Surely many teachers have a foot in both camps?
The educational and political uses of the term progressive have different provenances. Most, if not all policies advocated by the Labour party, are labelled progressive, for example. However, so frequently is the term used by our politicians ( its normally broadly associated in some form with pursuit of equality, social justice and redistribution) that it has become virtually meaningless.
But what about progressive education? Well, we know what its not, don’t we?. Progressives, as a rule, tend to know what they are opposed to much better than they know what they are for . So they frequently identify themselves by what they are not. Traditional education for sure is the enemy of progressives. (you would have thought the opposite of progressive is regressive, yet in education its ‘traditional’-which is not the same as regressive)
Progressive education is not whole class instruction, (which traditionalists see as the most efficient way of delivering knowledge and skills), and its is not chalk and talk, nor is it the sage on the stage, nor is it didactic.
In the early 20th century, progressive education reformers promoted a pedagogy that emphasized flexible, critical thinking and looked to schools, rather ambitiously it has to be said, for the political and social regeneration of the nation.(one reason why education has become such a political football ) . The approach was informed by Freudianism and child psychology; progressives focused on child-centred methods. In this the teacher positions each child at the centre of the learning process by focusing activities around the interests of the individual pupil-another way of expressing this is personalisation of education. Here children are encouraged to take more control of their learning. But traditionalists argue that you can personalise education, without using progressive methods.
Progressive teachers warm to group and study work and are the ‘guides on the side’- ‘enablers’ and ‘facilitators’ rather than the ‘activators ‘ who populate the more traditional world. Progressives encourage, too, student participation and activity through discussions and group projects.
Traditional teachers are experts or scholars, encouraging drill, practice and memorisation, building up a core knowledge base in their students , which begets ,in turn, more knowledge. Progressive teachers are guides and listeners who perceive themselves as democratic, or certainly not authoritarian in approach, with a more ‘humane’ approach to learning. This is an over – simplification but gives some sense of how each side sees themselves.
Tom Bennett, a respected education blogger, has produced a table-that seeks to identify ‘progressive’ methods -on the left- and ‘traditional methods’ -on the right. But Bennett rightly points out that many teachers are flexible and in practice have a foot in both camps. Indeed he suggests that they are not inherently in opposition and might even be considered to exist in a symbiotic relationship.
Sir Michael Wishaw recently recollected that he had two outstanding teachers when he headed Mossbourne Academy whose teaching styles were at opposite ends of the spectrum. One was a young female teacher who espoused progressive methods, another older male teacher followed very traditional methods. But both were highly effective, and highly rated. He used the story to reiterate that Ofsted was not seeking to promote any particular teaching style, although he also later claimed to be rooting out inspectors who favoured the progressive style and said that progressive teaching had damaged the chances of many children in the 1960s.
How effective are the respective approaches? Professor John Hatties effect sizes are lined up to show how traditional methods (Teacher as Activator) clearly beat progressive methods (Teacher as Facilitator) in their effects on outcomes. However there is some debate over whether some of the interventions on Hatties lists can be exclusively labelled as either in the progressive or traditionalist camp. Which rather reinforces the notion that it is not that easy or clear cut to clearly define ‘progressive ‘ and ‘traditional’ methods.
If you look at the work of Dewey one of the leading exponents of progressive education its pretty difficult to comprehend his dense prose. And one suspects that quite a few have misunderstood what he was saying or at least mistranslated it into teaching practice.
Although this is an interesting debate and will continue, much of it gets us not very far and serves to polarise teachers and educators. It must be sensible for inspectors not to favour one particular style and as Sir Michael Wilshaw said in 2012 Inspectors should “ simply judge teaching on whether children are engaged, focused, learning, and making progress, and in the best and most outstanding lessons, being inspired by the person in front of them”.(Ed-if the teachers in front of them isn’t that tradititional?)