Debate deniers


The traditionalists continue to rail against all those who ‘deny’ the debate over progressive and traditional teaching methods. This latest post correctly views the two approaches as rooted in different philosophies of education. It then makes the incorrect inference that, as there are two philosophies, teachers must follow one or the other. Yes, you can’t be both progressive and traditional, but you could be in the ‘middle’ if you hold to a different philosophy – such as pragmatism.

Notwithstanding the existence of a middle ground, it is puzzling that seemingly educated people deny the debate has relevance in today’s schools. To my mind, there are two reasons for this denial. The first is self-interest; and the second is a reaction to the facile caricatures that traditionalists deploy against progressive educators.


In my experience, the most prominent deniers are not teachers. They are private consultants who promote ‘what works’ (in terms of teaching, making schools ‘Ofsted ready’ or improving behaviour) for financial gain. While teachers’ pay has declined in real terms, they are happy to suck money out of the state system for their own ends.

Facile caricatures

The more important reason why people deny the debate is the manner in which the traditionalists make their case. The latest post is typical of their approach: label all teachers ‘prog’ if they are not demonstrably ‘trad’ and then criticise them with facile caricatures of progressive methods. Examples of caricatures from the post are:

  • Students in progressive classrooms “expect fun activities and personalised worksheets, to always be able to choose from an educational buffet”;
  • Students do not have to concentrate;
  • Students view the teacher as “an entertainer”;
  • Students view the purpose of lessons as “a series of activities”;
  • Students are “indoctrinated to rate their teacher based on fun-ness”;
  • Students “feel entitled to switch off if lessons aren’t to their liking”; and, finally,
  • Progressive education leads to poor behaviour.

As we’ve explained before here, this list shows a lamentable lack of knowledge about progressive education. However, it also debases the debate. If your critique of a philosophy is that it leads to teachers who are obliged to ‘entertain’, then you cannot be surprised if people are not prepared to engage in such a trivial discussion.

One final point: The post complains that new teachers are easily indoctrinated in progressive ways because of their “zeal for social justice and complete absence of worldly wisdom”. So, progressive education is associated with social justice and innocence, while ‘worldly wisdom’ leads to traditionalists’ authoritarian practices and the injustices they breed. No wonder new teachers, full of hope and idealism, are attracted to the progressive message!

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)

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. 

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.

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.” 


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.