Dangerous Conjectures

“’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.

  1. ‘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.
  2. 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’.
  3. 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’.
  4. 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.

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28 Responses to Dangerous Conjectures

  1. “I get to decide what I do and how I do it” is actually a pretty accurate summary of professionalism across a wide range of fields, including those you mention by name. But that decision-making is grounded in some pretty solid expertise. Whether teachers have the same level of expertise as civil engineers, aviators or lawyers is a moot point, but I can’t see what value a debate framed in questionable terms adds to teachers’ professionalism.

    • teachwell says:

      I don’t think it can be argued that teachers are making an informed decision when education pedagogy has been equated with progressive = good and traditional = bad/wrong/evil. While my SCITT concentrated little on “pedagogy”, I know from my colleagues who did courses which emphasised it more that it was nothing more than an uncritical look at progressive/romantic theories and why they were better than the old way of doing things. The anti-authoritarians are surprisingly totalitarian in their views on education pedagogy.

      • I was educated in an era when ‘traditional’ was still a thing. Many of my parents’ generation saw the unacceptable side of ‘traditional’ education and it left lifelong scars. Sometimes physical ones. Many of the criticisms of early ‘progressive’ educators were completely valid. Nowadays ‘progressive’ education appears to have morphed into something it wasn’t initially and is equally damaging for children, but in a different way. And I’ve seen totalitarians on both ‘sides’.

        What I can’t see is why it’s helpful to frame debates about educational philosophy or practice in terms of polar opposites, as if teachers are supposed to buy in to one of two mutually exclusive package deals.

      • teachwell says:

        Well if someone wishes to synthesise or come up with a new philosophy, they are entitled to do so. It’s the poverty of intellectual thought in academic circles regarding education that has created a situation where nothing in the progressive camp has moved on since the 1970s. The fact that more traditional teachers have been pushed out, forced to change or leave, etc, means that this debate is also stuck as they don’t have the same access to express their outlook. I wanted to apply to do a Research Masters or a PhD and can only find around 3 universities in England and Wales that have lecturers who could supervise me. This is a ridiculously unbalanced set of affairs. Probably one that leads to polarity more than if the debate on one side were stifled and the other propagated without criticism. Think along the lines of fascism/communism’s attitude to opposing views and it is the same as the progressives in the system, though admittedly without the hard labour camps!!

      • A great deal has moved in the ‘progressive camp’ since the 70s. Social constructivism for starters. Essentially, the underlying philosophy has moved towards its logical conclusion. Which is what many philosophies do.

        Don’t forget that a large number of teachers left the profession, or were sacked for non-compliance, when the NC was introduced. A compulsory NC was widely seen as a return to an educational framework that had been abandoned for very good reason.

        As for your research situation, it’s not just education where it’s difficult to get funding/supervision for topics that aren’t flavour of the year with the system. And think yourself lucky you’re not working in the ‘hard’ sciences where there might only be a couple of researchers in the entire world who could supervise you.

        Take care not to interpret your experience in terms of a dominant progressive narrative in education; that narrative might exist, but it doesn’t explain everything. Other factors are involved.

      • teachwell says:

        I disagree on that one. If this were political science, I would have a range of places where I could go and even specialisms within those theories. Plus there are many more theories to begin with. The hold progressive ideology has in departments is overwhelming. It’s like not being able to study Marxist theory in all but 4 universities. That’s simply not the case. As for funding that’s a different matter altogether. Education is far more closed that other subjects. Other half is in Astronomy and there are theoretical and methodological differences within the department nevermind the field as a whole. As for being sacked for non-compliance, that was when I was a child. As an adult I have seen the hounding out, criticising, putting teachers through the mill simply because a child has been told off. Sorry – don’t accept the idea that it was a one-off event that happened decades ago. It is ongoing.

      • I’m not suggesting it was a one-off event. I was pointing out that dominant narratives, and people being marginalised if they disagree with them, aren’t restricted to ‘traditional’ teachers. They are a characteristic of human societies. They probably shouldn’t be, but they’re not confined to any specific group of people.

        I’m prepared to accept that education might be far more closed than other subjects – I was pointing out that in other disciplines, scarcity of relevant expertise, rather than ideological differences, can make it difficult to find a research supervisor. Your specific choice of subject might be the issue, not the dominant ideology.

        If it is the dominant ideology that’s the problem, the challenge would be to write a proposal that ticked the system’s boxes, whilst allowing you to do the research you wanted to do.

      • teachwell says:

        Or go to one of the few places that might be open. Or simply do my own research, which as alumni of my local university, I can do.

      • Interesting what you say about universities and supervision – echoes my own experience.

      • teachwell says:

        What was your experience? If you’ve blogged about it before, I must have missed it/before my tweeting/blogging days perhaps!! Well I have given up looking for the time being!! I may have to look further afield and perhaps even distance learning at this rate!!

  2. Dan winters says:

    I appreciate your point about the anti-intellectualism of the position. Teaching as a profession only deserves that name if we educators take seriously the philosophies and practices that are supported by rigorous research and substantiated practice.

    The role of knowledge is indeed no small consideration. Keep speaking Horatio

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  5. Interesting post and subsequent comments, thank you. In terms of a philosophical approach, which philosophy does the teaching of metacognition fall into?

    • There are different ways to teach metacognition, and they could be applied to achieve different purposes – so I don’t think it belongs to a particular philosophy.

      • But aren’t the “ways to teach” metacognition just the methods rather than the philosophy behind it? I just find it hard to place metacognition in either philosophy – it’s about autonomy and transferable skill but also about knowledge and discipline. It fits both? Either way, the prog/trad debate has focussed my thinking about it, which is why debate should be encouraged.

  6. mmiweb says:

    I am disturbed by your comments re: research and have to say that as a researcher this is not my experience. Most universities (and I have worked in 4 different ones) would be happy to consider any research proposal and suitable methodologies for carrying out that research. Were you talking about being fully funded for a research degree? This is fairly unusual in any discipline in my current university only about 10% of those doing a research degree are fully funded (meaning that they have their fees paid and some sort of scholarship / grant to cover living expenses). One of the bigger differences in education is the number of older students studying for research degrees as the majority (again in my experience) are those already in practice and studying part-time.

    • I found very few faculties (i.e, one) where the supervisors had research interests that would have matched mine. I know from checking that it is not that difficult in other English-speaking countries. The UK has a preponderance of progressive / constructivist proponents in teacher training and academia. I don’t think this can be in dispute.

      • mmiweb says:

        I am sorry you had problems finding a supervisor – what is (was) your research focus I might be able to help? I would be interested as to why you are linking “progressive” and “constructivist” as synonyms – would you argue all progressives must be constructivist and all traditionalists behaviourists (or something else?) is it not possible to be a progressive behaviourist or a traditionalist constructivist? Perhaps not by the definitions you have outlined?

        Although it is another thread I think that one of the other complications of education is the difference between the discipline of education studies itself (if indeed it is a discipline and that is a matter of academic dispute) and those of the subjects that are studied. I find this happens most between those who teach in these secondary sector (who tend to focus more on the subject they teach, understandably) and those who teach in the primary sector who tend to focus on the development of the child – though of course these are generalisations and I would not want to label all those in either sector.

        There are big Theory of Knowledge differences between the subjects – how a scientist or a mathematician views truth for example is quite different.

  7. mmiweb says:

    I agree that the debate is worth having re: the idea of “progressive” and “traditional” though it is important to recognise that we caricature by defining the ends of the spectrum and I doubt there are many who would identify as the über-progressive or the über-traditionalist and even these ends of the spectrum will be different. I would also question the intimation of the progressive as one who is not interested in or does not have a view on knowledge. If we take four classic views of pedagogy (behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and connectivism) then all of these have distinct though different views on knowledge and there is a danger that we are defaulting to a naive positivistic view of knowledge is we think of this as something which is absolute and which can be transmitted de facto.

    • I have tried to summarise the debate – I haven’t caricatured it. The caricatures are when we focus on the arrangements of desks, criticism of group work per se, mantras like “drill and kill” to misrepresent practice to proficiency, and so on. In UK education, there is almost no mention of behaviourism and when it is mentioned, it is nearly always in a pejorative (and caricatured) way. The debate is important precisely because it leads to better informed, and more reflective, practitioners.

      • mmiweb says:

        Agreed again that the focus needs to be on underlying axioms and not on the visible outworking or methods of those axioms – though those do have relevance. I am not convinced by your statement that “in UK education there is almost no mention of behaviourism” what do you mean by “UK education”? There is certainly mention in the literature on pedagogy and referred only to my own experience I lecture in this field and would refer to behaviourism as one of the four key axioms (mentioned in a previous post).

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