One of the best analyses of progressive education is “The Crisis in Education” by Hannah Arendt. An online copy can be found here and you should read it. It was written in the early 60s, and as well as analysing the progressive movements of the time, it made the following prediction about the chances of reversing the progressive tide in education:
…wherever the crisis has occurred in the modern world, one cannot simply go on nor yet simply turn back. Such a reversal will never bring us anywhere except to the same situation out of which the crisis has just arisen. The return would simply be a repeat performance–though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.
While not every movement towards progressive education that has occurred since then has claimed to be scientific, very many have; but the point that progressive education will keep reappearing has been spot on. Many of the arguments for it are fairly timeless. Technology is always about to make traditional education obsolete. Schools (despite the influence of the last progressive invasion) are always presented as an out-of-date product of a past era (usually the 19th century, sometimes the 50s, occasionally Roman times or something similarly exotic). Another country is always showing us the way with their latest experiment in project-based learning or discovery learning. There is always some list of aims of education that go far beyond the academic. However, some arguments appear for a time, then fall out of favour. For instance, only the most behind-the-times progressive would argue that we need more progressive education to satisfy kinesthetic learners, or to enable girls to compete academically with boys.
In this post and tomorrow’s, I aim to mention some of the arguments for progressive education I have been seeing lately (mainly in blogs) that I don’t remember seeing much of 10 years ago. I didn’t note them down when I saw them, and it is only as they are repeated that they’ve made an impression, so I’m not able to conveniently link to examples and, no doubt, somebody will accuse me of creating straw men. At the very least, if I mention them we can all watch out for them and see them in the context of an attempt to present an ideology of teaching from over 100 years ago as a novel response to contemporary concerns.
1) The Argument from Mental Health. I don’t want to dismiss concern about children’s mental health, although I am, as ever, sceptical when medically unqualified adults claim to be able to make amateur diagnoses of medical conditions in other people’s children. The access (or lack if it) to mental health services for children is an important issue and we should take mental health seriously. However, I have seen increasing attempts to blur the line between actual mental health issues, and any kind of emotional discomfort for children. I have seen bullying described as a mental health issue. I have seen people take the leap from concern about mental health, to the importance of “wellbeing” , or “resilience” as an aim of schooling and then to a downplaying of the academic purpose of schooling, or the need for knowledge. Most commonly though, I have seen “stress” and “anxiety” join “self-esteem” as an argument against various traditional practices, from strict discipline to setting exams. Indeed, the idea that children are traumatised by exams seems particularly popular at the moment, often tied to the bizarre claim that the amount of exams children sit is being increased by politicians.
There are two key assumptions in the mental health argument. The first is that teachers should absorb ever more responsibility for other people’s children, effectively usurping parents. This is then combined with the assumption that the liberal, middle class parent who is concerned only about their child’s day-to-day happiness and autonomy, rather than their long-term interests, will have children with better mental health. As I am fond of quoting, R.S. Peters described the first assumption as the idea that schools should be “orphanages for children with parents” and can be best challenged by a defence of the rights of parents to raise their own children. As for the second assumption, it’s a debate that I can’t really go into here too much, but it is highly dubious and worth considering in the light of the attitudes of different cultures. Despite the claims of progressives, it is not the most authoritarian countries that have the highest youth suicide rates, nor is it obvious that those raised by liberal parents are beacons of good mental health in their youth or later.
2) Debate Denialism. The argument between traditional and progressive education are ancient (a case can be made that they date back to at least Plato) and have been expressed in those terms, i.e. “traditional” and “progressive”, for at least 100 years. There are good arguments that “traditional”, “progressive” and other terms like “child-centred” are misleading, and what they stand for can change over time. However, they have been the standard terms for the debate over many decades and represent real divides. In the period between 2001 and 2010 when the traditional side was largely suppressed, many progressives thought the debate was over and they had won. It came as a shock to the system for many that values that were unopposed for almost a decade were once more being challenged in public. One of the responses has been to simply deny that the debate exists and, therefore, the “progressive” domination of state education is a myth and so any challenge to it can be dismissed. So we see people claim that terms like “progressive” and “traditional” are meaningless; that this debate is stale and irrelevant, or that “progressive” is an insult and should not be used to describe people who champion the ideas that, historically, were described in that way. Progressives have always been coy about the history of their ideas, invariably the old dogmas are presented as new innovations, but this takes it to a new level by denying that the argument about their ideas ever existed.
Of course, there is something absurd about the idea that the language that allows us to distinguish between different values and methods in education should be discontinued or that the debate is over. There are variations of that idea used to make it more plausible. Sometimes it is combined with the suggestion that the words only apply to teaching methods, not the values we use to choose between teaching methods. This means that one can claim to use a mix of methods, or observe that most teachers use a mix of methods, and then can claim to be neither “progressive” nor “traditional” ignoring the philosophies that guide how we choose our mix. Sometimes it is combined with talk of evidence and “what works” as if we can judge this in the absence of a view about what we are trying to achieve. Perhaps there can be confused positions; progressives do go through periods of claiming that their methods are the best ways of achieving traditional, academic ends (periods that usually end when promised improvements in academic performance don’t materialise). But if one cannot identify clear and genuine disagreements between those in the traditional and those in the progressive camp, then one simply needs to read up. Perhaps “Left Back – A Century of Failed School Reforms” by Diane Ravitch might be a good place to start.