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)

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.