Can a false choice be an object of research?Posted: December 31, 2015
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?