I am going to let you in on a secret.
There are two long traditions that inform attitudes towards teaching and learning. Most of us sit on a continuum somewhere between the two – teachers are ever the pragmatists. However, it is worth knowing these traditions because when we are presented with new ideas and initiatives, we can identify the origin.
One of these traditions is commonly described as ‘progressive’ education. You may recognise some of the basic principles: Education should be student-centred – it should start with a child’s own interests and recognise their specific and individual needs. This means that topics and themes should be relevant to the lived experience of the students. Motivation must come first. One way that we can do this is by allowing students to work on projects based upon ideas that they are already interested in. If we want them to engage in something like mathematics, we can try to adapt the contexts of the mathematics to make it more appealing to the students or we can hook them with particularly engaging tasks. It is assumed that these tasks will include hands-on activities and experiential learning because this is the way that we learn to walk and talk and such natural learning is a relatively painless process that everyone engages in. Poor behaviour is mainly a response to an ill-fitting, unnatural, forced curriculum. If we don’t meet our students’ individual needs then what can we expect?
Progressive education is really old. It goes back much further than John Dewey but his 1916 book, “Democracy and Education” encapsulates many of the main themes (Interestingly, he later cautioned against taking some of these ideas too far). Are you interested in Project Based Learning? Then perhaps read William Heard Kilpatrick’s 1918 essay on the subject.
It is worth making this point because progressive education invariably presents itself as something very new. For instance, we should all pause when we read a newspaper article about modern, scientific support for an idea that is presented as novel but that actually sits right at the heart of this tradition such as the idea that students need to ‘care’ about what they study. No doubt, this research is sincere but it is also likely to have been informed and guided by the principles of progressive education.
Child-centred, progressive ideas have held our schools of education in a death-grip for much of the last century. Your teaching probably does not reflect this philosophy all of the time but, if not, it’s likely that you feel that perhaps it should.
What’s the problem?
“What’s the problem?” you might ask, “Who cares that these ideas have been around for a long time? If they are good ideas – and they certainly sound pretty benevolent – then our job is to get better at implementing them.”
The problem is that progressive ideas are actually pretty bad ideas.
When put into practice as student-centred learning, constructivism, whole language or ‘balanced’ literacy, problem-based learning, inquiry learning and so on, progressive ideas generally lead to less learning than a more direct and explicit approach. The latter represents the alternative to progressive education which is variously known as a traditionalist, instructivist or explicit teaching and it is often caricatured as transmission teaching or drilling students in the supposedly rote recall of knowledge.
It doesn’t really matter how you look at this, the results tend to be the same. Proponents of progressive education will argue that the tests that are used in such studies measure the wrong things; that progressive methods lead to deeper learning or to the development of various non-cognitive skills. There is a small amount of research that offers support for this – in the largely unscientific world of education research you can find a small amount of evidence to support pretty much any contention – but it is overwhelmed by evidence in favour of direct, explicit teaching. Are we really meant to buy the claims that the non-measurable and speculative development of a non-cognitive quality is a good enough reason to choose a method that is less effective at teaching children essential skills such as being able to read, write and do basic maths?
Worse, progressive methods are bad for equity. If you are taught mathematics ineffectively but you come from a prosperous background then you will have many ways available to you to mitigate the problem. Perhaps your parents can tutor you or pay for private tuition. Moreover, prosperous children have greater cultural capital and this will favour them strongly in an environment that is designed around drawing-out learning from the students. We know, for instance, that a large component of reading comprehension is background general knowledge. Hirsch estimates that you need to comprehend 90% or more of a text to learn from the remainder and so this sets-up a cycle where the cognitively rich get richer and the poor get poorer in the absence of active teacher intervention. More able students with greater general knowledge will learn more from an independent research task than less able students.
Imagine an episode of project-based learning where students choose their own topic. If we are true to progressive principles then we will create an inequitable environment. The student whose parents take her to museums at the weekend and who has strong reading comprehension may choose to research dinosaurs whereas the student with less cultural capital might choose something from the realm of popular culture. The tenets of progressivism would see this as a positive because it allows the students to follow their own interests. Yet the logical conclusion is a further entrenchment of inequality. It’s ruthlessly Darwinian, which is what you’re going to get if you try to copy nature.
An interesting recent study from Denmark hints at this effect on a large scale – principals who were more supportive of student-centred teaching tended to be running schools with lower overall achievement and greater inequality of outcomes.
We’ve been framed
If you follow mainstream education discussions then you might find my argument is a little odd. You may, for instance, be under the impression that Project Based Learning is new and innovative. You may not know much about progressive education – perhaps you think it’s a new term – but the ideas associated with it probably sound quite left-wing and politically progressive.
This is a result of the way that the education debate has been framed by its actors, consciously or unconsciously. You do not have to be a reactionary, right-wing, nationalistic, cartoon character in order to favour explicit or teacher-led forms of instruction over student-centred ones. In fact, the evidence suggest that this is exactly what you should favour if you have left-leaning sympathies and a concern for social justice. I want to get this secret out there.
So have a think about it. Open the blinds and have a look out of the window. Allow yourself to question what you were told at your school of education. Perhaps blog about your journey or discuss it with your colleagues. For my part, I will be presenting the evidence for explicit teaching at researchED in Melbourne on Saturday the 21st May. Perhaps I’ll see you there.Embed from Getty Images