Why do progressives deny the debate?

April 17, 2017

I’ve written a number of times about progressives who reacted to the end of the suppression of traditionalism in our education system by claiming that, one way or another, there was still nothing to debate. It’s worth recalling that in 2013, as the debate really got going again, it was often progressives who wanted to emphasise that there were two camps, and to take sides between them. This is from a post by some very progressive education consultants in July 2013:

One of the fascinating aspects of the recent Festival of Education at Wellington College was the exceptionally wide range of speakers and the breadth and diversity of opinions on offer. Ultimately, however, they divided into two camps.

In the ‘traditionalist’ camp were all those who believe that the main aim of education has always been, still is, and always will be, the attainment of high scores in time-limited, high-stakes tests and exams. These people also believe that through various efforts to ‘drive up’ exam scores we can measure students, teachers and schools…

…The Great Education Wars are now a worldwide phenomenon, and reminiscent of the continuing wars between the two schools of economics which have been raging since the 1960s. In the fields of finance and economics you’re either a Keynesian or a Friedmanite/monetarist. In education you’re either in the camp that says “attainment” is the only thing that really matters, or you’re in the camp that says the holistic development of individual children and young people across all of their aptitudes and intelligences is what’s truly important.

Some of us have known about these wars taking place over several decades, whereas some  just echo Leonard Cohen – “I didn’t even know there was a war”.*

Well it’s time to get real. There IS a war, and it’s not going to go away. No amount of words from the likes of Michael Gove are going to change the minds of those who say children have a fundamental right to the kinds of personalised learning that value their individuality and enable them to succeed across all of their intelligences – personal, social, emotional, spiritual, practical, creative, etc. Just as those on the child-centred side are never going to change the minds of those who are adamant that academic success is the be-all and end-all (whilst paying lip service to other areas of learning and personal development).

At the time, my response was to actually challenge that the debate was this stark (although I never denied that there were two camps):

I’m quite happy to accept the existence of a “traditionalist” camp and a “child-centred” camp, although they are probably far less homogeneous than is assumed here. The trouble with this is that I cannot think of anybody in education who fits this particular description of the “traditionalist” viewpoint. While, perhaps, those of us more sympathetic to traditional teaching methods and the academic purposes of education are also more likely to think that testing may, sometimes, be a useful or even indispensable tool in assessing whether students are learning, I cannot imagine anyone saying that the exams are ends, not means.

Even at that time, there were already those seeking to deny the debate, and in the post I quoted above, I acknowledged that this was common, and addressed it:

Do teachers not use a mix of progressive and traditional methods? Do they not combine a variety of values? While I think false dichotomies do often occur in education – the 3D Eye blog mentioned above being a perfect example – they generally tend to obscure genuine debates rather to create debates where none exist. While we might find that some of the questions raised result in differing answers within the same camp, and while sometimes we might put our ultimate aims on hold just to get through the day or to achieve temporary consensus, choices have to be made. While some of choices, like how much freedom kids should have, or whether kids can learn in groups, may depend to a degree on who you happen to have in front of you, it would be impossible to make an intelligent choice on such issues without having first decided on the more fundamental issues of what education is for and of what it consists. We will have to make choices about whether we do what will make kids smarter or what will make them happier. We have to decide whether what they need to know is what society values or what they (or their teachers) happen to like. We have to agree or disagree about the existence and teachability of various generic dispositions and skills which lessons might be given over to developing. There are no simple compromises and middle positions to be adopted over any of these issues. Ultimately, you will put yourself in one camp or another, or simply fail to have made up your mind.

After that it rapidly became the most common strategy for progressives on social media, and I found myself addressing it again and again:

  • This was my first big discussion of denying the debate;
  • I included denying the debate among the trendiest arguments for progressive education here;
  • I discussed the main forms of denial here;
  • I defined the terms in detail here;
  • I showed the beliefs were often often held implicity here;
  • I answered those who objected to the structure of the debate here;
  • I wrote an update of the trendiest arguments for progressive education here;
  • I answered those who claimed that nobody is against knowledge here;
  • I showed my definitions were basically the same as Dewey’s from 1938 here.

It now feels like progressives who admit they are progressives and argue for progressivism are a small minority of the progressives on social media. When an anonymous blogger took the name “Progressive Teacher” and tweeted as @prog_teacher and blogged here they probably got more publicity from traditionalists grateful to see somebody wasn’t denying the debate than they did from their fellow progressives. It’s now become so common to deny the debate that even some of the progressive trolls who accuse traditionalists of being part of the political far right, will also dismiss the idea that there is any real disagreement with them and argue that it is all a false dichotomy (apparently without realising that must mean they too are on the far right). Some trolls now use the term “pseudo-trads” in order to refer to traditionalists without admitting that we are actually traditionalists.

So why has this become so common? Why are progressives so reluctant to say so? I would like to present two clues. Firstly, another one of my twitter polls. This one got (ominously) 666 votes. It is obviously skewed towards my followers, so I make no claim that it accurately represents either teachers on Twitter, or teachers in general. The way I set it up deliberately excludes debate deniers, which presumably counts out a lot of progressives.

However, what it does show is that out of over 450 traditionalist teachers who answered in the 24 hours the poll was open, over three fifths of them had not always been traditionalists. It looks like twitter traditionalists might well be mainly converts. They have encountered debate and taken a side, or even switched sides.

The second clue is in the following debate, which is worth listening to if you have an hour.

It took place at a global education forum where I would normally only expect to hear of progressives and big business having a voice (if you doubt me, please look into it). The progressive dominance of the event was shown by the pre-debate voting:

Perhaps not surprising given the somewhat biased wording of the motion, and the likelihood that many participants would be from outside the UK and might have never have heard educationalists explicitly argue in favour of traditionalism in their own countries. After an hour’s debate of the issues, with Daisy Christodoulou, and Nick Gibb, putting the traditionalist case, the audience voted again.

I think both of these clues point to the extent to which, once traditionalist arguments get out there, many people are converted. I think this is why so many progressives do not want open debate between progressives and traditionalists to happen. I admit I can’t prove this, but we should ask ourselves what is more likely. Is it possible that, for more than a century, educational progressives, such as Charles Dickens, Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, or for pity’s sake, Albert Einstein were mistaken in thinking that anyone disagreed with them? Or is it more likely that, during the end of a period of almost total progressive dominance in England, today’s progressives have lost their nerve and just don’t want teachers to be informed enough to choose between different beliefs about education?



  1. I feel myself badly conflicted by articles such as this, carrying as it does much anecdotal evidence of arguments won by the traditionalists. I left a violent, abusive, traditionalist boys boarding school in 1971, successful in relative terms academically and in sporting achievement, but emotionally repressed and unsure of whom ‘I’ was. 3 years later, I left the University of Leicester with a degree majoring in psychology and biology, with a life long partner and love of learning. In the subsequent 42 years as a teacher, my enthusiasm for education is undimmed, rewarded as much by the constant challenge and change I face at work.
    For me, the debate between trad and prog is utterly sterile, a sideshow that completely ignores the chaos that has been wrought by successive governments over the past 8 or so years, but has been waged by Gove, Gibb et Al to smokescreen the havoc neoconservative polices have wrought to the educational, care and wider societal landscape. Atomising schools, outsourcing services as Alan Bennet states in his autumn 2015 diary to any mates who feel they can make a buck or two, further disenfranchising the local electorate and centralising power at national level simply won’t improve education and care services. Locally, what’s left of children’s services is being privatised, and the rump of funding left for children with high needs woefully short meaning even less recovery possible for those most in need.
    Despite world-wide evidence to the contrary, state school governors have to implement teacher performance related pay, at a time of such budget cutbacks that TA and LSA employees are facing redundancy. The Govt and right wing press push further their grammar schools that work for everyone mantra, coupled to free school expansion that’s not delivering the new school places where they are needed.
    I run a popular, successful, broad ability all through independent school, in which I hope I can provide a human friendly environment in which all children and adults feel they can belong and contribute. As Professor Robert Coe made clear at the opening of the Chartered College of Teachers, the successful provision of Education remains the most complex activity known to humans. It is badly served by the trad v prog debate, because in part education begins at birth and for most ends at death; there’s a small window through which winners v losers in school can be viewed (lower secondary), but for the disdvantaged the damage has been done by age 5, and recovery programmes can’t be ‘one size fits all teach them traditionally’!
    The single most effective step in education requires of teachers (the adults ) and the children to forge effective relationships with each other. What poisons that step happening can be many things, and that’s what needs constant vigilance. Effective noticing at the individual level, coupled with kind school managements that worry about detail but support not blame, and that are sufficiently resourced to provide well is the way we can create the successful adults for the future society we want.

  2. I don’t know a single advocate of traditional education who advocates violent or abusive boarding schools, but the fact that a few of them once existed has proved a godsend to progressive educators who have a real hang-up about authority and cannot imagine it as anything but oppressive. When we were attempting to start a free school staffed by former service personnel, we attracted an enormous amount of media attention and I was forever correcting the impression that we’d have former sergeant-majors spitting and screaming at little kiddies. I had to point out that in a modern volunteer force this kind of discipline could not possibly work; in fact, sanctions are hardly ever needed because the lowliest private either buys into the system or leaves. Unfortunately, the popular imagination harks back to the days of national service, very much as James Wilding harks back to his boarding school.
    Prior to this, I delivered INSET at a lot of schools that used our wave 3 literacy programme, and most of these were well into the ‘traditional’ end of the spectrum. Our materials were undoubtedly of the “one size fits all teach them traditionally” that Mr Wilding decries–yet in independent trials conducted by two LAs, nearly all of the pupils (even those in special schools) caught up.
    The schools I visited were almost all happy schools; you could tell the moment you walked in the reception lobby. Staff were invariably relaxed and enthusiastic, as were their pupils. This is almost invariably the case when teachers are in full control of their classes: these days, good discipline is swift and sure but never unfair or harsh.

    • I have made no comment about modern Curriculum delivery, though confirm that many different approaches are valid, being age, stage and subject specific. What I am highlighting is that far bigger battles have taken place over the past 40 years to bring us to this point in time; this blog wondered where the opposition had gone to? My hope is to the College of Teachers, where we can argue internally re Trad v Prog v Analog v Digital v whatever, but externally focus our professional efforts on ensuring resources are kept in sufficient place such that our children are provided for well enough. My starting point in education was at a time when physical violence was endemic in schools; national policy change was required to drive it out and make its use illegal and a criminal offence. That was a benign change, that made for kinder schools. Another major benign development has been that to be found in school nurseries and early years in schools, with a more appropriate balance of skill development introduced in this foundation stage, permitting the age differential within each age group to be appropriately managed. Such changes carried the teaching professionas with them. The new grade changes, reduction in per capita funding, houdini tricks with high needs funding, prp, opacity around free school and academy structures require all of us to focus our attention, otherwise we will no longer see the happy schools to which Tom Burkard refers.

      • It’s a moot question as to whether physical violence was endemic in our schools prior to it being banned. Quite possibly it was in boarding schools for boys, but not knowing anyone who ever attended one, I can’t say. If the people I know are anything to go by, grammar school pupils were seldom caned, and even those who went to schools where corporal punishment was used never complained about it. In the US, only one school I attended used physical punishment, and it was seldom used. In all the passionate late night undergraduate discussions at the U of Michigan in the 1960s when we planned to set the world to rights, I can assure you that the question of corporal punishment in schools was far, far below our radar.
        Now, there is no doubt but that violence is endemic in our schools–except it’s the teachers who are on the receiving end. According to the ATL, 43% of their members had to deal with physical violence last years, and of these, 77% have been pushed or shoved; 52% have been kicked; 50% have had an object such as furniture thrown at them, and 37% have been punched. I haven’t seen recent figures on pupils being assaulted by other pupils, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is a major concern for a substantial percentage of our children.
        This is not to defend corporal punishment–Prussian schools haven’t used it since the days of Pestalozzi, and no one ever accused their children of running riot. But it does suggest that the obvious problems progressives have with the concept of authority have reduced quite a substantial percentage of our schools to shambles, and has made teaching extremely stressful in most of the rest. Over the holidays I talked to a teacher whose school was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted last month, yet even senior staff are afraid to challenge pushing, shouting and punching in the corridors. Only the best teachers manage to keep pupils in their seats during class. The sad thing is that we are no longer surprised, let alone shocked, by such reports. I really hate to say this, but you really ought to ‘check your privilege’.

        • Aware of my privileged position, I attend and participate in as much support work as I can for colleagues in the state sector, including Headteachers’ summit in February nationally, NAHT membership (since 1982), nationally school inspecting since 1993/4 and local work within SEN and High Needs funding within RBWM. Our local state schools are not facing the same challenges you report; perhaps though we would share much in common – the London challenge set out to change such a landscape in our capital city and did just that, and schools in challenging circumstances gained the support and funding they needed, and are now measured as better by outcome than the rest in the land. I used Sir Tim Brighouse’s book on the outcomes, Essential Pieces: The Jigsaw of a successful school (https://goo.gl/a0ls90) back in 2006/7 to develop my schools’ development plan, and it remains a simple to read primer on how to build a better school. Geoff Barton rates this books really highly too, and he should know! It’s seeing our local authorities losing that funding and seeing the wheels already coming off sector support systems that causes me to shout out and make this noise, truly.

  3. Why do progressives deny the science? See “Do We Need to Memorize That?” at http://bit.ly/2pvtb03

    • Nice paper (if obscure) from Department of Chemistry, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis confirming we need to learn things. I quote from the abstract: “To achieve automaticity in recall,
      facts and procedures must be committed to memory (assimilated) and then tagged with associations to other knowledge (accommodated) in the brain’s conceptual frameworks”. In essence, this explains why learning to drive a car requires knowledge and procedures to be hard-wired before driving becomes a reliable activity, one that can be left to the subconscious whilst other more urgent/important activities are managed. Actors, musicians, poets, linguists, mathematicians etc. all need to learn stuff in school to permit them to make progress. But I don’t need my students aged 12 to learn the 63 clauses of Magna Carta when studying King John’s conflict with his Barons. The materials they explore, the analysis of evidence from the time, even perhaps a review from more recent times of why History got it wrong initially (that Magna Carta protected individual freedoms etc.) makes for stimulating discussion and work around the importance of our civil rights in the 21st century. In short, we need to develop skills along with knowledge, and as I referred to in my first post, the earlier children become confident explorers of their learning through play, the more effective they become as learners as they progress through first junior and secondary school. The major point of my writing is to highlight that over the last 10 years, government has pretty much chucked out every rule book of how stuff happens in the provision of education and care. Those decisions, made by our elected politicians have left those within state sector with a blasted heath – with all the understood facts and procedures on how things happen removed, there is no conscious knowledge of what is to work – witness the latest regrading by Justine Greening of the new level 4 being a standard pass and level 5 a strong pass…bringing a language for grades into parlance that hasn’t existed for decades, and the consequences of which Tom Sherrington writes about well here https://teacherhead.com/2017/03/28/gcse-grading-goes-ga-ga/.

  4. I saw the speech of Daisy Christodoulou, but was not aware of the “voting”. It’s an important lesson how making concrete the concepts we use can in fact have an influence. I mean, Daisy C. had to speak in favour of a sentence (filling heads with facts), which probably could make her sick, in this version. BUT even without changing this aweful sentence, she did convince quite some people that “facts” and “knowledge” can be treated today and for education as meaningful notions, having nothing to do with whatever kind of dull drill of total nonsense (in the literate sense) many as pupils may in fact have experienced in SOME lessons. We need this clarifying and reframing of important concepts in education very much.

    • I should think that any teacher who truly understands their subject will have little trouble presenting factual knowledge as a means of building coherent schemata relevant to the subject. The problem comes in primary school, where teachers often lack a good understanding of many of the subjects they are required to teach. At very least, we should insist that primary schools engage specialist subject teachers in KS2, requiring a minimum of a good A-level to teach any subject.

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. […] Why do progressives deny the debate? […]

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