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.


Part 3 – Shatsky (1922) ‘Which comes first: the children or the school?’

Extracts from Stanislav Shatsky, A Teacher’s Experience (Progress Publishers, 1981)

(p. 203) The main question which should serve to get rid of the blurred ideas of present-day educationists is not what is the kind of school we need today, but what is a child’s life, what are its characteristic features and in what way are they of value in relation to the work of the school.

(p. 209) The enormous task facing any reasonable state lies not in moulding people of monotonous uniformity to carry out the functions required within the state, but in creating conditions as favourable as possible to the structuring of children’s lives at any given time. To live now, this very minute, to master the art of living in such a way that the needs which each age brings to the surface might be satisfied, that is the best way to prepare someone through a series of imperceptible transitions for the form of vital activity peculiar t the mature adult. In this and only in this endeavour does the main task of the state lie when it comes to education.

(p. 212) One of main focuses which I would recommend for work in school … is that of the “child-explorer” or “child-researcher”

(p. 215) These three forms of experience – personal, structured and pre-processed – exert a somewhat intermittent spasmodic influence upon children. Our target with regard to method should be to link together in a single process and to analyse carefully the interdependence of these three types of experiential activity peculiar to the child, school and life itself…. The crux of the matter lies, as I see it, in the fact that this process of comparison [of different types of experiences] is only accomplished in real life with tremendous difficulties. School in providing a favourable environment for working on that comparison serves to remove many of those difficulties.

(p. 216) We must be able to identify the material drawn from personal experience, analyse it and then on the basis of the conclusions drawn from such analysis organise our lessons in school so that these serve to fill out gaps in the child’s personal activities to date, checking, refuting or affirming the correctness of observations made by children (whatever these might consist of), and then to establish analogies with ready-made experience of human activity (in art, work and science).

(p. 218) School, in its work to lend shape to children’s lives should be concerned with study of the elements (activities) which constitute that life. In order to carry out this task we need to turn our attention to the detailed aspects  of children’s lives as these unfold within the natural conditions of the child’s environment.

(p. 223) The sole goal for schools and teachers should be to organize varied activities for children and to study them as they engage in these all the time. The curriculum needs to be organised not round ‘subjects’ but round activities for the children.

(p. 228) Thus school represents the leaven, and the environment in which it causes leavening to take place is children’s life in the broad sense…. [S]chool should exist for children and not the other way round.

(p. 229) We create for them artificial, allegedly suitable conditions in which to foster learning, yet in practice we do not guarantee children conditions that are even tolerable as far as hygiene is concerned, with regard either to their physical health (all too often schools can be a rich source of infantile diseases), mental health (apathy, boredom, fatigue) or moral health (deception, fighting, rivalry, cunning, fears to which the community of children in a school is subject). All these shortcomings stem from the fact that the school is cut off from the main stream of children’s lives. In this case in their most extreme, i.e. consistently applied methods, such schools become the setting for a distorted life meted out to the children.

Part 2 – Shatsky (1918) ‘First steps towards education through work’

Extracts from Stanislav Shatsky, A Teacher’s Experience (Progress Publishers, 1981)

(p. 176) Prejudices in the way of setting up an education through work establishment There are two deeply rooted social prejudices which stand in the way of our attaining this ultimate goal, these are, firstly, the idea that it is essential to train children for their future life, activity or career (the prejudice regarding social education) and, secondly, the belief in the indisputable existence of a well-defined volume of knowledge strictly laid down for each stage of life…. These two parallel ideas which are mutually supporting have dealt and continue to deal great harm to children and they complicate efforts to think and analyse clearly and sensibly with regard to questions of child care. It is teachers whom these ideas impede most of all.

(p. 178) Progressive thinkers in the field of education … made an emphasis … on the endeavour to achieve as full as possible a life for the child now, without concern for what the future will bring. The threatening spectre of the future is removed, and before us unfolds the actual life of a child with its incredibly rich and purposeful content.

(p. 181) Even if we take it for granted that characteristics intrinsic to children include the urge to move, play, and vividly depict their experiences, it soon emerges as well that when we concern ourselves with their intellectual activity (that which provides the closest link with adult life) children can lead us to the most intriguing of discoveries. In practice we come to appreciate that children investigate, contemplate, examine and test out all objects that come within their orbit with a striking degree of concentration and tenacity.

(p. 182) Our main effort should be aimed at nurturing and retaining all that children start out with. This task however clearly emerges as exceedingly difficult by virtue of its very nature. We obstruct the preservation of those properties so useful to man that are to be found so early on in children through our educational organisations and in particular through our schools. … [I]n  the sphere where the adult should reign supreme, in the sphere of reason, the child possesses an important advantage in his indomitable urge to explore.

(p. 189) School is a place where the findings of our own personal experience are to be processed, systematised and compared with the findings drawn from the experience of others. In this way scope is provided for lively and meaningful mental activity, and natural abilities are developed and exercised…. Schooling through work is constantly extending the range of children’s first-hand experience; yet at the same time through a whole range of activities it summarises that experience, juxtaposing various minor facts of experience to provide an overall picture and thus bringing out the pattern underlying those facts.

(p. 189) I do not reject curricula out of hand; however, I only recognise curricula for learning through action, not curricula that consist of nothing but a catalogue of items of knowledge, disjointed rather than connected and obsolete into the bargain, which in accordance with some strange misconception have to be mastered by children of one or another specific age.


Part 1 – Shatsky: the great experimenter

Stanislav ShatskyStanislav Shatsky, a leader of progressive education in Russia, was at the centre of a state-backed attempt to introduce progressive teaching methods into classrooms. Pre-1917, Shatsky set up settlements for children of the urban working class that promoted self-government and taught skills relevant to the needs of the children’s local communities. Although he initially maintained his distance from the Bolshevik Revolution, an increasing realisation that the educational leaders of the Soviet state (particularly Krupskaya) shared his progressive philosophy led Shatsky to join Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat for Education).

Placed in charge of the First Experimental Station (a wide collection of schools focused on research), Shatsky was central to the development of a new pedagogical method.  A strong advocate for the central role of schools against those (such as, Shulgin) who argued for their ‘withering away’, he championed the complex method of learning. The method was based on the themes (or ‘complexes’) of nature, labour and society and involved pupils in, for example, organising their surroundings, labouring with tools in the garden and workshop and learning about the social influences on their development. Lunacharsky (the Commissar of Narkompros) approved of the method’s “obliteration” of boundaries between separate subjects in the early years of a child’s education, arguing that “the world is the only subject of study and it must be studied in such a way that it does not become fragmented in the child’s consciousness.” Dewey likened the method to project-based learning that had started to appear in US schools.

However, the complex method  faced insurmountable problems in the early Soviet state. Chief among these were the desperate economic conditions, which meant the state was unable to provide the training and resources that teachers needed to understand and implement the method. Always sensitive to the experience of classroom teachers, Shatsky knew changes could not be achieved simply by decree. Moreover, he realised from his contact with teachers and frequent visits to schools that Narkompros would have to compromise. Nevertheless, Shatsky held to his core belief that education should originate in and develop each child’s experience of their local culture. In 1928, he wrote: “Instead of providing [children] with ready-made static equipment and apparatus we should see it as natural and proper to provide them with components out of which they might be able to construct objects and installations serving to illustrate the laws they are studying and coming to understand.”

By 1929, when Lunarcharsky resigned as Commissar of Narkompros, progressive educators were under personal attack from new state apparatchiks. As Stalin’s reaction grew in strength, the threats against Shatsky increased. His house was burnt down and in 1932 the First Experimental Station was closed. Shatsky died in 1934 in a ‘House of Preliminary Detention’. Curriculum reforms between 1932 and 1936 that reintroduced Tsarist traditional methods (including a centralised curriculum, separate subjects and textbooks) wiped away the experiments of the 1920s.

A selection of Shatsky’s writings have been published in English under the title A Teacher’s Experience (Progress Publishers, 1981). In the next two posts, we will present extracts from key texts first published in 1918 and 1922.