Traditionalists’ knowledge deficit

Traditionalists are whipping themselves into a frenzy about progressive education at the moment. Recently the writer of one post fantasised about being Stormtrooper FN-2187 in a Star Wars film taking on the Dark Side of “the majority of educators who support the progressive philosophy of education.” While the post found favour with the UK Schools Minister, many teachers who do not adhere to the traditionalists’ educational straitjacket might be surprised to be labelled as the progressive enemy.

However, casting the net so wide turns out to have its advantages in on-line debate; it becomes relatively easy for the traditionalists to find a target for criticism. Learning styles, ‘fads’ of all types, group work, student talk and Student Voice, teaching a lesson for relevance or for children’s interest or without a textbook – all become part of the insidious progressive agenda.

For teachers who call for a ‘core knowledge’ curriculum, the traditionalists have a lamentable lack of knowledge of progressive education.

Progressive education is not occasional group work or giving students a superficial ‘voice’; instead, it proposes a complete restructuring of the contemporary model of schooling. The conformity demanded of students and teachers in the current system would give way to a collaborative community in which all participants learn to direct the journey to greater knowledge. New ways of learning would promote initiative, independence and creativity.

Progressives in state schools can take inspiration for the possibility of change from early attempts to develop experimental methods. For example, Rosa Bassett, headteacher at the County Secondary School in Streatham, introduced the Dalton Plan in 1920. Learning at the school was completely reorganised. Students decided how much time they would give to studying each subject, determined which subject ‘laboratories’ they would visit each day and took responsibility for recording their progress in completing the monthly assignments.

Rosa summarised the result: “One must confess that the brilliant child progresses at a far greater rate than before, but, at the same time, one must also acknowledge that the slower child progresses, too, at a greater rate and in a far better way” (The Dalton Plan, 1922, p. 194).

The majority of state teachers use a pragmatic mix of methods to get their students through the next exam. Some of the methods might be characterised as child-centred, but that does not make the teacher a progressive.

Before traditionalists start targeting teachers with one label or another, they should acquire the requisite knowledge that would allow them to enter the debate on an informed basis.