Can a false choice be an object of research?

I read an interesting post by Ross McGill on his pet peeves. Some of them seem reasonable although anyone who thinks textbooks are outmoded because they cannot include all the information in the world should read this piece by Tim Oates.

It has become fashionable of late to vociferously proclaim boredom at the UK debate between traditionalism and progressivism in education and McGill belatedly joins the party. He quotes this blog from Steven Watson, a lecturer in maths education at Cambridge University. In it, Watson states:

“The sometimes furious debates on twitter over which is best, progressive or traditional is a false dichotomy. It hides the real issue. It has become an expression of confusion and anger relating to the complex wider picture… It is time to see through the myth.”

This rang a bell with me because I had recently read this paper by Watson and colleagues. The paper is about getting teachers to change the way that they teach advanced level maths.

“We analyse teachers’ attempts to change their approach, from traditional or teacher-centred practice to the ambitious approach suggested… It is important to note that when we refer to teacher-centred teaching this is more than simply chalk, talk and textbook exercises. While such lessons might include groupwork and investigations, the feature that makes them teacher-centred is that the teacher attempts to reduce the cognitive demand in the lesson so that students can progress easily through the tasks. In contrast, the aim of the [ambitious teaching] tasks is to offer higher levels of demand so that students have to think deeply about the mathematics and, as such, we characterise this as student-centred.” [reference removed]

I am afraid that I cannot reconcile the two quotes. The first quote seems to be saying that traditional versus progressive is a false choice whereas the second quote seems to be about moving teachers from a traditional approach to a ‘student-centered’ one. ‘Student-centred’ is usually used synonymously with ‘progressive’ in the same way that Watson et. al. have identified ‘teacher-centred’ with ‘traditional’.

Perhaps there is some semantic subtlety that distinguishes ‘progressive’ from ‘student-centred’. If that’s the case then I am happy to debate teacher-led versus student-centred teaching. Would that be more acceptable? Would that provoke fewer loud yawns? Or would education academics perhaps prefer to be allowed to conduct their research into teaching methods without the scrutiny of social media?


41 thoughts on “Can a false choice be an object of research?

  1. The debate between traditional and progressive practice or pedagogy is a false dichotomy. The debate between one idealised approach and another hides a much greater issue in education. This I set out in the following blog post

    On the other hand it is important to point out that cultural and historical practices result in a prevalence and predominance of traditional teacher-centred practices as I explain in this blog post

    I offer (albeit brief) theoretical treatment here

    Greg then raises the issue of how this sits with a project which I am involved in supporting teachers in using materials that promote A-level students’ deeper thinking about and interconnectedness of mathematical ideas and topics. Like my thesis on the prevalence of teacher-centred traditional practices contends (in the second blog post I list above) teachers found using the materials particularly challenging. Largely because there was a shift in the centre of gravity, mathematical thinking moves from teacher to students. The implementation of the Cambridge Maths Education Project materials is challenging, but the tasks and activities promote the kind of mathematical thinking that admissions tutors are looking for in interview for selection on undergrad maths programmes like, for example, Cambridge. The project is not constructed to transform all practice, but to supplement what teachers already do. In our theorisation of teacher professional learning we use the language of teacher-centred and student-centred pedagogy since these idealisations provide the reader with a mental construct. However it is not about wholesale reform.

    The full paper can be found at


    In sum, I stand by my position that the debate between traditional and progressive approaches is a false dichotomy. At the same time I am content to research practice, and work with practitioners to promote different learning and different experiences of mathematics in some lessons.

      • Richard I says:

        I thought it was pretty clear in the final paragraph, Greg. ‘Traditional’ vs. ‘Progressive’ is a false dichotomy. What we need is the promotion of ‘different’.

    • I have just read the blogpost on the trad/prog false dichotomy. The post appears to suggest that the trad/prog debate has been seized upon politically to promote the introduction of free market measures into education, amidst a damaging commercial conflict of interest. I don’t disagree with this analysis, and would like to see significant changes to the system currently being pursued in England. But, I don’t think that (although a serious issue) renders the prog/trad debate as a false dichotomy. There are significant differences (philosophically) between the two views, and I suspect that all teachers are influenced by these differences, whether they know it or not. The debate has helped to bring these differences into the light, and shown that there are times when excesses are damaging. It has also promoted careful thought about evidence and research.

      • Quite. Watson’s argument seems to be that we should not debate traditional versus progressive teaching because there are more important issues to discuss. This does not, however, substantiate his claim that it is a false dichotomy.

  2. In the study, ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘student-centred’ are labels attached to specific, and specified, approaches to particular activities.

    ‘Traditional’ and ‘progressive’ might be labels that other people use to refer to ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘student-centered’ general approaches to education respectively, but that doesn’t mean actual practice falls into either ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ categories. Even if you assume ‘traditional’ is synonymous with ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘progressive’ with ‘student-centered’, many teachers report using different approaches for different classes, topics or lessons.

    Also the boundaries between what different people mean by ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ are so blurred that it’s not just a false dichotomy, it’s actually a misleading one.

    • That’s nonsense. The paper that is presented is clearly an attempt to move maths teaching away from a teacher-centred approach to a student-centred approach. Why?

      Yes, it is a specific instance but there are others and teaching, as in life more generally, proceeds via a series of specific instances. If I wish to criticise this shift then exactly how may I do it without being accused of a ‘false dichotomy’? I think that the latter is basically an attempt to stop such criticism. Teacher-centred versus child-centred is clearly not a false choice as the paper itself acknowledges.

      To prove that it is a false dichotomy then you would have to show that one can use child-centred or teacher-centred approaches at the same time or that there is a third alternative that is commonly used.

      • I think we’re talking about two different perspectives on category formation.

        A study that compares different ways of approaching a task, identifies two distinct types of approach and gives each type of approach a label, is starting from what happens in real life and is forming hypotheses about the patterns that are observed. The conclusions might be totally wrong, or the researchers might inadvertently be imposing their pre-conceived expectations on the data, but the approach remains a bottom-up one. The categories, whatever they are labelled, emerge from the data.

        In contrast, you seem to be starting from the assumption that educational practice can be categorised as either traditional/progressive or teacher/student-centred. Your approach, by contrast, is top-down – you assume the data will fit into your categorisation system.

        You support this assumption by saying that ‘to prove that it is a false dichotomy then you would have to show that one can use child-centred or teacher-centred approaches at the same time or that there is a third alternative that is commonly used’.

        That view in turn assumes that teacher-centred and child-centred map neatly onto what happens in the real world. But clearly they don’t. Teacher-centred and child-centred might appear mutually exclusive on paper, but in practice they aren’t. In any one lesson, a teacher could use range of approaches that could be labelled teacher-centred, child-centred or collaborative.

        The difference between letting the data speak and attaching labels to what they tell us, vs trying to fit all data into preconceived categories is a classic, and recurrent problem in taxonomy.

      • I am sure that teachers do use a range of approaches but this does not make the choice between approaches false. It is legitimate to discuss the relative effectiveness of them. As I suspected, these comments have descended into sophistry.

      • No. The two quotes are quite at odds with each other. The only way to mount the case that they are not is by a long a winding semantic argument. This is similar to your claim that you can’t prove that something – eg fairies – does not exist. It is both obviously wrong to the layperson as well as wrong at the conclusion of a long philosophical debate.

  3. The fact that the debate even exists is the product of a false construct: a captive audience whose needs are irrelevant to the combatants because no matter how stupid the outcome, the audience can’t leave. This debate would resolve itself immediately and without rancour (and without more research or conferences or policy revisions) if teachers simply put their methods on the market and let families choose, over time, which best suits them. Unlike teachers, who swear allegiance to the death to one method or the other, families would have the freedom to move back and forth, to choose one method for one topic and the other for another, or for one child to choose one type of class while a sibling prefers a different one. It would be so healthy, so diverse, so…. educational for everyone involved. TEACHERS would actually be interested in learning, which is generally not the case today. But the polarization is useful to distract everyone from the core problem, which is that families and teachers alike are trapped in the idiocy.
    Sorry, I think I’ve said this before – something’s set me off again 🙂

    • Chester Draws says:

      This debate would resolve itself immediately and without rancour (and without more research or conferences or policy revisions) if teachers simply put their methods on the market and let families choose, over time

      In my “market” traditional and teacher-centred would win in a couple of years, with mere pockets doing it otherwise. Already we see the schools that teach that way are over-subscribed and the ones that don’t are shrinking.

      But schools aren’t allowed to do that fully because our Ministry won’t let us. We are told which way is best, and schools are set up with that expectation. Principals are selected that are known to favour progressive and student-centred learning, which then sets the tone for their school. (That most of these schools go on to fail, whereas traditional ones flourish, is apparently is the fault of the teachers.)

      There are important powers that are vitally concerned that progressive education not be permitted to be routed by the mere whims of parents, so it won’t happen.

  4. As far as I can read it, student-centred – as used here – deals with teaching that attempts to increase germane load instead of simply decreasing total cognitive load (a mistake made by many who propagate using cognitive load theory for instruction). By “reduc[ing] the cognitive demand in the lesson so that students can progress easily through the tasks” you achieve a mathemathantic effect, namely killing deep learning. Instruction should not just make it easy (i.e., only reducing extraneous load), but should strive try to achieve optimal germane load; keeping the total manageable while challenging the students properly.

      • Of course that’s possible, but in the quote that you present this is not spoken of. It states “In contrast, the aim of the [ambitious teaching] tasks is to offer higher levels of demand so that students have to think deeply about the mathematics and, as such, we characterise this as student-centred.” High levels of demand can also just mean increased germane load creation through, for example, partially worked out examples or process worksheets or even goal free tasks. Read my book (with Jeroen van Merrienboer) Ten Steps to Complex Learning. Here six or seven different types of tasks are discussed, none of which are problem-based.

    • The aim is in fact to increase germane load. The reduction of cognitive load refers to the instructional practices that exist in much A level teaching. The tasks have been designed as a supplement to increase germane load. At present our research has focused on how teachers use these tasks with A-level maths students. Our general observation is that teachers present the tasks so as to reduce germane cignotive load. This, we think, is because teachers are anxious with how students will cope with increased load. However with support and experience teachers overcome this.

      • In other words, I was on the right track. Most people who pretend to understand CLT think that the goal is the reduction of CL in total. That means their optimum is no load at all. The goal should be keeping CL manageable, choosing tasks with not too much intrinsic load (think about ZPD) and then limiting extraneous while optimising germane. Deep thinking is GOOD!

      • According to this flyer, CMEP looks a lot like problem-based learning. Resources are designed to ‘help elicit the discovery of new ideas’:

        Click to access Flyer.pdf

        Also, are you aware of Sweller’ views on ‘germane’ cognitive load? He made this comment on my old blog:

        “Concerning germane cognitive load, once we get into the details of cognitive load theory, we run out of accessible work. Here is a brief history of germane cognitive load. The concept was introduced into cognitive load theory to indicate that we can devise instructional procedures that increase cognitive load by increasing what students learn. The problem was that the research literature immediately filled up with articles introducing new instructional procedures that worked and so were claimed to be due to germane cognitive load and other procedures that didn’t work and so were claimed to be due to extraneous cognitive load. That meant that all experimental results could be explained by cognitive load theory rendering the theory unfalsifiable. The simple solution that I use now is to never explain a result as being due to germane cognitive load. Cognitive load theory is not a theory of everything and some results are due to factors unrelated to working memory load and should be explained by those factors rather than working memory factors.”

      • This makes sense. Germane load is also related to schema building. With help (feedback, scaffolding, fading) overcome (temporary) increased load etc. reason why mantra ‘less load is best’ not helpful imo. Being aware of load, of course, *is* helpful.

        As I understand It Sweller denounced Germane load. This article by Kalyuga might articulate why:, it might also address some of the ‘falsifiability’ criticisms of CLT. Although I see this challenge, I think the idea of schemas is rooted quite strongly in cognitive psychology, so I’m not sure if it’s warranted to do away with completely.

        I’m intrigued by a very recent paper ( Which tries to work on a reconceptualization which abandons (word from abstract) the “rigid explicit instruction versus minimal guidance dichotomy and replacing it with a more flexible approach based on differentiating specific goals of various learner activities in complex learning.” Interesting times.

      • The later paper to which you refer suggests that CLT needs to be considered when we are seeking traditional instructional objectives – a change in long term memory – but that some tasks have different objectives such as activating schema or motivating students. These tasks may well have such objectives but I think we need more evidence that they meet these objectives. The research on productive failure, for instance, has not generally used very good controls. I do not therefore think that we need a reconceptualisation at this stage. I certainly reject any discussion of false dichotomies although I know a lot of people make this claim. At any stage within a lesson there is a clear choice to make between a fully explicit approach or a more implicit one. ‘Traditional’ teachers will use more implicit approaches – eg problem solving – as students gain expertise. The difference would be the total amount of teacher guidance and when this occurs. Even Watson recognises this as a model because he labels is “teacher-centred”. To write this all off as a false argument would leave us with no way of debating some quite important issues.

      • Thank you for the comment.

        Before the latter paper starts to go into the details of ‘Productive Failure’ (PF) (it also mentions the specific issues with PF including references, but also a weaker point in CLT pointed out by De Jong “The relativity of the types of cognitive load to the goals of learning activities was also mentioned by De Jong (2010)”) it seemed to me the paper showed an awareness of general challenges within the framework of CLT. The author cites fading (Renkl) and his own research on expertise reversal to deal with “the relative effectiveness of alternative instructional methods for learners with different levels of expertise.”.

        It then goes on to a section called “Abandoning the Explicit Instruction–Limited Guidance Dilemma in Complex Learning” to say (full citation) “Thus, complex problem-based and inquiry learning environments involve various levels of instructional support from full, comprehensive guidance to different forms of partial and minimal guidance depending on specific goals at different phases of the learning process. Still, in cognitive load theory, such learning environments are traditionally considered as minimally guided instruction overall. If specific goals at local, micro-levels of instruction are incorporated in the revised cognitive load framework, its recommendations or effects (methods) should rather not be applied to a complex, multi-goal learning environment as a whole but should be applicable only to its individual phases or activities directed to achieving specific goals, in this case to acquisition of domain-specific concepts and procedures.”. Only after that PF and other invention approaches which “From a cognitive load perspective, novice learners who have to solve or explore a novel problem would likely experience a heavy cognitive load which should inhibit rather than enhance learning, contrary to what has apparently been observed in the above productive failure or invention learning studies.” are mentioned. The reconceptualization indeed mentions other goals but they are potentially broader than ‘schema activation’ and ‘motivating’ (don’t know where you read this, I think the paper does not suggest this?). A key part is “As mentioned previously in this paper, some of the suggested goals of the generation phase were activating and differentiating learner prior knowledge, enhancing
        learner awareness of the problem situation, focusing learner attention on deep structures
        behind the solutions rather than on specific procedures and their applications, or enhancing
        a global awareness of knowledge gaps. These goals could possibly be optimally achieved by
        approaches that might differ from explicit instruction which is most effective (from a
        cognitive load perspective) for the acquisition of domain-specific solution schemas by
        novice learners.” This seems to correspond with (deep) structures etc. as well.

        I must say that although we could postpone the ‘reconceptualisation’ (I think it’s not really about that, but just giving seemingly incompatibe empirical data a place), the call “The continuing research within a modified cognitive load framework could provide valuable guidance in this process.” might be even more beneficial. This requires *not* to abandon discussions on these issues but does *seem* to be a nuanced, less black-and-white view. I like this stance, and it prevents that we get a new myth namely ‘less load is best’

        More on the process of the debate in a separate comment. Cheers.

      • I do not see a more nuanced approach as an intrinsically good thing. I like Occam’s razor as an heuristic and need convincing that added complexity serves a purpose.

        Motivation is mentioned in the ‘lower-level’ or ‘pre-instruction’ goals:

        “For illustrative purposes, a possible simplified and rough differentiation of instructional goals in complex learning could involve the following three major levels. The lower-level goals (“pre-instruction goals”) could be related to creating necessary cognitive or motivational prerequisites for learning prior to the acquisition of domain knowledge. Examples of such goals (taken from the suggested goals of initial phases of instruction in productive failure or invention learning approaches) could be intentionally activating relevant prior knowledge, enhancing learners’ awareness of the problem situation and own knowledge gaps, or focusing their attention on searching for deeper patterns rather than surface characteristics or procedures. These goals do not assume learning of something but rather creating conditions for future learning. The goals of motivating to learn and engaging with the learning task may also belong to this level.”

  5. Is the false dichotomy the idea that one approach is always better and so there is a false choice between always one way or always the other when in fact there is the option to pick either choice in any instance or intermix them within a single lesson?

    • The original context was that we should not be debating traditional versus progressive pedagogy on Twitter because it is a false choice. I’m not sure that clarifies things. I seek such a debate.

  6. Paul Kirschner’s take on ‘traditional versus progressive pedagogy’, Chapter 8 in Sigmund Tobias and Thomas M. Duffy (Eds.) (2009). Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure? Routledge Publishing:

    Epistemology or Pedagogy, That Is the Question.

    Here Paul also answers my question on ‘deep learning is GOOD’.

    Of course, constructivism (as presented in Tobias and Duffy) is not the same as progressivism (f.e., as analyzed by Kieran Egan: ‘Getting it wrong from the beginning’). There is a family resemblance between them: rejection of what their protagonists call ‘positive science’, which effectively insulates the proponents of these pedagogic beliefs against contradictory evidence from science. The choice, therefore, is between science and conviction (between positive science and conviction in the eyes of one party, between science and pseudo-science in the eyes of the other party). My take on this: educators distancing themselves from science is simply unacceptable in our society.

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  10. Brian says:

    For me this is probably one of the most useful posts, with the most udesful comments I have read on the bloggershpere thus far. For that I thank Greg and all those who have commented.

    Some of the discussion, especially about the real nuances of cognitive load theory (rather than the headline claims) has been illuminating and the links to literature/writing have been valuable to me.

    I tend to agree with logicalincrementalism. I dislike the use of the terms traditional and progressive. I see the terms hijacked by a few bloggers/writers who seem almost evangelical in their beliefs.

    When I see the term progressive I am minded of some of those 1970’s places which let the kids run riot and design “education” for themselves. Clearly daft exstremists when looking from 2016.

    I describe the traditional vs progressive as a false dichotomy in simple terms. “False dichotomy” as I understand it, is where one presents two options as the only two options. If one does not go with one, one must go with the other. Perhaps this is the case depending how you define the terms. I see all learning as “learner centred” as this is where the learning takes place, in the learner. For me there is no such thing as teacher centred learning, it is a daft concept. What may be possible for me is learner centred teaching or teacher centred teaching. Teacher centred for me is where the teacher does the work of designing and delivering the stimulus so that the learner may easily “learn”. Learner centred teaching is where the teacher designs the stimulus so that the learner does much of the work of arranging the knowledge, looking for links between concepts and identifying examples. There may be a difference in time efficiency but I have a feeling there is also a difference in terms of quality of learning.

    If one defines “traditional” and “progressive” in a way that makes them temporally mutually exclusive then clearly one must choose at any moment in time to be doing one or the other. There is a dichotomy. If one does as I do, and say that the learning transaction can take many forms e.g. direct vs indirect instruction, autodidaxy etc then surely one can start to consider whether direct or indirect is most appropriate to the task in hand even though both are quite possible.

    Surely teacher can design a learning transaction from their perspective to use direct or indirect instruction. The debate usually seems to me to be about the efficacy of the choice, and that for me is the complex part, and when I tend to defer to Occam.

    By lumping all learning transactions together as similar and then suggesting that we “should” treat a particular approch as being most efficacious in all cases is where the thing falls down.

    There is indeed a dichotomy, not a false one, every time a teacher (or learner) makes a decision about the structure and form of a learning transaction at a point in time. It is quite possible to consider which approach is best if we define approaches carefully.

    It is not (usually) possible to look at the professional practice of a real teacher and consider them to be traditional or progressive unless you frig the definitions.

    I believe my experience has been that there are a few extremist traditionalists who find it to be convenient to describe anyone who is not staunch traditionalist as progressive, and then to equate progressive with weirdos and idiots.

    The debate about direct vs indirect instruction is for me a crucial one in education if teachers are to design learning transactions effectively. Conflating this with whether the “establishment” has a “progressive authodoxy” is sometimes interesting, but doesn’t really illuminate the issue for teachers, which I think is why 95% (my ballpark estimate) of teachers ignore the issue and get on looking for best practice in their daily contact with learners.

    Discuss whether learning outcomes are suitable in terms of transferable skills and I am with you. Discuss whether learning outomes are suitable in terms of personality change and I am with you.Discuss direct vs indirect for a transaction and I am with you and I feel that these issues are worthy of discussion and research.

    Unfortunately labelling as traditional and progressive (heavy duty lumping) simply adds heat rather than light.

    • Progressivism is a clearly circumscribed philosophical take on life, on pedagogy and schooling. In an article from 1996 J. E. Stone callls it ‘developmentalism’. This piece is quite interesting in its comprehensive treatment of the subject.

      J. E. Stone (1996). Developmentalism: An Obscure but Pervasive Restriction on Educational Improvement. Education Policy Analysis Archives, vol. 4. open access

      Of course few people nowadays are aware of this background of a family of pedagogical ideas. However, discussing progressivism without acknowledging its longstanding pedagogical/philosophical background can not possibly be very productive. Progressivism’s opposite is not traditionalism, of course, progressivism itself being eminently traditionalist 😉 and agnostic as regards the fruits of science.

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