Traditional vs Progressive: a riposte

There is a school of thought that argues we, in England, have gone way too far down the ‘progressive’ route in education. I’ve looked at this here, here and here. For me the traditional vs progressive debate is a false one because in 2016 neither approach is dominant and the two approaches have much to offer. Certainly individual teachers can be appalled at a woolly approach to, for example, learning verb endings and then blame it on the ‘progressives’ but this doesn’t dig deep enough. We must consider something very obvious indeed here: teaching takes place in many different contexts e.g. a class of teenagers preparing for a French GCSE, a class of six year olds starting a new topic about volcanoes, a small group tutorial at university discussing the romantic poets etc etc. Naturally enough these examples may lead to the teacher choosing a more ‘progressive’ approach or a more ‘traditional’ one.

Considering these two very straightforward insights – both approaches have much to offer, context is all – prompts the question ‘Why has the ‘progressive vs traditional’ debate opened up in recent years?’ I would argue that there are two main reasons and neither has very much to do with what is best for learners. Firstly, it lends weight to and shores up a sense of ‘us and them’ between the freshly emerging academies and the state sector. Secondly an emphasis on ‘traditional’ knowledge transference is being actively promoted by reformers who are approaching education as accountants: teachers as low-skilled and, crucially, low paid curriculum-deliverers and the extension of this idea to cheap online/computer-based learning:
“…the education we’re currently providing, or the way we’re providing it, just isn’t sustainable…Instead we have to ask, ‘How can we use technology as a tool to recreate the entire college experience? How can we provide a better education to more people for less money?” 1
Bill Gates, 2013
This is combined with a notion that ‘delivering education at scale’ requires standardised templates (e.g. ED Hirsch and the Common Core) that can be rolled out internationally:
‘The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development and formative assessments…the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.” 2
(US Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan’s chief of staff Joanne Weiss, 2011
This is why I think of organisations like Civitas, vigorously promoting a so-called anti-progressive point of view, as deeply cynical.
The idea that this is a false debate is supported by the very origins of the word ‘education’. I can’t think of a better way of summing up my own point of view:
“…educare, to train or to mold; educere, to lead out or draw out. Educare involves the preservation of knowledge and tradition . . . Educere involves preparing new generations for the inevitability of change.” 3
In other words, within the word education itself are contained the seeds of both the traditional (to train or to mold) and progressive (to lead out or draw out) philosophies.

1. Mark Parry, Kelly Field and Becky Supiano ‘The Gates Effect’ in ‘The Chronicle of Higher Education’ quoted in Cody, Anthony ‘The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation’ Garn Press 2014 p.37
2. ‘The Innovation Mismatch: ‘Smart Capital’ and education Innovation in the Harvard Business Review blog quoted in Cody, Anthony ‘The Educator and the Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges the Gates Foundation’ Garn Press p.28
3. Bowman, W. (2012) ‘Music’s Place in Education’. In G. McPherson & G. Welch (Eds), The Oxford Handbook of Music Education, Vol. I O.U.P. p.24

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