Last weekend, I examined the case of those who wish to mush mathematics into an inductive, subjective kind of a thing, sacrificing what makes mathematics special in the first place (see here and here). In the comments on one of these posts, the blogger Andrew Old wondered, “if the appeal of progressive education is to people who just don’t like the subject they are meant to be teaching.” Let’s examine this suggestion.
Very briefly, educational progressivism is one of the two main currents in educational thought. It is debatable how much impact it has made in practice, but it has certainly captured our schools of education and many of the other associated education bureaucracies. Some of the common themes of progressivism are a focus on the individual over the collective – often expressed in terms of being ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘teacher led’ – and a commitment to more natural, implicit forms of learning where students figure things out for themselves through play or other self-directed activities. Indeed, poor behaviour is often explained by progressivists as being caused by unnatural learning experiences that are not engaging enough. Although it might share the term ‘progressive’ with left-of-centre politics, there is no reason to conflate the two, with proponents of educational progressivism coming from both the left and right.
The central problem for progressivism is that unlike learning to speak or hunt or cooperate socially, we have not evolved to naturally acquire academic knowledge and skills because they are relatively recent inventions. So the hope of acquiring them in the same way is a forlorn one. Instead, we have traditionally grouped academic subjects semantically according to which knowledge and skills that they draw upon. Often, different academic fields represent different ways of establishing truths about the world – they have different ‘epistemologies’. My key concern about losing sight of the nature of mathematics is that we potentially lose an important way of thinking along with it.
There is therefore a clear tension between progressivism and subject disciplines. This is why we constantly hear the call to a revolution that will break down subject silos, either through project-based learning or cross-curricular topics. The trouble is that when you try to make ideas cohere around arbitrary projects and themes, you make the semantic links less clear. I suggest this affects the ability for students to form coherent schemas of related concepts and that is another reason why progressivism has a track record of failure.
Progressivism is also the reason why subject disciplines are constantly being diluted from within by calls to humanise maths or to devote English lessons to studying the lyrics of the latest ephemeral pop star rather than boring and irrelevant Shakespeare. History and geography become social studies. Science becomes climate change and pollution. Physical Education becomes healthy lifestyles. Foreign languages become how-to-get-by-on-your-holidays.
And if you devalue the actual content of the curriculum, you need to create a new purpose for education and that is the nebulous, ill-defined generic skills that our universities are apparently so keen to pursue. That’s no surprise.
If there is an inbuilt bias against subject disciplines in progressivism, this poses an interesting question: Which comes first? Are progressivists against subject disciplines because of their ideology or is it a dislike for subject disciplines that causes people to adopt progressivism in the first place?
Anecdotally, many of us once accepted key progressivist doctrines. It is hard not to when this ideology is largely assumed across vast swathes of the educational landscape and, not least, in schools of education. So this suggests that progressivism may be a cause. Alternatively, most of the people I can remember in my career who were comfortable with blowing up subject disciplines such as mathematics and science were school leaders from outside these subjects who appeared to hold something of a grudge. These are not people who don’t like the subject they are teaching, but they certainly don’t like the subject. So perhaps progressivism then becomes a convenient tool – a hammer to smash the idols of the old religion.
Yet going back to the original point: Are there art teachers who don’t like art? Are there mathematics teachers who don’t like maths?
I’m not sure, but if such teachers really are out there, what are they doing with their lives?