identities and struggles. Drawing from Existentialism and Postmodernism, critical theorists oppose the Philosophical Perspectives on Education 37 transmission of a fixed body of traditional knowledge, ideas and values, believing them to be the views of those in power. They are also skeptical of the hidden curriculum which refers to the values, behaviour and attitudes conveyed to and imposed on students through the milieu and practices of the school in a capitalist consumer-oriented society. Instead, they advocate a flexible and multidisciplinary curriculum which is based on the students’ own experiences. Such a curriculum includes the viewpoints of all groups, especially neglected groups such as the oppressed poor, women, Africans, Asians, gays and lesbians.

The symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interaction perception, or symbolic interactionism, is one of the most important perspectives in the field of sociology, providing a key theoretical foundation for much of the research conducted by sociologists. The central principle of the interactionist perspective is that the meaning we derive from and attribute to the world around us is a social construction produced by everyday social interaction. This perspective is focused on how we use and interpret things as symbols to communicate with each other, how we create and maintain a self that we present to the world and a sense of self within us, and how we create and maintain the reality that we believe to be true.

Sociologists trace the theoretical roots of the interactionist perspective to Karl Emil Maximilian ""Max"" Weber, one of the founders of the field. A core tenet of Weber's approach to theorizing the social world was that we act based on our interpretation of the world around us, or in other words, action follows meaning.

Critics of this theory claim that symbolic interactionism neglects the macro level of social interpretation. In other words, symbolic interactionists may miss the more significant issues of society. The perspective also receives criticism for slighting the influence of social forces and institutions on individual interactions.

The social history of education in Trinidad and Tobago.

Education during 1830 to 1960

John Campbell notes that “the establishment of schools for the masses, however inadequately, brought into the existence a new mechanism of upward social mobility, mostly within existing class lines, but potentially across class lines as well” (Campbell, 1996).

Education during 1961 to 2016

Research by Carew (2010) explains the history of the Common Entrance exam, as well as its successor, the Secondary Entrance Assessment exam. The Common Entrance Exam (CEE) was adapted from the British and was implemented in the country in 1961 (64). The exam was meant to be a “democratizing tool”, allowing more open access to secondary school for the citizenry. Class and social status were seen as intrinsic, “god-given” and one’s “station in life”, and thus, the ambition to be upwardly social mobile was framed as “unchristian” (69). It is also noteworthy that the upper middle class and upper-class schools such as Queen’s Royal College (QRC) offered far superior educational prospects to the Model schools that served the middle and lower class—and specifically, these schools were often for boys, rather than girls (69). Generally, these spots go to those who can achieve 90% and above in the Secondary Entrance Assessment exam, with “family ties and the socio-economic and professional background of parents [providing] self-serving leverage”, and thus, “secondary school placement and academic output largely become shaped into ethnic and social class bias (xxix). The entrance to the “prestige schools” is also predicated by paid, private lessons that create a further disadvantage for the children of working-class families. Similarly, privately owned, expensive primary schools are available for well-off parents; these schools often yield high pass rates, and thus, reproduce social stratification (Deosaran 2016, xxx). While education appears “free” on the surface, there are underlying forces that dictates one’s chances of success.


This chapter introduced five major educational thoughts or philosophies (Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, Existentialism, and Postmodernism) and five main educational theories (perennialism, essentialism, progressivism, reconstructionism, and critical theory) (see also Chapters 3 & 4). The salient points and practical implications of these philosophies and theories were also discussed. An inquiry into the philosophical foundations of education is essential for educators to be clear about their personal educational philosophy. For teachers, one’s views regarding the aim of education, the functions of school, the role of teachers, the role of students, the purpose of teaching and learning, and the nature of interaction between teachers and students are dependent on the teacher’s own educational philosophy and thought. For school principals and other school leaders, their vision and mission for the school or department, the type of curriculum, teaching materials, pedagogy, and the choice of enrichment activities for the staff and students are also linked to their educational philosophy and theory. An awareness of the philosophical perspectives on education will go a long way towards helping educators understand these issues and challenges, and respond to them reflectively and meaningfully.

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Functionalism and Education. (2020, Mar 31). Retrieved June 16, 2024 , from

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