Every approach to education presupposes an epistemology, a set of underlying, unquestioned assumptions about how we come to know the world. While every educational program presupposes an epistemology, it does not always start from a set of explicit philosophical assumptions. For some educators, their pedagogy is an outgrowth of their day-to-day experiences with children in the classroom. It is only when these innovators try to articulate their methods that they seek out a philosophy that provides a rationale for their practice. In contrast, other educators start from an explicit epistemology and attempt to derive a set of curricula and teaching methods in keeping with their philosophical predispositions. The road between epistemology and pedagogy is thus always a two-way thoroughfare.
This said, it is also true that gifted teachers resemble one another regardless of their theoretical persuasion or type of classroom experience. This speaks to the fact that talented teaching is, in part at least, an art that cannot be derived from, or translated into, any general abstract epistemology. That is why I have chosen to compare Montessori and the constructivist approach from the perspective of their epistemologies rather from that of their practice. Teaching materials aside, in the hands of gifted teachers, the emotional climates of classrooms in either program are more alike than different. Accordingly, in this paper I will first present the three basic epistemologies and then analyze and compare the two approaches with respect to their philosophical rationales.
The Three Basic Epistemological Positions
One way to look at how we come to know the world is the empiricist perspective. From this point of view, the world exists quite independently of our minds and we learn about it by, in effect, taking pictures of it with our senses. Our senses operate like a camera and our memory is like unused film that gets exposed as we look, touch, listen, taste, and feel the world about us. For the empiricist, the difference between children and adults is that adults have taken many more pictures of the world and have larger film albums. Individual differences occur because people are born with different cameras and different types of film. Some people may have 35mm minds, while some have Polaroid mentalities. Some people have fast film, while others have slower but more light-sensitive celluloid. Regardless of camera or film type, however, learning about the world is a matter of taking pictures of a pre-existing reality. "Nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses" is the mantra of the empiricist epistemology.
Translated into educational theory and practice, empiricism would suggest a teacher-directed, rote-learning approach to helping children learn about the world. Recall Professor Gradgrind in Dickens's novel Hard Times. Professor Gradgrind did not want to have plums on the wallpaper because plums do not grow on walls, they grow on trees. He wanted children to learn facts, nothing but the facts. Gradgrind was opposed to any sort of fiction or works that deviated from what he regarded as real-the touchable and seeable. Empiricism was also reflected in the major premise of behavioristic educational research as expressed by its founder, Edward Lee Thorndike. It was Thorndike who said that "if it cannot be measured, it does not exist." And in general behaviorism and behavioristic, stimulus/response, reward/punishment approaches to education are examples of the empiricist epistemology. Although the early behaviorists eschewed mentalistic concepts, many contemporary writers now take cognition into account.
At the other end of the epistemological spectrum is the nativist position. In contrast to the empiricist, the nativist position is that we are born knowing everything we will ever know about the world. This knowledge is, however, latent and needs to be elicited before it can be put to use. …