Six signs that you’re a progressive educator

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.

[Why this view is wrong]

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.

[Why this view is wrong]

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.

[Why this view is wrong]

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.

[Why this view is wrong]

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.

[Why this view is wrong]

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.

[Why this view is wrong]

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.



28 thoughts on “Six signs that you’re a progressive educator

  1. Hi Greg,

    I must say I nearly fell off my chair when I read that you consider yourself a progressive to an extent.

    When folk say there is a false dichotomy (though I can only speak for myself) this is precisely what they mean: you can be a bit progressive and a bit traditional at the same time. Few people would argue (though, again, speaking for myself) that the dichotomy is false at a philosophical level. This is clearly not the case. What they mean is that, in practice, most of us will dip in and out of the two philosophies, as you clearly do.

    With regards to not wanting debate, I think what you mean is that a lot of folk don’t want to debate on your terms. Polarised, oppositional, confrontational discourse is not for everyone, a bit like being extroverted is not for everyone. Some, the more enlightened among us ;-), prefer a more measured dialogue over time, with opportunities for reflection and consideration.

    I think that the fact that you are now defining yourself as mainly traditional with a bit of progressive illustrates perfectly how the dialogue proposed by those who thought there was something odd about being defined, generally by others, as progressive or traditional has had a great impact. It may not have been the gladiatorial debate that you might have favoured, but perspectives are nevertheless still converging as a result.

    Sometimes it’s not about being right or wrong (I know, such a progressive thing to say, right?).

    Finally, tell me, have you never learnt anything by doing?


      • I don’t think I was doing that, was I? Just explaining why some folk find it perplexing to be made to pick between one or the other when even you straddle both camps by your own admission.

        Take it or leave it.

      • Nobody is being made to pick anything. See my comments re ‘the left’. Denial that there is a difference between these perspectives seems strange and it makes me wonder why people would do this. Progressive education has a long history and is reasonably well defined – see the Kohn piece. If you believe in learning by doing, for instance, why not make the argument for it? Why insist that there’s nothing to discuss? I suspect it’s because the argument is weak.

    • Chester Draws says:

      Finally, tell me, have you never learnt anything by doing?

      I taught myself CSS. It was slow, painful and as a result I write CSS very badly.

      For a while I cut my wife’s hair to save money, and what I learned by doing that is that haircutting is not something you can really teach yourself to do well.

      Is that your point?

  2. As José says above there is often a difference between the theoretical position and the practical outworking of this – ask a physicists and an engineer how they approach problems. However what is a shame for me is, that others, you have set out the view of the what you deem a progressive to be as extremes and they easily defeated them.

    So, let’s just take one of these, “As a progressive … You don’t think children should be punished” so I assume that As a traditional, “You think should be regularly beaten until they do exactly as they are told”. Perhaps you were being ironic but setting the extreme end of the argument in order to defeat it is no intellectual challenge – like others I would prefer a more nuanced discussion.

    • I took “punishment” to mean no late marks or zeros or failures. It’s an attitude that suggests the student should be given limitless opportunities to try again. And, on the other side, that kind of punishment can be an effective learning tool. If students know they can fail if they don’t do the work well enough on the first go (with lots of scaffolding, etc.), then they might be more motivated to get in gear. I’m not sure the original post is written as extremely as it’s being taken, but it does assume an audience that’s familiar with basic tenets of both approaches.

      • Marie, yes my challenge to the article (like others) is that it defines the ideas of progressive in a very negative way – and then seeks to knock these definitions down – the straw man approach in debate. I agree that this could be phrased in the more gentle way you suggest.

  3. If you folk who do not see what the separation is a very important issue and needs to be made clear just add ‘tends to’ at the start of each of the propositions. For it comes down to what is your set of beliefs that define how you think children learn best. if you tend to the natural learning and the learning by doing while children are at the early stages of learning a subject, topic if you want, then you will tend to be identifiable as progressive.

    Now we all drink water but that does not make us a little bit like each other. It is a belief set that identifies rather than a choice of a technique.

  4. I’m trying to characterize the disagreements you’re having with commenters in a way that both sides would recognize as fair and productive. Here’s my current attempt: the question is about holism vs. atomism about educational views.

    Greg, you think that you can break apart an individual’s beliefs about education into their component parts. It’s then entirely possible to look at each individual belief and compare it to the beliefs that progressives or traditionalists have. In this way, a person could be considered to have a mix of progressive beliefs and traditionalist beliefs.

    Your commenters, on the other hand, think that it’s a mistake to reduce a person’s educational beliefs to their component parts. A person’s belief system is greater than the sum of its parts. As such, it’s fruitless to ask where people fall on a progressive/traditional continuum. While it might be possible to map individual beliefs to progressive/traditional systems, it makes little sense to map individual belief systems to somewhere on a progressive/traditional continuum. The vast majority of people’s belief systems are too multi-dimensional to be meaningfully assigned “progressive” or “traditionalist.”

    If this is right, I side with your commenters. For example, is a person who advocates “concrete, authentic, whole-task experiences that are provided to learners” and “mindful abstraction from the concrete experiences that are provided by the learning tasks” a progressive? It sure sounds like these people believe in learning by doing and authentic tasks. But these authors are undoubtedly opposed to discovery learning and strong advocates of CLT, as applied to complex learning. []

    The case I’d make is for a richer vocabulary of educational belief-systems beyond progressive and traditional. This would facilitate a certain sort of discussion that I think is valuable. That said, it’s also valuable to debate the merits of the polar positions of progressivism and traditionalism. If the above list are the signs of progressivism, apparently I’m not anywhere close to a progressive, and I will readily admit that there are famous consultanty types who sell these beliefs. They’re wrong, I think, and if your object is to discuss the ways in which they’re wrong, well, the above is how you’d do it.

    • I think Greg is just setting out the ends of the spectrum. Are you saying you cannot think of any left or right wing political figures? If you can why does it work for you in politics but not here?

      • I’m really not so knowledgeable about politics, so my response might be off here. Still, seems to me that the party system regiments and standardizes politicians and their beliefs in a way that makes it easier to track the beliefs of political figures than it is to track the beliefs of people. (And, since the party systems influence the political beliefs of individuals, that standardization is “contagious.”)

        But, like I said, it’s totally possible to rank educators in the way Greg wants to. The question is, what purpose does this perspective serve? Seems to me it mostly serves a goal that Greg cares a lot about — showing that consultants and professors in the educational establishment who are quite clearly progressives are wrong. It’s a fairly narrow goal, but a fine one that I don’t have much issue with.

        But, of course, there’s more to the world of education than that narrow issue. I would argue, I think, that the only issue is when this becomes the only way of seeing the world of education. (The flipside of that is, I think, that I don’t particularly care about what the consultants or edu professors of the world say. I don’t think the stakes are so high. Maybe that’s a US vs. UK difference, though?)

  5. I think it is interesting that Greg refers to a false choice rather than a false dichotomy. He is making this distinction to avoid the obvious counter that it is a continuum not a binary choice.

    I wonder what else he could to do to avoid the needless pedantic counters that he gets by making this analogy to left and right in politics.

    I am pretty sure most of those making those arguments could easily identify at least one right wing political figure. So I don’t think they have any sort of useful argument. But here are some ideas:

    Greg could add as 0th

    0. I believe that the opportunity to learn should not be determined by individual wealth.

    Why this is correct…

    Another would be to make the most generous and precise descriptions of the other points.

    2. You learn by doing.
    Is too open to arguments about what this means.
    Greg I am sure believes that practice is important for learning and practice is doing. But I think he wants to make a distinction here.

    Perhaps he wants to say:
    2. Someone else explaining it hurts learning.

    But that is too harsh. So
    2. It is always better for learning if the learner struggles with the problem for themselves before being helped through gaining someone else’s knowledge of it.

    Of course this is still wrong because we have finite lifespans but it has some appeal.

  6. Chester Draws says:

    If I were to write that I:
    1) think teacher should be in obvious control of the classroom;
    2) that teachers should direct pretty much all learning;
    3) that collaborative work is unnecessary; and
    4) that the best way to teach is largely direct instruction and not learning by doing;
    there are plenty of people who tell me I am wrong. Plenty.

    So what position do these people have, if it isn’t Progressive?

    How is that I know quite a few teachers that believe the above points in all seriousness, and quite a few that hold directly the opposite, and yet the division between traditional and progressive is false?

    It’s like saying there is no such thing as hard-working teachers and lazy teachers because almost all teachers are in the middle.

    • Brian says:

      Greg sets the thing up, defining traditional and progressive so that they are temporally mutually exclusive. His definitions, especially of progressive differ signifianctly from those put forward by other traditionalists.

      If Greg puts forward his definitions and then suggests they are mutually exclusive then such is life. This serves his purpose, especially when it offers him the opportunity to talk about cognitive load and Project Follow Through.

      I think the issue for most people is that most teachers do not fit his definitions. I have no problem using Greg’s defintions and on that basis agreeing with him that it is difficult to hold both sets of beliefs simultaneuosly and therefore they are to all intents and purposes mutually exclusive (although not necessarily exhaustive).

      My issue is when Greg goes on to suggest that I must take one of these positions as they are exhaustive and mutually exclusive which I think is simply nonsense.

      I believe that some thinking skills can transfer across domains and some cannot. This seems to me a no brainer.

      My understanding of cognitive science is that memory (long term) and understanding are aided by linking to previous knowledge, that for me is relevancs.

      I have never heard anyone ever claim that the “future changes everything”, this would be a little silly. Sure the future will be different from the past and therefore new knowledge might occur although much knowledge from the past will still be valid. I believe that the rapid development of technology has made more “old” knowledge out of date but still I have never seen the future as changing evenrything.

      Some things are clearly learnt best by doing.

      You provide a paper for each of your points, some of which are more or less relevant but for no issue of the 6 provides evidence that you are correct and others wrong. The primary/secondary stuff is interesting and comparing direct instruction with enquiry learning in science is worthy of reading but neither actually achieve a great deal.

  7. Greg re the first point it should be phonics instruction AND reading good natural books. I have seen some awful phonics lessons and if not monitored teachers can spend a lot of time teaching kids what they have mastered and the kids should be moved on to reading good books. Once a child has mastered the letter sound relationship- reached about a reading age of the biggest determinant of how much progress they make will be how much they read.

  8. Pingback: Filling the Pail - Top Ten Teacher

  9. Pingback: The echo chamber of progressivist ideas, also in Dutch Platform Education 2032 report? | onderwijs2032sciencecheck

  10. Pingback: 200,000 | Filling the pail

  11. It seems to me that you are suggesting that in politics there are two distinct schools of thought: on the Left and the Right. You define yourself as “centre-left … picking and choosing, issue by issue”.

    You have chosen to use political ideology as your analogy for educational ideology. Lets look at the politics of the economy: the Left view would be a socialist view, and the Right would advocate unfettered free market capitalism.

    It does not take a great deal of analysis to see that one does not choose their view on this issue by favouring the Left or Right. Indeed most people would choose the model that we have in, lets say in the UK and Australia, which is capitalism tempered by government. Education is centrally controlled in a socialist way, and the buying and selling of groceries runs on the capitalist model.

    Therefore, I think your argument that one’s decisions relating to their political views, and of course, one’s decisions on how to teach being decided on an issue by issue basis, is a false one.

  12. I’ve thinking about this some more, and I think that perhaps you’re right.

    All I have to do to reject my critique above is to break down the economy into smaller chunks. I then take a Right view on the economics of buying groceries and a Left view on the economics of Education.

  13. Pingback: Comments on the new STEM policy document of the DES | educationandstuff

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.