JITE v33n2 - At Issue - The Role of Philosophy in Education-for-Work

Volume 33, Number 2
Winter 1996

FROM THE EDITOR: This "At Issue" contains two essays. In the first, Bruce Strom contends that the "education-for-work" movement needs a deeper philosophical base. Strom suggests that philosophies in vocational education, human resource development, and adult learning may be appropriate for education-for-work. The second essay, by Michael Dyrenfurth, describes a recent international technology education conference. Dyrenfurth questions the status of technology education the U.S. in light of the activities that are occurring internationally. Responses to these or previous "At Issue" essays are encouraged. Instructions for authors are provided in the "Bits & Pieces" section of each issue of the Journal.

The Role of Philosophy in Education-for-Work

Bruce Todd Strom
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Dramatic changes in the organizational structures and environments of workplaces have occurred in the United States in the last four decades. These changes have led to the development of education-for-work as a term that describes various efforts to enhance the capability of the workforce. Education-for-work encompasses all education, training, and development activities that (a) prepare people for work or assist them in current employment and (b) engage in the development and refinement of competencies, attitudes, and knowledge through formal and informal means ( Nadler, 1985 ). Many approaches to education-for-work are based on models that were developed during the agrarian age and industrial revolution, and have been shaped by practice rather than philosophic principles.

Education-for-work needs to adopt or develop well-defined philosophic principles that will guide, support, or create practice in changing workplaces. In order to meet the needs of the workplace of today and the future, education-for-work practitioners must be aware of the philosophies that promote both technical-vocational needs and personal development. Education-for-work practitioners must select and adapt appropriate philosophical views that will guide practice in terms of purpose; much like a master painter, who takes paint from a palette, mixes it appropriately, and applies the mixed paint to the canvas using experience and skill to complete the envisioned picture. Education-for-work practitioners must be more than transmitters of knowledge; they should be like master painters or craftpersons, professionals engaged in their art or craft and using their experience and creativity to design and make a quality work.

Philosophy has been defined as "a system of principles for guiding practical affairs" ( Stein, 1980 ). Philosophical query asks why practitioners conduct practice in the manner they do, in order to (a) provoke reflection, (b) systematically analyze and evaluate procedures, and (c) determine the appropriate philosophy or philosophies to back or drive the practice. Miller ( 1994 ) argues that educational activities involved in education-for-work lack a coherent philosophic foundation to guide practice. He contends that philosophy is a means for building a vision for education-for-work in terms of purposes and practice. Education-for-work must identify philosophic foundations for practice, using them to prepare a workforce that will meet the needs of the workplace of the future. The philosophic foundations or principles that underlie practice in vocational education, human resource development (HRD), and adult education can be used by education-for-work practitioners to guide reflection on existing practices, establish new practices, and create visions for future practice.

Vocational Education

Vocational education consists of education programs that prepare people for paid or unpaid employment ( Walter, 1993 ). It is primarily conducted in educational institutions (secondary, post-secondary, and vocational-technical); although, it also occurs in not-for-profit, government, and business and industry settings.

Miller ( 1985 ) identified three primary philosophies of vocationaleducation:

  • Essentialism: The educator or trainer is the focal point of the learning process; mastery of subject matter is important; development of skills through drills, repetition, conditioning, and development of desirable habits; a desire to influence the behavior of the learner.
  • Existentialism: The learner is the focus of the learning process; truth is relative; and personal growth and development are key to the process.
  • Pragmatism: The educator and learner are both important to the learning process; reality or real-world situations are stressed; context and experience are important; and the educator is progressive, and open to new ideas. ( 1985, pp. 196-198 )

Miller ( 1994 ) advocates pragmatism as the most effective philosophy for education-for-work. He states that vocational educators have been successful in terms of practice and keeping current and relevant, by using principles of pragmatism as a frame-of-reference and basis for workplace education.

Pragmatism, as defined by Miller, balances the philosophies of essentialism and existentialism and allows new ideas to be considered for practice (within its philosophical framework). Pragmatism has been responsible for the development of innovative programs like tech-prep that allows vocational education to meet the needs of the workplace of the future. Education-for-work practitioners can use the philosophic base of pragmatism, alone or mixed with elements of essentialism and existentialism, to reflect on their practice and create or adopt vision in terms of their practice.

Human Resource Development

HRD is the branch of Human Resources (a field that is concerned with the management and development of human resources in organizational environments) that is primarily concerned with education, training, and development of employees. HRD's primary focus is to enhance the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that enable individuals to perform current and future jobs ( Nadler, 1995 ), and monitor, maintain, and improve the productivity of workers in an organization at various levels of operation ( Pace, Smith, & Mills, 1991 ).

Stuckey and Berardinelli ( 1990 ) identified six philosophic bases of HRD that can be applied to education-for-work:

  • Behaviorist: Behavior modification.
  • Idealism-Realism: Values ideas and ideals.
  • Realism-Analytic: Scientific method.
  • Pragmatic-Progressive-Cognitive: Real world or practical.
  • Existentialism-Humanistic: Personal growth.
  • Reconstructionism-Radical: Social reform. ( pp. 3-5 )

Stuckey and Bernardinelli ( 1990 ) suggest that the Reconstructionist-Radical philosophy be used by education-for-work practitioners. They suggest that radical philosophies of training and development will allow changes to be made that will be cutting edge and forward-looking in perspective and will cause educators and workers to act as change agents in the workplace and society.

Many business and industry trainers have relied on behaviorist orientations in the past ( McKenzie, 1985 ) and, like vocational education, HRD practice has placed too much emphasis on agrarian and industrial models to drive practice. Stuckey and Berardinelli ( 1990 ) contend that educators in business and industry still use traditional methods of training (behaviorism) because they are interested in keeping training formal and traditional. In the 1990s, workplace change caused by political, economic, and social forces has caused HRD practitioners to modify their practice ( Pace et al., 1991 ) and adopt new methods that utilize or are driven by philosophic foundations like pragmatism, existentialism, and radicalism.

Adult Education

Adult education is a broad field where people "whose major social roles are characteristic of adult status undertake systematic and sustained learning activities for the purposes of bringing about changes in knowledge, attitudes, values, or skills" ( Darkenwald & Merriam, 1982, p. 9 ) . Many adult educators are involved directly or indirectly in activities or programs that educate, train, or develop workers for present or future employment because they have expertise and/or experience in teaching adults. These activities or programs include basic adult education, continuing professional education, adult literacy training, Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) programs, and business and industry training.

Elias and Merriam ( 1980 ) identified six philosophies of adult education:

  • Behaviorist: Behavior modification.
  • Liberal: Organized knowledge for intellectual development.
  • Analytic: Logical and scientific positivism.
  • Progressive: Social reform.
  • Humanistic: Personal growth.
  • Radical: Radical social change. ( pp. 9-11 )

According to Elias and Merriam (1980) , adult education is heavily influenced by progressive, humanistic, and radical philosophies. In adult education, the purposes and contexts of specific fields of practice will often determine the philosophic influences. In the 1990s, philosophical foundations in adult education are influencing many practitioners in education-for-work, especially those whose practice is associated with critical thinking and communications skills. Adult education philosophy has much to offer education-for-work practitioners in terms of teaching adults and adult learning theories. Many education-for-work practitioners in HRD and vocational education are finding the progressive and humanistic philosophies of adult education useful in terms of designing and implementing practice for certain learning situations, like diversity education and training in business and industry and the institutional classroom.

The Role of Philosophy in Education-for-Work

In a monograph on philosophy and workplace education, Miller ( 1994 ) stated that philosophy ought to provide the framework for establishing practice. Education-for-work practitioners should develop world views from which practice can be analyzed ( McKenzie, 1991 ; Miller, 1994 ). Utilization of philosophic views gives education-for-work practitioners perspectives from which to view their roles in education.

The philosophies that have been identified here represent ways education-for-work practitioners can develop world views or modes of thinking about practice. Education-for-work practitioners should be able to explain why they conduct practice the way they do in terms of philosophic foundations or principles.

Education-for-work needs to adopt or develop well-defined philosophic principles that will guide, support, or create practice in changing workplaces. In order to meet the needs of the workplace of today and the future, education-for-work practitioners must build on the philosophies that promote both technical-vocational needs and personal development. Education-for-work must identify philosophic foundations for practice and use them to prepare a workforce that will meet the needs of the workplace of the future.


Strom is a doctoral student, Department of Vocational & Technical Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois.


Darkenwald , G. G., & Merriam, S. B. (1982). Adult education: Foundations of practice . New York: Harper & Row.

Elias , J. L., & Merriam, S. B. (1980). Philosophical foundations of adult education . Malabar, FL: Kreiger.

McKenzie , L. (1985). Philosophical orientations of adult educators. Lifelong Learning , 9(1), 18-20.

McKenzie , L. (1991). Adult education and world view construction . Malabar, FL: Kreiger.

Miller , M. D. (1985). Principles and a philosophy for vocational education . Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University, The National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

Miller , M. D. (1994). Philosophy: A foundation for envisioning the future and workplace education . Lincoln, NE: University Council for Vocational Education.

Nadler , L. J. (1995). HRD in perspective. In W. R. Tracey (Ed.), Human resource management and development handbook . New York: Harper & Row.

Pace , W. R., Smith, P. C., & Mills, G. E. (1991). Human resource development: The field. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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Stuckey , S., & Berardinelli, P. (1990, May). The search for a philosophy of training and development. Paper presented at the National Conference and Exposition of the American Society for Training and Development, Orlando, FL.

Walter , R. A. (1993). Development of vocational education. In C. Anderson & L. C. Rampp (Eds.), Vocational education in the 1990's: A sourcebook for strategies, methods, and materials (pp. 1-20). Ann Arbor, MI: Prakken.

Reference Citation: Strom, B. T. (1996). The role of philosophy in education-for-work. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education , 33(2), 77-82.