“’T were good she were spoken with; for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.” – Hamlet
I raised an eyebrow when I saw the tweets about the traditional / progressive debate being ‘boring’. A little further investigation revealed that the allegation was not so much about the level of excitement that the debate generated but rather the idea that the debate was not worth having, stemming from a post on the teachertoolkit.me blog.
I would normally ignore such comments as uninformed. In this instance however, because of the writer’s own claims to be widely followed, I am inclined to the view that these ramblings might have detrimental consequences for the profession and need to be challenged.
The blogger claims that:
“… this debate is fast-becoming the most boring debate of 2014 and (also) 2015! Can we face yet another year? Are we still in a position where we need to argue that one is better than the other?
In reality, teachers at the chalkface actually don’t care what it’s called, they just get on with teaching, using whatever methods suit them and their students. And because of their workload, most have little time to be concerned.
It appears to me that various camps who blog and tweet; those who publish various articles in defence/support of an ideology they believe in, believe one methodology works best. It is my belief that one cannot exist without the other, and one is no more important than the other.” [sic]
There are a number of problems here that should give the reader pause for thought.
- ‘Progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are terms that have become shorthand for two different approaches to teaching. They are philosophies of teaching, not ‘methods’. This is an important distinction.
- The idea that teachers ‘don’t care’ about ‘what it’s called’ [sic], especially as they are ‘too busy’ does not bode well for their ability to choose wisely ‘whatever methods suit them and their students’.
- Such a sentiment is hardly a ringing endorsement of the intellectual quality of the profession – rather, it is trotting out the old myth that as a ‘professional’, I get to decide what I do and how I do it. I have yet to see such a definition of professionalism applied to civil engineering, aviation, or law, for example. It did used to be applied in medicine – but as Greg Ashman recently pointed out, and Douglas Carnine before him, that didn’t work out very well. I doubt many of us would commit our children to the care of practitioners who ‘use whatever methods suit them’.
- There is a bold and sweeping statement here that might well be worthy of a book: the idea that the two sides of the debate are equally important, and dependent for their existence on one another. Unfortunately the writer does not elaborate, so we have no sense of his reasoning. Philosophically, it is an intriguing if unlikely proposition.
Why is the distinction between methods and philosophies important? Because methods can be independent of aims. Philosophies of education are fundamentally concerned with the purpose of education. Methods are just things we do in the classroom as steps on the way. The debate is about where we are going.
The essentially romantic progressive philosophy aims to improve society by creating individuals who are caring, co-operative, empathetic, concerned with justice, open to new ideas, and tolerant. It seeks to do so by promoting autonomy, authenticity, co-operation and diversity in the classroom. Knowledge is secondary to attitudes – indeed, in recent years knowledge has become irrelevant to some educators. In this philosophy, society will be improved by making the classroom a microcosm of what we would like the world outside to become.
What is generally labeled traditional education in the current debate is not, fortunately, very traditional. If we look back at our educational past, there are practices that very few of us would want to see return: violent punishment, ignoring safeguarding, tolerance of absenteeism, poor co-operation with external agencies. But there are also traditions worth conserving, because they will benefit our students: community, discipline, work, and knowledge. In this philosophy, while attitudes are important, they are secondary to knowledge. Knowledge is prized because it not only carries forward the accumulated learning of previous generations, but because it also equips students to succeed in the world as it exists beyond the classroom.
The key difference in the two approaches is the attitude to knowledge. To argue that teachers do not need to have a view on knowledge is like saying that doctors do not need to have a view on health. Such an argument is the result of reducing two profoundly different philosophies of education to mere ‘methods’ from which teachers may choose at will. On the contrary, the debate is real, the debaters passionate and sincere, the stakes as high as they could be: the future lives of our students and the ability, or inability, of our institutions to achieve our ambitions for them.
There is, I believe, something profoundly anti-intellectual in turning one’s back on a debate of such importance. To encourage others to do so is at best ignorant, at worst mischievous. Whether we like it or not, if we want to be called professionals, we have to have an intellectual grasp of the issues of our profession.
As C. S. Lewis put it, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
Or no philosophy at all.