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.