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)


11 thoughts on “Our ‘knowledge’ is different to theirs”

  1. Cognitive scientists are in consensus that a student (non-expert) brain is limited almost entirely to thinking about knowledge that can be recalled quickly and accurately from long term memory. They say some material (“exact” facts and equations) take substantial effort and practice to memorize. As with many findings of science, that may not be the answer anyone preferred to hear, but can effective teaching be constructed on a platform of denying consensus science?

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    1. ‘Consensus’ science? From outside it looks a highly contested and rapidly changing field of research. Cognitive Load Theory, for example, “is at an impasse, and dissatisfaction with it is growing” (https://edtechdev.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/cognitive-load-theory-failure/) and recent research on how the brain ‘stores’ memories “may force some revision of the dominant models of how memory consolidation occurs” (http://news.mit.edu/2017/neuroscientists-identify-brain-circuit-necessary-memory-formation-0406). The implications of cognitive science for education are also contested. Finally, progressive education does not preclude practice, but practice has an immediate purpose in the context of a project or inquiry.


  2. I think the writer is confusing the expert researcher with a pupil learning a subject. Certainly, when a researcher looks at a proposition they can ask questions about it, for example what were the results of the agrarian revolution in eighteenth century Britain, and then research this – but unless they know about the agrarian revolution, for example, they cannot ask the question. And school students are only likely to know about the agrarian revolution if they have been directly taught about it – it isn’t really something a young person would be interested in at face value. You cannot, therefore, rely on the process of discovery to produce knowledge about the agrarian revolution in a school student, nor can you rely on discovery and co-operative learning to tease out all the knowledge of the agrarian revolution to allow someone to think about it, nor assume that such discovery learning will fix the knowledge in long term memory. You need to teach it to the group and then test what they know, over a long period of time so that the knowledge is rehearsed and stored in a way that makes it retrievable – and discuss that knowledge with them, which also helps to practise retrieval. Dewey’s definition of intellectual freedom can only exist if a person ‘commands the equipment’ to question – that equipment includes knowledge of facts, held in long term memory, otherwise it won’t function.

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  3. All learning is social in process, all knowledge is socially acquired. One question that arises is what are the structures which are evident within the social process? How do these structures both affect what is learned and how that knowledge is learned? Or, is it possible to fully disconnect the ‘how’ from the ‘what’?


    1. I think these are key questions. It is impossible to disconnect the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. If knowledge exists as a separate category, as it does for traditionalists, then the main question for education becomes the best form of transmitting that knowledge. For progressives, however, the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’, if not more so. Traditional education, on the one hand, teaches children that knowledge acquisition is a process of teacher control and student compliance. Progressive education, on the other hand, promotes teacher engagement and student agency. The question we should be asking is how to develop that agency so students are empowered to use the knowledge they acquire.


  4. Very interesting, thank you for writing this. There should be more even-sided debate on these issues. However, can I just query your point about ‘process’? Are you in fact arguing that some knowledge is less real than other knowledge, because the student didn’t acquire it in the right way? That someone who learnt something in a ‘traditional’ way does not really ‘know’ it as much as someone who has learnt something in a ‘progressive’ way?


    1. Not sure this counts as even handed. To be clear I do fall in opposition to the authors arguments having moved from Progressive to a more Traditional approach. It is frustrating to read obvious strawman arguments rather then engaging with the key points.

      Which needs more emphasis – critical/analytical thinking or core knowledge
      When does discovery become more powerful then directed. (Obviously there is a spectrum). I believe Sweller argues it is when someone is an expert but that then needs defining. Personally I have never taught anyone even close to being that. (I teach 16-18 year olds with SEN though)
      What makes a more effective curriculum. A clearly defined group of knowledge which will always be inadequate but can be shared and easily analyzed/reinforced or a more unpredictable but far reaching approach in which students can explore there own ideas. (I want to say skills here as well but I think someone else could better define it).
      What process facilitates well structured behavioral systems
      and the big one
      What does well run (thats important) research and our current evidence base support. This needs to compare approaches and has to consider opportunity costs.

      Obviously I am biased but I have tried to tone it down. I do come from a science background and find concrete arguments vastly more useful for exploring.


    2. Thank you for the interesting questions. I think separating knowledge from the acquisition of knowledge, as you do in one question, is a mistake. In schooling, knowledge arises in a context; it does not exist in a vacuum. In progressive education, knowledge is learnt through an experience that, in Dewey’s terms, has continuity and interaction. For the experience to be educative, it should lead to further knowledge (continuity) and engagement with the knowledge of others (interaction). At the root of an experience is the student as an agent of her learning; knowledge is under her control. Traditional education has no concept of the student as an agent; the teacher controls and transmits knowledge. Steve Nelson, the head teacher of a progressive school, relates a story that illustrates the point. An ex-student told him that on starting her undergraduate course at Princeton, a professor asked the new students to write about whatever they wanted. He wanted to find out about the students’ thinking and writing skills. The assignment led to high levels of anxiety as students asked the professor what they should write about. He replied, “Whatever you’re interested in.” The students persisted, with one asking “What are we supposed to be interested in?” My point is that students from traditional schools might ‘know’ as much or more, but, without agency, that knowledge is useless.


      1. Why is continuity and interaction limited to only progressive approaches (assuming primarily discovery methods). Knowledge based curricula are explicitly designed to link ideas and reinforce concepts and while there are often multiple routes (how many depends on the subject) it is highly beneficial for a teacher to have a well planned route in order to allow a higher frequency of eureka moments and to allow accurate reinforcing of prior learning. This allows extension questions to be predicated with more accuracy (compensating for the weaknesses you believe exist in this approach).

        Is this not your interaction? Without this there will be a higher frequency of flawed or more challenging ideas (one difficulty with discovery learning). This can be productive on occasion but it is more difficult for the teacher to prepare for, or for students of all abilities to engage with. There is also a question of efficiency. I believe excellent teaching shares a lot of features even from different approaches, but while all rodes might lead to Rome some are a lot quicker (evidence can act like our sat-nav here).

        It is not true that students have no control in a more tradition approach but it is reasonable to conclude that this is more limited especially for struggling students. Your example about Princeton is an example of teaching’s vulnerably to context(in this case the writing task). Students who are used to this would obviously preform better.

        Imagine instead a professor who sets a more clear writing task. Perhaps one with clear criteria that demands students display expected prior knowledge and allows the professor to assess his students starting points. This would be no less creative as reasonable constraints are often part of the creative process and are certainly preparing people for the demands of others upon there work.

        You are correct that there is more then knowledge. A school that did not allow these traits to develop would be failing its students. (Notice I did not use the word teach). Please consider if this is really happening (be wary of the dangers of cherry picking case studies).


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