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

Dominic Cummings: Conservative Party Spin Doctor

Here is a link to Dominic Cummings recent paper ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’

 “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”

Bertrand Russell in  ‘A History of Western Philosophy’

Oh dear! I may well have translated Dominic Cummings’ unwieldy ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’ into something I can understand. His paper, as it turns out, is largely unrelated to developing a high quality education system for all which is a pity because a lot of people, past and present have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue; but when the DfE insists on ignoring practically all of this we are left with plenty of room for pretentious bores to fill the vacuum. I haven’t read all of it. Life’s too short. What follows is not a disciplined analysis of all 237 pages. This is because, unlike Mr Cummings, I am very interested in what it might take to develop a high quality education system for all.

The education department in this country has resolutely ignored all the progressive thinking that this country and many others have to offer in order to clear the field for parasites like Dominic Cummings. The paper gives the misleading impression that you have to have a deep understanding of highly complex mathematical probability models and many other abstruse concepts in order to have a chance of developing a world-class education system. This is simply the outcome of his being interested in these things (probability models, quantum mechanics etc) whilst at the same time being highly influential in UK educational circles. As a man with some enthusiasm for cross-curricular merging (a good thing!) he has no difficulty connecting these abstract models with deliberations on national education. It’s not necessary but it helps to reinforce the idea that we’ve got a terrifically clever chap for the job. And that’s what’s needed isn’t it?

Can you imagine if – on leaving the Department for Education as he is about to do – he’d made his parting shot a synthesis of the best educational practise from around the world (much as Zoltán Kodály, the great Hungarian music educator, synthesised all the best practise from around Europe, thus establishing and indeed preserving a model of superb musical teaching)? Wouldn’t that have been more helpful and meaningful for us all than a synthesis of his own intellectual development? The hubris of the man!   

It’s the work of a mind that dreams of an elite of very, very clever people who can grapple with the enormous complexities of the modern world and thus be in a position to resolve or ameliorate them. The words of a student in the documentary film ‘The Finland Phenomenon’ (2011) come to mind: “You have to be really social; you can’t do it on your own.” The Finnish education system recognises that knowledge is a social construct: as opposed to the idea of an elite who have managed to educate themselves into a state of grace they work with the idea of collective problem-solving. The Finns are intensely democratic about education; the schools are for all and they are all free. There is no hierarchy of schools because the Finns don’t dream the dreams of Dominic Cummings.

At a time when ordinary teachers are constantly being attacked by the press for their poor ‘performance’ and easy life we at least have an insight here into the life led by those who work at the highest levels of policy in the DfE. The topics covered are miles away from the real issues that are grinding teachers down at the moment. I am not surprised that he can get away with it but it does help to illustrate the chasm between policy and reality very well indeed. Of course the daily realities for teachers of high stakes tests, punitive Ofsted inspections, performativity measures and all the other ugly manifestations of a compliance-based education system are not seen as in need of fixing by someone like Cummings.

A short play

(making use of three quotes from ‘Some thoughts on education…’ in italics)

Mr Cummings (a very important and very clever teacher)

Me (a student)

Mr Cummings: Who knows what would happen to a political culture if a party embraced education and science as its defining mission and therefore changed the nature of the people running it and the way they make decisions and priorities?

Me:                    I know sir! It would improve beyond measure because people like you would be ousted at once! Just think of it sir!

Mr Cummings: Yes and we’d really liven things up a bit because the young are capable of much more than the powerful and middle-age, who control so many institutions, like to admit.

Me:                    Indeed they are Mr Cummings, indeed they are. We must listen to the voices of the students and the teachers; this could be a huge breakthrough!  

Mr Cummings: Yes indeed it could! I know most intimately what it’s like when middle-aged middle-management try hard to prevent junior members rising… the overall culture deteriorates as the people responsible for failure rise with promotions and pay rises.

Me:                    It’s all so close to home isn’t it sir? Would you like a cup of tea?

Thought dismissed

I have left one school and moved on to another. At the last place they never did show the staff ‘Waiting for Superman’. Apparently there “wasn’t time”. I like to think that my exposure of this film as a horrid piece of corporate propaganda helped to keep it off the agenda. In my old classroom I left a picture of some fine young ladies sitting at their harpsichord; as you can see I have put words in the mouth of one and thoughts in the mind of the other, and I re-titled it as well: it is no longer ‘Adelaide de Guiedan and her sister’ (by Nicolas de Largilliere) but instead ‘Pupils will not learn to think for themselves if their teachers are expected to do as they are told’. You will have to click on the picture to read the other quotes. They are both from the Cambridge Primary Review (2010)


A state theory of learning

A state theory of learning

I understand that the member of senior management who came across this, whilst instructing someone else to clear the room, decided to personally remove this portion of wall-display. Perhaps it now adorns the wall of a senior management office. We may never know…

Top down lock down!

Here is a quote from Ken Robinson speaking at a Royal Society for the promotion of the Arts (RSA) event in 2009

“Getting back to basics includes recognising that great education requires great teaching; it’s not enough to know your discipline, great teachers have to know how to engage people, and great teachers do. And what, really, I think most people find exasperating is when – well intentioned as they are – politicians decide they’re going to take control of a process they don’t know, promote ideas they only half understand and remove the one thing which improves education which is the discretion and creativity of the people actually doing the work.”

(If you don’t know Ken Robinson just put his name into Youtube for a number of interesting talks he has given in recent years).

I was sat in a meeting at the start of the week where we were addressed by one of our local authority Early Years people. She was explaining the latest changes to the way that pupil-profiles are now put together. One such change at a monitoring level was that the inspectors would now be looking at five profiles in great detail; this is up on the old number of three. I asked why this had changed. Her answer was not hugely reassuring: “I just get sent these mail-shots: there is never any explanation of the thinking behind these decisions”.

One new teacher commented that it was a good time to be joining the profession because he did not know the old system so he would not be in the position of having to re-learn anything. Not one teacher in the room chose to put their thoughts into words i.e. the system is constantly being tinkered with and there will be plenty of chances to re-learn and re-learn again as the years go by! Or was it only me that thought this?

Of course this state of constant upheaval is not to be confused with a dynamic system that is in a state of flux due to the practitioners on the ground, Ken Robinson’s “people actually doing the work”, responding to the unique set of challenges in their own setting. This kind of dynamic system would be built from the bottom up and is close to the exact opposite of what we now have.

‘La Education Prohibida’ film – food for thought

“Education is either for liberation or domestication” Paulo Freire

I read an interview with Alan Moore today in which he mentioned that Wilhelm Wundt was a key figure in the development of what we think of as the typical model of universal free education. I looked up Wilhelm Wundt – the man who developed the first ever laboratory dedicated to experimental psychology – and ended up watching ‘La Education Prohibida’ which is an excellent film exploring education from a ‘how-we-learn’ point of view rather than from a political or administrative point of view. It does include a summary of how our current education system was born (at 16 min.) This doesn’t mention Wilhelm Wundt but it raises the same very important questions that Alan Moore raises in his interview.

I highly recommend watching this. Be aware that it is two and a half hours long. It’s a South American film in Spanish, just click on captions and choose ‘English’ if you don’t speak Spanish.
The depth of thought in this film about what learning really is makes the 200 or so comments beneath today’s Guardian article on ‘Teach First’, including my own, look ridiculous