'My teacher training was firmly rooted in Progressive ideology – and it was wrong'

As teachers we need to have an open and intellectual conversation about how differing ideologies and philosophies inform our classroom practice, writes one maths teacher

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"Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

– John Maynard Keynes (1936)

I wonder if it’s possible to be a teacher free from the influence of ideology; a pragmatist maybe. 

I was taught on my PGCE by a wonderful person, perhaps the kindest of anyone I’ve met. Blown away is how I would describe my experience of learning to teach. Seduced by the art of pedagogy as it was presented to me, I retain an enormous enthusiasm for teaching and learning 10 years on.

How Children Fail by John Holt was not a part of the course, but somehow I came to get a copy and the compassion for children evident in that book augmented my views about education. He had a precept for teaching that held sway with me:

"Learning is not the product of teaching; learning is the product of the activity of learners."

– John Holt (1984)

Recently, I had some painful thoughts reading an interesting blog by Tim Taylor. He quotes the 1967 Plowden Report:

"In a single class there may be children who are regularly and perhaps brutally thrashed at home."

That’s difficult to read, isn’t it?

I am with everyone who stands for the rights of children. I am intensely opposed to corporal punishment, and to think it was outlawed only as recently as 1986 sends shivers down my spine.

I’m a teacher, and I have some influence in the way that my students are treated. I want it to be with dignity and respect. I want students to have the freedom to learn the best that has been thought and said, to go to school knowing they will be in a calm, safe environment, and to celebrate our shared cultural history. I want them to know the plays of Shakespeare, to know this history of our country and the world, and to know the details of our scientific progress. Our children have a wonderful intellectual inheritance.

I’m interested in the best way to achieve this, and, surprisingly to me, I’ve come to the conclusion that the way that I was taught on my PGCE, the way that John Holt advocates, is wrong. For example, the idea that students learn best by realising things for themselves through an activity had been presented to me on my PGCE as self-evident. I have spent innumerable hours attempting to come up with clever Starter activities in which students would come to realise what I wanted them to learn by engaging in the activity. This was hard work, but much worse: I believe it was a worse way for students to learn a concept than I if I had told them clearly at the beginning of the lesson.

I have to come to realise that my introduction to teaching on my PGCE was firmly rooted in Progressive ideology. I accept that and there is a huge body of work in sociology to back up this ideology. And there is a tradition, of which John Holt is an example, of teachers who believe it’s the best way to teach. The problem I have here is that I was unaware at the time that this way of teaching was part of an ideology and I wasn’t introduced to any competing ideologies. It is perhaps a bit like being taught a course on political science by conservatives where only conservatism is studied.

Traditionalism vs Progressivism

And this is where my belief that ideologies in education should be explicitly acknowledged and discussed comes from. It was unknown to me, but ideas and ideals that had been presented to me as self-evidently the best way to teach have actually been argued about for centuries. There is a historical debate in education between Traditionalism and Progressivism.

So, I come back to my question about pragmatism: is it possible to just be a pragmatic teacher, free from ideology, who just does what works? 

I certainly believe it’s common to see oneself as such. I was one, and the reason I was was because I was simply unaware that I had been introduced to anything apart from the right way to teach. It is true that these ideologies are rarely talked about by teachers in the staffroom and this is because it is impossible to free oneself from a system of thought if there seems to be no alternative. This is why I think it is damaging to affect that these ideologies are unimportant.

Tim Taylor (who, let me be clear, is someone I have a lot of time for) argues here that "most people are somewhere in the middle, neither entirely traditionalist nor entirely progressive" – and I agree. The difference I have with his view is that teachers are not choosing different tenets from the two ideologies, for the most part, teachers are unaware of the ideologies, so what they are doing is blindly going with what seems to work for the students.

The problem with this is that what one thinks works is very much dependent on the ideology that one’s views are rooted in. This is made apparent in Ofsted inspections of the recent past. Daisy Christodoulou, in her book Seven Myths of Education, analyses Ofsted’s subject reports of good practice and finds that the overwhelming majority of lessons that are praised are ones that I will infer as being rooted in Progressive ideology. That is to say, they follow Holt’s precept.

I have experienced this. A few years ago, when my Progressive teaching was at its apotheosis, I had a lesson observation from a well-regarded consultant who was working with our school for a year. I was warned by my colleagues that this person would do me no favours and was extremely tough. The feedback came through and I had got a 1 (outstanding) on every aspect of the lesson, with the comment that it was "a stunning learning experience".

Now, it would be extremely difficult for me to start to think that actually, this wasn’t the right way to teach if I was not exposed to alternative analyses of teaching practices, wouldn’t it? It is clear to me now that that lesson was not the best way to teach the students but I would not have reached that conclusion had I not been made aware of the differing ideologies.

I know that all teachers want to pass on knowledge, we also all want our students to be treated with dignity and to come out of school with healthy self-esteem. It is in our ideologies that we differ in how this is best achieved.

Let's get the debate about Traditionalism and Progressivism in teaching out into the open so that every teacher can have the knowledge to choose what they think is the right way to teach. 

Rufus Johnstone is a maths teacher in inner London. He tweets as @RufusWilliam and blogs here

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