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.

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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’.

 

Do progressive teachers fight cuts?

State schools in England are facing cuts of £3billion. The consequences are already being felt with more classes of over 30 pupils, less resources and fewer teachers. Progressive education suffers disproportionately in these circumstances. In First Do No Harm, Steve Nelson contends that progressive schools should have classes of 16 pupils at most if the teacher is to provide a truly child-centred education. It’s no coincidence that traditionalists, whose blunt methods are more suited to larger classes (see this post), currently find favour with government ministers. In our time of austerity, should the priority of progressives be on promoting our teaching methods or fighting budget cuts?

This question has a long history in progressive education. The two strands of progressivism – liberal and radical – answer the question in different ways*. For the liberals, the focus should be on the classroom; for the radicals, wider social issues are just as, if not more, important. Two periods of economic crisis similar to our own illustrate the point. In the 1970s and 1930s the progressive movement was split between liberal and radical teachers, although in both periods liberals far outnumbered radicals.

The projected cuts today are reminiscent of the mid-1970s when spending on education as a percentage of GDP fell by more than two per cent (see graph). Just as today, the Education fundingnumber of students in UK secondary schools was rising. In 1972 the leaving age was raised to 16, meaning secondary schools had to accommodate one extra year group; and in our time, according to government projections, secondary schools will contain 20 per cent more students in 2024 than they did in 2015. And, just as today, progressives came under attack from the traditionalists, although then it was from the more erudite writers of the Black Papers (see, as an example of that erudition, Bantock’s Discovery Methods). In the face of cuts and criticisms, the liberals had no response other than to continue promoting progressive teaching methods. For the radicals, the liberals’ inability to confront the new trends in education exposed two problems in their approach.

Radical teachers, such as those at William Tyndale Junior school in Islington, highlighted the conflicting values held by middle-class liberal teachers and working-class pupils and their parents:

The real motives of schooling and the controlling role of the teacher have been gently evaded. The contradictions have been papered over with triple-mounted pictures and production-line creative writing. The moribund prettiness, devoid of all motive except the transference of middle-class values to working-class children, has been embraced by many schools, especially those with a strong middle-class parental element. (Ellis et al., William Tyndale: The Teachers’ Story, p. 44)

Although the teachers at William Tyndale themselves emphasised such progressive ideals as play, experience and student choice, they claimed that liberal progressivism was “simply often traditional education in disguise, the means more indirect, the manner more showy, the ends exactly the same” (p. 42). Liberals, they asserted, questioned the means of educating, but not the ends of education. And the ends amounted to ensuring working-class children comply with a middle-class view of society.

For radical socialist teachers, this critique did not go far enough. While acknowledging the use of progressive methods in their own teaching, the socialists claimed that liberals could not comprehend the nature of the crisis in education: “Apart from its arguments about teaching methods, [liberal] progressives have made an incomplete analysis of the relationship between school and society” (p. 9). Schooling, they maintained, was designed to bolster capitalism by promoting its values and providing a workforce tailored to the needs of the economy. For socialist teachers, the crisis was not to be resolved by simply promoting progressive teaching, nor by designing schools around the experiences of working class pupils. Rather, improvements in schooling could only be achieved through changes at a societal level.

Criticisms of the liberals’ middle-class values and their separation of schooling from society echo the arguments amongst progressives at another time of economic crisis. During the Great Depression, US radicals – known as reconstructionists – railed against the “liberal-minded upper middle class” leadership of progressive education. Those liberal leaders, George Counts argued, promoted a form of individualism that defended the privileges of a few and ignored the welfare needs of the impoverished majority. The reconstructionists argued not only for a schooling that challenged social inequality, but also for progressive teachers to lead a movement that aimed to create a “just and noble and beautiful” society. 

The fact that in our time of cuts to school budgets progressives are not debating at the levels of  intensity seen in the 1970s and 1930s is one sign of the defeats suffered by progressive education in the last 30 years. Nevertheless, this blog identifies itself with the radical strand of progressive education. While continuing to promote progressive methods in classrooms, the immediate challenge is to stop the cuts. That will not be achieved by focusing on our classroom practice; rather, it will require a mobilisation of teachers, students, parents and the wider community to defend state education.


* We exclude the libertarians, a third strand, from this discussion as they are, and have always been, associated exclusively with the independent sector.

Teacher talk: ‘Just tell them’

The traditionalists always have a deceptively simple remedy for the complex social interactions that make up classrooms in state education.

The latest relates to their favourite topic – knowledge. On social media, they bemoan the existence of classrooms in which “the person who knows the most, talks the least.” They run polls about the percentage of time taken up by teacher talk in lessons, implying that anything below 70% is a dereliction of a teacher’s duty. Some are much blunter, using the hashtag #justtellthem.

Just tell them? This would be laughable if it wasn’t for the financial cuts being imposed on state schools. There is a danger that such a message might gain ground because it is seen to reduce costs. If ‘just telling them’ is a legitimate pedagogy, then why not have one teacher just tell 40 students in a classroom or 60 in the canteen or even two hundred in the sports hall?

Of course, equating learning to the direct transfer of knowledge fails to address the issue of what students are learning. In the simplistic world of the traditionalist, students learn the content of teacher talk. However, students also learn through the form of talk. Indeed, the form might be far more influential than the content. From lessons in which teacher talk predominates, children learn that their ‘proper place’ is to listen to their ‘betters’; they learn that their opinion or understanding is not valued; and they learn that passive conformity is the way to achieve approbation.

It is embarrassing that we need to spell out why student talk is important. It allows for the assessment of  students’ understanding, enabling the teacher to plan or change the course of a lesson and evaluate the lesson’s success. Students learn – and learn from each other – how to explain, debate and dispute in constructive and critical ways. In progressive classrooms, students also pose questions, explore ideas and participate in directing the lesson.

So, should the person who “knows the most” talk for most of the time? Maybe, on occasions. Students might need direction from the teacher or subject knowledge to pursue a project or inquiry. But, it is inherently undemocratic for the teacher to dominate classroom talk.

Moreover, there is a danger that teacher talk reinforces low self-esteem that develops outside school. Through social interactions with authority figures, students, particularly those on free school meals, might already consider themselves inferior. Teacher talk has the insidious effect of compounding that feeling of inferiority.

Saving the ‘disadvantaged’

The UK government is currently proposing to bring back the grammar school system by allowing secondary schools to select students. According to the Prime Minister, this will ensure “Britain’s education system shifts decisively to support ordinary working class families.” The Foreign Secretary claims grammar schools are “a great mobiliser and liberator” that help the “brightest children from poor homes.” And the Department for Education claimed (falsely, as it later turned out) that “white working class boys” do better at grammars.

All this is rank hypocrisy. At the same time as promoting selection, the UK government is involved in cutting school budgets in real terms. A few ‘disadvantaged’ students might gain access to a new grammar school, but the vast majority of students eligible for free school meals face worse conditions with larger class sizes and fewer resources. 

The government’s paternalistic approach allows it to present itself as a liberator. In reality, working class children who gain access to grammar schools are drawn into the establishment’s world view. Instead of developing into critical citizens, the ‘most promising’ are institutionalised and set up for a life of conformity. Big business benefits from the domestication of future managers; the political system survives through the promise of social mobility.

Although purportedly saving the ‘disadvantaged’, the only thing being saved is a capitalist system that has always brutalised and exploited the vast majority of students from poor backgrounds.

The double duty of progressives

Progressives seem to be on the back foot at the moment because of how the educational system measures outcomes. We have to succeed at the traditionalists’ knowledge-based targets and also at our own aims. 

The decision on the value of educational outcomes is currently in the hands of those who want the progressive model to fail. State schools in the UK are evaluated on a number of quantitative measures set by the Department for Education (DfE). These measures focus exclusively on children’s knowledge acquisition and data is collected through formal examinations.

Progressives have other aims as well. We want students to

  • understand the concepts of equity and justice and practise them in their everyday lives
  • think and act flexibly and critically in a variety of situations outside the exam hall and
  • acquire an independent ability to learn from and reflect upon experiences after formal schooling.

Thus, progressives have a double duty. On the one hand, they have to focus on narrow knowledge acquisition so students and schools can survive the DfE’s impoverished view of education; and, on the other hand, progressives must remain true to the principles that allow students to thrive through education.

This double duty can seem impossible to achieve at times. The pressure from the DfE and its right-wing political masters to focus on traditionalists’ aims can be daunting. Yet, in our time of reaction in educational thinking, the fight to preserve progressive ideals is even more important than at any time in the last century. 

As Shatsky wrote about progressive education in 1918:

These ideas need to be nurtured, elaborated, examined in more detail and put to the test. Each new attempt fans the hope that an easier legacy has been passed down to the next generation.