I don’t tend to write much about traditionalism versus progressivism in education. I tend to favour explicit teaching of a body of knowledge but, in some people’s minds, ‘traditionalism’ also means corporal punishment and selection. I don’t argue for these.
However, the education debate on social media does tend to divide into these two broad categories and so they serve a useful distinction. There is nothing intrinsically political about this. Instead of seeing it as conservatives versus liberals, it is much more accurate to portray the discussion as the enlightenment arguing with the romantics. It is clearly the traditionalists who have science on their side and the progressives who are most likely to reject science as a basis for understanding education.
This year has seen a number of interesting developments in this debate in the UK, all aimed at attacking traditionalist arguments from a different angle. We have seen attempts to deny that there even is a debate to be had or to suggest that it is boring. We have seen the words used by traditionalists characterised as ‘masculine’ whereas progressives’ words are more ‘feminine’ and therefore better. Indeed, we have seen the rise of identity politics as a kind of bulletproof vest. ‘You can’t criticise my ideas,’ is the claim, ‘because I am a woman or from an ethnic minority and you are part of the white patriarchy’. Interestingly, some of the fiercest critics of this approach have been traditionalist women from minority backgrounds.
We have also seen a defence of learning styles that consists mainly of the idea that you cannot definitively prove that something does not exist.
Notice the theme with all of these examples. None of them represent a positive argument in favour of a progressive idea. The lack of any coherent and substantive case supporting a progressive tenet or against a traditionalist one means that the traditionalists have effectively won.
And how was this achieved? By an army of plucky bloggers taking to Twitter and WordPress and punching holes in the malignant fads and fashions promoted in schools and by consultants. And the old empire doesn’t like it much. Hence the backlash.
Now is not a time for triumphalism. The debate has reached no such state in the US or Australia where blogposts about project-based learning are still pretty standard. In time, a tide of woolly practices will wash back to the UK as it will everywhere else. The archetype of the education expert still exists: Someone who makes a living promoting ideas based on nothing more than what they happen to reckon.
We may have destroyed the Death Star but, as anyone familiar with the tale knows, this is just the beginning.