Prejudice upon disdain: a new low for traditionalists

There’s nothing new about the traditionalists’ disdain for progressive ideas on social media. They attempt to shame anyone who questions the traditional model, ganging up on progressive teachers without feeling the need to justify their moribund ideas. Developing a mob mentality is a good way for them to feel safe in numbers.

However, this recent tweet from Tom Bennett (adviser to the government) reached a new low point.

Let’s all applaud Tom’s wit and feel affirmed in our use of traditional rows and direct instruction when the alternative is meal-time chaos.

There are two issues with this tweet. Firstly, it does not link to the original post in which the infographics appear. This means we cannot examine the arguments presented for the second diagram (or understand that it is, in fact, the third of three). There is an interesting discussion to be had, for example, about the levels of teacher direction and student agency in all three classroom lay-outs and, indeed, whether they are mutually exclusive over the course of a year. Of course, Tom Bennett has no intention of either inviting or encouraging us to discuss the article. Let’s just sneer instead.

Secondly, the analogy with McDonald’s is deeply troubling. In using the cheap fast food chain that caters for low-income families, the tweet exhibits an anti working-class prejudice that is wholly in line with the reactionary nature of the government. Let’s laugh at progressive classrooms by associating them with places where poor people eat.

The traditionalists’ prejudice against the working class is usually hidden in their arguments about social mobility. They justify a classical curriculum that is common to elite private schools because the disadvantaged lack the ‘cultural capital’ of their middle-class peers. Teaching them through direct instruction is apparently necessary to close the gap created by their impoverished home lives; and draconian behaviour policies are required to offset the influence of an unruly family.

Moreover, the traditionalists promote entry to Russell Group universities as the aim of education, but don’t say that the vast majority of places will be taken up by privileged students from affluent areas of the country. The result for working class students is frustration and further alienation from the institutions of our society.

The traditionalists’ arguments reveal an attempt to impose middle-class values on disadvantaged children. In her new book Miseducation, Professor Diane Reay re-visits Basil Bernstein’s call to re-think equitable education for all classes in society:

[Bernstein] argued that we must ensure that the material conditions of the schools we offer, their values, social organisation, forms of control and pedagogy, the skills and sensitivities of the teachers are refracted through an understanding of the culture the children bring to school. As he pointed out, we do no less for the middle-class child. (2017, p. 161)

The class hostility of the traditionalist educator makes this impossible to achieve. Only through progressive notions of democracy, equality and mutual respect can working-class children get the education they need and deserve.

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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’.