Teachers are divided by values, not just methods

May 13, 2017

A while back (which is my way of saying I always intended to reply to this, but somehow 6 months passed) I saw this post: Teaching is not two distinct theories. This is a lie promoted by the echo chamber of social media and thought it was a really clear statement of a wrong, but plausible, position that deserved a reply. (Except perhaps for the idea that the debate, which is well over 100 years old, is somehow centred on social media.)

The basic thesis of the post is a common one (although many who put it forward are less sincere than this author): Most teachers are above the debate between progressives and traditionalists.

It starts be describing the 2 approaches:

Group A (often called Traditionalists) – This group promote the fact that we should just give knowledge to our students. In their world the teacher is the font of all knowledge and their job is to pass this to the kids and their lessons are knowledge rich. Progress is kids knowing more stuff. According to them we need more academic rigour and less focus on skills. They don’t like discovery learning. This group is all about the subject.

Group B (often called Progressivists) – This group is all about the skills and the fun and the engagement. They want kids to know stuff but that isn’t their primary purpose. Instead they want to create engaging learning experiences where they learn life skills and lessons are often focused purely on getting them through the exam. They really like discovery learning. This group is less about the subject.

I think this is fair enough in most respects, although it is noticeable that both definitions, particularly the progressive one, are heavily weighted towards what teachers do, rather than what they believe. The post then goes on to argue that we can critique both approaches and instead do a bit of both. This is a really common approach for those trying to transcend the debate and comment on it from above. Often those who do this are blatantly progressive, and this seems like an excuse for not defending what they do, but I don’t think that this is the case here.

I do think that a number of people who claim to do a bit of both are actually bog standard progressives.

The critique of the two approaches then follows. Here is the critique of traditionalism.

Why is a purely Group A approach limited?

  • Knowledge is important but it is not the be all and end all of teaching.
  • How much ‘stuff’ do kids actually remember at the end of the year? My lesson is three hours out of fifty per fortnight. It isn’t possible for them to remember that much and I am good at my job (I think). This raises an elephant in the room – if they aren’t going to remember that stuff why should I focus purely on them remembering stuff?
  • Kids have to sit exams. If we don’t explicitly teach them skills and how to answer an exam question (whether we like it or not) they won’t do as well. And if they don’t get their grades we are affecting their university choices and job prospects.

The first point is a statement about values, but it is a very vague one. The other two points are actually utterly reliant on the traditionalist teacher not being good at being a traditionalist teacher. Why focus on knowledge if kids won’t remember it? The whole point of focusing on it is so that they do remember it. If they don’t: do it better. That’s not a problem with traditional aims, that’s a problem with not achieving them. Similarly with exams, the traditionalist case is that a focus on knowledge helps kids with their exams. No traditionalist will refuse to explicitly teach or practice exam technique (even if the author does insist on calling that “skills”), and actually traditionalists tend to be more positive about exams and tests.

Why is a purely Group B approach limited?

  • Making a model out of pipe cleaners is a laugh but what you taught them in an hour you could have just told them in five minutes.
  • A stop motion film is fun but where is the learning about the intricacies of your subject. Where is the grappling with the academic rigour of your subject?
  • Skills are needed but you cannot teach skills without knowledge. You have to know something to test your skills. It can’t therefore be all about skills.
  • Beating students with the exam stick takes out any fun or bits that are unique about your subject.

As you can imagine, I have more sympathy with this critique. But even more than the description of traditionalism, it is all about what the progressive teacher does, not what they believe.

This helps the author make the following argument:

What concerns me about the situation I have described above is that this is not what the majority of us do. In fact I have a suspicion that both Group A and B are the very loud but extreme minority of teachers. If you just teach like A or B I would also suggest that you don’t do a very good job. Teaching needs a bit of both A and B. Sometimes you need to just give them the facts, other times you need the kids on your side and creating an engaging learning activity that might be quite light hearted is needed.

My fear is that new teachers join social media and see the proponents of A or B who have a huge numbers of followers and think that therefore they should be like them and teach only like A or B. They shouldn’t. You need to be both A and B.

It is noticeable that until the last sentence, all of this is about what teachers do. It jars that the last sentence suddenly switches to what teachers should be. By focusing on what teachers do the author is able to describe their own week and claim:

…some lessons were more heavily weighted toward A, some were heavily B, most were a mixture of both. This is normal. In each scenario I planned for what is best for the kids. I did not let the very loud but extreme minority influence my planning, I used the technique that that led to the best learning.

The trouble with this is that by this point the debate has entirely ceased to be about values. I’m a hardcore traditionalist, and I might sometimes teach lessons that are entirely traditionalist, but overall I also use a mix. Group work, discussion, investigations, real-life problems, even word searches are not off limits, they just aren’t, in my opinion, techniques that often lead to the best learning.

The reason this doesn’t make me a “bit of both” is because these are educational philosophies, and the methods associated with them are only progressive and traditionalist in as much as they reflect underlying philosophies.

And this is why we struggle to be “a bit of both”. When we are in the classroom, we don’t ask “shall I be a bit progressive or a bit traditional” we think about what we want to achieve (which is informed by our philosophy) and we think about how best to achieve it (which is informed by our philosophy). Techniques are not incidental, but they vary a lot between subjects, (a traditionalist drama teacher would still do plenty of group work) and they are important only because of what they reveal about our beliefs.

When I say I am a traditionalist, it means I reject non-academic aims for education. It means that I believe learning knowledge improves the intellect more than anything else does. It means that I think children should be obedient. It means that I will pick methods because they maximise the acquisition of, and fluency in, knowledge. It also means that I favour explanation and practice but only because they are the best means to these ends.

The real challenge to this view of educational philosophies would not be the person who “does a bit of both”. A minute interrogating them about their beliefs would reveal which philosophy (if any) they follow, far quicker than any lesson observation would. The real challenge would be somebody who managed to espouse one set of values consistently (not just nod to them, insincerity is not difficult to explain) and yet somehow ended up using techniques that are more in line with a different philosophy and justifying it. Fortunately, I’m yet to meet anybody like that.




  1. The debate is as old as Emile. The English radical James Burgh commented:

    “It will be possible to prevent all the faults…whenever M. Rousseau obliges the world with the discovery of a new chemical process by which all the weakness, the self-love, the passion, and appetite which have been hitherto found in human nature, may be extracted out of children, and mortals at once transmuted into angels.”

    • Tom, this observation complements Andrew’s main point, I think: Rousseau wrote on education in service of his philosophy. He saw education as one means to return humankind to a proper relationship with God and Nature (the other means being a new politics); he saw this relationship as perverted by revealed religion. Other well-known philosophers of education (e.g., Rudolph Steiner) similarly had larger agendas.

  2. I propose a third group: Pragmatists. We teach in as engaging way as possible in order to ensure the kids in front of us the skills and knowledge they need to be successful both academically and in life.

    • Did you read the post?

    • Everyone is a pragmatist. Both traditionalists and progressives think they are pragmatic in their approaches to teaching. So the argument “I am a pragmatist” just sidesteps a discussion on philosophy. But we all have a philosophy, so this just avoids addressing it.

  3. I totally agree with the main point here Andrew. Values and philosophies about the nature of humans and the purpose of education are fundamental to being able to debate the other stuff without always talking past each other or simply going round in circles. I seem to see a lot of teachers who are ardently committed to their methods, but surprisingly vague about exactly why.

  4. Your last paragraph is very telling. I am a governor and am frequently involved in interviews for leadership posts. I am constantly disappointed about how many younger potential members of SLT seem to lurch from one fashionable method to the other without a philosophical framework from which to work. It makes for very confused and even contradictory answers.
    My framework is traditional – but if the method works I’ll use it.

  5. “A minute interrogating them about their beliefs would reveal which philosophy (if any) they follow, far quicker than any lesson observation would.”
    Maybe you should write some sort of questionnaire to help people identify their philosophy…

    • I wrote this: https://www.riddle.com/showcase/64356/personality Unfortunately I can no longer edit it and it could probably be improved.

      • Fantastic. Thanks. It told me I am progressive, even though I tend to agree with most things written by traditionalists. No wonder I’m confused!

        • Maybe you are in transition?

          • Hmm… Having tried that survey myself – numerous times with different permutations (!), and having disagreed with Andrew on this topic previously on his blog, I think that the one shortcoming here is that Andrew’s definition of ‘Traditionalist’ is very narrow. Basically, anyone who doesn’t conform to this tight description of Traditionalist is basically a ‘Progressive’. Sorry for harking-on about this Andrew, but it seems a categorical indulgence on your part.

            • I did say it needs editing. But I’m happy everyone who got traditionalist is one.

          • I did reach the ‘Traditionalist’ thumbs-up slightly quicker than I thought it was going to be to be honest 😀

          • Yeah, I got “progressive”, and I’m not remotely progressive by any standard that should matter.

  6. […] point, as Old Andrew pointed out teachers are divided by their values, not just their methods; it’s not what we do, it’s why we make the choices we make that matters. Whatever we […]

  7. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  8. […] I’ve also been introduced to the ‘traditional vs progressive’ debate (interesting blogs here, here and here) via Twitter, which has really opened my […]

  9. I have an emotional and negative reaction to the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ as used here, which I shall try to justify logically.

    I trained to be a teacher at the end of the sixties, beginning of the seventies. My training was all about discovery learning, the notion of readiness for learning, the importance of children working individually at their own rate, the idea that good teachers look at all possible ways of teaching and individually choose the combination they think is best and so on. From about 1970 until 2005, I thought that was known by all good teachers as the right way to make sure children learned. Then I was introduced to a better way of teaching reading to young children through direct instruction in the alphabetic code and how to read words by blending sounds. I was shocked and my trust in what I had been told before begun to tumble down. From then on I was open to considering and seeing the logic, and reading about the evidence, for direct teaching of knowledge and skills.

    So, for me, discovery learning, etc., is traditional. The progressive way, i.e., the way for making progress, is through direct teaching of knowledge and skills.

  10. […] Teachers are divided by values, not just methods […]

  11. […] Teachers are divided by values, not just methods […]

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