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.

Self-interest

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!

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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. 

Preface to a post on Donalda Dickie

Last weekend the twitter account linked to this blog became the centre of a bizarre discussion on social media. One educationalist described the account as satirical and someone’s idea of “a bit of fun.” If he had left it at that, the discussion might have amused some on a cold Sunday. However, he went on to disparage the names of progressive educators from the past:

We might imagine that the tweets came from a traditionalist. Yet the source was someone who uses the twitter handle @imagineinquiry, writes about the Mantle of the Expert (MOE) and trains teachers in its methods. Unfortunately, he seems to have little idea about the history of his own preferred pedagogy and the ideas of Dorothy Heathcote, the founder of MOE.

In a PhD thesis on Heathcote and MOE, Ruth Sayers says: “Heathcote’s work was rooted in progressive teaching methods.” In the earlier work, according to Sayers, Heathcote adopted Dewey’s description of testing ideas in the “crucible of real life experience”, using ‘crucible’ as a metaphor for the classrooms in her drama-based model of learning. Moreover, Heathcote explicitly used the context of a laboratory in her later works, echoing Helen Parkhurst’s Dalton Laboratory Plan.

We should add that it was the 1931 Hadow Report (also mentioned in the timeline of our twitter account and similarly disparaged as “an esoteric article”) that was one of the first official reports in the UK (from the Board of Education) that recognised the importance of child play and dramatic work: “Drama, both of the less and more formal kinds … offers further good opportunities of developing that power of expression … closely correlated with the development of perception and feeling.”

dickieWhile the ignorance of the educationalist might concern his publishers, his puerile and even offensive comments about the names of the leaders of our movement require a response from progressives.

In the next post, we shall honour the contribution of one of the progressives belittled for her ‘funny-sounding’ name. Donalda Dickie (right) was involved in devising the Enterprise Method and enacting system-wide change of education in Alberta (Canada). She is an inspiration to teachers who attempt to promote progressive education in state schools.

 

 

Teacher talk: ‘Just tell them’

The traditionalists always have a deceptively simple remedy for the complex social interactions that make up classrooms in state education.

The latest relates to their favourite topic – knowledge. On social media, they bemoan the existence of classrooms in which “the person who knows the most, talks the least.” They run polls about the percentage of time taken up by teacher talk in lessons, implying that anything below 70% is a dereliction of a teacher’s duty. Some are much blunter, using the hashtag #justtellthem.

Just tell them? This would be laughable if it wasn’t for the financial cuts being imposed on state schools. There is a danger that such a message might gain ground because it is seen to reduce costs. If ‘just telling them’ is a legitimate pedagogy, then why not have one teacher just tell 40 students in a classroom or 60 in the canteen or even two hundred in the sports hall?

Of course, equating learning to the direct transfer of knowledge fails to address the issue of what students are learning. In the simplistic world of the traditionalist, students learn the content of teacher talk. However, students also learn through the form of talk. Indeed, the form might be far more influential than the content. From lessons in which teacher talk predominates, children learn that their ‘proper place’ is to listen to their ‘betters’; they learn that their opinion or understanding is not valued; and they learn that passive conformity is the way to achieve approbation.

It is embarrassing that we need to spell out why student talk is important. It allows for the assessment of  students’ understanding, enabling the teacher to plan or change the course of a lesson and evaluate the lesson’s success. Students learn – and learn from each other – how to explain, debate and dispute in constructive and critical ways. In progressive classrooms, students also pose questions, explore ideas and participate in directing the lesson.

So, should the person who “knows the most” talk for most of the time? Maybe, on occasions. Students might need direction from the teacher or subject knowledge to pursue a project or inquiry. But, it is inherently undemocratic for the teacher to dominate classroom talk.

Moreover, there is a danger that teacher talk reinforces low self-esteem that develops outside school. Through social interactions with authority figures, students, particularly those on free school meals, might already consider themselves inferior. Teacher talk has the insidious effect of compounding that feeling of inferiority.

Dare the School Build a New Social Order?

In 1932, George Counts took on the leaders of the Progressive Movement of his day in a pamphlet called  Dare the School Build a New Social Order? He counter-poses the individualistic aims of US progressives to the collective solutions required in economic crisis. In a vision of the ‘American dream’ that might jar for its overt nationalism, Counts resolutely places the agency of teachers and students at the heart of building a new social order in which the citizens control ‘the machine’ of industrialism. 

In an excoriating attack, Counts starts by blaming the “liberal-minded upper middle class” leaders for progressive education’s failure to elaborate a theory of social welfare. He writes that the middle class “find it hard to live without their customary material comforts, are rather insensitive to the accepted forms of social injustice, [and] rarely move outside the pleasant circles of the class to which they belong” (p. 8). As a consequence of its leaders’ preoccupations, the progressive movement promoted a passive form of “extreme individualism” (p. 7). Rather than being empowered to construct the world around them as Counts advocated, children were taught to adapt to changing social conditions:

Under such a conception of life and society, education can only bow down before the gods of chance and reflect the drift of the social order. This conception is essentially anarchic in character, exalts the irrational above the rational forces of society, makes of security an individual rather than a social goal, drives every one of us into an insane competition with his neighbours, and assumes that man is incapable of controlling in the common interest the creatures of his brain. Here we have imposition with a vengeance, but not the imposition of the teacher or the school. Nor is it an enlightened form of imposition. Rather is it the imposition of the chaos and cruelty and ugliness produced by the brutish struggle for existence and advantage. Far more terrifying than any indoctrination in which the school might indulge is the prospect of our becoming completely victimised and moulded by the mechanics of industrialism. The control of the machine requires a society which is dominated less by the ideal of individual advancement and more by certain far-reaching purposes and plans for social construction. (pp. 26-27)

The solution according to Counts was for academics and teachers, as the representatives of “the common and abiding interests of the people” (p. 29), to come together in order to exercise their knowledge and wisdom in seeking and then using power. They would reject the aims of the industrial and banking elite in favour of a return to an American democratic tradition that sought an egalitarian society. This would entail combating “all forces tending to produce social distinctions and classes”, repressing “every form of privilege and economic parasitism”, providing “adequate material and spiritual rewards for every kind of socially useful work” and striving for “genuine equality of opportunity among all races, sects, and occupations” (p. 41). Such an “attack on the economic system” (p. 45) was to be achieved through an evolution from individualistic concerns to the collective ownership of industry, although, as Counts warns, collectivisation might require “the method of revolution” (p. 42) as a last resort.

Even though, in this vision, teachers lead social change, progressive schools were not to become organisational centres of revolt against big business. Rather, they were places in which teachers would “fashion and bequeath” (p. 54) a vision for the future and recruit students for the fight ahead:

Our Progressive schools cannot rest content with giving children an opportunity to study contemporary society in all of its aspects. This of course must be done, but I am convinced that they should go much farther. If the schools are to be really effective, they must become centres for the building, and not merely for the contemplation, of our civilisation. This does not mean that we should endeavour to promote particular reforms through the educational system. We should, however, give to our children a vision of the possibilities which lie ahead and endeavour to enlist their loyalties and enthusiasms in the realisation of the vision. (p. 37)

While there are obvious problems with this prescription (not least of which is the expectation that the teaching profession would act as a unified cadre), Dare the School Build a New Social Order? reminds us how far teacher agency, independence and initiative have been suppressed since the writing of the pamphlet. Today, the suggestion that progressive teachers lead social resistance seems outlandish. Unfortunately, the self-interested liberal middle class that Counts railed against still holds sway in our movement.