Recently, I was told by an academic that I should be pursuing a career in journalism rather than academia. My crime was that I referred to ‘the left’. You see, to the more enlightened among us, there is no such thing. It’s far more complicated than simple labels such as ‘left’ and ‘right’.
This argument is interesting because there manifestly is a set of positions that most reasonable, educated people would recognise as ‘left wing’. It doesn’t mean that any one individual has to adopt all of them. In fact, I regard myself as centre-left and I am fine with that, picking and choosing, issue by issue. But left versus right is not a false choice.
Yet there are those who seem to think that a similar divide in education – progressive versus traditional – is a false choice, even though we can clearly identify differences in the two philosophies that have practical significance in the classroom. Some people may be unaware that progressive education has a long history and isn’t just something made up by bloggers to argue against. Alfie Kohn has even had a go at defining it.
I completely agree with some of the tenets of progressive education. I don’t think education should be stratified by social class – liberal arts for posh people, cooking and metalwork for the proles. And I don’t believe in corporal punishment. So to that extent, I am a progressive.
Are you wondering whether, like me, you are a bit of a progressive too? Here are some signs to look out for.
1. You believe that learning should be natural
This is probably the fundamental tenet of progressivism and it leads to some of the others. Have you ever noticed how children effortlessly learn to speak or walk? Have you noticed how they figure out how to play with a new toy? Do you think that education should be like that; joyful and natural?
If so, you will be suspicious of activities that look forced and unnatural such as drill and practice. You will be skeptical of phonics instruction in reading, not because you think children shouldn’t learn letter-sound relationships but because you don’t think they should be drilled in them. They should instead pick this up by reading real, authentic books; a more natural method.
2. You believe in learning by doing
This leads on from the first point. Real mathematicians solve open-ended problems and so that’s what students should do. They should be creating, making things and applying their knowledge. You also think that this aids understanding – students understand things better when they figure things out for themselves rather than simply being told.
3. You don’t think children should be punished
You believe that children’s behaviour is largely a product of their circumstances. It is therefore cruel to punish them for poor behaviour. It is controlling and undemocratic. Punishment is also counterproductive and will not fix the problem. Instead, students should explore their behaviour through discussion. They should be led to conclude for themselves that their actions were antisocial.
4. You think that content is interchangeable
You see your role as one of developing myriad skills such as the skill of ‘critical thinking’ or ‘collaboration’. These are more important than specific content because they can be transferred to different contexts and applied to any content. This is particularly important because we don’t know what the future holds (see final tenet). It also means that we do not have to trouble students with difficult texts like Shakespeare – they can think critically or make inferences about any texts.
5. You believe that learning must be relevant and authentic
This is closely linked to the previous point. You think that it’s wrong to teach children about dead, white males, their history and their science. Instead, learning should be closely matched to the interests and lived experience of the learners. Perhaps they can do project work based around an issue in the local community.
6. You think that the future fundamentally changes everything
The advent of Google means that a traditional knowledge-based education is no longer of any use. In the future, many people will be doing jobs that don’t exist yet and so we need to prepare them for these jobs by developing the previously mentioned transferable skills.
Back to the argument
It is interesting to contemplate why, periodically, folks pop up to denounce the debate between traditional and progressive teaching methods as a false dichotomy. I have a hypothesis as to why this is. Most of those who make this argument have written blogs that express support for some of the tenets that I have outlined above. Perhaps instead of defending their views in a open debate they prefer to suggest that there is no debate to be had.