Denying the debate between progressive and traditional education (Part 2)February 19, 2016
Last time I looked at the attempts to deny that there is a debate about progressive and traditional education.
Those who wish to deny the debate have one advantage: “progressive education” is not a coherent ideology. There is no checklist of doctrine, only a loose series of themes which are sometimes contradictory. There is no progressive catechism to be recited. Identifying a “progressive” by referring only to discrete items of belief rather than values or themes is as impractical as identifying a “liberal” or “conservative”. For that reason, it is usually possible for any progressive to find something in a description of progressive education they disagree with, and then claim not to be a progressive, even if such an argument relies on redefining words, or an implausible claim to be more moderate than “true” progressives.
However, this is hardly an insoluble problem. We can still identify progressive values. Also, traditionalism is more consistent and we can recognise departures from it. Somebody is heir to the progressives if they endorse any of the key disagreements between traditionalists and progressives, rather than all of them. There are three main areas of dispute.
Content. Traditionalists believe that there is a body of knowledge and belief – a tradition – to be passed on and that the benefits of this to one’s intellect provide the rationale for education systems. Progressives can deny this in a number of different ways (or not at all) but to argue in any of those ways marks one out as a progressive.
Some of the most common are:
- Denying a shared tradition on grounds of individualism (eg. “all children are different and need or want to know different things”);
- Presenting the teaching of a tradition as oppressive or tedious;
- Denying a shared tradition on the basis of an exclusive identity (“my students are EAL/working class/muslim/revolutionaries and, therefore, do not, or should not, value that knowledge);
- Identifying alternative non-academic aims for educational institutions, eg. happiness, employability, political consciousness, socialisation, or anything that is actually more to do with parenting than teaching;
- Identifying academic aims for education that are too generic to require specific knowledge, eg.: critical thinking, creativity, independence or resilience;
- Claiming that children or parents do not want this sort of education and, therefore, it should not be taught;
- Denying the importance of recall or memorisation in learning;
- Claiming that social, economic or technological change will render the traditional knowledge obsolete;
- Valuing only knowledge that has been sought out by students on their own initiative;
- Denying that anyone has the authority to identify the tradition to be taught (“Who are you to decide what my students need to know?”).
Authority: The last point brings us to another major branch of the debate, that of teacher authority. Traditionalists believe that teachers should be in a position of authority over students. This means both that their professional decisions are legitimate ones that are binding on students, and that they should have the means to enforce those decisions. Many (but not all) progressives have disputed one or both aspects of this. The key themes are:
- Autonomy. The progressive tradition has emphasised the importance of the decisions of the child. Activities that children have chosen for themselves are valued over those chosen by the teachers. Often progressives have seek to make schools less structured, advocating open plan classrooms or non-traditional lessons. The rhetoric of “factory schools” is entirely progressive, as is talk of “independent learning”.
- Motivation. Those activities that children want to do, such as playing or talking to friends, are given additional value. Those activities that more clearly serve the purpose of the teacher, are considered less worthwhile. Obviously, there are compromise positions here, but an emphasis on fun and engagement at the expense of academic rigour is a key progressive theme.
- Discipline. This is probably the key dividing line between progressives and traditionalists today. Traditionalists have no problem with the idea that children should obey or conform, as long as it serves the educational purpose. Teachers have the right to be in control and to make moral judgements about the good of their students. Progressives often fear that teacher control is too coercive or even cruel. Progressives are far more likely to object to punishments, and sometimes even rewards, and see them only as a mechanism for control and to deny the relevance of desert. They are far more likely to endorse the idea that rules should be flexible and that children should be negotiated with, appeased or persuaded rather than expected to comply. They are more likely to argue that rules should be about vague values (eg.: “respect each other”) than required behaviours with a practical benefit (eg.: “walk on the left side in the corridor”).
- Student opinion. Progressives often favour both formal attempts to collect and respond to student opinion, and informal attempts to encourage students to give opinions. Teachers are expected to justify their decisions to students, and often to persuade them rather than exercise their authority. Students are encouraged to question their teachers and challenge their decisions and defiance can be seen as normal or acceptable on this basis. It may be decided that getting the student’s side of the story is crucial even in disciplinary matters. At times, progressives can seem very hostile to teachers getting their way when students obstruct them. Teacher’s moral judgements are seen as suspect and identifying difficult students or challenging behaviour can be seen as “labelling”. Some progressives are uncomfortable with the idea of children being required to be quiet.
- Status. Progressives will often want to remove outward signs of the difference in status between students and teachers. So they are less likely to favour school uniforms, and more likely to favour calling teachers by their first name.
Methods. Teaching methods differ between progressives and traditionalists. Teaching methods are often seen by those who want to deny the debate as all there is to the argument. The straw man version of this is simply to state “traditionalists do X, progressives do Y” and then to argue that if you do both X and Y then the debate is irrelevant to you. However, it is what you value that is more important than what you do. And even when people deny the relevance of any of the debates I described in the previous two sections, their preferred methods may reveal otherwise. Roughly speaking, traditionalism values explicit instruction, memorisation and practice. Progressivism favours group work, discussion between students, discovery learning and learning which is relevant to (or mimics) “real life”. Values do matter more than precise methods and teaching methods are only really the decider in the case of the teacher who claims to be uninfluenced by ideology but shows a marked preference for one type of teaching. Many progressives will simply claim that the progressive methods they use work and refuse to acknowledge the philosophy that informed that judgement.
Right, so those are the dividing lines. They are complicated and messy, but should also be familiar to all but the most blinkered. Remembering that I have not claimed that progressives will endorse all the progressive beliefs I have described, just some of them, does anyone want to claim that there are no traditionalist versus progressive debates in schools today?