Destroying the Death Star is only the beginning

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.

By Egres73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Egres73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


11 thoughts on “Destroying the Death Star is only the beginning

  1. Traditional and progressive are ‘folk’ categorisations that are useful as shorthand labels but confuse the issues during debate.

    Debate about the effectiveness of educational methods isn’t about winning or losing a debate about folk categorisations.

    I can’t see how this is a helpful way to frame the debate.

  2. This post is spot on. Of course, people don’t like labels, but I see nothing wrong in stating that they lean towards one view and not another, even if they reject some of the practices associated with that particular label. What is marvellous is that there is now a proper debate about ideas which had not been seriously challenged in the past.

  3. The Quirky Teacher says:

    Traditional education does not encompass corporal punishment or selection and it is not about explicit teaching per se. It’s an educational philosophy that, in order to be followed, tends to include certain practices. If anyone asks me for a bit of clarity, then I tend to refer them to this which helpfully sums up the opposing viewpoints in a neat table. I think it’s important to be crystal clear about where exactly you stand in the debate. I also find that people will always fall in one category or another, even if they go for the old, ‘I just use what works best.’

    Not sure what the solution would be to deal with the inevitable ‘woolly tide’ you aptly refer to. We need our own education ‘expert’ that has the charisma and vision to match the likes of Sir Ken in order to get through to a wider, international audience.

  4. As an advocate for research-informed reading instruction which is associated, probably, with the ‘traditional’ label, I’d like to speak up for an approach in our schools which is, arguably, the ‘best of both worlds’.

    We are in modern times when the internet enables learners to seek out information and ideas for themselves – and learners are indeed ‘individuals’ with the capacity – one hopes – to live their lives with a wide spread of experiences.

    I am first and foremost a practical person – and one who cares about the quality of the experiences of young people who have no choice but to attend our school institutions.

    It is surely important that children learn that they are very special – each individual – but no more special than anyone else.

    Thus, there are times when it is suitable for them to be just one of a whole class listening to the knowledge and experience of the teacher followed by application of that knowledge and practice as individuals in whatever skills are associated with the subject.

    And there are times when it is suitable for learners to have opportunities to express their individualism and to explore their own ideas and creativity – be it as individuals or within group situations.

    Above all, it is humane for children and people to have changes throughout a working day and working week/month/term/year so that their educational diet is truly rich and varied.

    This, in practical terms, means that following a ‘sitting down and concentrating quietly lesson’ we would provide a more active, physical lesson or more free opportunities to develop – regardless of the ‘subject’.

    This approach can be expressed simply as ‘ringing the changes’.

    In broad terms, for me this means a combination of more ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ practices.

    The BEST of both worlds.

    • Chester Draws says:


      When you want a combination of practices you are focusing on the methods. So progressive practice is associated with group work etc, and traditional with drill of routine material. I doubt many active teachers will disagree with mixing up methods and styles.

      The real issues run much deeper than this though.

      If discovery learning is flawed, as I believe it is, then it is flawed whether the children sit in singles working by themselves or in groups. If explicit instruction is better, then it is better for groups as well as singles. We shouldn’t give children substantial amounts of pure discovery learning at all, in my opinion, as it is just bad teaching. (When we do give it to them, the only lesson most will actually take away is that the teacher can actually lead them to knowledge that they can’t get for themselves.)

      Likewise I am opposed to the idea that we don’t need to teach key knowledge thoroughly, on the basis that “in the modern world they can just look it up on Google”. Any teaching being made on insufficiently grounded basics is just a waste of time, regardless of the teacher’s position on the traditional to progressive spectrum.

  5. geraldinecarter2014 says:

    Are there secondary schools in the State sector that sucessfully balance a traditional and a progressive education? If you are going to fit in Eng.lang&lit,mathematics,foreign lang.+latin (or 2nd lang), history, physics,chemistry,biology,geog,music,drama,RE comparative religion,or philosophy, p.e., sport, then a curriculum will probably -of necessity – be traditional? Or would, for instance, the art teacher be appointed because s/he overrules the painstaking skills of drawing in favour of free expression and development of ideas through conceptual art?
    It may be that a quite exceptional head such as Tom Sherrington – with a well-funded authority – can achieve a traditional-progressive school but I’m not sure that it’s a realistic aim for most schools.
    It may be a signficant argument that progressive creep, aka ‘balance’ has prevented
    the universal adoption of literacy and maths skills even at primary level – how much more complicated to get a traditional/progressive balance at secondary level.

  6. Hi – thank you for your response.

    Perhaps my comment has misled as it was not my intent to promote or suggest that I believe in ‘discovery learning’ per se.

    But ‘traditional teaching’ does tend to be associated with teacher-led, pupils attend, as opposed to pupils apply their own creativity and ideas in a more ‘free’ context.

    I am a firm believer that it is our duty as teachers to equip learners with subject knowledge and skills in all areas – and that these underpin creativity and independence.

    I worry, however, that there is a certain degree of stereo-typing for either ‘traditional teaching’ or ‘progressive non-teaching’ – and I suppose I do fall into the camp of thinking ‘education’ doesn’t have to be entirely one or entirely the other.

    • Chester Draws says:

      I agree that there is an association between “traditional” teaching and not allowing students their own creativity. That association is pushed by Progressives, who falsely equate the two, in order to damn more traditional approaches as antiquated and not responding to the modern environment.

      As Greg, and others have shown, creativity is best taught in a much more structured environment than people think. That is, students have to be taught to be creative. The idea that people are naturally creative, and just need to be allowed to express themselves, is not backed up by evidence, but held to be true — “because true”.

      I’m not a fan of “both sides have some good points, so the best is in the middle” line of reasoning, it is fair to say. I’d like to see evidence, rather than mere hope. I’d go 90% traditional and 10% progressive, at best, until you can point me to good reasons otherwise.

  7. There are so many issues that could be brought into this debate – not least being the amount of ‘time’ afforded for learners to apply knowledge and practise their skills – and to be creative.

    In other words, it isn’t even enough to thrash out whether traditional or progressive teaching is ‘best’ or ‘evidence-based’ because then further details and understanding would need to be described to know whether one’s version of ‘traditional’ really looks like the same as another person’s version – and so on.

    I am totally committed to explicit teaching for knowledge, skills, concepts and so on but I think people have become too entrenched with suggesting you’re ‘one or the other’ in one’s approach.

    One person’s traditional teaching could be a dire experience and another person’s progressive teaching could be a dire experience.

    Perhaps it is better to get down to more details about ‘time’ and ‘descriptions’ to really understand what the teaching can ‘look like’.

    The point I made in my first comment, however, is that it is arguably humane to ensure that any learners have a varied day/week/term – some routines being essential and some variety being essential.

    Perhaps I made a mistake to think that some of this variety could be described as traditional and some as progressive.

    • Yet,despite the supposed richness of ‘ traditional’ discourses they are so often dependent on being positioned in opposition to often caricatured progressive discourses. It would be interesting to see a developed traditional discourse which is not simply posited as oppositional to ‘progressivism’.

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