I’m not in favour of banning words

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If you go through my blog, you will find that I don’t use the terms ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ a huge amount. However, I don’t fight shy of them either. I tend to use the most accurate words that I can find to convey my meaning and sometimes these are those words.

I draw criticism for this. One party is busy trying to prove that traditional and progressive education don’t exist and this is the basis of their complaint. A different group, who I generally agree with, think the terms are somehow harmful to my arguments.

Virtue and Vice

Apparently, right-thinking, left-of-centre people think that progressive things are good and traditional things are bad. If this is the case then they are operating under a fallacy. These terms are simply descriptions and connote no virtue or vice in of themselves. We have to look at other evidence to draw conclusions of that kind.

And all right-thinking people know that ‘progressive rock’ is a pretentious load of self-indulgent guff. And what about ‘traditional’ bread-making techniques? This makes us think of quality and authenticity. So it’s not the words, it’s the meaning people attach to those words. You won’t win over someone with progressive views about education by changing all the words. That’s a side show.

Progressive education

An argument for avoiding these terms would be valid if they did not have a clear meaning. 

Progressive education developed at the end of the nineteenth century and gradually grew in prominence through the twentieth. It’s not a word I invented; there was even a Progressive Education Association in the U.S. with William Heard Kilpatrick as one of its leaders.

Progressives had many difference within their ranks. For instance, G. Stanley Hall was not concerned if some children never learnt to read whereas others placed a much higher priority on this. So the word does not imply a complete uniformity of views on everything educational.

So what is common to progressivism? The defining feature is a belief in a naturalistic form of education. Children generally learn to talk, walk and get along with their peers without any external pressures and so progressives think that education should emulate this. They therefore favour play and experiential learning over more formal approaches.

A typically progressive view would be that when a child appears unmotivated by a teaching method then this is an indictment of that method. 

In this context, the term ‘traditional’ simply means ‘not progressive’. And so these two terms clearly articulate an important difference in philosophy. These words do not indicate which philosophy is right or wrong. Neither does David C. Geary’s theory of biologically primary versus biologically secondary knowledge which may help explain why naturalistic learning is flawed and why students’ motivations don’t tend to align with academic goals. 

Instead, the evidence that we should evaluate traditional and progressive education against is the one-hundred-or-so years of education research. When we do this, traditional education has the edge.

A deeper traditionalism

At the end of my recent researchED talk, I suggested that there might be an aspect of teaching that is biologically primary. It was meant as a throwaway piece of speculation but Catherine Scott was in the audience and she drew my attention to the fact that there is some research on this idea.

So traditionalism may even have some evolutionary roots. Again, this would not necessarily validate it. However, it might explain why wave after wave of reformers find it so hard to change teachers’ practice. Even if we still believe in a pedagogical revolution, recognising that traditional practices have deep and enduring roots is going to be critical. And the word ‘traditional’ conveys that pretty well.

Not traditional 

However, when I discuss teaching practices, I tend to promote something called ‘explicit instruction’ rather than traditionalism. Again, I do this for the sake of clarity. 

Traditionalism is a philosophical stance that underpins choices of both curriculum and teaching methods whereas explicit instruction is just a teaching method.

And explicit instruction is a specific method: whole-class, interactive teaching. It therefore does not include straight lecturing, a traditional form of teaching that is, in my view, less effective. Similarly, Engelmann’s scripted form of Direct Instruction is a subtype of explicit instruction but it could hardly be described as traditional.

Education bloggers should, in my view, attempt to convey what they mean as accurately as possible. This is not about winning some war through the judicious application of pop psychology. This is about a community debating big ideas so that, over time, we may edge ever closer to the truth.


10 thoughts on “I’m not in favour of banning words

  1. Stan says:

    I’ll use this an excuse to lament the name “explicit instruction” instead of something like “explicit teaching”. People seem to argue with what the term implies not what you mean by it. That means you have to keep on explaining what the term explicit instruction means when you use it. A sad waste of time due to a poor choice of name. I predict you will be linking to this page for a long time.

      • Stan says:

        Instruction implies just the instructor dong the instructing. Teaching implies a broader range of things including questioning and assigning and assessing practice.
        With “explicit teaching” there is less chance people will assume it is a one way monologue particularly when it is criticized.

      • Mitch says:

        At a recent PD, we were told that explicit teaching (as on the list of Hattie’s Visual Learning practices) was having ‘clear lesson goals known to students’

  2. I think we can all agree that Yes started out as progressive because it was very fashionable back then, but when they realised it wasn’t very successful, they went full-on traditional, albeit with a healthy dose of technology.

  3. Janita says:

    Spot on, Greg. This tendency to regard connotation as more important than denotation leads to a lot of sloppy reasoning. As you point out, it results in words being banned and euphemisms used in their place — a futile exercise, because the emotional loading that attached to the original word in time gets transferred to the word that replaced it.

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