This post is based on my talk for #PedagooLondon14 at the IoE. Having offered to run a workshop ages ago, when finally pressed for a title by the wonderful, patient organiser Helene Galdinoshea, I’d just been reading another rather tedious, acrimonious tit-for-tat twitter exchange. Progressives vs Traditionalists acting out The North vs The South or Roundheads vs Cavaliers. My thought was: I don’t get this. I don’t understand the heightened righteousness of each position; it’s not how I relate to my job as a teacher and school leader. So the title was “Walking the Traditional-Progressive Line; why it pays to have a foot in both camps”.
My general argument is that, however we define the supposedly opposing poles of traditional and progressive pedagogy, they both have a vital role in a child’s education. I am not suggesting that there is no distinction. I’ve probably been wrong in talking previously about a false dichotomy because there are certainly definable elements of each disposition that are distinct. The two camps are real enough. However, for me, the important thing is that they are not inherently in opposition; they are intrinsically linked facets of excellent learning and an excellent education overall. They might even be considered to exist in a symbiotic relationship.
There are lots of ways to define the elements of traditional and progressive education as in these examples. The first is my own gathering of the usual associations and clichés. ‘Sage on the stage’ is one of the more cringe-inducing; others are more neutral and prosaic.
This one is pro-progressive. http://www.wingraschool.org/who/progressive.htm The idea that traditional education leads to a sense that ‘school is a task to be endured’ whereas progressive education means ‘school is challenging and fun part of life‘ is hilarious nonsense.
This one is pro-traditional. The loaded anti-progressive language is clear: ‘fads, fuzzy, anti-faith, un-vetted, equal outcome, the 4Ps: posters, portfolios, projects, Powerpoint’. ‘Experts are questioned’. Heaven forbid! ‘Grades inflated so all students success’. That pretty much does it for the credibility of the prog-camp.
There is also a strand of argument that looks for evidence-based ‘proofs’. Hattie effect sizes here are lined up to show how traditional methods (Teacher as Activator) beat progressive methods (Teacher as Facilitator):
The numbers tell the story. Case closed! Quod erat demonstrandum! Er…well hang on. Even if we accept effect size averages as a meaningful indicator of what might be possible when things are done well, who says that Feedback or Reciprocal Teaching or Meta-cognitive strategies etc belong in the Trad camp more than the Prog camp? Is that a productive or meaningful debate to have? I don’t think so… we’ve got better things to do surely.
Another slide I’ve seen (and used) suggests that there’s a virtuous journey to be made from ‘Power and control’ to ‘Trust and Openness’ as if those things are not entirely compatible and that moving towards the right on the slide is the desired direction of travel.
In my talk I suggested that the reason for much of the debate is that people are continually forced on the defensive. Traditional teachers feel that they been have told they’ve been doing it wrong for years, by OfSTED and ‘the system’ in general. They’re made to feel guilty for ‘chalk and talk’ and favouring testing that knocks students’ self-esteem. That’s all too ‘Gradgrindian’. Traditionalists are legitimately kicking back against a sense that straight teacher-led knowledge transmission is wrong in some way – even when this is highly effective in many situations.
Similarly, the progressivisionistas, are always fighting the accusation of dumbing-down education with too much woolly student-centred ‘fun’ and the absence of rigour – as if fun and rigour are incompatible. It’s odd that traditionalists sometimes end up denouncing ‘fun’ as if learning in a traditional way can’t be inherently enjoyable; as if motivational processes that engage students in learning are somehow distinct from the mechanics of acquiring knowledge. They also disparage the idea that students can have legitimate input into the learning process: How can students’ possibly make meaningful decisions about their own learning when they know so much less than their teachers? Isn’t progressive pedagogy a really bad choice in terms of opportunity cost when the basics haven’t been mastered? And so on…..it’s as if these territories are mutually exclusive.
It’s just all very unhealthy isn’t it? I think so.
Of course, if we are to talk about poles in a debate, we need to have some sense of what we mean. Very crudely, rightly or wrongly, and seeking to avoid bias in any direction, I think of them in the following way:
Traditional: Leaning towards an emphasis on content, structures, ordered systems, formal learning, measurable outcomes
Progressive: Leaning towards an emphasis on processes, experiences,organic systems, informal learning, intangible outcomes
Straight away, you need some caveats. Of course a strong traditional education is rich with experiences and intangible outcomes; similarly a strong progressive education delivers plenty of measurable outcomes and is rich in content. It’s not an absolute separation we’re talking about; it’s a question of the elements that are foregrounded and given greater value.
My experience working at KEGS is my immediate reference point. In what might be regarded as a traditional Grammar school, albeit with a modern outlook, the learning experience of students comprises multiple elements:
Without question there are aspects of learning at KEGS that are classic traditional experiences. But there are very many aspects that are deeply rooted in a progressive philosophy. And here is the key point: some aspects of progressive education – the idea of discovery learning, for example – don’t need to be delivered at school because our students arrive with those dispositions embedded already. Our students, on average, are already strongly resilient, curious about learning, effective self-starters and disposed to engage in collaborative learning through debate and discussion. We can do all the traditional stuff because the conditions that they live and learn in support that.
Here’s another set of examples:
At KEGS, there are countless examples of learning where students are bringing together both progressive and traditional ideas. House Drama has no teacher input but the self-directed performances are stunning; Project 9, where students deliver courses in programming to Year 9 is also student run and the students design and select their own curriculum; Y13 Physics coursework enables all students to explore their own hypothesis using a diverse set of ideas and apparatus. In each of these examples, solid knowledge is key but the skills needed are dependent on them having had opportunities to gain the confidence to work independently and to make decisions and take risks. At this level it’s possible to see how traditional and progressive ideas weave together symbiotically. One can’t flourish without the other.
This symbiosis is evident in our recent Learning by Heart project as described in this post. Learning poetry by heart in the ways described has a strongly traditional aspect and a strongly progressive aspect.
However, it’s not a simple case of blurring the two sets of ideas; it might be more a case of sequencing them appropriately At KEGS, across several subject strands, there is a general pattern across Year 7 to Year 13 where student are encouraged to learn strong core skills in the earlier years, building up to more sophisticated synoptic activities later on. The teaching in the earlier years is often characterised by the most traditional methods. The more progressive methods build on the traditional foundations. For example in Geography, there is an emphasis on drilling key skills earlier on but at A level some very sophisticated group activities are used to bring multiple ideas together. Similarly in DT and in Art the Year 7 and 8 projects are tightly controlled so key skills are developed but at GCSE and A level there is total freedom for students to express their ideas.
Even that sounds too simple: traditional approaches first, then progressive. Partly this is because, at all times, both elements are involved. As I discussed at PedagooLondon, the football metaphor is useful. You can’t develop as a team without practicing the component skills through drills OR without gaining responsive match fitness and the overarching motivation to improve through playing whole games. It’s not one of the other; it’s a question of sequencing both – as I describe in an earlier Skills and Drills post.
In Martin Robinson’s book Trivium 21st Century, he reconciles traditional and progressive ideas in a such a sophisticated manner that people from both sides of the divide claim that it proves their point. It’s a fabulous book. In fact my talk could have been simply: Read Martin’s book. Goodbye. This sequence captures some of the ideas:
In this table he shows how the grammar, dialectic and rhetoric of the trivium can be mapped by a logical sequence of modes of assessment, each of which could fall into stereotypical Trad-Prog silos.
In Martin’s hands the distinctions are used as a way to define the sequence of learning that might make the most sense in creating that fully rounded education we’d probably all want for our kids.
Back to KEGS, the idea of sequencing makes sense in general. But, to reiterate, the conditions in which the majority of our students have grown up are home learning environments where those typically progressive ideas about discovery and student-centredness have been fostered beyond the school gates. In many senses, our early traditional pedagogy is dependent on the progressive fertility of the learning conditions that families have created. But what happens when those conditions don’t exist? Surely it is sensible and even necessary for schools to be responsible for creating those conditions. Can you really narrow gaps through traditional methods and structures when the environment in which those structures need to take hold, can’t support them? Where the organic, intangible essence of being a curious learner, able to function in a social learning environment, isn’t addressed in parallel with the knowledge that you want to construct? I’d say not.
The Pedagogy Tree metaphor is emerging…..
The roots need to be strong and continuously nourished by fertile soil. These are the preconditions for learning effectively. This is where progressive ideas abound. This is where the nutrients, the educational soul-food is so important. We need these early on in a child’s education of course. Learning through play IS learning in the early years. But we also need our roots nourished continually thereafter.
BUT, we can’t grow tall without structure. Out of the nourishing environment we need to create ordered ideas that follow a path that others have been down before. This is the key role of traditional pedagogy. It can dominate for some time as the mainstay of educational progress.. but only if the roots remain in fertile ground. (still with me…)
But as the structures of a tree trunk develop, giving that structure and strength, we can diverge in different directions. Our branches can take many forms. The stronger our (traditional) structural framework is and the richer the ongoing (progressive) soul-food, the more diverse our learning can be beyond that. The tree canopy is a matrix of progressive and traditional forms that make up our learning in all it’s glory.
And then I ran out of time…..
Oliver Quinlan asked a good question. He suggested that, whilst he agreed with much of what I’d said, he felt it may be that, rather than seeking to diminish the value of a discussion of traditional vs progressive dispositions, I might be suggesting that we should embrace it further so that we’re better equipped to understand how they inter-relate. He’s probably right. The point is not to pit one against the other but to seek the best understanding of the symbiosis.