Perception vs Reality

I wrote the following piece because I was amazed by a book called ‘Progressively Worse’ by Robert Peal (April 2014). It is a revisionist history of education in England, concluding that we live in a country with a dangerously progressive educational agenda. This struck me as very odd. What I’ve written here is regarded as baffling by Andrew Old who wrote the foreword to Peal’s book; his comments are beneath the article along with my response.

“Psychosis causes people to perceive things differently from those around them…Delusions (are) where a person believes things that, when examined rationally, are obviously untrue.”
NHS website

I met a teacher today who began her infant school teaching career in 1986. Of course by 1988 she was faced with a new national curriculum and the other key developments of the time (Literacy and Numeracy hours in primary schools/Ofsted). She summed up her disgust with these developments in a single image: she told me her Year 1 class had to lose its dressing-up-box. Her decision to leave teaching was accompanied by a simultaneous decision to ‘home school’ her own two children. Today both children are at university.

To her these developments were not the continuation of a wishy-washy progressive conspiracy but more like the end of anything like a set of ‘progressive’ ideals. Before we go any further let’s define what is meant by ‘progressive’ by combining two authors’ attempts to list the key features. Firstly we have a list from John Shotton’s history of education and schooling from 1890 to1990, ‘No Master High or Low’ (1993):

1. Mixed ability, flexible, vertical groupings working together and/or individually in an open plan classroom under a team of teachers.

2. The day is integrated, the curriculum problem – or concept – based.

3. A wide range of resources is drawn upon (audio, visual equipment etc but also the local community in various ways)

4. The teaching and learning is child-centred, based on the pupil’s interests, needs and skills

5. The teacher is a guide and supporter in the child’s pursuit of learning.

6. Academic learning is balanced by social and emotional learning emphasising creativity and self-expression

7. Decisions in the school are made by all those involved in it

Note that the teacher I met today explained to me that the teaching she did when she began her career was based upon the interests of the children in her class (see no.4 above)

Now let’s look at a very recent post from written by a teacher working in vocational further education:

1. Progressive education is a social science.

2. Progressive education is essentially critical; it gives primacy to independent thinking based on knowledge and not knowledge itself.

3. Progressive practitioners are collaborative and outward-looking.

4. Progressive education is evidence-formed, not evidence-based; research data should be grounded in practise.

5. Cognition is not based upon memory, it’s holistic; both social and emotional

6. Knowledge is constructed not transmitted.

7. Practitioners use collaborative pedagogic tools.

8. Pedagogical approaches are used dependent on context not on dogmatic assumptions.

9. Behaviour is negotiated but ultimately based on the premise that everyone, at whatever level they are currently at,  can work and achieve

Given the content of these two lists it’s hard to imagine anyone celebrating a victory for the ‘progressives’ with the introduction of the national curriculum, the literacy and numeracy hours and a new inspectorate introduced very much to police this brave new world in a punitive, as opposed to supportive, manner. Nonetheless there are those who argue that we are still working, in 2014 in England, very much within a damagingly ‘progressive’ system. I am thinking in particular here of Robert Peal and his writing for the ‘think tank’ Civitas. When the Black Papers were published in the late 1960s they represented a legitimate response to real changes happening in education across the board from primary schools to universities. Progressive ideas were relatively new to the mainstream and it was natural that they would be questioned by those with more entrenched views about what education should look like. Serious historians of education, who are not writing for ‘think tanks’ with particular agendas, recognise that by the late 1970s the progressive approaches outlined above were under attack and that a decade later things swung firmly away from these  ideals, for better or worse.

It seems odd then that anyone should be suggesting the current English education system is weighed down with unhelpful, outdated progressive ideals. Odd, that is, until one considers the origins and purpose of Civitas: as a branch of the Institute of Economic Affairs it represents an anti-statist and pro-market position. The NUT, in a recent article detailing the features and implications of the marketisation – or corporatisation – of education states “…to achieve the necessary market conditions, the monopoly of state provision had to be broken.” Crucially the market virtue of competition is introduced at all levels: standardised tests that are publicly announced to create a ‘quasi-market’ of competitive, atomised schools; performance-related-pay, again an anti-collaborative idea; constant measurement and assessment (see this article about ‘rampant testing’ in America or if you prefer look into the proposed new tests for 4/5 year olds in England) emphasising competitive values for staff and students alike.

These are the preferred characteristics of a marketised system, they have nothing to do with what is best from a teacher’s or learner’s point of view, these are market ideals. No notable educational philosopher has ever argued for these features in an educational setting. In order to promote and pursue this ideal the reality of what teachers do and how teachers approach their work must be distorted and presented in crude ‘black and white’ terms in order to present a ‘debate’ where people must take sides. Thus we have the recently published ‘Progressively Worse’ (written by Robert Peal and published by Civitas) not only simplifying the picture into one of either traditional or progressive but exaggerating the case wildly to make a false point about the dangers of progressivism in 2014. This is to ignore the reality that all teachers, in all subjects, at all levels mix the two approaches. This is, after all, 2014. Take for example this handout that I was given two days ago during some staff training. It’s not very revelatory, except perhaps to Robert Peal. It simply shows how a lesson (in this case a science lesson) might be more teacher-oriented, or more student/pupil oriented. The decision as to where any lesson might be on this spectrum is based on many factors, not least the discretion of the teacher:

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Teacher or Learner directed

Robert Peal is a Cambridge-educated historian who must be well aware of the biased work he is producing. Presumably if another organisation paid him more he could write a paper entitled ‘Progressively Better’. As the ‘debate’ keeps being re-hashed for cynical and self-serving reasons we have teachers and children buffeted about by politicians who regard the output of organisations like Civitas as relevant and valuable, while disregarding important internationally respected research (e.g. the OECD’s latest report that states ‘school choice and competition are not related to improved performance’).

It’s important that teachers, above all, understand the ‘why’ of this debate. It’s not about what’s best for children, or educational philosophy or thorny issues of implementation, it’s about money and it’s about private interests taking over public interests. That’s why books like ‘Progressively Worse’ have been written: to cause people to believe things that, when examined rationally, are obviously untrue.