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Revisiting the Trendiest Arguments for Progressive Education Again

January 27, 2018

Back in July 2015 I wrote this post and this post about arguments that were being used more and more by progressives, as their traditional arguments of “it’s what the government/OFSTED tell us to do” and “it’s what the research supports” had passed their sell-by-date. The arguments were the following:

  1. The argument from mental health;
  2. Debate denialism;
  3. The argument from political correctness;
  4. The free market conspiracy.

A year and a half later, in December 2016, I revisited the arguments again in this post.

The time has come to have another look.

1) The argument from mental health. The argument that traditional education is bad for children’s mental health, while never going away, seems to have peaked around the end of 2016. Progressives will still claim that tests, studying or strict discipline are bad for children’s mental health. There is still talk of a youth mental health crisis whenever new statistics on, say, self-harm, come out. Articles about exam stress are still common. However, I haven’t noticed the same rush for schools to accept the prophets warning that making kids work makes them ill. The only high profile appearance of this argument I recall from the last 12 months was when, in what I can only describe as an act of exploitation, the Labour Party let an irate 16 year old take the stage to claim that now GCSE grades are numbers instead of letters, half of children are mentally ill and unable to afford paper.

The one exception to the reduced prominence of mental health as a way of promoting progressive education, has been around exclusion, where the constant efforts to demonise schools that permanently exclude, has led to all manner of bizarre claims about excluded students and how they are the true victims. This has included claims that they are mentally ill.

2) Debate Denialism. Blogposts claiming that the debate between traditionalist and progressive philosophies of education are only about teaching methods and, therefore, most teachers take a middle position in which they use a mix of methods, are as common as ever. And people whose progressive views are never challenged in the workplace, will always claim that nobody argues about this in actual schools.

However, as progressives have got more aggressive and hostile on social media, attacking individual schools and trying to paint those who disagree with them as far-right, it has become more difficult than ever to claim there is not an actual disagreement and people claiming “there is no best way to teach” while arguing strongly that traditional teaching is evil are becoming a bit of a joke. On the other hand, we are as far away from ever from expecting new teachers to have learnt during their training that the views of their lecturers are not uncontested. The recent controversy over Bold Beginnings showed that the education establishment can still put together a united front when dogmas are challenged and declare that quite extreme progressive views are just a matter of “professional knowledge of how young children learn best”.

3) The Argument from Political Correctness. This is the one that has recently taken off. Perhaps inspired by “Social Justice Warriors” in universities and online, there has been a real revival of political correctness as a way to delegitimise traditional beliefs in teaching. This has happened in 3 ways.

  1. Directly. People have claimed that some traditional teaching practices are racist, sexist or homophobic. Memorable examples of this are this American blogpost claiming it’s racist to expect students to take off their hoodies or stay awake in lessons, or this blogpost implying it is sexist to criticise the hostile reaction to Bold Beginnings.
  2. Indirectly. There has been an ongoing attempt to use guilt by association to claim that traditionalist bloggers are connected to racism, misogyny, homophobia or eugenics. Some of this has been based on the idea discussed here that if you don’t think that educational outcomes are caused by socioeconomic status , then you must think they are caused by genes, therefore, you must believe in eugenics. Some of the guilt by association has been around free speech. After years of efforts to silence us when we talk about education, traditionalist bloggers have been generally unsympathetic to those who wish to censor opinions they don’t like or demonise people for having the “wrong” opinion, but this is often used as evidence that we are in league with internet folk devils.
  3. Through “diversity policing”. Whenever traditionalists are high profile at an education event, there will be an immediate social media discussion on whether the balance of genders and races speaking at the event is acceptable, with the usual frame of reference being the proportion of women in the teaching profession as a whole, and the proportion of ethnic minorities found in large English cities. Anyone questioning this will be branded a racist or sexist. I guess I’d be less bothered by this if the same rule applied to events run by and dominated by progressives. It conspicuously doesn’t.

4) The Free Market Conspiracy. As the hard left has grown in recent years, the tendency to see all opposition to them as part of a neo-liberal conspiracy motivated either by ideology or self-interest has grown. This has always had its educational counterpart. Progressive edu-twitter has had no shortage of conspiracy theories. It has often been argued that free schools and academies (i.e. anything other than LA controlled schools) are privatisation. One of the most common attacks on experts on phonics has been to claim they have a financial interest in phonics. And, of course, anyone recommending textbooks, must be doing so for the sake of publishers. Again, the most noticeable thing is the inconsistency. When toy manufacturers back learning through play, it is not a corporate takeover of education. When progressive consultants charge a fortune, or set up a private company, it is not evidence that they are motivated by self-interest. When progressives are appointed to quangos or given a high profile position, there is no suspicion of cronyism. The tinfoil hat tendency seems to have become worse in the last 12 months, as progressive edu-twitter has embraced trolling. The vague assertions about shadowy interests have now been replaced with the naming and shaming of individuals, who are meant to be conspiring. New developments in conspiracy Twitter include:

  • the claim that there is a “war on youth” consisting of eugenicists and people who enforce rules in schools;
  • the evidence-free accusation or implication of corruption, cronyism or greed around named individuals;
  • some particularly bizarre theories about how traditionalists on Twitter coordinate their actions in order to embarrass trolls, often by provoking them into their trolling;
  • the suggestion that my other half tried to corrupt OFSTED by bribing them with biscuits.

It’s actually a bit of a shock to the system that people who used to make claims about MAT CEOs, Tory Party funders and Pearson are now coming up with conspiracies involving a part-time maths teacher in the West Midlands.

Hail Hydra.

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3 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. […] progressives have resorted to in recent times to push their agenda. The blogger, Old Andrew, has done a good job of documenting these arguments. Andrew also identifies political correctness and a free market […]


  3. I am not very happy with schools becoming academies, mainly because this means there is too much central control from Whitehall, and very little local accountability. Other than that I agree that explicit teaching is more rewarding and effective.
    btw I have just been helping my granddaughter revise for a mock GCSE. For reasons I cannot fathom she has looked up the content of The Prelude (just the bit about ice skating) on the internet in order to answer a literature question comparing it to a poem by Heaney. The Prelude extract is in her anthology, so I don’t really understand why she was left to work out what it is about by herself – a bit of explicit teaching would have been helpful.



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