How progressivism increases your workload

The principles of progressive education lead to practices that increase your workload as a teacher without making you more effective.

It is the progressive focus on children as individuals with different needs and the principle that learning should be natural that cause most of these inefficient practices. Individualism and naturalism derive in part from the romantic view that children are inherently good.

Individualism is the principle behind many forms of differentiation. Children clearly have differences and similarities but progressivism emphasises the former. It is the likely driving force behind the invention of learning styles and it makes me skeptical about the number of children that we currently classify as having special educational needs.

Individualism leads to lesson plans that are complicated and onerous, consisting of multiple sets of activities deemed suitable for different arbitrary groupings of students. Student choice is emphasised (because children are inherently good and their natural choices are privileged). Children who struggle with writing may choose to make an audio recording or create a role-play instead. Or they may be assigned to group poster projects where they draw the pictures while other students do the writing. Not only are these strategies hard for teachers to plan and resource, they do nothing to tackle writing difficulties. Over time, this kind of differentiation will lead to a growing gap between those who possess a particular academic skill and those who do not (I am making a reasoned claim here rather than a empirical one – differentiation is pretty hard to test experimentally).

Individualism and naturalism also lie at the root of our problems with marking. Typically, students are asked to complete complex performances such as writing essays, creating posters, designing and conducting scientific investigations and so on. After this, teachers are expected to provide feedback in the form of a brief letter written to each child. Why?

Well, complex performances are important because they are natural (look for the term ‘authentic’ as a synonym for natural). Nobody ever sets out to write a paragraph but they do set out to write a story. So this is what we must ask students to do; over and over again; the entire thing from start to finish. Students will then create a range of different products so we need to provide individual feedback on those. Even maths teachers who have managed to avoid the pressure to teach through complex performances may still feel the need to write letters to all of their students (because of individualism).

This is not an efficient way to gather or provide feedback. Feedback both to the teacher and to students will be far more effective if targeted at some well-defined component skill or item of knowledge rather than a great big mass of interacting things. And the most efficient way of providing it to students is through teaching, not writing them individual letters: Find out the kinds of mistakes students made or next steps they need to take and then teach them these in the next lesson or a later lesson. Any teacher who has ever written the same statement in 24 out of 30 exercise books will be aware that students tend to make the same kinds of mistakes.

This is because, educationally, children are more similar than they are different. Which is why the strategies that are often suggested for children with special educational needs (e.g. explicit instruction) tend to be the strategies that are the most effective with all children.

When it comes to behaviour, the romantic view of childhood insists that poor behaviour is a result of children being placed in artificial situations. Maybe we made them sit in rows or we asked them to do something boring or to keep quiet or perhaps we instructed them to read Shakespeare when their natural inclination is to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid. What did we expect? Of course they would react to that! (Incidentally, this is why progressivism leads to the dilution of academic content).

The first instinct of progressivism is therefore to blame teachers or The System for behaviour problems. Teachers take on a great deal of guilt. Some who possess charisma and are adept at subtle manipulation, thrive. Others struggle. Discussions with students about their behaviour centre around accommodations that the teacher could make to better suit the student.

The alternative approach to behaviour does not have to be arbitrary or harsh. It is simply a recognition that poor behaviour is mostly a choice made by the student. This understanding may sit within a system of rewards and sanctions but it may also involve discussions with students about their choices or some explicit teaching.

Schools that have poor behaviour management systems create a lot of work for teachers. If teachers are even allowed to keep students behind or apply other sanctions for poor behaviour then they will have to do this themselves. They may be called to lots of meetings with students. They may be asked to plan additional accommodations. They may have to re-plan tomorrow’s lesson because student behaviour prevented them from properly teaching today’s.

A school with a good behaviour system is a more predictable place and predictability allows us to work efficiently.

So there we are. When you find yourself exhausted at the end of a lesson you spent hours planning only for it to be ruined by poor behaviour and with a huge pile of stuff to take home and mark, in detail, you can blame the principles of progressivism.

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18 Comments on “How progressivism increases your workload”

  1. YES. This is why all teachers’ unions uncompromisingly support and foster progressivism: it causes teachers to feel overwhelmed. And when they feel overwhelmed, they are more likely to be union loyalists, thinking that only their union can help to reduce their workload: to reduce class sizes, or at least to increase their pay. They have no idea that their union is deliberately sabotaging their effectiveness at work, with the kind of PD it offers, for instance. Overwhelmed teachers are a sure bet to hand over a strike mandate when the next round of bargaining comes around. And if the union gets class size reductions at the expense of wages, well, that’s a benefit to teachers, right? No, it’s not. It’s robbery, enriching the union at the expense of teachers. If the union helped teachers to be effective, and bargained for homogeneously-organized classes, no matter how big, all teachers would be expending less effort and getting paid more while students also learn more. This is true in every publicly-funded education jurisdiction in the Anglo-American democracies from Ireland to Australia, and back around the other way.

    This is also why every university education faculty in the world teaches progressivism. Overwhelmed, unsuccessful teachers are more likely to come back for a post-graduate degree or summer seminars, or buy professors’ books, because they’re desperate for anything that will help them to address the ridiculous job assignments that progressivism’s principles – integrated classes of various types of failing students never progressing due to ineffective pedagogy – have them facing every day. Such bad working conditions guarantee high teacher exit from the occupation, which in turn means more teacher training work for the education faculties.

    Don’t even get me started on the pension implications. If only most people could do the math, but due to progressivism, they can’t.

    Progressivism is the planned obsolescence strategy for the social sciences, and it sticks around because it works like a hot damn. Not for kids, not for teachers, and not for parents or taxpayers or employers. But for those who harvest a living off the backs of teachers – there’s no life like it.

    • Stan says:

      This may be a case were Hanlon’s razor applies:

      “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” or “Don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.”

      • JL says:

        I hadn’t ever put things together the way Karin just did but it could very likely be the case. Probably the malice is only at the very top, not with the school level admin just doing what they are taught to do at conferences, what’s expected of them for possible advancement.

        Assuming that everyone has good intentions is not much different than thinking that all children are naturally good…

    • Mike says:

      I think it’s a little unfair to tar the union with this brush. In the case of academics, though, I tend to think that the undoubted stubborn adherence to progressivist ideas in most university education departments is partly down to the necessity of proving one’s “left” credentials in such an environment. As Greg has frequently pointed out on this blog, there’s a false conflation of progressivism in education with left-wing ideals in general…which has, in reality, been very harmful to those who begin school with all the pre-existing handicaps.

  2. spelfabet says:

    Great article! I am sending it to all the teachers I know. I disagree with your previous commenter that this is a conspiracy between unions and academics to harm others in the service of their own interests, as I’ve usually found in life that most people are well-intentioned, and when there is a major stuffup, it’s usually more of a stuffup than a conspiracy. I will be encouraging my friend who works at the AEU to read this and share it with her colleagues! Well done as always, love your work.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      Thank you. Yes, I also tend to the view that people involved in education have an altruistic intent.

    • I did not say there was a conspiracy, and nothing in behavioural science requires that a conspiracy be in play. There also need not be malice. All that is needed is an incentive structure in which progressivism increases the flow of rewards, and that is what I am describing. There are other group think/tribal-type behaviours involved, and other institutional attributes in play, but the fundamental issue is that more money flows into and within all parts of the education system when a progressivist philosophy is dominant, and people in all of the system’s component parts instinctively perpetuate conditions that make the money flow.

      Good intentions have no power against a perverse incentive structure in which failure causes the system to grow and prosper. But since so many people with allegedly good intentions cling to progressivism in the face of incontrovertible evidence that it causes failure for children, practicing wilful blindness, I’m afraid the claim of good intentions does not withstand scrutiny anyway :-).

      • Michael Pye says:

        Karin your first post did sound like a conspiracy theory and was a bit extreme. The way you are arguing makes me want to counter you even though I generally agree with the arguments made on this site as they are logical and well reasoned.. Please consider toning it down a bit before you get copy and pasted as an example of a lunatic neo-traditionalist or some such.

      • Advice and perspective appreciated, Michael 🙂

      • Karin – Have you read Carol Tavris’s book, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me? It gives a brilliant insight into the reasons why so many people with strongly held convictions, particularly in the helping professions, are so resistant to evidence that shows they have been doing it wrong, when that would shake their self-image to its foundations….

      • I haven’t, but I most certainly will – it sounds fabulous. Thank you for the recommendation, Chris!

  3. David F says:

    Hi Greg—additionally, for those of us who teach explicitly, getting students who have known nothing but progressive methods adds to the work load–they often lack a grasp of background knowledge, creating the need to review material they should already know; they are used to being treated as individuals, often having less discipline and being more disruptive in a whole-class environment; they often lack study skills and the ability to manage longer readings.

    I end up spending much more time on these students than their peers in working with them, their parents and our support staff to try to get them caught up with where they ought to be and settled down so that they are not a disciplinary problem in the classroom.

  4. I like and agree with the main thrust of this post. It seems to me (and I’m really influenced by my read of Lortie’s Schoolteacher here) that the culprit is idealism, in all of its forms, rather than just progressive idealism in particular.

    It seems to me as if I can imagine a traditional idealism that would be burdensome and guilt-inducing. I recently read a post from a teacher who felt guilt for occasionally using progressive techniques. He (writes):

    And yet (and I hate to admit this), I still find myself occasionally falling back on the odd bit of progressive methodology now and then. The reason for this is because traditional teaching is just much harder than the progressive approach

    Now, this person seems to think that progressivism tends to be easier than traditionalism. But maybe he and you are talking about the same thing, from different angles. You’re noting that progressive idealism about teaching creates burdens that are impossible for a teacher to live up to. (I agree.) This other poster might be seeing adherence to the evidence about teaching as its own ideal, and experiencing guilt for not more closely sticking to the evidence. Either way, it’s idealism that is guilt-inducing.

    I tend to think that a little bit of idealism is OK, and so is a little bit of guilt. But I agree (ala Lortie and you) that the current culture of teaching — as passed on in teacher education, conferences and social media — asks too much of teachers.

    By the way, since this is relevant to another disagreement we once had:

    I am making a reasoned claim here rather than a empirical one

    I think this is a great example of how a bit of theory can be helpful in the absence of empirical evidence.

  5. Michael Pye says:

    When I talk to my colleagues about evidence one of the things that often comes up is the idea of how I have time to read and think about these arguments. Often with an implied rebuke attached. I try to explain that I prioritize these ideas and build the reading and thinking into my planning, constantly going back and reapplying ideas until they work or I discard them. I also try to minimize work that does not help this approach.

    To me your post rings true as any idea that distracts or hinders me from controlling my own development is usually unhelpful. Most of these ideas are progressive in nature. I don’t want it to be like this, I would rather have support like I used to have (before I joined the dark side) but this is often unhelpful as colleagues struggle to understand my context or vocabulary.

    However when you approach teaching prioritizing more synergistic approaches progressivism can be significantly less burdensome. If you don’t want to teach knowledge as a priority you don’t have to construct detailed and logical approaches instead you can share resources from colleagues more easily. Generic skills are easy to teach if you believe the context is largely irrelevant. Use of independent learning or even allowing students to leave early can free up a lot of time. Leaving class to support vulnerable students does not require detailed planning etc:

    While I can imagine some onerousness marking policies and other inefficient ideas can suck everyone’s time I doubt most educators believe they are being appropriately implemented and they are less fair as examples to lay at progressivism’s door

    The real issue is that if we are forced to apply fundamentally opposing principles we will be either overworked or forced to sacrifice aspects of our teaching that we believe are more valuable. Examples include: Self-development via research, carefully thought out knowledge schema’s, examples designed to challenge misconceptions, regular recaps and tests, consistent and quick behavioral interventions. If the default in a school is progressive then other ideas are out competed even though most teachers do not consciously ascribe to the ideology.

    In summary progressivism increase’s my work-load precisely because I don’t follow it.

    Hope this makes sense, struggling to articulate my point as well as I would like.

    • I wonder if this is where a well-designed textbook and curriculum would provide the solutions? In Finland, where teachers have mostly been using traditional teaching methods, some express amazement at the idea of teachers having to waste time designing their own materials: they view that as time that could be spent helping struggling students keep up. That, in turn, eliminates the burden of ‘differentiation’…

      • Michael pye says:

        Yes. Being allowed to design our own schemes is often considered to be a sign of our proffessionalisim but I consider it a different though related skill set to teaching. Ideally all teachers would be able to access several preplanned schemes for any content they teach. Modifying these is a lot easier then building from scratch and different schemes could be offered for different approaches. Having a say in a curriculum design is a privilege every teacher should have being forced to create the thing from scratch is an inappropriate burden. The same argument applies to resources. Expecting me to create a few high quality resources is reasonable. Anymore however and the quality of my sanity begins to suffer. A good textbook could solve these issues and save a fortune in printing.

  6. Lyn Goodwin says:

    I do not know about union implications in progressivism. However, I do know the Australian Curriculum endorses personalised learning. Differentiation is an expectation for at least 15% of any primary class. Administrative burdens (including parent collaboration) in this process can be onerous and take time away from teaching.
    On the other hand we have increasing numbers of children, once supported in other settings, or by teachers’ aides, who are now left in mainstream classes with very little support.
    Progressivism doesn’t really feel progressive at all.


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