Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 1)February 18, 2016
For over a hundred years it would have been considered insane to deny that there was a big ideological debate in education. At times the debate might have seemed centred on university education departments, or teacher training colleges. At times it might have mainly affected private schools or primary schools. At times it might have seemed something that was more of a debate in the US than here. But to say there wasn’t a debate between a “progressive” (or “child centred”) approach and a “traditional” one would have been to deny the obvious. It would have been to ignore, not just contemporary disputes, but history. It would have been to show ignorance of both the academic and philosophical literature of education. It would also reveal that one was oblivious to the fiction inspired by schooling, from Hard Times to The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie. Even Goodbye, Mr Chips has a scene where Chips is subjected to unwelcome pedagogical demands from an advocate of the latest trends in Latin teaching. When Melanie Phillips’ book All Must Have Prizes came out in the late 90s, or when Chris Woodhead became HMCI, nobody would have dared to say that nobody disagreed with them. Teachers were often given the impression that those who argued the traditional case were likely to be right-wing politicians or journalists, not teachers, or that the “evidence” favoured progressive education, but there could be no doubting that there was an argument.
However, in the first decade of the twenty first century, the progressives took total control of education in the UK. In England, OFSTED enforced progressive lessons and the GTC(E) told teachers that professionals must believe progressive dogma and struck off those who tried to expose what was happening in our schools. An army of local authority advisors told teachers in state schools the “correct” way to teach. As social media expanded, teachers who took the opportunity to argue against the progressive consensus were told they were “unprofessional” and had no right to hold such opinions. Education became merged with children’s social services, and the explicit aims of the system became less and less academic, as shown by Every Child Matters and the 2007 National Curriculum.
The high tide of progressivism has now receded. A mixture of teachers being given a voice on social media to expose what is happening in schools, and the influence on the English education system by a number of Conservative politicians who, unlike their predecessors, believed in both comprehensive education and an academic curriculum, has seen things changed. The argument between progressives and traditionalists has broken out again. However, many progressives, who still seem to hold the greatest share of power in education, do not appreciate this change. And one of the most common tactics is to deny the existence of that debate. There are 3 main forms of denial:
- We all agree. According to this form of denial, nobody ever really denied any of the beliefs of traditionalists. There was never really any dispute over teacher authority, the content of the curriculum or the methods of teaching. All the options were actually just along a spectrum and everyone sits in the middle of that spectrum, mixing and matching, with nobody actually being traditional or progressive.
- Where did these labels come from? This line of argument can only really be seen as an attempt to exploit the ignorance of many who have entered the teaching profession and their unwillingness to doubt authority. The idea is that if you have managed to choose to become a teacher without reading of the debates in education, gone through teacher training without being aware that your were being trained in progressive education, and taught in schools without ever having been told you were a progressive, then these labels cannot matter. They must be some trick invented recently, probably by teachers on social media.
- The debate doesn’t actually happen in schools. This is not dissimilar to the older idea that all teachers agree and the traditionalists are outsiders. But it goes further in seeking to marginalise those who dare express their opinion in school. Apparently nobody in schools has an ideological disagreement about the behaviour system or the methods of judging teachers. Nobody in schools has to deal with a scheme of work, or a system of assessment that is designed by teachers who disagree with them over the purposes of education and the nature of learning.
In my next post I will outline the main areas of disagreement, and draw your attention to the many ways in which these debates are happening in schools right now.
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