Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Part 1

November 18, 2018

For over one hundred years, the standard words used for the two main camps in educational philosophy have been “progressive” and “traditionalist” (in recent years, these have often been shortened to “prog” and “trad” on Twitter). Descriptions of what they mean can be found here from John Dewey writing in the 30s, or here from Alfie Kohn writing ten years ago. In countries where progressive education is unchallenged, or has gone unchallenged for a long period, progressives often deny this history and resent the fact that language exists to describe a debate that they thought they had won forever. However, a more coherent objection to the terms comes from traditionalists. They argue that “progressive” is a positive word, suggesting progressives look to the future, are influenced by science and are politically on the left. “Traditionalist” by contrast sounds old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. I wish to look at these arguments in this series of blogposts.

A recent blogpost about not wanting to be called a traditionalist can be found here: A Plea to Drop the TRAD label. An older blogpost on a similar theme has been removed from the site where it originally appeared. So with the permission of the author I’m presenting it here:


I’m a trad but wish it was called something else

I’m a Trad. I reject progressivism for the measurable damage it has done to education and for its corruption of beautiful subjects in the name of the twenty-first century. My heroes are Hirsch, Engelmann and Rosenshine.

Curriculum is King in my classroom. The knowledge dictates the activity, not the other way around. I have no time for distractions in the name of engagement or relevance. The engagement comes from mastery of a noble and powerful subject. The fact that it is not relevant is precisely why it must be taught, and taught well. If I limit my teaching to the interests of my students, or try to force a link, then I have failed those students.

And so because of this ideology if you like, I want to know about what works. I want to know about cognitive science, retrieval practice, and schemas. I want to study the language of curriculum and the philosophy of knowledge, and I curse every day of the eleven years I spent labouring under progressive dogma, days I could have been reading about these things and putting them into practice.
So to summarise my philosophy of teaching, and one I think that many Trads would subscribe to: We are committed to our subjects and we believe our job is to teach these subjects well to our students. We seek out research, techniques, and philosophy to help us do this. We reject progressive doctrine because it is a) not true to our subjects and b) has been shown to hinder the teaching of our subjects.

I have a problem though. All the things I have described above are part of the Traditional Teaching set. But the term “traditional teaching” also refers to the way teaching has  been done traditionally, since Socrates and before. I am going to use “Traditional Teaching” for the current set of ideology, techniques and authorities, the thing that if you subscribe to it you are a Trad, and “traditional teaching” for the teaching that has happened in much the same way through the millenia. There is significant overlap between these two sets but they are not the same thing.

Let’s consider research first. Research into cognitive science is much younger than traditional teaching. Cognitive science has shown why many aspects of traditional teaching are successful: things such as desks facing the front, teachers telling students information, and frequent low-stakes testing. But cognitive science also throws up new things that teaching through the ages hasn’t incorporated. An example of this is the concerns raised by David Didau about reading along to text whilst listening to it.  So although research tends to align with traditional teaching, where research contradicts tradition, I would want to go with the research because I want to teach my subject in the best possible way. Of course it is not as simple as that. Just as scientists subscribe to Popper but act according to Kuhn, and rightly so, we as teachers would not do well to ditch tried-and-tested for every lab-based study that comes our way. But as an ideal, it is important I think in defining our outlook on teaching. In principle, if the evidence showed that a less traditional method was better, I would use it, because of my commitment to my subject.

What about the philosophy of curriculum stuff? When you look at old textbooks you do get a sense that the authors had a much better sense of  core, hinterland and foreshadowing for example., but as far as I know the explicit discussion of it, led so brilliantly by Christine Counsell, is a relatively new phenomenon. I am grateful for the insight it has given me and I see it now as an integral part of my professional identity. I don’t think it is in conflict with traditional teaching at all, but I think the discussions happening now are new and not traditional.

And, this seems so obvious that it’s not worth saying, but I think it perhaps needs remembering, traditional teaching has not made use of visualisers but has very much made use of corporal punishment.

So I think that “Traditional Teaching” doesn’t mean “traditional teaching”, despite the significant overlap. This is a problem for me for a few reasons.

Many of us have colleagues we like and respect who are firmly in the progressive camp. When I talk about “Traditional Teaching” to people in this group, they don’t hear “love of the subject” – they hear “chalkdust and the cane” and I feel I’m set up to fail before I’ve even started. I hesitate to put “Trad” in my Twitter bio in case a colleague comes across it and misunderstands. I’d like to develop my team’s professional identity, as subject specialists, interested in research, rejectors of flim-flammery. The teachers in my team are all these things but they are not familiar with the term Traditional Teaching and I fear that the term will cause some to switch off, because it means something different to them.

And my own professional identity… it’s a great feeling to be part of a community of people who share a philosophy… and it’s an irritating feeling that the name doesn’t really do what a name should do. We have the term “Neo-Trads” and maybe I should seek to identify myself under this banner. But it seems to be used more as a derogatory term and I’m sort of hoping for something that reflects the centrality of the subject to my philosophy.

I liked the sound of Bernard Andrews’ “educational fideism” before I read about it – I still like it but not for the reason I thought. I thought the “fide” was to do with “fidelity” – that’s what I want, fidelity to my subject, but instead it is to do with faith rather than evidence as a justification, and while I think that fits in fine with my philosophy as described above, I’m seeking something different in a name.

“Fidelism” seemed like a good name until I looked it up and learned it was for acolytes of Castro! Not what I was looking for – glad I looked it up! I thought about “subject loyalty”, or perhaps “curriculum loyalty”, but that would make me a “subject loyalist”, and there are of course political connotations there.

A synonym of fidelity is “fealty”. I rather like the sound of “curriculum fealty”. That would make me a “curriculum fealtist”. This term is a more accurate reflection of my educational outlook than “Traditional Teaching”. I’m still a Trad, but I’m clearer about what that means to me now I’ve thought about my problems with the term. I employ methods such as explicit instruction and Shed Loads Of Practice because I am a curriculum fealtist. I read educational research because I am a curriculum fealtist. I think “curriculum fealty” could help me in my own critical ontology and that of my team, and in my conversations with people new to the debate. I’m not suggesting that we start calling Trads “curriculum fealtists”, but I think it might be useful in some contexts, to bring clarity and hopefully bridge some of the gaps in the debate. Curriculum is my king and my country. Onwards and upwards for our beautiful, noble subjects.



  1. Us trads are indeed living under the shadow of Thomas Gradgrind and the cane, and it’s almost impossible for progs to understand that what we do now is far more humane than what they advocate. There is a certain ironic truth to their belief that challenging behaviour is a form of communication, but the progs are tone deaf: pupils are trying to tell their teachers that they’re bored past all endurance, and that they’re desperate to find adults who know what they’re doing–ones who actually teach.

    We’re never going to dodge our label–so long as the progs see us doing things which threaten them, they’ll carry on using whatever means they can find to discredit us. However, we can take comfort in the fact that they’re running pretty scared when they’re reduced to accusing someone with the name Bibalsingh of being a racist.

  2. […] Teaching in British schools « Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational tra… […]

  3. […] contrast sounds old fashioned, uninfluenced by contemporary science and politically right-wing. In Part 1 and Part 2, I shared blogposts relevant to this topic written by others. Here I will put forward my […]

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. […] Are the words “progressive” and “traditional” biased against educational traditionalists? Pa… […]

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