Teaching set free

9th January 2015 at 00:00
The conflict between `traditional' and `progressive' methods is not a battle for educational supremacy - it's an opportunity. We must embrace both stances if we are to foster free-thinking enthusiasm among teachers and their pupils, writes Martin Robinson

Here's a test: take a look in the classroom next to yours during a lesson and see if you can guess whether the teacher is a traditionalist or a progressive.

It should be easy. If the desks are arranged in rows facing the front and the teacher is acting as a "sage on the stage", sending nuggets of knowledge into the empty-headed vessels in front of her, she is a traditionalist. If the desks are set up in groups with the teacher flitting between them, acting as a "guide on the side" to draw out the wisdom from the children, she is a progressive.

There are many who would like you to believe that the divide between the traditional and the progressive is false, that we are drawing battle lines where no conflict exists. But, in reality, this opposition exists in almost every school. At its root is what a teacher feels education is for - and this moral crusade shapes their every classroom decision.

The great divide

As soon as a teacher begins to think they can turn children into finished, measurable articles, a schism is formed between traditional and progressive theories of teaching.

A traditionalist craves a society founded on faith in the great institutions - the monarchy, the Church, the family. They feel the need to inculcate in children obedience, discipline, a belief in right and wrong, a desire for stability, the resilience to cope with boredom and a willingness to submit to law and order.

A progressive, meanwhile, craves a society of strong, confident individuals who question institutions, who are rebellious and creative, who welcome uncertainty and who thrive in the chaos created when even the truth is subjective.

Others go further to define the two stances. American educational guru Alfie Kohn says that progressive education attends to the "whole child". He says that in contrast to the traditional, where teaching is done to the child, progressive teachers work with them. In the opposite camp, traditionalist advocates believe that facts should be taught, that teachers should instruct and that 21st-century communication technology does not mean we need to reconfigure our schools.

The traditionalists seem to be winning, at least for the moment, and their influence on policy in England is tangible. Phonics tests are a sign of our more traditional times, as is the replacement of modular exams. Out with a skills-based curriculum; in with a knowledge-based one. Out with "soft" subjects such as media studies and the arts; in with the English Baccalaureate and the trumpeting of traditional "hard" subjects such as physics. Out with American literature and multiculturalism; in with homogeneity and "British" values.

In staffrooms throughout the country, the battle between progress and tradition is played out daily. The progressive teacher who has "discovered" critical thinking tries to tell the traditionalist how to "free" herself in order to get children to be more creative. The traditionalist retorts that subject knowledge comes before being creative and that critical thinking is domain-specific.

A battle of quotes is played out; books are brandished and TED talks played, all extolling the virtues of one way of thinking while damning the other. Dubious quotes are printed out from the internet and stuck up on walls; Einstein and Churchill rub laminated shoulders with Gandhi and Malala. Mindfulness and mindset are seemingly at war with memory and motivation.

But, in reality, both positions are flawed.

The problem with progressives is that they think the skills of analysis should replace the knowledge of the past, for progressivism is built on the idea of continuous revolution, whether that's in the name of creativity, as extolled by educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, or because we believe we know what the jobs of the future require. Progressives treat privileged knowledge like an old nag sent to a knacker's yard. They might ignore Socrates and Shakespeare; they might neuter Newton, declassify Cicero and eradicate Einstein. Instead of "boring", difficult knowledge, they bring to the classroom snippets of more exciting, up-to-date texts that will engage "the kids" as they develop their learning and thinking skills.

The problem with traditionalists, on the other hand, is they think that by teaching as much culturally privileged knowledge as possible, everyone will become Oxbridge candidates and we will become a nation of lawyers, politicians, engineers and scientists. Instead of educating for the whole person, they seem hooked on a narrow diet of English history and English books, all Stem and no flower. This is justified by the ultimate house competition, where England house is up against Singapore house, Finland house and others. The race must be won by any means necessary - with a bit of character building thrown in for good measure.

To these problems you can add a conundrum. Sometimes, tweed-jacketed traditionalists churn out far more creative, thoughtful children than any brainstorming, team-working, box-ticking progressive teacher has ever managed. And sometimes newly minted young traditionalists, whose knowledge-filled broadsheet brains surely know all there is to know, come across cobweb-covered old progressives who inspire devotion from their flock with gentle child-centred approaches and galvanize their pupils to recite tracts of Shakespeare, understand quantum physics and play the violin with delicacy and beauty.

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