The double duty of progressives

Progressives seem to be on the back foot at the moment because of how the educational system measures outcomes. We have to succeed at the traditionalists’ knowledge-based targets and also at our own aims. 

The decision on the value of educational outcomes is currently in the hands of those who want the progressive model to fail. State schools in the UK are evaluated on a number of quantitative measures set by the Department for Education (DfE). These measures focus exclusively on children’s knowledge acquisition and data is collected through formal examinations.

Progressives have other aims as well. We want students to

  • understand the concepts of equity and justice and practise them in their everyday lives
  • think and act flexibly and critically in a variety of situations outside the exam hall and
  • acquire an independent ability to learn from and reflect upon experiences after formal schooling.

Thus, progressives have a double duty. On the one hand, they have to focus on narrow knowledge acquisition so students and schools can survive the DfE’s impoverished view of education; and, on the other hand, progressives must remain true to the principles that allow students to thrive through education.

This double duty can seem impossible to achieve at times. The pressure from the DfE and its right-wing political masters to focus on traditionalists’ aims can be daunting. Yet, in our time of reaction in educational thinking, the fight to preserve progressive ideals is even more important than at any time in the last century. 

As Shatsky wrote about progressive education in 1918:

These ideas need to be nurtured, elaborated, examined in more detail and put to the test. Each new attempt fans the hope that an easier legacy has been passed down to the next generation.

 

A time of reaction (in state schools)

study of PISA 2012 data found that “state school pupils report more traditional teaching than in private schools.” This should come as little surprise. The elite do not pay for their children to be treated like those in the local state school who are herded into large classes and taught by rote. Not for them the dependency and passivity of the children of the poor; no, they want their own children to be independent and curious. And for this, they pay private and international schools for critical thinking and inquiry-based learning.

In a time of limited budgets, traditionalists not only justify this division, but also make a virtue of it.

Traditionalists argue that an authoritarian approach is necessary so that poor and working class children acquire ‘knowledge capital’. Without it, they claim, the ‘disadvantaged’ are doomed to perpetuate their cycle of deprivation. This highly paternalistic (and insulting) approach sees  young people forced to comply with petty rules and revere authority or face being criminalised. The regimented classrooms remind the observer of a Pavlovian experiment in which children play the part of the conditioned dog; the corridors remind you of a military parade ground. In fact, authoritarianism leads to unpleasant character traits (such as, being a good liar) and ‘zero tolerance’ leads to the suspension of a disproportionately high number of black and disabled students.

Of course, support for authoritarianism is exactly what cash-strapped governments want to hear in recessionary times. Standardise teaching and assessment, and thereby achieve economies of scale, by inviting big business to impose its sterile blueprint for education regardless of the local context. Turn teaching into a few nasty acronyms (such as, Lemov’s STAR), which teachers can learn by rote, rather than train teachers to be creative and reflective. In this way, state schools become places of regimented students, limited curricula and uncritical teachers.

All three are cheaper than the alternative: regimented students take up fewer resources than caring institutions use for the well-being of vulnerable individuals; limited curricula take less time to implement than those responsive  to the students’ needs and interests; and uncritical teachers are easier to control when the state reduces salaries and cuts back opportunities for professional learning.

The duty of progressive teachers is to promote in state schools the teaching methods that the elite can afford to pay for. As Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, “It is the aim of progressive education to take part in correcting unfair privilege and unfair deprivation.”