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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?

19 comments

  1. Great post–I’ve seldom seen so many misleading progressive cliches used to such good effect. I think we should all contribute our own favourites–mine is ‘behaviour management’, sometimes stated as B4L, or ‘Behaviour for Learning’. To the uninitiated this might sound as though teachers were exerting their authority, but in fact it thinly disguises the belief that children have to ‘own’ their behaviour, and hence teachers have to negotiate a mutually-acceptable compromise. Kids of course see through this right away, and they greatly enjoy leading the poor deluded teacher down a merry path. There are a few teachers who are so wet that one could shoot snipe off them, and they are the ones who end up with classes at the bottom of Terry Haydn’s 10 point scale:

    “Your entry into the classroom is greeted by jeers and abuse. There are so many transgressions of the rules it is difficult to know where to start. You wish you had not gone into teaching.”


  2. Reblogged this on Michael Oyebode (@MOyebodeTeacher) Professional Teaching Blog and commented:
    Debate between progressive and traditional education…


  3. When teachers use progressive methods, but deny that they believe the philosophy that underpins them, they are often genuinely ignorant of that philosophy. It may not have occurred to them that there is such a thing as an educational philosophy. They are so used to conforming, and to the relativist assumption that truth changes over time, that the notion of having any fixed point of underlying belief which informs their actions would probably be rather shocking to them.

    We are a long way from convincing such people to change, because the first thing they need to acknowledge is that it is possible to come to a definite and objective conclusion about what constitutes right action, Without this basis, they may temporarily see the sense of our arguments, but they will soon slip back into conformity.

    As Daisy Christodoulou and Robert Peal have pointed out, one of the main things which makes progressivism so successful and so hard to shift is that it fits neatly into the postmodernist relativism which has become the only dogma in contemporary culture. The one fixed point is that there is no fixed point.

    ‘The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society.’ – Allan Bloom, ‘The Closing of the American Mind’.


  4. Andrew, haven’t you just made your job incredibly easy for yourself? Why is it that you can say that someone is only a Traditionalist if they believe EVERYTHING that you lay down, whereas they’re a Progressive if they deviate in any respect from that?
    What is to stop an arch Progressive from declaring the opposite?

    There are some really juicy debates to be had about the aspects that you mention – and what people really believe about them underneath their actions – and I agree that there is good reason to engage teachers in debate about what beliefs and rationalities really guide their actions. As I said yesterday, the truth is that in such areas the majority of humans are mixed-up people, based on conflicting perceptions of anthropology.

    However, all the worthwhile and respectable arguments are cast to the wind if you maintain a determination to argue about labels. Indeed, it feels like arguments I used to have when training to be a Catholic Priest (that’s just the half of my checkered past) as to whether you could only be called a Catholic if you adhered to EVERYTHING in the Catechism. This wasn’t even getting into the extremes of the Society of St Pius X. At least in those circumstances there was recourse to ultimates such as ‘God’.

    Effectively you are guaranteeing that you will eventually be holed-up in an ivory tower of your making that will never appeal to more than a minority. Defined in the absolutist way that you have done it, traditionalism can never become more than an extreme preference. It has no founding ontology which must compel all educators to adhere to it. You need to debate each aspect according to whether it is the best way to accomplish the AGREED aims of the people in the debate. If you get to a level where there are no shared assumptions, then it is futile.


    • I think if you reflect for a moment, Andrew is pretty much already in that ivory tower, and he knows it. It doesn’t make him wrong though, which seems to be your thesis here. I would that more people would be like him; doing teaching and talking about it.


      • I do agree that Andrew does a great amount of service to the teaching profession with his writing and curation, and all the areas which he identifies above definitely ARE up for debate and it does matter that teachers think about them and choose wisely. In many areas I would side with him (and do in different times and places).

        I just think that the meta-narrative here regarding the exclusive nature of the Traditionalist label will actually undermine his crusade to get people to listen to him and debate the details. People are wary of ‘pure blood’ minority positions. There’s always a ‘pure blood’ position at the other extreme which can seem just as tantalizing.

        Also, ultimately, traditionalism emerges from one or more philosophical standpoints. If people do believe the different premises of it then they should indeed heed and thrash out the detailed implications of those premises, rather than gloss them over. But they might not agree with some of the premises in the first place… (such as what the aims of education should be example)


        • Which is for traditionalists to make the argument here. The implication it is a minority opinion is to attack without evidence.


          • I do think that the majority of people have traditionalist rationalisations in many areas when forced to evaluate what they really think. However, I work in an academically selective Independent Junior School with a traditional curriculum (much more ‘traditional’ in ethos than my previous school), and I don’t think that there is anybody on our staff who would pass the test of being a traditionalist set-up by Andrew in these posts, so based on that evidence I would indeed assert that he is outlining a position which is too exclusive to ever go beyond minority appeal. Otherwise, why did traditional education ever loose the centre ground appeal in the first place?
            The achilles heel I think is ever convincing everyone about the purpose of education. It’s too inextricably linked to beliefs about the purpose of life & society.


          • Traditonal education didn’t lose the centre ground appeal. This is the impact of moving training to universities and making it a degree based profession. That’s where the ideological stance was taught and where it came from. It’s not like the progressives have ever explained it to the general public, hence the prevalence of teacher bashing that started in the 1970s onwards. There were many unhappy parents who turned to the media due to the crazies being let lose on their children. Now it is not the sensible parents but the ones with ridiculous demands who make the pages but that comes from somewhere too. Of course the move towards laissez faire parenting stems from a similar time period but is lagging in its overall impact due to the fact that not everyone can be reached through informal means. I think the real issue is why don’t people vote in parties who offer progressive education on a plate like the last Labour government did – a) bc economy is more imp and b) bc it doesn’t appeal to majority. Ignoring the wishes and views of society, keeping people deliberately ignorant by hiding behind professionalism doesn’t count as a problem that traditional education has. It was promised as part of the reforms to a comprehensive system. That’s what society wanted and on the whole still wants.


          • There’s nothing wrong with what you say there Tarjinder, but I still think it tracks similar currents in popular inclination. Look at the perpetual political swings between Labour/Conservative, Democrat/Republicanism for example. Yes there is a time when people just get bored with what’s in and think it’s time to try something new, but there’s also this twin need in humans for the authoritarian clarity which fits their knee-jerk desire for certainty, and the more aspirational, inclusive, ‘I have a dream’, sense of something more imaginative, yet unsustainable in a mechanistic universe.

            This is why democratic societies keep running backwards and forwards between those two poles every few years. Such is the human condition that they yearn for both, but both ain’t possible according to traditional ways of thinking. Try squaring up equality and freedom for a start. I suppose the bottom line is that humans are fundamentally sentimental… they want themselves and their children to be happy (…or what on Earth is the point of carrying on?), and simply aiming to make children cleverer by the most efficient means can only ever seem to be a partial (if important) answer to this.


  5. Hello.

    How’s things?

    I’m still not sure about all of this. As ever, you make a good argument – well reasoned and articulated. And as I make my way down your checklist I can see how I have shifted over the years from P to T. But your final point is troublesome. In my subject – English – I find one has to strike a balance between what might be termed knowledge delivery and understanding, and discussion. Asking pupils for their opinion about a text is a crucial element. Allowing them to explore their responses to texts – as a class or in groups – is also important. And yet there will be lessons which are heavily directed.

    Also, I don’t deny that the debate exists. I’m just not so sure it’s necessary. It’s been going on for over a hundred years; can’t we move on? And yet it dominates the discourse on Twitter, spinning round and round like a yin-yang. Perhaps, with this symbol in mind, it is necessary. And each side defines itself in opposition to the other. Are you the yin, or the yang?


  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  7. […] and said?  Stating that education should be freed from political interests shows a naivety of the debate at its heart. There are few aspects of our lives more necessarily political than the decisions we […]


  8. […] wrote a couple of posts previously here and here about claims that there was no debate between progressive and traditional education. I hope the […]


  9. […] the key disagreements between the two sides you in effect are an “heir to the progressives[1]”. He highlights three main areas of disagreement – content, authority, and methods – […]


  10. […] 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…  […]


  11. […] any of the key disagreements between the two sides you in effect are an “heir to the progressives[1]”. He highlights three main areas of disagreement – content, authority, and methods – […]


  12. […] the post I want to revisit is Denying the debate between progressive and traditional education (Part 2). You may want to read that […]


  13. I would put myself further toward the progressive side of the spectrum, as I have a sports coaching background, where supporting the students in discovering through cognitive discourse is the best way of improving. My major issue with my subject,”maths” is that the topics are completely irrelevant to the majority of students lives and that there needs to be a purpose to the learning. This doesn’t mean that I am student centred, far from it. I plan very carefully to ensure the route the students are taking is towards the goal I want them to achieve. Think more of a shepherd guiding the sheep from one pen to another, but allowing freedom to go in many directions, while keeping a sharp eye on wanderers and putting them back on course. The traditional style is more of a pied piper, where students follow the teacher without question down the route, and if a wrong turn is made or missed, then there is no way of getting back on track.

    This doesn’t mean that I don’t use traditional methods in the delivery of topics, so I will use chalk and talk and lecturing, but a mixed environment created by good planning and resourcing that creates a sense of ownership for students is vital.



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