Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 3)

April 1, 2016

I wrote a couple of posts previously here and here about claims that there was no debate between progressive and traditional education. I hope the second one was particularly useful, in that it pointed out disagreements that were clearly happening in schools right now, and how they were part of the debate about progressive and traditional education. Nobody actually tried claiming that those debates weren’t happening, though a few people seemed to think that I was wrong to frame the debates in that way. None actually seemed to identify an alternative framing.

I was going to leave it there, but I’ve started to notice that the ideology of progressive education is often at its most influential when it is not stated explicitly as a belief. It is at its most influential when it is simply assumed to be true that traditional classroom teaching is not as good. A lot of the time this is shown by people’s choice of lessons, resources or practice to share or publicise. When was the last time you heard somebody say “I’m going to be observed, I’d better make sure I give my best explanation and use my best textbook”? When was the last Teach Meet where there were more talks about giving a good explanation than about using technology? When was the last time anybody at an interview said “I became a teacher because I’m good at explaining my subject?”.

But it also goes the other way. People will talk about a lesson without obviously progressive elements as if they are embarrassed by it, or it was deficient. Here are two examples.

In this blogpost, a teacher describes how they dealt with a class with poor behaviour:

The rest of the lessons that week were much better. I went for zero tolerance on poor behaviour and set my expectations to the class very clearly. The structure of the lessons were very traditional – chalk and talk – and the pupils were expected to work on their questions individually.

Were these lessons successful? On some levels YES. I was able to spend lots of time helping and encouraging all my pupils. There was a lot of progress made with their algebra skills and there was a much calmer atmosphere in the class.

Here’s my problem – the lessons were boring and not overly engaging. I don’t like teaching classes this way. I want pupils to have discussions, work together, investigate and enjoy their lessons. But do the pupils learn more when working independently in peace and quiet?

Here’s where I need help – how can I teach the type of lessons I know my pupils need without letting the minority take over? If I can’t figure it out I worry that these pupils, who behave and want to learn, will get discouraged and not enjoy learning maths.

Here’s an example from this podcast featuring Vic Goddard:

You know, I know that I teach maths in quite a dull way. You know I haven’t progressed in my maths teaching, because it hasn’t been a priority if I’m honest, and I know that I go in and I demonstrate on the board; I show an example; you do a worked example; they have a couple of goes on their own, and they may have an exercise to do. That’s what they do; that’s what I do, and actually I’m actually probably quite scared to do anything else because it will take me longer to prepare. It will take me longer to get organized and, actually, have I got the time? And I need to be empowered as well and force myself to go: “well if I taught it in a different way, it would save me time in the long run and they’d understand it better”.

In these examples we have teachers talking about secondary maths lessons in which the teacher explains the maths and sets work. In both cases, they mention clear advantages to this approach. But the assumption is in both cases is that they would, ideally, be doing something different. Of course all lessons can be improved. Perhaps better explanations can be given, perhaps other elements could be added here and there, maybe some AfL, but here the teachers suggest that understanding and enjoyment require something different. Yet there’s no shortage of evidence that teacher explanations and worked examples can be really effective (some good references for this can be found here). It’s not something any teacher should be ashamed of doing, or even doing every lesson.

Obviously, it could be claimed that such examples are unusual. But they certainly chime with my experience of educational discourse. OFSTED may claim that they no longer require less teacher talk and compulsory group work, but plenty of teachers still assume that there is something wrong with chalk and talk. There’s a passage from Keynes that, in recent years, traditionalists in education have often quoted:

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”

Sometimes the influence of progressive education is there without us even being aware of it. Those who explicitly deny the debate in education are one thing, but perhaps, more worrying, is the extent to which teachers assume the progressives were right without even realising there is a debate to be had. This can happen even when they are teaching traditionally, and even when it seems to be working. We’ll know things have changed in education when a lesson where you explain something and set work is considered something to be proud of, rather than something to confess and apologise for.



  1. A quick check of Twitter stops me thinking there is no debate going on or even one to be had. But I think in this blog you are starting to get to the issue that I keep coming back to time and again with this debate…the actual problem with traditional or progressive education is…bad teaching. Is bad trad better than bad prog? Is good trad better than good prog? It doesn’t much matter, in cases of good teaching then there will be good learning (whatever that means) and in cases of bad teaching there will be bad (probably by which I mean no/little) learning.
    I have taught some lessons which are very traditional in form – very much all focussed on imparting subject knowledge from the board. I have taught lessons which have group work and paired talk etc. What I have never done is to pick either teaching style based on what my SLT wanted – I have chosen lesson by lesson based on the subject knowledge required plus what other skills I need my class as a whole to have. This is much more primary relevant in many ways as I used to have some group work in maths problem solving scenarios which was partly for the maths (Ofsted observed their questioning skills were in Year 5 at a standard she had previously only seen in Year 8 and above) but I also set those up to get them working together because they used to fight and hate each other.
    So I have no idea if I am prog or trad or if a mixture (I know some people say a mixture doesn’t exist but despite reading avidly on both sides of the debate I cannot identify with one side or the other and that’s just my personal feeling)
    I do know, however, that I have taught some bad lessons in my time. Some shockers in fact. Some of which were trad base and some prog base. So all I do know is that bad teaching is bad. And good teaching is good.
    I know it’s anecdotal and not very intellectual but there it is. I have finally added my tuppence worth to the debate!

    • Read part 2 of this sequence of posts. I challenge anyone to take that on board and then claim to be neutral.

    • I think I’m with you on this!

  2. Don’t get me wrong. I admire your tenacity on this issue. I’m happy to call myself a traditionalist simply because in my experience traditional methods work; if by traditional, we mean a well-considered teacher-led explanation followed by an expectation that pupils will tackle progressively more testing tasks more or less independently. I’ve tried the other stuff-generally when being observed and can serve up an atmosphere of apparent productivity, engagement and ‘peer assessment’ easily enough. The problem is that very little seems to stick or even clears the first hurdle of conceptual clarity…not that this seems to matter to the observer who is generally in thrall to the buzz of activity and interaction. Then I generally have to follow up next time with an explanation which they can actually follow and usefully apply.
    I am convinced that traditional methods work. Equally, I’m sure that progressive education actively hinders students; further, I think that progressive education disproportionately hinders economically disadvantaged students since they tend to be in the less successful schools who are often required to import ‘expert help’. Clearly, ‘expert’ in terms of UK education is more or less synonymous with ‘progressive’.
    The big question is why these methods persist when they clearly don’t work. I think the answer is that it’s ideological and no amount of evidence will ever shift an ideologue…especially a progressive ideologue. It’s incredibly frustrating but to put things in perspective, throughout the 20s and 30s literally hundreds of Western progressives toured the Soviet Union during the Ukraine famine and great terror; saw a half-starved, barely functional terror regime and returned with tales of a socialist utopia which would transform mankind. The few who managed to throw off their blinkers told of Quakers applauding task parades, feminists enraptured at the sight of old women staggering under hundred-weight sacks of coal, architects in raptures over ramshackle buildings beginning to crumble months after completion.
    You have to recall that the people making these claims were not hard-line Marxist fellow travellers. These were well respected intellectuals of their time: George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The latter pair published “Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?” . They brought out a second edition in 1937 for which they dropped the question mark at the time when the Stalinist purges reached their peak.
    The lengths to which ideologues will go to defend their beliefs know no bounds. The degree of self-delusion and intellectual dishonesty is staggering. If it’s any consolation, some hide-bound progressive persisting in a group-work/discovery approach to quadratic equations may well result in a group of kids who never quite master algebra but at least it won’t condemn them to 70 years of political oppression and terror.

  3. Loved this series of posts. Interesting to read and very thought provoking. Personally, it would appear I am more of a traditionalist than progressive, though politically I am much more liberal than conservative. That said, my approach has always varied depending on the students I am teaching. Sometimes students need structure and direction and then on the other hand some students need less structure and more freedom to get the most from the learning I am trying to encourage. These latter students are obviously at very different places on their learning journey from the former. Typically given the opportunities presented to those able to benefit from a ‘progressive’ approach, students unable to cope with that freedom often end up learning very little and their teachers wind up disillusioned and burnt out.

    Now having said that, I think that math is a subject that needs to be taught explicitly. Trying to teach math as you would social studies just doesn’t make sense! There are very few people for whom math is natural and where understanding and comprehension is something that happens. For many, I believe, that sort of ‘progressive’ math instruction leads to a place where students fear math because they don’t get it. Where on the other hand well taught and clearly explained math can be a way of getting students hooked. In my mind and from my experience both as student and teacher, math is one of the subjects where you need to have explicit instruction and great teaching to get the most from it. From there those who see numbers and have that intuitive understanding can go on to what may be called a more progressive curriculum. The rest of us at least leave our education with a solid understanding and appreciation of math.

  4. What I find interesting is that, from my observations, lots of people including myself are happy to identify their views as traditional, broadly traditional, fairly traditional, mainly traditional etc. Yet people who expound views which tick most of the progressive boxes seem strangely reluctant to identify themselves as progressive in any form at all (heymisssmith is one honourable exception).

    • Yeah, that’s true. Maybe it’s a bit like the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon…those who intend to vote Conservative but know it’s all wrong and are too shame faced to admit it to the pollsters. I think many progressives know it’s all a dog’s dick of a methodology but go along with it because…

      a) it keeps management sweet/ off their case
      b) it’s part of their PM
      c) they’re ambitious
      d) it’s just easier that way
      e) they see it as an unavoidable occupational hazard
      f) deep down they want to be Mary Poppins more than they want to teach

  5. Funnily enough – as one of those who squirmed at the black/white framing of the debate – I have indeed started work this holiday on a book which will seek to provide an alternative. I’m not intending to rush out a dog’s dinner though, so feel free to get on with something else in the meantime! 😉

  6. I agree with most of what you say about traditional teaching. However, I don’t quite understand your rigid views, everything is black and white. It seems that you think that if you teach with any progressive methods at all, you are either doing the wrong thing, or you are progressive.

    I wonder if Maths teaching colours your view?

    I largely teach with traditional methods. However, as an A Level teacher, critical thinking is important in my subject in order to analyse and evaluate. I do attempt to teach my students on how to think critically as it is essential to being educated. I also want them to have some political consciousness- which again I believe is part of academic education. However, according to Part 2- these are aims of progressives?! I don’t see how you can draw a line and separate the two into distinct camps.

    As an A level teacher, I also find that resilience and independence (again mentioned in post 2 as progressive aims) are extremely important- eg. resilience to deal with constructive criticism and feedback (and to not expect praise) when your answers are wrong, and independence as at A level (and university) you need to do a significant amount on your own.

    I am quite frankly sick of trying to transform spoonfed children into A Level students.

    And guess what? I also have to get students to read ahead on content and re-visit this in the lessons through applying the content.

    Does this make me a progressive?

    I have experimented with a range of traditional and progressive teaching methods and my results are pretty consistent regardless of methods.

    • To be fair, whether you want to identify as progressive or not, that sounds like a pretty standard description of traditional A level teaching.

  7. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  8. […] and traditional education (Part 1) I wrote about the various versions of this argument. In Denying the debate about progressive and traditional education (Part 3) I argued that people were not always aware that their position was […]

  9. […] I showed the beliefs were often often held implicity here; […]

  10. […] the debate between progressive and traditional education (Part 1), (Part 2), (Part 3) and (Part 4) by Andrew […]

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