Positively Progressive

After reading a blog recently asking if there are any ‘traditional’ teachers left working in England (www.thequirkyteacher.wordpress.com*) I decided to ask the author what the difference is between the progressive and traditional approaches to teaching. I was sent a link to a table that outlines the characteristics of both:



Education should be reasonably authoritarian and hierarchical Education must be egalitarian
The curriculum should be subject-centred It must be child-centred and relevant
Emphasis should be on content Emphasis must be on skills
(Book) knowledge and accuracy are essential Experience, experiment and understanding are more important
Rationality and the consideration of factual evidence should predominate Creativity and feelings are more important than facts
Recognition of right and wrong Right and wrong depend on one’s point of view
There should be a product It is the process that matters
The product, or knowledge of content, should be objectively tested or measured Criteria provide a framework for subjective assessment or tasks based on skills
Competition is welcomed Co-operation must take precedence
Choice between different curricula and/or different types of school is essential to maximise individual strengths Entitlement for all replaces choice and differentiation; equal opportunities can be used to construct equality of result

This is from the Campaign for Real Education’s website (http://www.cre.org.uk/philosophies.html)

Here is my response:

The table is a useful guide but, being on the ‘Campaign for Real Education’ (CRE) website, a rather biased one! Nearly all the ‘progressive’ descriptions are written with strong imperatives (“emphasis must be on skills”, “cooperation must take precedence” etc) while the ‘traditional’ descriptions are written in a more relaxed and suggestive way (“emphasis should be on content”, “There should be a product” etc); it encourages the reader to view the progressive as militant and the traditionalist as reasonable and open-minded. To question and think critically about the shortcomings of a particular system or methodology is not to insist on its complete opposite at all times! There are a number of startling statements in the text too. For example we are told “Attempts to measure outcomes by testing knowledge have been systematically undermined” Isn’t our entire education system built around examinations that do largely test knowledge?
On the subject of exams we are told that “…progressive educationists fear objective testing.” Let’s consider a policy on the taking of instrumental exams written by the North London Colourstrings Conservatoire (NLCC): “While we are not in principle opposed to exams, they are a poor diet…exams often hold back a pupil’s progress in that one is constantly honing myriad scales, arpeggios and pieces…concentrating on only a few pieces for a very long time is disheartening…we aim to bring out the musicality and technique of every child, and while we are aware that this sometimes needs to be calibrated, we are much more in favour of the child experiencing the joys of music rather than the pressures of it…” There is much food for thought here. NLCC is a world class provider of instrumental tuition. They don’t fear testing, they understand its value and consequently its place in a fully thought through educational setting. **
The tone of this particular essay on the CRE website is very strident. In defending or even just supporting a position it is a cheap rhetorical trick to inflate the influence of the alternative. The progressives, we are told, are responsible for a ‘philosophical cleansing’ and they ‘disguise their true intentions’. This is absurdly conspiratorial language; I thought it was those on the left who indulge in conspiracy theories. It’s very melodramatic stuff: “…the progressive believes that the purpose of education is to change attitudes and values to construct a politically correct, secular, socialist society.” Those who support a ‘traditional philosophy’ are not right-wing, we have been told earlier, but to be ‘progressive’ is to wish for a socialist society! The website’s own point of view is reasonable and fair, a ‘common sense’ outlook, and any alternative point of view is ‘political’.
Whatever influence the ‘progressive’ outlook has had since the 1960s, the UK education system has not fundamentally changed. Consider, for example, the following descriptions of a ‘traditional’ approach from the CRE table:
“Education should be reasonably authoritarian and hierarchical” School is compulsory and there is a clear hierarchy both within institutions and across institutions (we even have school league tables these days)
“The curriculum should be subject-centred” It remains so
“Emphasis should be on content…The product, or knowledge of content, should be objectively tested or measured” Knowledge of content is tested in exams
“(Book) knowledge and accuracy are essential” If you don’t have these you will fail your examinations
“Rationality and the consideration of factual evidence should predominate” It does

* The post, ‘How Many Traditional Primary School Teachers Are Out There?’ was removed from the Quirky Teacher blog a couple of weeks after I posted this comment.

** On the subject of written tests consider the following list of human characteristics; most of them are not at all easy to measure or test for with any written examination (the list comes from the Positive Psychology movement, you can read more about this here http://www.positivepsychology.org.uk/pp-theory/eudaimonia/34-the-concept-of-eudaimonic-well-being.html)

1. Love of Learning

2. Bravery and Valour

3. Zest, enthusiasm and energy

4. Leadership

5. Appreciation of beauty and excellence (awe, wonder)

6. Humour and playfulness

7. Creativity, ingenuity and originality

8. Curiosity and interest in the world

9. Critical thinking and open-mindedness

10. Perspective (wisdom)

11. Persistence (perseverance)

12. Honesty, authenticity and genuineness

13. Capacity to love and be loved

14. Kindness and generosity

15. Social intelligence

16. Fairness

17. Gratitude

18. Hope, optimism and future-mindedness

19. Spirituality, sense of purpose and faith

20. Forgiveness and mercy

21. Self-control and self-regulation

22. Citizenship, teamwork and loyalty

23. Modesty and humility

24. Caution and prudence

School and university exams that test ‘knowledge’ do not tend to look for the kind of knowledge that is present in much of this list.

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