Do progressivist teachers dislike the subjects they teach?

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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?


12 thoughts on “Do progressivist teachers dislike the subjects they teach?

  1. I don’t think they dislike their subjects as such, but would like to see them remade in a “better image”. But a couple of caveats ought to be added to that: the vast majority of secondary teachers, in my experience, do like their subjects and have no truck with all the “silo” blathering, but those who make it into the upper reaches of the Ed administrative machine (and, of course, academia) tend to be the ones with the least commitment to individual subjects and subject knowledge.

    The second thing is that those (relatively) few teachers who do seem to want to see their disciplines thoroughly remade also seem to be the ones most active and vocal on Twitter and elsewhere. Gives a false impression of the general attitude of the teaching profession, IMHO.

    • Tom Burkard says:

      I agree completely–which is why I fear that the proposed increases in education spending in the UK won’t trickle down to the chalk face, and will do more harm than good. The last thing we need is more SLT and fatuous bodies like the Chartered College.

      In primary ed, the problem is that most teachers don’t really have a subject other than Education. Here, the attempt to make good teachers’ lack of subject knowledge was the creation of Maths Hubs, and the creation of the NCETM in 2014. It was quickly taken over by the usual suspects, with predictable results.

      • Intrigued to notice that SLT, in a language whose script ommitted vowels, could be pronounced ‘silt’ – that stuff that clogs the flow of rivers, or ‘salt’ that, when put on productive land, destroys it. Have always thought that progressive ideas – particularly discovery learning – were asking students to re-invent the wheel: and therefore pointless exercises. (Not saying didn’t use such methods – in a school with boxes of source books rather than textbooks, one got rather stuck, too..)

  2. Anon for this one says:

    I’m a university professor. We have our own versions of progressive education, not so different from the k-12 manifestations of progressive education. In my experience, the most progressive faculty are people who have lost interest in teaching their subject. They actually prefer lower level or less specialized classes. They have no passion for the subject and never discuss it over lunch. Some of them have even said that they wanted a job at a non-elite university so that they wouldn’t have to work as hard.

    And one of them got a teaching award despite doing everything in his power to get out of teaching. Because he can use very progressive language to describe what he does during his rare forays into the classroom, and administrators eat that up.

  3. The desire to be popular and relevant takes hold of many people in many walks of life, It may be linked to the rise of marketing speak. Sigh. If maths classes have to compete for students (marketplace style) then the pressure for relevance and popularity increases. I do not think it has anything to do with teachers not liking their subjects.

    I don’t find maths interesting or enjoyable, I am slightly interested to hear that, at a very high level, maths is more of a mystery, there are unsolved questions etc but it is beyond me and I’m fine with that. I have a basic competency in maths (passed my GCE in a year, did calculus, never used it since) and I don’t expect the entire discipline to bend over backwards to entertain me.

    Wanting a nice life where everything is enjoyable (and relevant) for everyone all the time is understandable but expecting that to be realised is delusional.

    On the more general subject of traditional vs progressive education, I also think that parents and the general public (and therefore politicians) really do envisage a Victorian classroom when they hear the term ‘traditional education’, complete with corporal punishment, lecture style instruction and simply copying from the board. So progressive education, to them, simply means the opposite of that (but with magically well behaved children).

  4. Jay Jam says:

    I think this problem applies to the term STEM. It’s not one I like because engineering is quite different from science. Similar distinctions can be made for tech and maths. Interestingly, STEM (to my mind) is associated with student centred approaches.

  5. Chester Draws says:

    Another part of it is a desire to remove the teacher as the leader of a class, and make them merely a facilitator. This doesn’t work if the subject is kept traditional, where the teacher actually knows what they are talking about and cares to do it right.

    But if we move to projects and interdisciplinary work, then the teacher won’t be the person who knows it back to front. That no-one will quite know what they are doing isn’t a problem to some, provided that the teacher is one of those people as well.

    Every time I see a progressive idea, I examine it to see if it decreases teacher control. They all do.

  6. Cannot say! says:

    In Australian schools my experience is that not many teachers have a recognisable subject specialism – they have an Education degree qualifying them to teach a couple or more subjects and have no deep rooted knowledge and understanding of any academic discipline. Hence, at my school I am the only member of my department with a degree in my subject (English) separate from a teaching qualification. I also teach ‘Humanities’ – History fairly competently and everything else to the best of my limited capacity. Within our Humanities Department we have no geography subject specialist despite teaching it from 7-10. The school is not remote and we do not have trouble recruiting teachers, the last four schools I have taught in have all been similar. Maths /Science considered one area, English / Humanities another area, and everything else could be taught by any literate adult. I have been asked to teach both cooking and sewing (qualification being female?), which I have fortunately avoided. So, not so much that they don’t love their subject as they have no subject that they deeply understand, that has enriched their lives, and which they have the desire to share as a good thing worth knowing…

  7. I will answer the original question firstly; no I don’t particularly like my subject and wish I had studied something more subjective like psychology rather than the absolute objectivity of Chemistry and Biochemistry. My younger self would abuse this idea but my intellect seems more able to cope with the ‘grey’ areas in subjects like psychology and cosmology.
    This does not however mean that I would ever allow these feelings to transmit to pupils.
    Interestingly though one of my favourite topics as a science teacher was Earth in Space and cosmology simply because for many of the questions there are no right answers and even the less academically motivated enjoy the release from having to search for, remember and justify correct answers.
    Is this progressivism? Where I facilitate the learning but it can be guided by the learners curiosity.
    The progressivist approach has its place but we must not lose the academic pillars because we will still need engineers and surgeons etc.

  8. Joe says:

    The undermining of conventional academic subject boundaries is about more than the agenda of progressive educationalists. Shifting boundaries in subjects, the invention of entirely new subjects, and the demise of subjects no longer considered useful, are all constant features of intellectual history: just look at the list of degrees available at a university in the 19th Century. Intellectual ferment has always led to change: too rigorous patrolling of these boundaries, certainly at the expert level, would seem to me restrictive, though I acknowledge that the discussion here is mostly about school subjects, which is a bit different.

    It’s sad to think of teachers who don’t love their subjects, but there is also a problem, I would say, with teachers who love their subjects too much, and encourage students to adopt their own limited view of intellectual pursuit. The arts-science divide, for example, is a pernicious feature of Anglo-Saxon educational culture, and one which I think Science-teachers-who-think-novels-are-silly and English-teachers-who-think-that-maths-is-dull have contributed to. Of course, logically speaking, you can be an English teacher who loves English and yet still encourage mathematical thinking, but in practice subject cultures tend to work differently.

    Would students studying, say “Rome”, or “Climate Change”, instead of separate aspects of those phenomena in Physics, Biology, Geography, History, Latin, Geography etc. really be necessarily and always experiencing a detrimental lack of semantic connection? It seems to me that this is at the very least open to debate.

    Even Dominic Cummings argues that students need to think in a more connected fashion, and learn to make connections between different disciplines.

    See, for example, where he argues for,

    “an education that starts with the biggest questions and problems and teaches people to understand connections between them (‘integrative thinking’). Universities need new inter-disciplinary courses. For example, in March 2014 Stanford announced new undergraduate degrees such as Computer Science and English. It would be great if Oxford created alternatives to PPE such as ‘Ancient and Modern History, Maths for Presidents, and Coding‘.”

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