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:
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.