The Progressive-Traditional Pedagogy Tree


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.

Progressive vs Traditional? Or just cliches?
Progressive vs Traditional? Or just clichés?

This one is pro-progressive.  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.

One of hundreds of Trad vs Prog tables on the www
One of hundreds of Trad vs Prog tables on the www

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):

Activator vs Facilitator. Who wins?
Activator vs Facilitator. Who wins?

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.

The arrow suggests the journey is in one direction.. but why?
The arrow suggests the journey is in one direction.. but why?

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…’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:

Group work, didactic teaching, student-led learning, essay writing. All in the mix at KEGS.
Group work, didactic teaching, student-led learning, essay writing. All in the mix at KEGS.

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:

Student-led drama, IT delivery and individual Physics projects.
Student-led drama, IT delivery and individual Physics projects.

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.

The wonderful Learning by Heart project at KEGS
The wonderful Learning by Heart project at KEGS

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:

The Trivium 21st C School
The Trivium 21st C School

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.

Modes of assessment in Trivium 21st C
Modes of assessment in Trivium 21st C

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.



  1. This is great Tom and very timely given the recent pronouncement from Ofsted . We need to develop reflective teachers who can decide the appropriate course to take not just in a lesson but over a period of time . What if Ofsted was suspended for a year ? What would happen ? The mind boggles !!!


    • Thanks Kevin. Have you seen the RSA Schools with Soul paper? It’s the top recommendation: a year of reflection in 2015/6 with no new policies or inspections. No doubt that sounds all fluffy and woolly to some folk but I think it would do us a power of good.


  2. It seems to me that Oliver’s question is very important. You are convinced of your position, and are in danger of becoming dogmatic about it (or, at least, sounding dogmatic – “tedious…twitter exchange”). However, any teacher who has been on the end of criticism that their approach isn’t acceptable (too traditional, or too progressive) isn’t in a position to accept that the debate is sterile. It is not yet clear that the approach you espouse above is appropriate for all schools and all situations. I think that the debate is still very important, but agree that the very negative elements of it need to be laid aside (in my view not possible until the high stakes Ofsted accountability structure is significantly reformed).


    • I guess I’m accepting that the debate is far from sterile. The ‘tedious’ aspect of these twitter exchanges is that they are so unsophisticated..not enough nuance; too often characterised by absolute positioning. Polemical, not discursive. That’s tedious.


  3. Tremendously interesting. Like you I can’t be doing with the dismissal of either of the approaches to teaching and learning as you have described them. However, as you are clearly keenly aware from your post, your pupils are coming from a very different place from those at a typical comprehensive in a deprived urban, coastal or other similar setting. That doesn’t in any way cast doubt on the legitimacy of what you and your colleagues are doing at KEGS but it does leave a massive opening in your argument for teachers with other viewpoints to say that what works at KEGS is not what is needed for the children most often left beside the tracks when the middle-class express pulls out for a Russell Group degree and the 40p tax bracket. Ardent traditionalists can argue about the need to build cultural capital and cite Shakespeare in rows as the solution; unrepentent constructivists can champion the need to engage these children using their own experience to build C21st skills. Like you I’d question whether these are even the things that these imaginary ardent or unrepentent teachers do but anyone wanting to dismiss your view can easily suggest that you can bolt your students down in rows and lecture them because they have been trained by their upbringing to sit down and take it without complaining; or they can just as easily suggest that you can get away with indulging in a fair bit of discovery learning and other ineffective techniques because your pupils know the importance of actually learning stuff and will sit in their quiet, spacious bedrooms swotting for exams whilst their mummy looks after the cocoa. I’ve taught the sort of cohort you get at KEGS and know that these stereotypes are rubbish but your argument is still anecdotal.

    I get more and more frustrated by the inability of the education research community to get its act together, sort out the issues with noise from poor quality studies on idiosyncratic topics, and properly communicate what is known about effective teaching i.e. that there is a range of effective approaches; that whilst discovery learning and individualised instruction don’t work well for the majority of teachers, less extreme constructivist methods – keeping a high proportion of learning active, collaborative learning – are effective (and that Kirchner et al don’t disagree with this); that lecture-style teaching only works for children who are already highly effective independent learners; that meta-cognition does help children to progress; that feedback is massive but only if it actually gets utilised; that mastery learning of fundamentals is very helpful; that Direct Instruction is a very specialised set of programmes, that these programmes are miles away from just telling pupils stuff, but that they have been effective and we ought to build on them; and that there is no ‘best way’ to teach because every child and every teacher is different and brings a different set of skills (or is it knowledge?) to the feast. Can we not just make it a feast as you suggest – lots on offer, but all of it highly nutritious?


    • Thanks for this comment. I agree – yes, my case is highly anecdotal and is open to the challenges you suggest. I do think there is a research-consensus emerging; your second paragraph summarises lots of the elements very well and it does start sounding like a feast. We might find research can show that in certain tight conditions, some specific pedagogical approaches deliver optimum outcomes eg teaching how to add fractions, or improving reading for 13 yr-olds in the bottom ability decile – things like that. But to scale that up into a generalisation that applies in all subjects at all ages is beyond research.. at some point the shared professional judgement of colleagues with common values will dictate what we do.


      • That is such a perceptive comment about the limitations of educational research and it is exactly why my list is so varied, and why what works in your school is so varied too.


  4. Interesting post and debate. Without being very precise about it, my feeling is that “progressive” often works well as an activity-focused pedagogy for encouraging assimilation and re-enforcement, within a broadly traditionalist umbrella that assumes defined, measurable outcomes and recognizes the synergy between knowledge and skills. “Progressive” becomes dangerous when it goes beyond proposing pedagogies, the effectiveness of which can be proved or disproved, to proposing to change the grounds on which “what works” is measured – in other words, to changing (or in my book, subverting) the aims of education. “Discovery” is a good pedagogical tool, if used as in an Easter egg hunt, getting the learner to do the intellectual work required to really understand what is a teacher-planted objective; dangerous if it is used as a cloak for relativism – to say that anyone’s discovery is as valuable as anyone else’s.


  5. An interesting post.

    I think it summarised quite well the range of nonsense gibberish put forward in the discussions on twitter and in the bloggershpere. I totally agree that much of it becomes a little tedious quite quickly.

    I do however have a slightly different perception of the nature of the discussion. I can honestly say that I cannot recall reading a twitterer or blogger putting forward the view that “progressive education” should attract any sort of heightened righteousness, in fact until the latest round of squabblles I think most normal teachers left such debates to the educational philosophers while they got on with their job using a range of methods in an eclectic sort of a way.

    A few bloggers have for some time been advocating traditional methods, suggesting that progressive education has been the ruin of education in the US/UK, all that Rousseau stuff. I believe the discussions blossomed when Daisy C published her book decloaking the so called “myths”. Direct good, progressive bad was the matra and my perception is that things grew from there. A few individuals raved over the book and these tended to be the more traditionalists and so began the pedagogy wars.

    I think your blogpost sums up very well the range of different theories, methods and approaches that have been conflated by people who wish to discuss such an earth shattering issue. The vast majority that I have read have said just what you have said in your blogpost. Most normal teachers use elements of the two positions and others too.

    And yes I think it is a false dichotomy. On the basis that one presents two positions suggesting that there are only these two positions and that on this basis theirs is correct, I believe this is a false dichotomy. You say that you have been wrong to speak about a false dichotomy and then go on to suggest that it is in fact a false dichotomy as the two extremes are not in fact the only two positions.

    I feel that those who have been putting forward the views you express above have to a great extent decided that their energies can be better used in other more productive areas. The traditionalists still bait on occasions but with few people now biting the wars have diminished.

    Teaching/learning really isn’t rocket science. You tell the kid, the kid remembers what they think you told them and uses this knowledge to solve problems. Why try to make it all complicated.

    It was interesting to read the above summary although at times it did come across as a bit of PR for KEGS. Just being honest.

    Thanks for the thought provoking read.


  6. I agree that a rigid distinction between these two camps is unhelpful. We need to distinguish between aims, content and methods, each of which can be labelled separately on the prog / trad spectrum.
    I think that if we start with common aims and values for education, a synthesis is possible between progs and trads and that this requires further work.
    I have written about this here:


  7. A really useful post, encouraging people to be more complex in their thinking and planning will I am sure bring about more positive outcomes. It may enable people to work in a more reciprocal fashion and build schemes of learning which really make the students able to learn with confidence. I also like the idea that the skills gained from more progressive practices create an extra layer on top of the basics needs outlined by Maslow and your recognition that in different catchments these may need to be more or less the role of the school depending on the education they come with. Which is of course also true of the basic needs like nutrition and emotional care.

    Extra curricular activities also can add a lot to the blend of progressive and traditional experiences a student is able to access. This might be an area where the students get some choice according to prefered styles or a need they would like filling.

    I think it is important people do not try to make individual lessons more complex as a result. I have some big concerns about the way that, supposedly, new ideas can lead to senior leaders demanding that more and more be achieved in one lesson; rather than using the ideas to streamline and maximise the planning and benefits of a sequence of learning.


  8. While I lean towards a “traditional” approach, I have always used group work and more student centred activities in my teaching as well as direct instruction and I used to be a fan of the “false dichotomy” argument. However, if a member of a SLT announces that having desks in rows is incompatible with developing independent learners, I start to bridle. Because I feel threatened, I start furnishing myself with counter arguments, to back me up in case I am challenged about my classroom environment. I start reading Christodoulou, Willingham, Hirsch etc. Now, when a new idea is put to me, I am instantly trying to put it into a progressive/traditional category, rather than consider an idea on its merits. Perhaps headguruteacher would agree with me that school leaders need to be careful how they present ideas to their staff. Incidentally, I teach in a grammar school.


  9. This is the best discussion of traditional/progressive I’ve seen so far. It takes the trouble to articulate carefully what many of us must feel but lack the time and motivation to unpack for public consumption. I would add only this. I started teaching in 1961, and taught well into the Nineties (latterly part time, I admit) and it seems to me that —
    1. Any assumption that more than a minority of sixties classrooms differed substantially from their forties and fifties equivalents is false. High profile examples were high profile because they were atypical.
    2. Where we tried to do things differently it was not from considerations of ideology or politics, it was because the time-honoured methods often just didn’t work very well for everyone. For example, direct instruction with the teacher at the front may well seem the best and most straightforward method — Lord knows, we’ve all done it often enough — but the fact remains that a didactic lesson delivered simultaneously to a class of thirty has a highly variable impact. Some children thrive on it. Some can’t keep up and become invisible opt-outs. A few could be going so much further. That was always so obvious that the almost universal way of dealing with it was to have multiple streams or sets (or even different kinds of school) We could see clearly, though, with our own classroom eyes, by the Sixties, that streaming, setting, however disguised or labelled, brings even greater problems of labelling, lowered expectations, problems of movement between sets and so on and so on. So we tried group work, individual projects — all the things that are scoffed at by some of today’s more divisive commentators. All the time, we had the idea — ill-formed, inadequately developed, but essentially right — that we should be addressing the needs of individuals.
    Any road up, thank you very much for that. So refreshing at a time when I was becoming fed up with people thinking my generation of teachers were ideologically driven anarchists, in thrall to myth and error.


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  11. I enjoyed reading this. I would be interested in the further exploration of how these different but interlinked approaches and a child’s age are linked. A chronological journey through the approaches. Does one suit a different age better than others? Does a child’s background or gender have a strong impact?


  12. Thanks for this. Very helpful. Do you have the source for the Hattie table on effect sizes please? Would be useful for MA assignment. Thank you.


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