[See the Ethics page for references to other web sites with information on thinking about philosophy statements.]

Translating Personal Values and Philosophy into Practical Action

[Adapted and updated from Hiemstra, R. (1988). Translating personal values and philosophy into practical action. In R. G. Brockett (Ed.), Ethical issues in adult education. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University. Included here by permission.]


The appearance now of this book in adult education's literature base is probably more a reflection of the field's maturity than any other factor. In fact, as is pointed out in previous chapters, a variety of ethical issues are currently under discussion. Standards of practice, certification issues, ethical dilemmas faced daily by many adult educators, and even discussion about the need for professional code of ethics are all indicators of a field's natural evolution, maturity, and growth in professionalization.

Whether or not a reader agrees with some of the dilemmas presented in other chapters, I believe it is very healthy to think about such issues and to reflect critically on our personal actions as adult education professionals. Reflection and questioning as precursors to thinking about and assuming responsibility for one's action should be superior to the "seat-of-your-pants" management of daily chores that can become a way of life for the very busy professional.

This chapter's purpose is to engage readers in an analysis of personal values and philosophy in terms of their professional action as adult educators. As Brockett points out in his Chapter 1 model, a personal value system serves as a basic stepping stone to ethical practice and behavior. Kasworm, in Chapter 2, also addresses the process of developing personal values in terms of adult development theory. This recognition of personal values, beliefs, and the various changes a person undergoes throughout life, if combined with a personal philosophy statement, can result in foundational tools useful as guides or mirrors for subsequent professional actions and ethical decision making.

This chapter will discuss why a professional should have a philosophy, summarize various philosophical frameworks, and talk about the potential of such frameworks for understanding adult education practice and for use as guides for personal decisions. In addition, my statement of philosophy as a teacher and how I translate this into professional action will be discussed as an example of the way one person has wrestled with applying personal philosophy to practice. Readers will be shown how and encouraged to construct a personal philosophy statement. Finally, some discussion of philosophy in relation to the preparation of adult educators in a graduate program setting will be included.

Why Have a Philosophy?

Why should an adult education professional even worry about philosophy or having a personal statement of philosophy? Elias (1982) perhaps best states an answer to this question when he notes that "philosophers of every age have offered explanation of freedom and determinism, individual and societal rights, good and evil, and truth and falsehood" (p. 3). I write this chapter based on the premise that most professionals are desirous of at least working toward a personal understanding of such explanations.

From my experience I believe that there are at least four reasons for an adult education professional to be able to explicate a personal philosophy:

1. A philosophy promotes an understanding of human relationships

2. A philosophy sensitizes you to the various needs associated with positive human interactions

3. A philosophy provides a framework for distinguishing, separating, and understanding personal values

4. A philosophy promotes flexibility and consistency in working with adult learners

Merriam (1982) also notes that philosophy can inform practice, provide guidelines for policy decisions, and guide administrators, teachers, and counselors in their everyday practice: "Philosophy contributes to professionalism. Having a philosophic orientation separates the professional continuing educator from the paraprofessional in that professionals are aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. A philosophy offers goals, values, and attitudes to strive for. It thus can be motivating, inspiring energizing to the practitioner" (pp. 90-91).

Boggs (1981) suggests that philosophy provides "the means whereby adults ... not only get information but also interpret it, organize it, and use it making decisions and in taking action" (p. 4).

But being able to state a personal philosophy and use it making decisions or taking action is not necessarily easy. For example, Cunningham (1982) describes the potential for contradictory and inconsistent views that may be held by a continuing educator: "It is not problematic that inconsistencies occur when a thoughtfully conceived system of values is put into practice. What is worrisome is that continuing educators develop and operate programs without a clearly visualized set of values in which the adult learner and societal well-being are central concerns" (p. 85}. It is this need for a clearly identified set of values that may be most important for the busy professional. Darkenwald and Merriam (1982) describe this need as follows:

Many adult education practitioners engaged in the daily tasks of program planning, administration, or teaching have little time to reflect upon the meaning and direction of their activity. The educator is generally more concerned with skills than with principles, with means than with ends, with details than with the whole picture. Yet all practitioners make decisions and act in ways that presuppose certain values and beliefs. Whether or not it is articulated, a philosophical orientation underlies most individual and institutional practices in adult education. (p. 37)

Thus the main power of philosophy is its ability to help people better understand and appreciate what they do.

Philosophical Systems for Educators

Many efforts have been made to derive some philosophical guidance for educators. There are a number of scholars who have developed and advocated a single philosophical model. Others have attempted to systematize or separate these models into an array or system for comparison on various factors. Brubacher (1969) perhaps provides the most comprehensive system, or what he refers to as schools of educational philosophy. He identifies no less than a dozen distinct schools of thought, ranging from "pragmatic naturalism" to "democracy."

A useful document presenting a rationale for philosophy's use to adult educators is Apps' (1973) monograph. He describes five categories (essentialism, perennialism, progressivism, reconstructionism, and existentialism) as bases for viewing and understanding the purposes of adult education. The most comprehensive effort to date of examining various models for application to adult education has been carried out by Elias and Merriam (1980). They discuss the difficulties in attempting to understand the various schools of thought and make some sense out of them for adult education: "The problems of classifying different philosophers into schools have long been recognized. Nevertheless, the systematization of the discipline continues and schools of thought develop because similarities and affinities do exist among theorists" (p. 1). They then describe six distinct systems they believe have relevance for study and understanding by adult educators.

Their organizational scheme has received considerable attention among adult education scholars. For example, Podeschi (1986) delineates a number of values prevalent in the United States that appear to cluster around some beliefs central to four of the six systems. Zinn (1983, 1990) developed a self-administered, self-scoring, and self-interpreted instrument for measuring the extent to which a person values five of the six systems. Based on a seven-point Likert Scale, 75 items related to such topics as program planning, adult learning, the purpose of adult education, and teaching adults are presented. McKenzie (1985) carried out a study using the instrument and suggests that his findings "could be the basis for the conclusion that many adult educators merely accept patterns of practice (and corresponding theoretical assumptions) to which they have been exposed without testing these patterns critically" (p. 20). He suggests further that adult education practice should include some theoretical reflection and a critical examination of some philosophical grounds for that practice.

Constructing a Personal Philosophy

Learning to reflect critically on practice is something that takes effort. In the graduate program of adult education at Syracuse University, we believed such effort was crucial in the development of highly skilled professionals. We encouraged each student to develop a personal statement of philosophy, typically in their first graduate course. Such a statement then, could be examined and updated periodically as the person progressed through courses and achieved a heightened understanding of the field and of individual strengths. It was not unusual for a student to be asked one or more questions on a qualifying examination that in some way related to a personal philosophy of education. We stressed to students the need for a framework of values and beliefs as a foundation for ethical practice as professionals (that same approach currently is being implemented in the Elmira College graduate program of Adult Education).

When I am helping others develop their personal statements of philosophy I present a set of systems that overlaps five of the frameworks presented by Elias and Merriam (1980) but that also details two additional systems, idealism and realism, as a foundation-building mechanism. During the presentation we talk about how different philosophies or views of human nature affect the professional and ethical decisions a person makes. This typically leads to further discussion about the need for each adult educator to be able to articulate a personal philosophy. Figure 12.1 (at the conclusion of this chapter) summarizes the information I present.

Plato's idealism model is based on the notion that life is made up of ideas or truths that should be used for remolding a less than perfect world. Realism, on the other hand, is predicated on the belief that ideals can come only through proven facts and that rationality, observation, and analysis are the keys to improving life. Some adult educators will be able to extract some meaning from either of these models. For example, a person who has considerable affinity for an idealistic view might make an ethical decision that a well-paid expert lecturing to a group of adults would want there to be no questions from the audience and would therefore structure a highly formal setting. A realist who designed an adult course, on the other hand, might require that the teacher or expert back up all assertions with various forms of proof or bibliographic support.

Dewey's pragmatic model suggests that research and scientific problem solving lead to logical interpretations of what is successful living. With this model, the adult education teacher would serve as a democratic guide for any necessary learning and ethically might feel that the student's role in any learning needs to be enhanced. On the opposite side of the coin is the liberalism model that had its beginning centuries ago with the thinking of such philosophers as Socrates and Aristotle. They believed that because humans have a special gift for reasoning, an improvement of intellect through constant exposure to classical works is the path to an improved world. The arguments of liberal versus vocational emphases have been around for some time in the U.S. literature on adult education.

More a way of doing than of thinking, Skinner's behaviorist model is predicated on the notion that stimulus and response are natural forces for humans as well as animals. Programmed instruction, computer-assisted instruction, and various teaching machines were developed with this model as a basis. For example, as a teacher I incorporate some behaviorist thinking in my use of learning contracts.

Evolution of the humanism model from the thinking of people like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow has had a tremendous impact on North American adult education thinking in the past 20 to 30 years. Indeed, much of the current scholarly thinking and resultant programs related to self-direction in learning can be traced to the humanism model (Hiemstra & Brockett, 1994). Related ethical decisions adult educators will make center around beliefs that learners must have considerable freedom and autonomy in educational experiences.

A more recent North American interest in terms of program development has been stimulated by the radicalism model. Programs like the Highlander Folk School and community-based literacy efforts are examples of such interest. Educators in such programs are likely to support or even encourage learners to confront aspects of the environment that are serving to block their development in some way. Whereas someone with the radical framework in mind often will promote confrontations, such behaviors would likely present ethical dilemmas for humanists or progressivists because the latter groups would be in favor of protecting the personal rights of all people.

I present the information described above to students and lead some discussion pertaining to how adult educators have wrestled with issues of philosophy for some time. For example, Bergevin (1967) believes it is important to consider several basic philosophical concepts in building a personal statement, such as issues about differences between children and adults, abilities for lifelong learning, the importance of learner needs or problems, and how learning resources are utilized. Cunningham (1982) talks about contradictions that can occur: "Clearly, human potential programs based on a philosophy emphasizing the autonomy of the learner [such as with the humanism model] are in conflict with empowerment programs [derived from the radicalism model] whose goals are based on altering social arrangements, even though the anti-institutional analyses on which both these practices are based appear similar" (p. 84). Apps (1985) also describes a major problem with examining a list of philosophical frameworks: "They can prevent analysis and original thought. Once one reads through a description of these various philosophers, the tendency is to try to fit one's own philosophy into one of these established philosophy fields. Once one has done so the inclination is to become comfortable with the new-found intellectual home and stop questioning and challenging and constantly searching for new positions" (pp. 72-73).

We discuss a variety of related concepts and potential problems, and then I suggest how students might use such information in constructing their own personal philosophy. I point out that, in another source, Apps (1982a) suggests there are at least four phases in a process of analyzing personal beliefs: (a) the identification of beliefs held about adult education or adults as learners, (b) searching for contradictions among the beliefs held, (c) discovering personal, institutional, or social/cultural bases for at least the most important beliefs, and (c) making judgments about any bases for the particular beliefs held. Such a filtering or screening technique usually results in a much clearer understanding of what are a person's most important beliefs.

Then I introduce students to a worksheet (Figure 12.2) that provides headers similar to those used in my presentation on various models. I provide my own statement of philosophy (see Figure 12.3) to demonstrate how I used the headers to guide my thinking. Most students will have read the Elias and Merriam (1980) book, and I point out what they offer as possible options in deciding on a philosophy statement: (a) choose a particular model or philosophic framework that best fits with personal values and beliefs, (b) opt for an eclectic approach and choose certain elements to integrate into a personal model, or (c) choose a particular framework upon which a personal statement of philosophy is built (p. 206). The many sources related to philosophy cited by Apps (1982b) are noted for the students further reading. Finally, I offer to provide feedback and reflection as students create their personal statements. My feedback typically centers around how they think through ways of translating their system of beliefs into practice as professionals and how such beliefs will impact on ethical decision making. Some students also will opt to work together in the development process for the synergistic value of networking.

A Personal Philosophy of Education

The purpose of this section is to describe my philosophy and how I translate such philosophy into a teaching and learning process. The process and my educational philosophy are based on the premise that adult education students are mature learners who flourish in settings where considerable independence is expected or permissible. Thus the process I use is a dynamic one that actively involves the learner in determining personal learning needs, potential, and capabilities.

Beliefs Associated with Adult Teaching and Learning

I suspect most current day educators carry a certain portion of John Dewey's heritage around in their value system. I certainly have been influenced somewhat by his thinking. His beliefs that education is a continuous process of reconstructing experiences, that students are capable of a greater and more active role in the learning process, that the teacher's role is to guide the process of learning, and that the school is a social institution that should reflect and alter the culture (Archambault, 1964; Dewey, 1916, 1922, 1938) certainly have influenced me.

Behaviorist beliefs also have had some impact on me. The role of the teacher in designing an environment that elicits desired human behaviors is clearly one that I can subscribe to in terms of paying attention to environmental needs, making the best use of media and other learning devices, and providing some type of feedback to learners regarding their personal progress (Skinner, 1971). My use of learning contracts is also based on some behavioral expectations (Knowles, 1975, 1986).

The lifelong learning movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the concurrent beliefs of many educators that learning must be lifetime in nature have had a tremendous impact on me (Cassara, 1979; Cropley, 1980; Dave, 1976; Gelpi, 1979; Gross, 1977, 1982; Hesburgh, Miller, & Wharton, 1973; Hiemstra, 1976a; Himmelstrup, 1980). My research on and work with older learners has convinced me, too, that the potential for learning can increase throughout life if we know how to stimulate that potential (Hiemstra, 1975, 1976b, 1980a, 1985a). Finally, considerable personal scholarship related to self-direction in learning has substantiated beliefs about the desire of learners to assume considerable responsibility for their own learning (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1985; Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991; Brockett, Hiemstra, & Penland, 1982; Hiemstra, 1980b, 1982, 1985b; Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990).

Perhaps the biggest impact on my philosophy and ethical beliefs has been the humanist movement of the past 30 years. I share with most humanists beliefs in the natural goodness of humankind, in freedom of choice, in the dignity and worth of all people, and in the value of establishing an environment in which the potential inherent in every person can be developed (Rogers, 1969). Thus a person wishing to understand my teaching philosophy must realize that I view the act of learning as a highly personal endeavor in which the teacher serves as a facilitator, helper, and partner in the learning process.

Therefore, I think one must call me somewhat eclectic in terms of my beliefs regarding teaching and learning. As Elias and Merriam (1980) note, "In this approach one chooses certain elements from different theories and operates according to those principles" (p. 206). Centered within my eclectic choosing is a heavy reliance on humanistic belief in the power of each individual learner to discover personal learning needs. My role then becomes that of helping to facilitate both such a discovery and the subsequent learning related to the identified needs.

Statement of Philosophy

Given the set of beliefs described above, I offer to learners in my course my professional statement of philosophy (see Figure 12.3). This statement also serves as a framework for my own decision-making process, and periodically I do look at again as a reference point when I am faced with some sticky issue. I actually up-date it every few years. I include my most recent version in this chapter and hope that it can serve as a model for others wishing to develop a personal statement.

My Teaching and Learning Process

The translation of such a philosophical statement into a consistent teaching and learning process was not something I did overnight. What I have attempted to do over the past several years is to become as knowledgeable as I could about the likes and dislikes of the mature adult in a learning setting. I bring to this knowledge the kind of beliefs described above.

Following are some of the specific duties I undertake, therefore, in translating such beliefs and philosophy into a facilitator role with learners:

Thus the teaching and learning process that I use calls for the instructor to serve as a facilitator of the learning process and for students to assume responsibility for their own achievements. When I teach a graduate course, for example, I provide the following statement to class members at the beginning of the course:

It is the instructor's philosophy that adult students should be actively involved in all learning processes and activities, including assessing the group's and personal learning needs and evaluating the various learning efforts. Furthermore, each adult has considerable potential for self-directed, independent learning on any topic. Thus, each learner will be encouraged to develop a learning contract that represents an individual commitment to obtaining new skills and upgrading existing competencies relative to the course topic through independent, group, and in-class study.

It has been my experience that the mature learner flourishes in a setting in which identification of needs, personal ownership of learning involvement, and use of a wide variety of available resources are integrated parts of the instructional process.


The adult education field has matured to a point where we must understand personal philosophy and ethical behavior. Private entrepreneurship, marketing issues, certification or mandatory continuing education requirements, lifelong education versus lifelong schooling, and worldwide literacy problems are only a few of the dilemmas facing adult educators today. Such problems have been matched by the continual increase in numbers of professionals, programs, and learners. Understanding more about personal roles and responsibilities is necessary if such dilemmas and changes are to be managed. This book will provide a foundation upon which some personal growth and enhanced understanding can take place.

Thus, I conclude this chapter by encouraging the reader to attempt the development of a personal statement of philosophy if one does not already exist. Whether the process I have outlined or some other process is used, it should be informative and professionally rewarding to wrestle with an understanding of personal values, beliefs, and ethics. Such a statement can be compared with the philosophy of an employing institution or of other professionals to provide a foundation for future practice.


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Figure 12.1. Philosophical Systems and Education

System Component Representative Statement
IDEALISM Meaning The overall meaning is in life itself
What is Reality Divine or absolute truths
Nature of Humanness Each of us is a part of this meaning
Educational Aims Tell others the truths
Educational Method Inductive reasoning; authority lecturing
Educational Content Life's events; the world of our own mind
Main Criticisms "Truths" may be only in beholder's eyes
Key Proponents Plato (Cushman, 1958; Taylor, 1926)
Programs/Practices Some religious education programs
REALISM Meaning Empirically proven facts; reality
What is Reality Natural laws and facts
Nature of Humanness Awareness is perceiving
Educational Aims Develop intellectual abilities
Educational Method Inductive and scientific reasoning
Educational Content Live's laws and principles
Main Criticisms Empirical facts always subject to change
Key Proponents Chisholm (1961); Whitehead (1933)
Programs/Practices Phenomenology; science education
PROGRESSIVISM Meaning Concrete facts and interrelationships
What is Reality Theory is based on truth
Nature of Humanness Humans are part of the environment
Educational Aims Development through experiencing
Educational Method Problem solving; experimental method
Educational Content Build on peoples' experiences and needs
Main Criticisms Diminishes traditional role of teacher
Key Proponents Bergevin (1967); Dewey (1938); Lindeman (1928)
Program/Practices Adult Basic Education; community education; Cooperative Ext.
LIBERALISM Meaning Freedom comes through a liberated mind
What is Reality Humans endowed with the ability to reason
Nature of Humanness Improvement through intellect and wisdom
Educational Aims Development of the mind
Educational Method Critical reading; teacher as expert
Educational Content History; humanities; the classics
Main Criticisms Past may not relate to modern problems
Key Proponents Aristotle (Bambrough, 1963); Hutchins (1968)
Programs/Practices Chautauqua; Elderhostel; Great Books; Lyceum; CSLEA
BEHAVIORISM Meaning Human behavior is tied to prior conditioning
What is Reality External forces control human behavior
Nature of Humanness Stimulus creates response
Educational Aims Behavioral change; develop survival skills
Educational Method Conditioning; feedback; practice
Educational Content Basic skills; life skills
Main Criticisms Learning too complex for behavior control
Key Proponents Skinner (1971); Tyler (1949)
Programs/Practices Adult Performance Level test; behav. modification and objectives
HUMANISM Meaning Intellect distinguishes humans and animals
What is Reality Humans have potential and innate goodness
Nature of Humanness Autonomy, dignity, and freedom are sacred
Educational Aims Individual potentiality; self-actualization
Educational Method Facilitation; self-direction; team-work
Educational Content Any curriculum is a vehicle for meeting needs
Main Criticisms Important societal goals can be missed
Key Proponents Elias/Merriam (1980); Knowles (1980); Maslow (1976);

Tough (1971)

Programs/Practices Individualized instructional process; learning projects; sensitivity


RADICALISM Meaning People create culture, history, and meaning
What is Reality Knowledge leads to understanding of reality
Nature of Humanness Humans can change their environment
Educational Aims Create change through education and knowledge
Educational Method Dialogue and problem solving
Educational Content Begin with cultural situation of learners
Main Criticisms Tends to be idealistic in nature
Key Proponents Adams (1975); Freire (1970); Illich (1970)
Programs/Practices Community based literacy; Freire's literacy (dialectics) training; Highlander Folk School


Figure 12.2. Personal Philosophy Worksheet


My Philosophical System:












What is Reality?:






Nature of Being Human:







Educational Aims:






Educational Methods:






Educational Content:


Figure 12.3. Roger Hiemstra's Personal Philosophy of Education


My Philosophical System: I draw eclectically on several systems. However, the humanism model provides the foundation upon which rests most of what I do as a teacher or facilitator. I also try very hard to be consistent with the tenets of this foundation not only in what I do as a professional but also in my role as spouse, parent, friend, and community member.

Meaning: I believe that intellect is what distinguishes humans from animals and that we have the potential to expand that intellect throughout life. I also believe that there are a large number of concrete facts basic to our being able to perform as capable educational professionals.

What is Reality?: The reality that I embrace rests on an assumption that all humans are basically good and have potential for continuous growth and development as individuals. This growth can include such features as intellectual improvement, enhanced interrelationship abilities, and expanding civic literacy skills.

Nature of Being Human: I adhere to basic humanistic notions that the dignity of each human being must be respected. I also respect each person's desire for autonomy and independence but recognize that such desire is in a constant state of fluctuation.


Educational Aims: I believe that educational aims should center around helping adults reach their maximum potential in any learning setting. This should include the development of personal intellect, the ability to think critically, and the translation of new knowledge into practical skills and behaviors.

Educational Methods: I encourage considerable self-direction and learner involvement in all aspects of a learning experience. I also use learning contracts as a means for an individual to plan a personal route through a learning experience.

Educational Content: I provide learners with some basic parameters of what the learning experience should involve or cover in order to meet professional expectations regarding the mastery of the subject matter. However, because there are so many ways of achieving mastery, learners are involved in some needs assessment activities at the beginning of the learning experience to help them plan their specific routes through the content and to provide me with some input to help in my preparation of or focus for curricular material, learning activities, and learning experiences for the remainder of the course.

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