The 30-second briefing: What is the traditional versus progressive education debate?

One teacher educator outlines everything you need to know about the debate around traditional versus progressive education

Sarah Wright

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What is the debate about traditional versus progressive education all about?

This debate is like Marmite for educationalists: people often find themselves quite firmly on one side of the divide, or on the other. 

The concepts of traditional and progressive education are rooted in the ideas of John Dewey, an American philosopher and educational reformer, who identified two distinct types of education. In its simplest form, traditional teaching favours direct instruction with a specific end-goal (usually an assessment), whereas progressive teaching sees schooling as part of a much wider approach to education.

Does that mean I can't believe in testing while also seeing the bigger picture?

This is where the issue lies; many teachers view assessments as important, but not the be-all and end-all. But the distinction is generally more identifiable in how you approach your role in the classroom. Traditional teachers would see themselves as the absolute authority, whereas the progressive teacher would rather facilitate than lead learning.

So, why is it such a big argument?

Traditionalists often see new approaches to education as a bit fluffy. They have little tolerance of more holistic approaches and prefer to stick with pedagogy that is rooted in research.

Surely research supports the newer approaches too?

Again, here is another issue. Teachers will often adopt new or 'on trend’ approaches quickly, without considering the research. The sad fact is that many schools still build their curricula around debunked approaches, which causes a feeding frenzy for traditionalists.

Is it possible to be both a traditionalist and a progressive?

As with most things, it’s all about balance. We need to understand when a traditional method works best and when it’s right to try new and innovative approaches. 

Education almost has to be progressive, and as long as you’re aware of the research and pedagogy that underpins the approaches you use… go for it! It’s less about jumping straight on the bandwagon and more about giving it an MOT before you even approach it.

Where do I find the research?

The ‘What makes great teaching?’ report led by Robert Coe is a great place to start.

Sarah Wright is a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University. She tweets as @Sarah__wright1

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