The Trendiest Current Arguments For Progressive Education Part 2

July 30, 2015

Yesterday, I began writing about some of the ways I’ve seen people justifying progressive education recently. Here are the other two ways.

3) The Argument from Political Correctness. The last year or so has seen a real resurgence of a type of left-wing politics that was common in the 80s and went out of fashion in the mid 90s. We used to call it “political correctness” back then, and it largely consisted of accusing unsuspecting, and often entirely innocent people of racism, sexism and homophobia. Often it was for not using the latest terminology; sometimes it was for not having the right politics, and at other times it seemed entirely arbitrary. If you are not familiar with the 80s version there are some great examples in the video below (“Anti-Racist Maths” being my personal favourite):

The newer version is, so far, more of a presence in universities than in schools, but it is being pushed by some education researchers and EAL “experts”. The basic idea is still that of thought-crime, condemning people for prejudices that they have never openly expressed or obviously acted on, but that they can be assumed to have on the basis of being white, male or straight. In the 80s version, “black” became the general term for all possible victims of racism (even, say, the Irish or Jews). In the more recent version “white” has become the general term for people who aren’t assumed to be victims of racism. But the effect is the same, you are either oppressor or oppressed and if you are in the wrong category then no matter how good your argument is, or how much the evidence supports your case, expressing your opinion or getting your way in any matter that also involves people who aren’t classed as white is an oppressive use of “privilege”.  This becomes an argument for progressive education where it is applied to the curriculum. A curriculum can be condemned as “white” if it passes on knowledge and ideas valued in British or European culture. The suggested replacement curriculum can be built around political indoctrination, or teaching obscure, but politically approved, knowledge. However, in the most obviously progressive version, the attack on a “white curriculum” is also an attack on the idea that teachers can be experts in subject knowledge that is to be passed on. In this case, the alternative is the idea that students should set the priorities for learning and that what is taught has to be “relevant”.

4) The Free Market Conspiracy. This is another argument from the left. The idea is that education is actually a fight between neo-liberals who wish to turn education into a business opportunity, and those who will resist these plots. Sometimes this is simply a form of denying the debate and discussion of progressive education is dismissed as irrelevant to the “real” political issue of creeping privatisation. We should be careful here to distinguish between opposing a specific market-oriented policy, say PFI for building schools or having private exam boards, and condemnation of a wider variety of non-progressive positions on education which have no, or only incidental, consequences for private companies. And it should definitely not be confused with wanting teachers to have better pay or working conditions. The argument is not about specific policies. It is a form of “virtue-signalling”,  i.e. when people advance an opinion in order to show their own ideological credentials rather than because of the merits of the position. The virtuous left-winger is supporting progressive education out of high-minded, altruistic reasons, while only self-interested, right-wing conspirators (and their dupes) would support more traditional ideas.

Almost any traditionalist ideas in education can be condemned as part of the neo-liberal conspiracy with enough ingenuity. Testing is really just a way of getting schools to compete for market share. Criticism of progressive education is actually a way of bashing teachers, in order to worsen their working conditions. Academic aims in education are a way to prepare students for exploitation in the workplace. Traditional teaching methods are a scam for making money for publishers. Nobody can actually prove they are not part of the conspiracy, or at the very least, that they haven’t been fooled by the propaganda of the conspirators. As with all conspiracy theories, it is usually impossible to persuade the adherents that they are wrong with evidence. It doesn’t matter how far the Tories move away from letting private companies run schools, or how many years they spend in power without introducing it, it can always be claimed that is their ultimate goal. It doesn’t matter that academy chains are charities, they are somehow private interests looking to make money. It doesn’t matter that parents might not want their kids to go to a particular school, the only reason parents may be given a choice between schools is in order to create a market.  Sometimes the argument is then expanded to being one about who should have power in education. Apparently the only non “neo-liberal” way of running education is to put power in the hands of local authority bureaucrats and educationalists in universities, who conveniently, just happen to have been the traditional advocates of progressive education.

As I said last time, the four arguments in these two posts are not meant to be an exhaustive list of the arguments for progressive education, nor even the most common, they are simply the ones that seem to have become more common recently. As I also said, by not linking to examples I am opening myself to claims of inventing straw men (although freeing myself from those who want to quibble over interpretation of those examples), so I will just ask you to watch out for them. If you see them, please feel free to provide links in the comments; if you don’t, then I guess it doesn’t matter.


  1. Here’s the thing – extremists attract extremists so the anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic campaigners on that video (while representing good causes) are not representatives of the groups they say they are. In addition, it seems more a power grab situation where people see an in and go for it. In addition, it seems that they wanted someone to be angry at but it was so misdirected.

    Those parents weren’t extremists and as one of them said, “shouldn’t we be teaching them this?” but of course the reverse prejudice. The idea that poor parents of any colour or background could possibly be anything other than bigoted and/or not make sensible decisions for their children is no different to today.

    I wish my old head teachers had written a book about how they did it – achieving the very aims that these people claim they wanted but without the aggressive and by including parents in the school community not assuming what they were or what they thought. Certainly not by assuming they were bad parents by virtue of who they were.

    All this just drips with prejudice and I can only be glad I didn’t have to experience it.

  2. Paradoxically, when one looks at argument 4, progressive educationalists are perfectly happy to use the corporate/business world to justify their ideas when it suits them. For example, take the cult of “Shift Happens”, a love of so called “team building” activities, lots of group work and “collaboration”, a tendency to use impenetrable jargon and a fondness of assessment systems such as the old National Curriculum levels which, however flawed the data, produced such lovely charts…..

    • Agreed. But not unknown for the reasons for progressive education to be completely turned on their head. One moment it’s to improve exam results, next because there’s more to life than exam results. One moment it’s about making life fun for kids, next it’s in order to develop grit and resilience. One moment it’s about making things relevant and easy to identify with, the next it’s to encourage imagination and creativity. Same practices; different excuses.

      • I’m enjoying this little series, but I think the thing that I find most amazing is the attitude amongst management…or ‘leadership’ as they like to be known…for some reason. Many, I find, are often socially and politically conservative in virtually every respect until it comes to matters pedagogical; at which point they seem to turn into fully fledged new age, hippy-dippy romantics, immune to reason, common sense and any form of empiricism. Now I realise that in most cases, this is forced upon them since in many schools advocacy of progressive methods is the ‘entry fee’ to management but the degree of hypocrisy and denialism is breathtaking. I’ve even seen good solid teachers who achieved good results switching to progressive gimmicks following promotion, destroying their ability to teach and then trying to force the same lunacy upon others.
        There is such a stark disconnect between what they espouse in relation to all other aspects of social and cultural interaction and what they claim with regards to teaching that I can only conclude that the major attribute required of ‘leadership’ is the ability to exist (and function) within a realm of complete cognitive dissonance. This explains an awful lot.

        I think I’d also tend to try to link your ‘current trendy arguments’ under an overarching theme or at least trace their emergence or evolution. And I know, it’s become a bit of a cliche but I do think it all goes back to the late 60s and early 70s when the left retreated from ‘the economic base’ and instead decided to change society by attacking the ‘cultural superstructure’. Now this took many forms but certainly the manifestation within education in the UK was a sort of ‘liberationist’ curriculum which would enable to children to achieve the sort of class consciousness which would enable them to recognise and reject the alienation of labour.
        How they were to do this was another matter since they sure as hell weren’t taking an academic route, having been left high, dry and qualification-free by a regime of group work and ‘self expression’ but at least they would acknowledge their ‘alienation’. Like it or not, the vestiges of this attitude remain, not only remain in fact, but have become the dominant ideology in lots of places. It’s diminishing but I think we’re still looking at a decade or so until it’s regarded as a curious and regrettable aberration. There’s certainly still time for lots of good teachers to be driven from the profession and many careers to be stalled or wrecked.
        Never trust a hippy, never trust a liberal and certainly never trust members of ‘leadership’ who demand respect and courtesy for all students at all times regardless of their behaviour yet send their own kids to a new academy which excludes students for the wrong colour PE socks and isolate them for a day if they cough out of turn in class.

    • “For example, take the cult of “Shift Happens””

      The amusing thing about the original Shift Happens presentation is that the example they gave of unstoppable technical change was MySpace !

      • Shift Happens also seemed to be promoting a temporary workforce (which by definition is low-paid) with the whole “average worker will have had 14 jobs by the age of 38” rhetoric.

  3. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. It is very ironic that, in a blog from a Canadian educator where part one of your blog was linked to, another educator stated:

    “I have always believed direct teaching vs constructivism to a false dichotomy. I am direct on Monday, constructivist on Tuesday and so on as most teachers I suspect are as well.”

    https://educhatter.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/flipping-the-system-where-should-ground-up-education-reform-start/#comment-18148 Third comment down.

    Which is consistent with much of the rhetoric we are seeing out here.

    There is also this blog of the Learning and Innovation Coordinator of an education district in Alberta and “life-long learner” who says:

    “This approach will include direct instruction because there are times when that is the most appropriate approach. But it will also include a wide array of other pedagogical approaches because that will ensure we can maximize the success of all students, not just those who can memorize and regurgitate.” https://thejourneyisthegoal.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/changing-contexts/

    Another one from a chief superintendent (again in Alberta) who says:

    “…traditional practice supports the needs of the compliant student. While they may be academically engaged- give me the information so I can get the marks, they are not intellectually engaged. They respond as consumers of knowledge rather than creators of learning.” http://wordpress.holyspirit.ab.ca/?p=1770

    Although, to be fair, he doesn’t seem to bother much with the new, trendy arguments but stays close to the “greatest hits”. Of interesting note are the responses to a comment from a frustrated parent… A fascinating array of all the different flavors of Kool-aid you have described over the years.

    This has been a dispatch from, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, an “…utterly insignificant little former colony whose Dewey-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think learning styles are a pretty neat idea.”

  5. […] analysis of the arguments progressives have jumped on in the last couple of years (Part 1 and Part 2). The second part in particular identified two ludicrous arguments that have now become standard […]

  6. I’ve long since concluded that anyone who uses the phrase “neo-liberal” to describe a Conservative or anyone else on the right of politics is invariably a moron.

    I’ve yet to find one who knows what a “neo-liberal” is.

    It seems to have replaced the old system of aligning things with Margaret Thatcher (now out of politics for 25 years) as a way of (they think) making an unanswerable point.

    • It does have a meaning, roughly those thinkers in the 70s and 80s who harked back to classical liberalism. I rememeber John Gray using it to describe both Thatcherism and the European project. But its meaning has degraded through overuse and has become an all purpose “boo” word used by the clueless. The worst is when somebody uses it interchangeably with “neoconservative”.

      • When did Gray use it? When he was himself a Neo-Liberal? I don’t know why anybody listens to Gray. He changes his position so often and so radically that it’s hard to take him seriously. Hayek himself once said of Gray that he was the only one who really understood him; this was during the period that he was Thatcher’s ‘house philosopher’. He already transformed himself from full-blown soixante-huitard to the a hard-line ideological proponent of monetarism. Now, he’s turned one eighty again to ardent anti-enlightenment anti-politics.
        Maybe he just likes to try to stay interesting and radical…which is a rather adolescent trait to carry into your seventies.

        I saw a comment on his concern for animals vegetarianism once along the lines that it was a shame for him that he couldn’t eat in McDonalds since it was about the only place his order could arrive before he decided to change his mind.
        Can’t see the point of Gray myself and even if I could, the fact that he’s regularly endorsed by Will Self would turn me right off. I believe Russell Brand is given to quoting him as well. Enough said.

  7. […] Andrew Old (July 29, 2015). The Trendiest Current Arguments For Progressive Education Part 1 blog & Part 2 blog […]

  8. […] in July 2015 I wrote this post and this post about arguments that were being used more and more by progressives, as their traditional arguments […]

  9. […] in July 2015 I wrote this post and this post about arguments that were being used more and more by progressives, as their traditional arguments […]

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