Is there a right way to teach? Making sense of the trad-prog debate.

(I wrote this in February for Guardian Teacher Network but since they didn’t ever get back to me I’m posting it here instead….)

Is there a right way to teach? Making sense of the progressive-traditional debate.

Debates about the purposes of education, the influence of social and political values and the role of research evidence are increasingly found as interwoven threads in our discourse on policy and practice in schools.  This is healthy but can be tricky to navigate, especially if, like me, you have an aversion to being forced to pick sides.

After a couple of decades when student-centred personalised learning was officially all the rage, we are in a phase where traditional teacher-led instruction and a knowledge-driven curriculum are in the ascendency, promoted enthusiastically by Nick Gibb, Amanda Spielman  and plenty of school leaders and teachers. Just go along to a ResearchEd event – knowledge is in!

However, the champions of more explicitly progressive ideas are still out in force.  Last year the Guardian carried George Monbiot’s claims and complaints: Children “learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity”.  “So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?” A horror of rows and facts are recurrent progressive memes. The influential Ken Robinson TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? – has had had nearly 50 million views since 2006 and Sir Ken continues to plough this furrow.  Spoiler: Yes, they do.  Apparently. Wicked teachers!

Earlier this year Labour MP Alison McGovern tweeted in response to the DFE announcement on Year 4 times tables checks, “Seriously though Nick Gibb, times tables? Is it 1950? What about kids learning the logic of maths so they can work things out for themselves?” As if knowing that 8 x 7 = 56 is somehow out of date. Labour MPs would probably do well to avoid appearing to pit themselves against policies aimed at securing foundational knowledge. It’s rather an own goal.

Beyond the politics, there is a growing body of research evidence around effective teacher instruction, learning and memory.  Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, for example, provides a superb examination of ten instructional practices of effective teachers. The excellent 2014 report from the Sutton Trust by Professor Robert Coe et al, What Makes Great Teaching surveys numerous sources to make some clear recommendations.

There is clear evidence supporting strong teacher-led instruction as an effective means of building the knowledge structure that is so vital in all subject disciplines.  This is the foundation for meaningful innovation and creativity – in sciences, arts and the humanities.  Knowledge and creativity are not opposite forces competing; they are mutually reinforcing elements of great learning. Passing knowledge on ought to be seen as something of a joyous gift; an act of liberation, not one of imposing drudgery or social control as some would have us believe.  Like it or not, a need for regular low-stakes testing is a well-evidenced element in the process.

Where does this leave collaborative learning, projects and group work?   Of course, knowledge can be acquired in many ways.  As part of a rich, rewarding curriculum diet, when they are ready, there is an important place for engaging students in independent projects, investigating ideas, making artefacts, hands-on experiences, communicating through various media; engaging in debates.  The question is when to use them in order to achieve specific learning goals, always remembering that, where the teacher is definitely the expert relative to the student novices, teacher-led instruction ought to be the predominant teaching mode for maximum impact.

In truth, there’s a risk of overplaying the supposed swing back towards more traditional teaching.  Did it ever go away?  From my experience observing thousands of lessons as a consultant and Headteacher over the last 15 years, where teaching has been weak it has rarely been because a teacher was engaged in some woolly progressive activity; it has been much more likely to be a case of ‘bad trad’ – a teacher trying to teach from the front, trying to explain, model and question but finding it hard or perhaps simply pitching the material too low.

We should also be cautious with sweeping critiques of progressive methods. Is it a good idea, for example, for students to work in groups and learn cooperatively?  As you might expect, according to significant research in this field by Robert Slavin, it depends on how it is done.  Informal group work, where students simply work together in a self-directed manner on a shared task is largely ineffective.  However, where students are given clear roles and the tasks are carefully structured so that success in achieving the group goal relies on the combined success of each individual, studies do show strong gains.  Good group work works!   Sadly, Slavin’s research shows that the vast majority of the group work teachers tend to organise is of the ineffective informal variety.  Clearly, we need to factor in the quality of what we do in any debate about ‘what works’.

We also need room for forms of learning we choose simply because they fit our general philosophy.  You might want children to learn poems by heart – not in order to pass exams but for the pure joy of it.  Wouldn’t it be fabulous if every child knew several poems by heart; personal treasures and some classic cultural references?  Who could object to that?  It’s not a case of showing that learning poetry by heart ‘works’?’ It’s entirely legitimate to decide that learning poetry by heart is something you want as a curriculum experience for your students.  Values matter as well as evidence – and it pays not to blur the lines.

Ultimately, a great education is about optimising the blend of traditional and progressive elements in a cohesive whole. Essentially this is what Peter Hyman argues so brilliantly with his ‘Head, Hand and Heart’ as does Martin Robinson in Trivium 21st C.  It’s also what I try to convey in The Learning Rainforest.   If we create conditions for children to develop very strong knowledge structures and provide opportunities to then use and express knowledge in creative ways, the possibilities are endless.

Further Reading:

The Progressive-Traditional Pedagogy Tree

Mode A + Mode B = Effective teaching and a rich enacted curriculum


  1. Makes good ‘blended’ sense to me Tom. I’ve downloaded a sample of Learning Rainforest and have enjoyed reading it – love your passion and professionalism 🙂 Reading this has convinced me to buy the book (I loved Trivium too!). Kind regards, Steve

    Liked by 1 person

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