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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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.