Diagnosis without the cure

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Ted Wragg baulks at a crude dissection of early progressive thought

Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget. By Kieran Egan. Yale University Press pound;17.95.

The idea of "progressive" education infuriates certain people, especially those on the right wing of politics. "They have had their say and they have had their day," former prime minister John Major once stated about progressives, to thunderous applause, shortly before his Conservative government lost power.

On the surface, the word and its Latin etymology are clear: being "progressive" involves moving forwards. In professional contexts, changing traditional methods is assumed to be a well-intended quest for improvement, even if it leads down an occasional cul-de-sac. I wonder if "progressive" doctors get a similar negative reaction from these same political critics:

"You need a triple bypass, but I'm a traditional doctor, not a progressive one, so I'll just stick a couple of leeches on your bum." Maybe not.

Not all "progress" is desirable, of course. The problem for teachers is deciding which new ideas deserve first of all investigation, and then application, if they are to unscramble strategies laid down over what might be a lengthy career. Today the ether is awash with fresh proposals, as websites and emails join traditional methods of spreading principles and practice. In the days of the well-known progressives, such as John Dewey, it was mainly word of mouth and print. Kieran Egan may be hostile to what he calls the "progressivist inheritance", but he is not one of those intuitive political critics lashing out in ignorance. His rejection of some of its leading thinkers, especially the Victorian Herbert Spencer, is informed and well fashioned. Commentators often rely on secondary sources about those they attack. Egan dissects the original.

He addresses each of Spencer's assumptions in turn, arguing that, despite his relative obscurity compared with figures such as Dewey, they have exerted a disproportionate influence on modern practice, to its detriment.

Dewey and Jean Piaget are only minor players in this analysis, mentioned from time to time.

Spencer, a friend of Charles Darwin, believed that a child's education should proceed from the simple to the complex, the indefinite to the definite, the concrete to the abstract, founded on a historic past, travelling via empirical discovery to rational conclusion, with self-development uppermost and what he called "pleasurable learning for pupils" a desirable outcome.

These ideas appealed to teachers at the time and since, according to Egan, because they felt they could use them to change society. They also contain a certain amount of common sense. Starting from the simple and concrete and inviting children to reach a conclusion is what many parents and other adults would do naturally, without any long-winded debate. After all, 2,500 years ago Confucius said that he would explain one corner of a concept himself and then expect learners to find out the others, so it is not exactly a recent belief. The author rejects Spencer's view of curriculum, partly because the latter did not favour teaching grammar to young children. Egan has a better idea: that grammar should be taught via jokes.

He even offers his own version. "What's a football made of?" "Pig's hide."

"Why should they hide?" "No. The pig's outside." "Well bring him in. Any friend of yours is a friend of mine." He concludes this hysterical little gem with "Sorry 'bout that." Yes indeed.

This neatly identifies the problem I found with the book. It is strong on analysis, weak on solutions. The difficulty when an author demolishes someone else's ideas and then proffers his own is that expectations rise.

Surely such an astringent critic must have one hell of a bazooka nestling in his armoury? What a let-down when it turns out to be a popgun. The author's version of desirable teaching and learning is influenced by Lev Vygotsky's notion of "cognitive tools", which both facilitate straight thinking and support the development of further tools. Unfortunately the moment he embarks on solutions, rather than problems, the text diffuses.

Before long he is back on safer ground, dissecting another's ideas, or attacking educational research.

Occasionally he dilutes his case with silly illustrations. He himself calls the example of researching whether all the bachelors in Vancouver are unmarried, "old and gross". Of course they are unmarried, by definition, which explains why in real life no one would bother with such an enquiry, but Egan generalises this into an assertion that much educational research investigates what is already conceptually tied together: rather a big leap.

He tells how he did six years of educational research and now has "tons of data, bulging files, a stack of tapesI and I haven't been able to bring myself to write it up". Come off it. This is no argument against empirical enquiry. Maybe he should have read chapter one of any decent research handbook first and then he might not have ended up with drawers full of data and no final report. That is the kind of nightmare every beginning PhD student is urged to avoid, so such a statement seems naive coming from a seasoned academic.

The examples of Egan-favoured teaching, often exploring opposites, are limited, but show that he does engage with schools, as many academics do not. It is a pity he does not spend more time on what he regards as more desirable models, but he tends to refer the reader to his earlier pieces, which can be frustrating if one is not familiar with them. He tells one story of a boy writing about what it feels like to be a blood corpuscle coursing round his headteacher's body. This seemed a very engaging kind of lesson and the account was interesting to read, though it actually sounded like good, erI progressive teaching.

I found the book a first-class critique of Herbert Spencer, with some moderately interesting, though not especially radical, alternatives. The author ends by inviting his readers to enjoin debate on his website. A nice idea, but I don't think I'll bother.

Ted Wragg is a former professor of education at Exeter University

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