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.


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.” 


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.

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.

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.