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. 

Preface to a post on Donalda Dickie

Last weekend the twitter account linked to this blog became the centre of a bizarre discussion on social media. One educationalist described the account as satirical and someone’s idea of “a bit of fun.” If he had left it at that, the discussion might have amused some on a cold Sunday. However, he went on to disparage the names of progressive educators from the past:

We might imagine that the tweets came from a traditionalist. Yet the source was someone who uses the twitter handle @imagineinquiry, writes about the Mantle of the Expert (MOE) and trains teachers in its methods. Unfortunately, he seems to have little idea about the history of his own preferred pedagogy and the ideas of Dorothy Heathcote, the founder of MOE.

In a PhD thesis on Heathcote and MOE, Ruth Sayers says: “Heathcote’s work was rooted in progressive teaching methods.” In the earlier work, according to Sayers, Heathcote adopted Dewey’s description of testing ideas in the “crucible of real life experience”, using ‘crucible’ as a metaphor for the classrooms in her drama-based model of learning. Moreover, Heathcote explicitly used the context of a laboratory in her later works, echoing Helen Parkhurst’s Dalton Laboratory Plan.

We should add that it was the 1931 Hadow Report (also mentioned in the timeline of our twitter account and similarly disparaged as “an esoteric article”) that was one of the first official reports in the UK (from the Board of Education) that recognised the importance of child play and dramatic work: “Drama, both of the less and more formal kinds … offers further good opportunities of developing that power of expression … closely correlated with the development of perception and feeling.”

dickieWhile the ignorance of the educationalist might concern his publishers, his puerile and even offensive comments about the names of the leaders of our movement require a response from progressives.

In the next post, we shall honour the contribution of one of the progressives belittled for her ‘funny-sounding’ name. Donalda Dickie (right) was involved in devising the Enterprise Method and enacting system-wide change of education in Alberta (Canada). She is an inspiration to teachers who attempt to promote progressive education in state schools.

 

 

Dare the School Build a New Social Order?

In 1932, George Counts took on the leaders of the Progressive Movement of his day in a pamphlet called  Dare the School Build a New Social Order? He counter-poses the individualistic aims of US progressives to the collective solutions required in economic crisis. In a vision of the ‘American dream’ that might jar for its overt nationalism, Counts resolutely places the agency of teachers and students at the heart of building a new social order in which the citizens control ‘the machine’ of industrialism. 

In an excoriating attack, Counts starts by blaming the “liberal-minded upper middle class” leaders for progressive education’s failure to elaborate a theory of social welfare. He writes that the middle class “find it hard to live without their customary material comforts, are rather insensitive to the accepted forms of social injustice, [and] rarely move outside the pleasant circles of the class to which they belong” (p. 8). As a consequence of its leaders’ preoccupations, the progressive movement promoted a passive form of “extreme individualism” (p. 7). Rather than being empowered to construct the world around them as Counts advocated, children were taught to adapt to changing social conditions:

Under such a conception of life and society, education can only bow down before the gods of chance and reflect the drift of the social order. This conception is essentially anarchic in character, exalts the irrational above the rational forces of society, makes of security an individual rather than a social goal, drives every one of us into an insane competition with his neighbours, and assumes that man is incapable of controlling in the common interest the creatures of his brain. Here we have imposition with a vengeance, but not the imposition of the teacher or the school. Nor is it an enlightened form of imposition. Rather is it the imposition of the chaos and cruelty and ugliness produced by the brutish struggle for existence and advantage. Far more terrifying than any indoctrination in which the school might indulge is the prospect of our becoming completely victimised and moulded by the mechanics of industrialism. The control of the machine requires a society which is dominated less by the ideal of individual advancement and more by certain far-reaching purposes and plans for social construction. (pp. 26-27)

The solution according to Counts was for academics and teachers, as the representatives of “the common and abiding interests of the people” (p. 29), to come together in order to exercise their knowledge and wisdom in seeking and then using power. They would reject the aims of the industrial and banking elite in favour of a return to an American democratic tradition that sought an egalitarian society. This would entail combating “all forces tending to produce social distinctions and classes”, repressing “every form of privilege and economic parasitism”, providing “adequate material and spiritual rewards for every kind of socially useful work” and striving for “genuine equality of opportunity among all races, sects, and occupations” (p. 41). Such an “attack on the economic system” (p. 45) was to be achieved through an evolution from individualistic concerns to the collective ownership of industry, although, as Counts warns, collectivisation might require “the method of revolution” (p. 42) as a last resort.

Even though, in this vision, teachers lead social change, progressive schools were not to become organisational centres of revolt against big business. Rather, they were places in which teachers would “fashion and bequeath” (p. 54) a vision for the future and recruit students for the fight ahead:

Our Progressive schools cannot rest content with giving children an opportunity to study contemporary society in all of its aspects. This of course must be done, but I am convinced that they should go much farther. If the schools are to be really effective, they must become centres for the building, and not merely for the contemplation, of our civilisation. This does not mean that we should endeavour to promote particular reforms through the educational system. We should, however, give to our children a vision of the possibilities which lie ahead and endeavour to enlist their loyalties and enthusiasms in the realisation of the vision. (p. 37)

While there are obvious problems with this prescription (not least of which is the expectation that the teaching profession would act as a unified cadre), Dare the School Build a New Social Order? reminds us how far teacher agency, independence and initiative have been suppressed since the writing of the pamphlet. Today, the suggestion that progressive teachers lead social resistance seems outlandish. Unfortunately, the self-interested liberal middle class that Counts railed against still holds sway in our movement.

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.” 

 

Re-reading Dewey

2016 is the centenary of the publication of Dewey’s Democracy and Education. The book, published during a period of rapid economic growth in the US, places education at the heart of social progress. Dewey’s philosophy is one of hope for a better future in which people are educated to adapt to changing economic conditions. In educating children to think critically and reflectively, schools can help to challenge the inequities that exist in society: “It is the aim of progressive education to take part in correcting unfair privilege and unfair deprivation” (p. 140).

At the heart of education is the child – not for some liberal ideal, but because “a progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth” (p. 357). For schools that would have all children act in exactly the same way, Dewey warns that quashing individual traits in favour of conformity and uniformity induces “lack of interest in the novel, aversion to progress, and dread of the uncertain and the unknown” (p. 60).

The progressive message seems unfashionable at the moment. For ideologues who promote ‘content-centred’ direct instruction, teachers who profess a child-centred approach risk destroying their students’ futures. Dewey characterises teachers who emphasise the transmission of knowledge as social conservatives who block progress: “The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge” (p. 26).

That is not to say Dewey disregards knowledge wholly in favour of experiential inquiry. Indeed, he says that it is a nonsense to talk of developing a mental or physical skill separate from the subject matter involved in exercising the skill. However, knowledge is viewed progressively, which is to say knowledge is not an inert residue of the past, but finds value “in the solidity, security, and fertility it affords our dealings with the future” (p. 178).

Re-reading Democracy and Education is a tonic in times of economic recession and cuts to education budgets. Today social conservatism prevails. Either education is viewed as a process of filling up long-term memory or it looks to evidence of ‘what works’ to achieve narrow externally-imposed targets. Against such impoverished views, it is exciting and refreshing to be reminded of the transformative power of education when teachers adopt the progressive mission.