Why do progressive educators deny being progressive?

Progressive educators face regular attacks on social media. Comments are often aggressive and malicious, with traditionalists playing to the mob mentality of their followers by jeering at progressive ideas. This blog has documented the caricatures with which traditionalists hope to score cheap points in on-line ‘debate’. We expect nothing less. Traditionalists can only be defensive about regurgitating their sterile, discredited and moribund prescriptions for education.

What is more puzzling is the way progressives respond to the attacks by denying they are progressive. In an exchange on twitter, a seeming progressive (who uses the handle @imagineinquiry) rejected the term. He was answering a traditionalist’s question that contained, we note, a typical personal provocation.

The argument runs as follows: The traditionalists have taken over and defined the term ‘progressive’. They construct a straw man out of it for their own purposes. Consequently, the term has been debased and serves now only as a term of abuse. If we associate ourselves with the term, we are accepting, and even condoning, their definition.

In the current educational climate in the UK, it is true that there are risks to calling yourself ‘progressive’. This blog continues to remain anonymous because standing against the reactionary government and, in particular, the arch-traditionalist Schools Minister can be dangerous. A former Secretary of State for Education, for example, criticised the resources a history teacher had posted on-line. Progressive teachers, as state employees, might come under pressure to moderate their views (at least in the classroom and on public blogs) and educational consultants face losing contracts with state schools. In such circumstances, the easiest approach is to fold and deny being progressive.

However, denial means accepting defeat in the long-running debate about educational ideas. That the debate has endured for over 120 years – since Dewey began to define modern progressivism in the 1890s – is testament to the ground-breaking work of progressive educationalists (such as those to which this blog is dedicated). Just because there is currently a noisy minority of traditionalists emboldened by government patronage does not mean we should deny our heritage.

Rather than dissociate ourselves from the rich tradition of progressivism, we should be studying our roots and re-evaluating our mission. We should appraise what ‘progressive’ has meant in different times and build upon that understanding to develop a conception of the term relevant for our context. Strengthened by our knowledge of the genesis of progressive ideas in education, we can enter contemporary discussions by proudly declaring ourselves to be PROGRESSIVE.


Back to front: the problem of research for classroom teachers

Over recent years teachers have been coming under increasing pressure to incorporate research findings in their classroom practice. The Schools Minister takes every opportunity to promote the research of his favourite academics who draw on cognitive science and advocate direct instruction. A slew of simplistic manuals and blogs written by his acolytes purport to help overworked teachers digest the ‘evidence’ in bite sizes.

However, in this rush to popularise the traditionalists’ focus on curriculum content and teacher talk, the teaching profession is in danger of approaching educational research and the aims of education back to front.

The traditionalists are very good at presenting research as neutral (or, maybe, they are just naive). Findings are considered unimpeachable, particularly if they are derived from randomised controlled trials, and are seen as providing a ready-made prescription for effective teaching. Teachers are encouraged to become ever-more knowledgeable in their subject, use prescriptive lesson formats and implement zero-tolerance behaviour approaches.

Such a disingenuous approach ignores any question about the aims of education. Before realising it, the teacher’s aim has become to make students comply – comply by ‘tracking’ the teacher while she is disseminating knowledge, comply by following the teacher’s script for the lesson and comply by following draconian rules. Research acts as a Trojan horse for the very unpleasant aim of forced compliance.

Of course, this is consistent with our reactionary government’s own aim for education. Ministers want us to educate a servile population that questions neither the huge differences in wealth distribution nor the daily social injustices faced by the ‘disadvantaged’ of our society. This is a difficult message to sell because a majority of teachers enter the profession with ideals of equality and democracy. Hence, government ministers rely on others (most of whom have left the classroom) to push traditionalist practices wrapped up as research.

In letting research (or, at least, a kind of bastardised set of findings stripped of all nuance and context) determine our aims, teachers have got research and aims back to front. We should set out our aims and then seek the research that offers the best way to achieve them. Beware the aim of forced compliance masquerading as ‘research-based evidence’.


Ofsted: attack dog and lapdog

I am not unbiased in the discussion about Ofsted. Over the last five years, I have worked in two schools that have been downgraded from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’ within weeks of starting there. Unlucky? Yes, but the experience has given me a detailed view of the injustices of our education system. I have witnessed the paranoia and stress that follows an RI rating.

The first school has spiralled out of control. The leadership was dismantled: the head teacher was paid off and left suddenly; the deputy head, disillusioned by the arbitrary nature of the inspection process, moved out of the state sector . (The inspection started well, but became hostile when the inspectors were themselves inspected on the second day.) All national measures of the school have fallen sharply and, as one previous colleague says, the new leadership has introduced “a pervasive culture of deceit.” She recounts that superficial initiatives are relentlessly rolled out on a weekly basis. Many are counter-productive or even damaging and none are given the time to have any impact. She is leaving teaching.

At the second school, the inspection team was extremely negative from the start. Evidence of classroom practice was ignored. The data, which seemed to put the school inside ‘good’, was twisted to fit a pre-determined narrative. A quarter of the staff left the school at the end of the year. The school leaders now throw huge resources at students facing national exams, put extra pressure on staff and increase our workload. We don’t criticise because we know they are fighting for their careers.

The common feature of the schools is the socio-economic deprivation of the areas they serve. The percentages of ‘disadvantaged’ students in both are amongst the highest in the country.

In arguing that “Ofsted currently does more harm than good,” Professor Coffield cites evidence that the “most deprived schools are systematically more likely to be downgraded than the least disadvantaged” and concludes that they are “harmed by inaccurate and biased Ofsted reports.” The Education Policy Institute report that the professor quotes also states that “schools with more disadvantaged pupils are less likely to be judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, while schools with low disadvantage and high prior attainment are much more likely to be rated highly.” Why should this be?

Neither the professor nor the report addresses the question. The government’s academy programme has stalled, not least in parliament where the Conservative’s reduced majority has forced ministers to withdraw their most reactionary policies. Now, the only route to increase the number of academies by force is through an Ofsted rating of ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’. The former leads to immediate academisation; the latter gives the school an initial two years to improve and then another two if required. In this way, Ofsted acts as the attack dog of their political masters, promoting their academy programme when it cannot be pursued through democratic means.

348s (2)Similarly, neither the professor nor the report raises the political motives behind why schools in deprived areas are more likely to face biased inspections and be downgraded to RI. This can only be explained by the position of the majority of such schools in inner-city Labour areas. Downgrading a school in the Shires could bring out the middle classes and that would reflect badly on the local Tory council. In this way, Ofsted acts as the lapdog of their political masters, trying to avoid upsetting the government’s political friends.

Meanwhile, the politicians demand that Ofsted goes further and prove its cringing subservience in other ways. Ofsted now falls over itself to promote its masters’ traditionalist teaching methods. These, of course, are as damaging as the rest of the government’s education programme. The school’s minister cherry picks research to support his traditionalist agenda and then forces Ofsted to promote stultifying direct instruction. Just as the bully always demands more, the schools minister continues to berate Ofsted even when it has demonstrated its spineless loyalty many times over.

That Ofsted is simultaneously the government’s attack dog and lapdog leaves the progressive teacher in a quandary. Does she abandon teaching for the quieter and more gentile life of the consultant or teacher trainer? Does she abandon the state system and go to an enlightened international school abroad? Or does she stay and fight for her ideals about teaching ‘disadvantaged’ students in the knowledge that bullies never win in the end?

Debate deniers


The traditionalists continue to rail against all those who ‘deny’ the debate over progressive and traditional teaching methods. This latest post correctly views the two approaches as rooted in different philosophies of education. It then makes the incorrect inference that, as there are two philosophies, teachers must follow one or the other. Yes, you can’t be both progressive and traditional, but you could be in the ‘middle’ if you hold to a different philosophy – such as pragmatism.

Notwithstanding the existence of a middle ground, it is puzzling that seemingly educated people deny the debate has relevance in today’s schools. To my mind, there are two reasons for this denial. The first is self-interest; and the second is a reaction to the facile caricatures that traditionalists deploy against progressive educators.


In my experience, the most prominent deniers are not teachers. They are private consultants who promote ‘what works’ (in terms of teaching, making schools ‘Ofsted ready’ or improving behaviour) for financial gain. While teachers’ pay has declined in real terms, they are happy to suck money out of the state system for their own ends.

Facile caricatures

The more important reason why people deny the debate is the manner in which the traditionalists make their case. The latest post is typical of their approach: label all teachers ‘prog’ if they are not demonstrably ‘trad’ and then criticise them with facile caricatures of progressive methods. Examples of caricatures from the post are:

  • Students in progressive classrooms “expect fun activities and personalised worksheets, to always be able to choose from an educational buffet”;
  • Students do not have to concentrate;
  • Students view the teacher as “an entertainer”;
  • Students view the purpose of lessons as “a series of activities”;
  • Students are “indoctrinated to rate their teacher based on fun-ness”;
  • Students “feel entitled to switch off if lessons aren’t to their liking”; and, finally,
  • Progressive education leads to poor behaviour.

As we’ve explained before here, this list shows a lamentable lack of knowledge about progressive education. However, it also debases the debate. If your critique of a philosophy is that it leads to teachers who are obliged to ‘entertain’, then you cannot be surprised if people are not prepared to engage in such a trivial discussion.

One final point: The post complains that new teachers are easily indoctrinated in progressive ways because of their “zeal for social justice and complete absence of worldly wisdom”. So, progressive education is associated with social justice and innocence, while ‘worldly wisdom’ leads to traditionalists’ authoritarian practices and the injustices they breed. No wonder new teachers, full of hope and idealism, are attracted to the progressive message!

Do progressive teachers fight cuts?

State schools in England are facing cuts of £3billion. The consequences are already being felt with more classes of over 30 pupils, less resources and fewer teachers. Progressive education suffers disproportionately in these circumstances. In First Do No Harm, Steve Nelson contends that progressive schools should have classes of 16 pupils at most if the teacher is to provide a truly child-centred education. It’s no coincidence that traditionalists, whose blunt methods are more suited to larger classes (see this post), currently find favour with government ministers. In our time of austerity, should the priority of progressives be on promoting our teaching methods or fighting budget cuts?

This question has a long history in progressive education. The two strands of progressivism – liberal and radical – answer the question in different ways*. For the liberals, the focus should be on the classroom; for the radicals, wider social issues are just as, if not more, important. Two periods of economic crisis similar to our own illustrate the point. In the 1970s and 1930s the progressive movement was split between liberal and radical teachers, although in both periods liberals far outnumbered radicals.

The projected cuts today are reminiscent of the mid-1970s when spending on education as a percentage of GDP fell by more than two per cent (see graph). Just as today, the Education fundingnumber of students in UK secondary schools was rising. In 1972 the leaving age was raised to 16, meaning secondary schools had to accommodate one extra year group; and in our time, according to government projections, secondary schools will contain 20 per cent more students in 2024 than they did in 2015. And, just as today, progressives came under attack from the traditionalists, although then it was from the more erudite writers of the Black Papers (see, as an example of that erudition, Bantock’s Discovery Methods). In the face of cuts and criticisms, the liberals had no response other than to continue promoting progressive teaching methods. For the radicals, the liberals’ inability to confront the new trends in education exposed two problems in their approach.

Radical teachers, such as those at William Tyndale Junior school in Islington, highlighted the conflicting values held by middle-class liberal teachers and working-class pupils and their parents:

The real motives of schooling and the controlling role of the teacher have been gently evaded. The contradictions have been papered over with triple-mounted pictures and production-line creative writing. The moribund prettiness, devoid of all motive except the transference of middle-class values to working-class children, has been embraced by many schools, especially those with a strong middle-class parental element. (Ellis et al., William Tyndale: The Teachers’ Story, p. 44)

Although the teachers at William Tyndale themselves emphasised such progressive ideals as play, experience and student choice, they claimed that liberal progressivism was “simply often traditional education in disguise, the means more indirect, the manner more showy, the ends exactly the same” (p. 42). Liberals, they asserted, questioned the means of educating, but not the ends of education. And the ends amounted to ensuring working-class children comply with a middle-class view of society.

For radical socialist teachers, this critique did not go far enough. While acknowledging the use of progressive methods in their own teaching, the socialists claimed that liberals could not comprehend the nature of the crisis in education: “Apart from its arguments about teaching methods, [liberal] progressives have made an incomplete analysis of the relationship between school and society” (p. 9). Schooling, they maintained, was designed to bolster capitalism by promoting its values and providing a workforce tailored to the needs of the economy. For socialist teachers, the crisis was not to be resolved by simply promoting progressive teaching, nor by designing schools around the experiences of working class pupils. Rather, improvements in schooling could only be achieved through changes at a societal level.

Criticisms of the liberals’ middle-class values and their separation of schooling from society echo the arguments amongst progressives at another time of economic crisis. During the Great Depression, US radicals – known as reconstructionists – railed against the “liberal-minded upper middle class” leadership of progressive education. Those liberal leaders, George Counts argued, promoted a form of individualism that defended the privileges of a few and ignored the welfare needs of the impoverished majority. The reconstructionists argued not only for a schooling that challenged social inequality, but also for progressive teachers to lead a movement that aimed to create a “just and noble and beautiful” society. 

The fact that in our time of cuts to school budgets progressives are not debating at the levels of  intensity seen in the 1970s and 1930s is one sign of the defeats suffered by progressive education in the last 30 years. Nevertheless, this blog identifies itself with the radical strand of progressive education. While continuing to promote progressive methods in classrooms, the immediate challenge is to stop the cuts. That will not be achieved by focusing on our classroom practice; rather, it will require a mobilisation of teachers, students, parents and the wider community to defend state education.

* We exclude the libertarians, a third strand, from this discussion as they are, and have always been, associated exclusively with the independent sector.

Our ‘knowledge’ is different to theirs

Recently David Didau wrote about ‘neo-progressivism’. His post summarises the traditionalists’ current critique of progressive education. Apparently, Didau believes in social justice, wants children to be creative, collaborative and critical and grow up “to be tolerant, compassionate, open-minded, curious, cooperative and to help leave the world in a better condition than that in which they found it.” Before we mistake Didau for a modern-day Dewey, he quickly establishes his traditionalist credentials by declaring that “knowledge underpins all of those attributes.” He upholds the traditionalists’ two-stage prescription for education: students should acquire knowledge, then use that knowledge as an object for critical thought.

Traditionalists think knowledge is their trump card in debate with progressives. In their caricature, we focus on skills and let children learn what they want. They don’t realise that progressives are as interested in knowledge as traditionalists, but our ‘knowledge’ is different to theirs. The traditionalists’ concept of knowledge cannot lead to all those worthy goals Didau aspires to achieve.

Looking at the traditionalists’ two-stage model, it seems obvious to me that if you need knowledge before being able to think critically, there must be a point when a child has attained sufficient knowledge (or, as Greg Ashman puts it here, “reached a certain level of expertise”) to move on to the second stage. What’s more, a serious theory of learning would be able to provide the conditions necessary to make that move. When I asked about this on social media, Didau replied disdainfully.

Children have enough knowledge to think critically when they can think critically. This is a curious response, which on one level is laughable. In an earlier post, Didau asserts that “the more you know, the better you can think,” hinting at a more complex relationship than the two-stage theory allows for. Progressives would want to add its converse: the better the critical thinking, the more knowledge acquired.

However, there is a more profound problem with the traditionalists’ concept of knowledge. They define knowledge in a purely cognitive way isolated from the developmental and social aspects of learning:

[Mind] is regarded as something existing in isolation, with mental states and operations that exist independently. Knowledge is then regarded as an external application of purely mental existences to the things to be known, or else as a result of the impressions which this outside subject matter makes on mind, or as a combination of the two. Subject matter is then regarded as something complete in itself; it is just something to be learned or known, either by the voluntary application of mind to it or through the impressions it makes on mind. (Dewey, Democracy and Education, p. 153)

In their impoverished model, traditionalists reduce knowledge to a body of disjointed facts and hollow verbal definitions that the student is expected to commit to memory (or desks-2“bank in long term memory” in the traditionalists’ crude terminology). Curiosity and open-mindedness are limited to the approved canon of facts; critical and creative thinking become the manipulation of those facts in vacuous scholastic reasoning; and learning turns into a purely intellectual and passive pursuit.

For the progressive, knowledge is stripped of meaning if the process by which it has been developed is missing. At the centre of this process of coming to know lies students’ activity. Knowledge then becomes “an outcome of inquiry and a resource in further inquiry” (Democracy and Education, p. 220) and, as such, takes its place in critical and creative thinking that informs and is informed by an active process of learning.

Also missing from the traditionalists’ concept of knowledge is the social side of learning. Knowledge acquisition is something engaged in by individual minds in direct relationship to the teacher. Students might check with each other that they have the correct interpretation or engage in a limited analytical debate. But these are stunted forms of collaboration and cooperation, which originate in self-interest and are just as likely to lead to selfishness and feelings of superiority as they are to Didau’s aims of tolerance and compassion. Only when the individual mind acts in the interests of the social advancement of knowledge, as happens in progressive classrooms, can collaboration and cooperation take on their full significance.

Lastly, we turn to Didau’s aims of social justice and teaching children to take responsibility for their world. Here again, it is the progressive model that secures these outcomes by promoting intellectual freedom. We leave the last word to Dewey (who, it might surprise the traditionalists to know, had more to say on knowledge in Democracy and Education than any other subject):

The individual who has a question which being really a question to him instigates his curiosity, which feeds his eagerness for information that will help him cope with it, and who has at command an equipment which will permit these interests to take effect, is intellectually free. Whatever initiative and imaginative vision he possesses will be called into play and control his impulses and habits. His own purposes will direct his actions. Otherwise, his seeming attention, his docility, his memorizings and reproductions, will partake of intellectual servility. Such a condition of intellectual subjection is needed for fitting the masses into a society where the many are not expected to have aims or ideas of their own, but to take orders from the few set in authority. It is not adapted to a society which intends to be democratic.” (Dewey, Democracy and Education, pp. 355-356)

Is progressive education dead in state schools?

To answer the question, we need to define what we mean by progressive education. Steve Nelson writes in First Do No Harm that, “A fundamental concept of progressive education is the idea of children being agents or architects of their own learning.” For me, this is the fundamental concept. Children negotiate with the teacher over what, when and how to study, learning to take and justify decisions independently.

Using this definition, it is obvious that progressive education in the state sector has largely been extinguished. National Curricula dictate what to teach and when to teach it; official decrees prescribe how to teach. In England, the 1988 Education Act set the curriculum and the National Strategies sought to impose the teaching model (a role since taken on by the current Schools Minister). Not only is the state sector devoid of student agency, there is also very little space for teacher agency. These developments have been compounded by the accountability measures on schools, which have become more draconian, and the budget cuts that see class sizes increase. It is very difficult to promote self-directed learning in my year 9 ‘bottom’ set, which now contains 30 students, while covering a packed compulsory curriculum.

As progressive education has been wiped out in state schools, progressive teachers have found it difficult to stay in the classroom. Those that leave and wish to continue in education have taken one of two paths. Either they have moved into academic careers where they become increasingly out of touch, marginalised and irrelevant. Or they become consultants. Those in this category are generally middle-class liberals who disown their progressive roots for fear of offending prospective employers. They deny there is a dichotomy between progressive and traditional models and claim there is ‘no right way’ to teach. They adopt ‘reasonable’ and ‘balanced’ positions in a self-serving attempt to remain marketable to as many headteachers as possible.

These people survive selling their expertise because, while progressive education has all but disappeared in state schools, it remains widespread in the independent sector. Two 0429_dalton-school_400x400of the most expensive schools in New York, for example, are progressive: the Dalton School (annual fees: $46 000) and Calhoun (annual fees: $38 000). Even President Obama (who, with heavy irony, named his education act Every Student Succeeds) sent his daughters to the progressive University of Chicago Laboratory School (annual fees: $34 000) set up by John Dewey. At a more modest level, international schools using the IB’s inquiry-based programmes attract business from local elites and foreigners working for multi-nationals. It is always amusing to hear traditionalists calling for ‘disadvantaged’ children to be taught like their peers from wealthy families who attend independent schools. Of course, they never add that a good proportion of those independent schools use progressive methods.

Notwithstanding the bleak picture in the state sector, some progressives do stay and attempt to subvert the reactionary system. These individuals endeavour to develop students as agents and architects of learning within the constraints they face. They take inspiration from the very few contemporary progressive state schools serving areas of high deprivation, such the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Steadfast in their belief that all children deserve the opportunity to experience the progressive education that, at the moment, is only available to the children of the wealthy, these teachers are laying the foundations for a better and brighter future.