Throughout humankind, the debate of how we learn -- and how our children should be taught -- has raged on. Many normative educational theories have come about from theorists’ philosophical beliefs, inquiries, their knowledge of the psychology of learning and what, exactly, they believe education should be: what should be cultivated in the classroom, and how the material should be learned.

Educational Perennialism

Educational perennialism is a teacher-centered approach positing that educators should teach what is, and always has been, most important to humanity. Perennialists argue that facts are ever-changing (due to scientific breakthroughs or historical discoveries), but the principles behind these breakthroughs (scientific inquiry and exploration) are omnipresent. Perennialists also educate their students on the causal connection between theory and action, rather than teaching both in isolation. In doing so, educators hope to instill the notion that “facts” and “truths” are not simply known -- they must be discovered.

Educational Essentialism

This teacher-centered approach is quite different from perrennialism, in that essentialism places the teacher completely in control of the classroom dynamic. In an essentialist classroom, all students learn the same material through the same methods. Teachers present the information to be learned, and the students must learn it, usually through rote memorization. The essentialist teacher utilizes operant conditioning heavily, offering rewards for good behavior or performance and doling out punishment for misbehavior.

Progressive Education

Progressive education theory puts students at the center of their own learning. Progressive teachers create thematic units within the curriculum that tie all subjects together in methodology, topics and skills used. Since students learn by doing, there is a much larger focus on building problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, and less focus on rote memorization of facts. In this way, progressive educators hope to instill in their students the notion that learning is not something that happens in school -- it is a phenomenon that occurs throughout life.

Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy focuses heavily on implementing social change by starting in the classroom. It's a process of unlearning, learning, relearning, reflecting on and evaluating “truths” and “facts” as told by biased history books and other published works. As the name implies, critical pedagogy aims to cultivate a community of critical thinkers who are able to analyze and discover truths for themselves, not simply taking a textbook’s word as bond. This fostering of metacognition in all students attempts to strengthen the democratic principles America is based on -- that knowledge is power, and all knowledgeable people have a voice worth being heard.

Montessori Schools

Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy held that children should be free to explore, learn and grow in the least-restrictive environment. In such schools, children are given a wide variety of choices in terms of what they wish to learn and how they go about learning. In this constructivist approach, students learn by interacting with their surroundings. Instead of being taught exactly what to do, and when and why to do it, the child independently creates his own learning experiences. All interactions are seen as purposeful, as the child will grow and mature with each action he takes. However, this is not to say Montessori schools lack structure. In fact, teachers in Montessori schools go to great lengths to predict, plan and implement materials based on individual student needs so that when the student is on the cusp of a breakthrough or milestone, the teacher knows exactly what to expose him to in order to let him grow.