There’s much talk in the world of education as seen on Twitter about progressive vs traditional teaching. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the UK education system has been filled with progressive ideological pedagogical practices which have resulted in a dumbing down of learning, grade inflation, a distrust of knowledge and attempts to appease disruptive learners with play. Here progressive practices include a predominance of group work and discovery learning where teacher talk is seen by those in positions of power as a Bad Thing.
On the other hand, traditionalists are mocked for desiring a return to Victorian, Gradgrindian methods which view children as vessels to be filled with facts and who should be seen but never heard. In this view, Michael Gove’s reforms of the National Curriculum, GCSEs and the phonics screening test are symptomatic of a dominant culture which denies the rights of children to enjoy their learning. Goodbye vocational qualifications, coursework and Of Mice and Men, hello workhouse style classrooms and rote learning.
I am of course parodying these two positions in an attempt to emphasise the polarisation between them.
There is a third category – those who see these two positions as a “false dichotomy”, and who argue that most teachers employ a range of pedagogical strategies that straddle both ends of the paradigm.
Which am I?
At a recent informal gathering of Tweachers at a pub in Birmingham i stated something along these lines: “I’m as progressive as they come. I would happily see the school system stripped down, ripped apart and rebuilt from scratch. I would happily see kids of different ages in a class. I would happily see students choosing courses and classes that interest them. But I still expect the kids to shut up when I’m talking.”
This reflects what might seem a contradictory position. I consider myself a progressive, but I believe in the power and value of knowledge and I believe that kids should show respect to others. I think the lecture is a potent model for teaching, so long as the lecture is interesting. I think that there’s nothing wrong with pupils listening to a teacher talk for an hour. I think there’s very genuine reasons to argue that telling kids things helps them to know stuff. I also think there’s an argument for letting students go off and research stuff, so long as they have some guidance in what to look for, how to look for it and how to present their findings. These are essential skills that, despite being so called “digital natives” many pupils seem to lack.
I think the best teaching combines a variety of methods and strategies, but that the best learning comes from rehearsal. It doesn’t really matter if I tell students about the context of Animal Farm or if they look it up on Sparknotes, if we don’t make some use of that information then they won’t retain it; they won’t have learnt it. And yes, I can get them to write down “In today’s lesson I have learnt that Napoleon represents Stalin” at the end of the lesson, but that won’t achieve anything in of itself. We need to revisit that information, that knowledge, and use it over and over again (by rote?) if we want the kids to actually remember it and write in the exam. Of course, some of us believe that there is more to education than passing GCSE English Literature, but the same assertion applies because whatever we are trying to teach the kids we presumably want them to remember it. Furthermore, I believe that kids should study some English literature, but they should also study a whole range of other stuff which gets no mention in the National Curriculum, which brings me on to another point.
It is in the progressive tradition (how’s that for an oxymoron?) to assert that any attempts to prescribe a certain set of knowledge is oppressive. Whose knowledge should we teach? Now I can see the appeal of this position, but I don’t necessarily adopt it. I have said that knowledge is important, and it’s good for us too. The more knowledge we can get the better. But I do wonder about the current diet on offer to British school children (and I am talking from the perspective of a secondary teacher here).
Where I stand is this:
- I think that schooling is fundamentally undemocratic. It is something that is done to children (and teachers) rather than with them. This can lead to resentment and apathy.
- I think that schooling is not synonomous with education or learning.
- Schooling has a whole bunch of agendas and motivations running through it that detract from the stated core principle of the system.
- I think that the term “school leadership’ is an oxymoron because in our society our ideas of what leadership is are fundamentally flawed.
- I would like to see schooling offer pupils far more choice in what subjects they learn and when they study them. I envision a university style system of core and optional classes, with credits building towards certification.
- i would like to see an ethos which fosters a thirst for knowledge and enjoyment of learning for its own sake, not just as a step towards economic security.
- I would also like to see teachers given the professional autonomy to tell a pupil to leave the lesson if the pupil is disrupting it. This shouldn’t then result in that teacher having to waste time issuing and chasing detentions.
- I think that knowledge should be valued, cherished and celebrated, but I also think that it shouldn’t be limited to a bland curriculum that runs for years.
- I think that every teacher, every teaching/learning assistant, every middle “manager”, every senior “leader” and anyone else who works in or with schools should read this excellent blog post from @pedagog_machine and seriously consider the bullet point list presented in it. And the question at the end of that post should be on every agenda at least once in the academic year.