I refute it thus

This post is from my old blog but David Didau referred to it earlier on Twitter so I thought I would repost it. It seems quite relevant to current debates.

So, I was having a discussion on Twitter and I suggested that people who have progressive education views often seem disinclined to define them. The definition is therefore left to those – like myself – who would criticise aspects of progressive education. This then lends itself to one of those tedious arguments where the definition then becomes the subject of the debate rather than the actual ideas.

I stated that if my interlocutor would define progressive education then I would be happy to refute it, directly and explicitly. Instead of defining it himself, he settled upon a series of statements made by Alfie Kohn – one of the few progressive educationalists that I know about who is happy to be clear about what he prescribes. They are taken from this piece which I have referred to a number of times before.

To avoid unending definitional debates, let me be precise in what I intend to do here. I do not intend to debate whether this is a definition of progressive education. Someone has put it to me that it is but I do not want to discuss that. Rather, if this is a definition of progressive education then I intend to set out, point by point, why such a model of education is flawed.

Attending to the whole child: Progressive educators are concerned with helping children become not only good learners but also good people. Schooling isn’t seen as being about just academics, nor is intellectual growth limited to verbal and mathematical proficiencies

This is an emphasis that shifts the focus away from well defined knowledge and skills and towards vague, questionable objectives. At its least troublesome, such an objective lends itself to rather pointless activities that try to teach human qualities as if they are something that can be learnt like the times-table. I am not aware of any evidence to support the claim that there is a generalizable skill of being a ‘good learner’ that can be developed. In fact, one of the key components of constructivist learning theory is that learning is intimately dependent upon prior knowledge – we relate the novel to what we already know. If this is true then whether or not you are a good learner is almost entirely dependent upon what you are learning, what you already know about the subject and, critically, on how well you are being taught.

Dan Willingham has written an excellent article on attempts to teach ‘critical thinking skills’. He notes that, given the right context, small children can exercise quite sophisticated forms of critical thinking but when faced with a subject about which we know little, we all find it hard to think critically. Critical thinking occurs when you are presented with something that potentially conflicts with something else that you already know. It is therefore entirely dependent on what that is. Carl Bereiter uses an apt analogy here; he suggests that teaching students how to think is akin to teaching them how to digest.

Community:  Learning isn’t something that happens to individual children — separate selves at separate desks. Children learn with and from one another in a caring community, and that’s true of moral as well as academic learning. Interdependence counts at least as much as independence, so it follows that practices that pit students against one another in some kind of competition, thereby undermining a feeling of community, are deliberately avoided.

Kohn’s a bit of a moralist, isn’t he? As an aside, it is truly strange that he talks about developing ‘good people’ and ‘moral learning’. Imagine if Katherine Birbalsingh – the head of the new Michaela Community School – started going on like this? Twitter would be humming with people asking, “whose morality?”; who gets to define what a good person is? But, as I say, that is an aside.

This statement is basically a non sequitur. I think we all want community and cooperation. However, this doesn’t bar competition. Exhibit A – football teams. Exhibit B – Successful companies.

Collaboration: Progressive schools are characterized by what I like to call a “working with” rather than a “doing to” model. In place of rewards for complying with the adults’ expectations, or punitive consequences for failing to do so, there’s more of an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving — and, for that matter, less focus on behaviors than on underlying motives, values, and reasons.

Despite much of what Kohn has written, extrinsic rewards and praise do not generally decrease intrinsic motivation. And clear consequences for poor behaviour are a key component of successful classroom management.

But maybe this is not enough. Perhaps adult coercion is just plain wrong. If this is where this is coming from then the case needs to be clearly made; a moral case. I do not care, for instance, whether corporal punishment is effective. I believe it to be wrong and I am happy to say so.

It would also help if progressive educators could point to clear examples of where such non-coercive practices are successful. And this links to another point below. I do not expect all students to be motivated to learn all of the time. Thinking is hard and we avoid it. An element of coercion, no matter how benign, is required. If you don’t believe that delayed gratification can be learnt as some sort of skill – which I don’t – then you need teachers to strongly lead students in the students’ own best interests.

Social justice: A sense of community and responsibility for others isn’t confined to the classroom; indeed, students are helped to locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond friends, beyond their own ethnic group, and beyond their own country. Opportunities are offered not only to learn about, but also to put into action, a commitment to diversity and to improving the lives of others.

I agree that this is a good thing but I don’t think that progressives can claim it. Some of the most traditional schools in the world do a lot of work in their local communities and beyond. I think this transcends a progressive / traditionalist divide.

Intrinsic motivation: When considering (or reconsidering) educational policies and practices, the first question that progressive educators are likely to ask is, “What’s the effect on students’ interest in learning, their desire to continue reading, thinking, and questioning?” This deceptively simple test helps to determine what students will and won’t be asked to do. Thus, conventional practices, including homework, grades, and tests, prove difficult to justify for anyone who is serious about promoting long-term dispositions rather than just improving short-term skills.

Well good luck with that.

As I said, thinking is hard and we try to avoid it. Maths teachers reach for the calculator to work out percentages – yes, you do – especially at the end of a hard day. It is improbable that students can remain intrinsically motivated for five hours per day, five days a week and still study a rich range of concepts.

When I was about twelve, I only read Dr Who books. My teacher took them off me and made me read The Hobbit. I hated it and thought it was boring. However, it enriched my educational experience. I cannot remember any of those Dr Who books now – even though I read them many times – and yet the narrative arc of The Hobbit is as vivid as ever.

My interests at that age were computers, music, science and science fiction. I had no interest in food technology or textiles and certainly none whatsoever in debating whether beauty contests were degrading to women. How could I possibly have become rounded if I had been able to follow only my interests?

But perhaps this is a straw man. Perhaps Kohn is not suggesting that we follow students’ interests in this way. Rather, by cooperation, we somehow get them to see that Maths, English, History etc. are intrinsically motivating.  Is that it?

No, it’s not that: We have to abandon subject disciplines too…

Deep understanding: As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead declared long ago, “A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.” Facts and skills do matter, but only in a context and for a purpose. That’s why progressive education tends to be organized around problems, projects, and questions — rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines. The teaching is typically interdisciplinary, the assessment rarely focuses on rote memorization, and excellence isn’t confused with “rigor.” The point is not merely to challenge students — after all, harder is not necessarily better — but to invite them to think deeply about issues that matter and help them understand ideas from the inside out.

Famous philosophers say lots of things. This particular quote is from Whitehead’s essay on ‘the aims of education’. It is an essay that I find to be a little confused. It proposes breadth of study and specialisation. A sort-of balance. The exact nature of the specialisation depends upon what type of student we are talking about and the student’s prospects in life (hmmm…).

This principle basically proposes the abandonment of subject disciplines whilst bashing the imagined enemy that is rote memorisation. Why do facts and skills matter only in a context and for a purpose? It is not clear. Is education a merely utilitarian venture? Is there no joy in it? I thought that there was supposed to be…

Memorisation is actually a good thing. It means that you are building up a (hopefully relevant) set of schemas in your long term memory (See Kirschner, Sweller & Clark 2006). There is no need for memorisation to be ‘rote’. It is perfectly possible to understand things that you commit to memory.

No, this suggests a false choice: We are either in favour of interdisciplinary project work or we want students to memorise facts that they don’t understand: A rhetorical device.

Active learning: In progressive schools, students play a vital role in helping to design the curriculum, formulate the questions, seek out (and create) answers, think through possibilities, and evaluate how successful they — and their teachers — have been. Their active participation in every stage of the process is consistent with the overwhelming consensus of experts that learning is a matter of constructing ideas rather than passively absorbing information or practicing skills.

Active learning: What is that? Learning is clearly about the mind. So we definitely need minds to be active. But how can we tell that they are, short of hooking our students up to an MRI? No, there is a conflation here between active as in helping to decide upon the curriculum, active as in thinking about the content (deeply, I presume) and active as in not ‘passively absorbing information’ whatever that is. I assume that this is an attack on teacher talk. Some people take constructivist learning theory and extrapolate all kinds of nonsense. One of these is the ‘impossibility of communication’; you cannot really know something – I mean like really know it, man – if you’ve merely been ‘told’ it. There is no evidence to support such a view.

Taking kids seriously: In traditional schooling, as John Dewey once remarked, “the center of gravity is outside the child”:  he or she is expected to adjust to the school’s rules and curriculum. Progressive educators take their cue from the children — and are particularly attentive to differences among them. (Each student is unique, so a single set of policies, expectations, or assignments would be as counterproductive as it was disrespectful.) The curriculum isn’t just based on interest, but on these children’s interests. Naturally, teachers will have broadly conceived themes and objectives in mind, but they don’t just design a course of study for their students; they design it with them, and they welcome unexpected detours. One fourth-grade teacher’s curriculum, therefore, won’t be the same as that of the teacher next door, nor will her curriculum be the same this year as it was for the children she taught last year. It’s not enough to offer elaborate thematic units prefabricated by the adults. And progressive educators realize that the students must help to formulate not only the course of study but also the outcomes or standards that inform those lessons.

Traditionalists take kids seriously too. That’s why they argue so strongly against daft educational ideas and practices. Yes, students are different. This is trivially true. However, they way that they learn is pretty common to all of them. Learning styles are a nonsense – the biggest variation between students is their prior knowledge and letting classes all go off and do their own thing with no common curriculum just increases this problem, making it harder for those students to be taught in the future. The rest of this statement is a repeat of point four and so it is subject to the same criticisms.

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5 Comments on “I refute it thus”

  1. 4c3d says:

    Education is seduced by labels. Some form a rallying point and others are for convenience, to keep things tidy.

    “Traditional” is a label and those who feel they can not fit in this camp have offered an alternative label, that of “progressive” to which they rally around. As you point out at the start the definition becomes the debate as people seek which camp to join. What I suggest we are trying to do is “square the circle” with our experiences in teaching and learning. Both camps take kids seriously, why be a teacher if you don’t? That is why both camps “argue so strongly against daft educational ideas and practices” because they see that neither label works for everyone all of the time.

    I would not agree that students being different is trivial, try being a parent! The art and skill of a teacher is in responding to these trivial differences.

    As for the way we learn from a biological perspective then neuroscience will probably prove this is the case. But this misses the point and what is more it is the reason we have the two camps. It is not our way of learning but our “learning needs” (and yes I can define them) that influences our ability to learn. Both camps are effectively defining a different learning environment. The problems arise when either the learner is unable to “adjust” as your Dewey remark suggests they need to. When they are unable to be compliant (and Sir Ken agrees with me when I say this is a disadvantage – in fact I would go as far as to say it is a disability) or are not having their learning needs met.

    There is a way forward, a sort of compromise and thank you for the Dewey reference it helps in supporting the concept as does Albert Bandura’s work and that of William Glasser. What I am offering is not another label but an approach that seeks to equip the learner with the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours that will enable them to manage the learning environment to meet their learning needs. Contact me if you want copies of my work in developing what I call “Learning Intelligence” or “LQ”.

    • Chester Draws says:

      What I am offering is not another label but an approach that seeks to equip the learner with the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours that will enable them to manage the learning environment to meet their learning needs.

      What does that mean? Really mean? It just looks like a list of platitudes to me. I want to equip my learners with suitable skills attitudes, attributes and behaviours too. I doubt anyone doesn’t.

      The issue is the correct ways to do that.

      What we need are solidly grounded, evidence-based techniques that work, and not theories of “intelligence” that just muddy the waters.

      Focusing on students’ “needs” takes our eye off the actual ball of teaching well. All our students all need to be well taught — fullstop. Any strategy for teaching that breaks down into individual “needs” as a first step is unworkable in practice, no matter how good the theory sounds.

      It’s not like traditional teachers don’t look at their students and recognise their individual needs, aspirations and wants. It’s just that we don’t fetish it.

      • 4c3d says:

        Chester I have not the space here to explain the approach I am suggesting. Be assured it is based on 30+ years of teaching in a range of schools and the last 5 in research and reflecting. You see it is solidly grounded and something I stand behind 100% professionally and personally. My work is available on line at http://www.4c3d.wordpress.com where you will find the articles that explain the issues and my approach.

        You are right about the problem is the way to go about developing the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours. Education is traditionally “teacher focused” and by that I mean the responsibility for learning, the learning environment and approach are all down to the teacher. No teacher can or should be expected to teach in a way that satisfies the labeling of students. Planning lessons to include learning styles (VAK for example) does take your “eye off the actual ball of teaching well.” and I agree is unworkable.

        My approach involves making the student responsible in a balanced relationship with the teacher. Students need to understand and recognise the impact of not having their learning needs met but not look to the teacher to put things right. They need to look to themselves to find ways of managing the learning environment to meet their needs. This is a conversation few have between the teacher and learner.

        Learning needs is something different entirely and definitely should be the focus for it is at the core of teaching well. As for making it a fetish all I can say is I have experience of students who do not have their learning needs met – many are neither compliant or passive and all do not reach their potential. If meeting learning needs means making it a fetish then yes.

        Thanks for the challenge Chester, I appreciate you taking the time.

        Here is the link to the very first article on LQ http://wp.me/p2LphS-3p

  2. Peter Steidinger says:

    On community: “Children learn with and from one another in a caring community,…”
    As Graham Nuthall (The Hidden lives of Learners) showed, it is a fact, that children learn from each other – but often what is learned, is completely wrong. Not “wrong” in the sense of crude constructivism (it is an interesting way to some “viable” knowledge), just wrong.


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