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)

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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.