The Battle for the Middle Ground

Robert Peal’s book Progressively Worse has stirred up the blogosphere. Old Andrew has written the foreword so I guess gets first place. Joe Kirby’s post makes me want to find a Bastille to storm – what a wonderfully forceful piece of writing! The comments from Laura MacInerney, Alex Quigley and Tom Sherrington balance it up somewhat. Harry Webb is more measured, thoughtful and personal. David Didau presents an impressive chronological précis (with some tantalising discussion of the Plowden Report in the comments). Debra Kidd is the only blog voice I’ve spotted taking total exception to Peal’s “progressive=bad” thesis but galavants off in the direction of neo-liberal plotting. Who else?

This post isn’t about the book. But the posts above have prompted me to write something about this progressive / traditionalist debate. And the first thing I would say is that I’m with those who are struggling to see the blob in all it’s purported glory, at least at the level of schools and classrooms. We have science trainees across about forty secondaries (maybe three-quarters of the schools in our partnership area) and none of them have anything other than science departments working directly on KS3 NC and GCSE specs from Y7 to Y11. I’ve never seen a lesson that wasn’t planned either to teach an essential piece of knowledge from these sources, or a practical or investigative or writing skill, relevant to academic qualifications (I do appreciate one could argue this skills teaching shows a progressive influence in GCSEs – I’ll come back to that). I’ve never encountered the kind of cross-curricular malarkey described in Harry’s post (which sounds horrendous), other than in the form of something like a languages week where you welcome pupils to your lesson in French. I’ve never been in a school that did not have escalating sanctions as part of the behaviour policy (although I’ve certainly been in schools where the policy wasn’t effectively implemented). It’s quite possible that some of what’s still wrong in schools is a consequence of these things being done in the past and that the quality of teaching would be even better if ‘the system’ had responded better to new thinking, but I don’t see today’s schools or teachers hamstrung by adherence to child-centred, progressive ideas.

What you could argue, in science,  is that there is too much discovery learning still. This is undoubtedly a constructivist teaching approach that can be traced back to the influential Nuffield Project in the 60s. That project was part of the progressive education  movement. However, the history goes back further than that because it’s important to be aware of what this replaced, which, in the case of physics, was a curriculum that didn’t include things like nuclear fission, ionising radiation, kinetic theory, nor anything about applications of physics in the real world – at the time of the Apollo program, space exploration wasn’t in! And the Nuffield Project tried hard to bring the big ideas into physics teaching whereas before there was often no sense of how the facts linked up.

To make a wider point, I think it’s important to be aware of what progressive education replaced more generally. There was a time when traditional education meant lots of rote learning (like the dates of Civil War battles without the big ideas of why anyone was fighting), regular beatings, and derision for anyone making errors. The progressive revolution was about changing this, moving schooling on from just acquiring knowledge and sorting the wheat from the chaff, to both acquiring knowledge and developing young people, it included an acceptance of constructivist psychology, and the (over)development of constructivist teaching approaches (these latter two are not at all the same thing), and rather too much of the zeitgeist of the era in attitudes to authority.

The problem, as so often with revolutions, is that what was needed was a more subtle change than the one that happened. Many babies went out with the bath-water; lets not make the same mistake now.

Babies & Bathwater

So what are the babies and the bath-water of the progressive / constructivist paradigm?

Not beating kids, mocking their errors, or suggesting that they’re thick. That’s a baby, isn’t it? I’ve no time for any suggestion that modern traditionalists don’t like children so we don’t need to worry about this one. No-one is suggesting going there again.

Getting rid of traditional subject boundaries. Bath-water; but I just don’t see any evidence of this in schools, although of course science is a core subject so maybe it’s happening in other areas.

Student-centred discipline. Well, the bit of the Plowden Report quoted in the replies to David Didau’s blog could just about have been written by Tom Bennett putting on a plummy Queen’s English accent (except it’s not entertaining), but the deeply progressive approach exemplified by Summerhill is never going to work and anything less extreme but promoting students’ rights over the absolute requirement to behave well in class, in school, and in society is dead wrong for me. You could argue that caring enough about children to set them immoveable boundaries, correcting them firmly and consistently but without aggression, and taking the trouble to ring their parents when they’ve done well, is pretty child-centred but democratisation of discipline is one of the more extreme progressive errors so I have to go with bath-water.

Teaching skills rather than knowledge. Oooh, contentious. Here is my post on this one but to save anyone clicking through, I think science should include lots of conceptual knowledge (facts and the way these are linked), and a range of skills that include practical techniques, the ability to plan and carry out an investigation, and the problem-solving that’s needed to answer science questions in both exams and the real world of scientific research. Abandoning knowledge to teach generic skills is bath-water, but abandoning the skills in science to teach only knowledge is way too far along the traditional end of the spectrum for me. As far as the Science KS3 NC and GCSEs go, there is a debate to continue about the right balance between subject knowledge and investigative skills but I think the question is not “knowledge or skills” but “which knowledge, and which skills?” And even more important than obsessing over this, I’d like to see a decision and then a good ten years focused on teaching before we have to re-write all the SoW yet again.

So that leaves pedagogy, where we find both babies and bath-water, with the distinction not so clear as to which is which.

I have very occasionally seen discovery learning of physics concepts done very effectively; much more often I’ve seen pupils failing to fix misconceptions, developing new ones, or just spending a lot of time faffing around when they could have been consolidating something they had been taught. I think there are a few teachers who can make it work, but most can’t and therefore most shouldn’t be using it to teach conceptual knowledge. I don’t think you can read the evidence in Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) and conclude that no-one can make pure discovery learning work but the evidence that most teachers can’t is very strong. On the other hand, there may be a place for guided discovery learning – with care that can give memorable Eureka! moments without much danger of either misunderstanding or wasting time. Mayer (2004) is another review highlighting the evidence against pure discovery learning but if you read the research designs the contrast is between pure and guided discovery. Possibly this paragraph makes me sound a bit more constructivist than I would like. I’m pretty clear with my trainees that if a concept is at all tricky, it’s their job to ensure their pupils don’t entrench misconceptions and most of the time that means explaining it effectively to them.

The evidence for collaborative learning is much more supportive (see the EEF Toolkit). Again, some teachers do it well and some badly; the coversations in those good classrooms are exceptional but in the bad classrooms it’s mostly lazy chit-chat. Anyone who doesn’t want to have children talking to each other about their subject is not going to be criticised by me (and certainly shouldn’t be criticised by Ofsted) if their whole-class teaching and individual activities are effective, but learning to manage work in pairs and eventually as a group can lead to really good results and I think that trainee teachers should be encouraged to learn how to do this, but with open eyes to the problems rather than selling it as an essential part of good teaching – and if it doesn’t suit them, that’s fine.

Teacher-talk is good, when it’s good, but I challenge any non-specialist to spend a highly engaging half-hour listening to David Attenborough, Simon Schama, Brian Cox et al and then recount everything they’ve learned the following day. The cognitive load is just unmanageable. Quite how much teacher-talk is too much depends on who is doing the listening but at some point active learning is essential. For those with the skill, making notes whilst listening or shortly after is active learning, thinking about the answers to the teacher’s questions is active learning, doing tests, analysing worked examples, silent practice, doing MCQs, scaffolded writing, cloze paragraphs, concept maps, discussing in pairs, peer-assessing against a MS or rubric, preparing a debate. This doesn’t feel like a progressive v traditional issue unless it’s framed as being against the teacher explaining, asking questions or modelling solutions. Some of these activities are claimed by traditionalists, some by progressives. I claim them all!

And this is where I make my stand for the middle ground. There was a load of old rubbish that came in with the progressive tide, but also some valuable flotsam and jetsam. The modern traditionalists have a lot to offer but have a tendency to get a little carried away by the collective erudition of their blogs and excitement with their shiny new ideas. Lets make sure we continue to turn the clock forward and judge everything by whether it works for us, in our classrooms, with our children. The research evidence doesn’t provide any absolutes because every teacher is different and their classes are too; it just gives us ideas to try. In my work in ITT I continue to try to strike that balance; there is still a bit of resistance to the best of the traditional, new ideas (there’s an unusual pairing of adjectives) in my world and I want to try to change that but my School of Education is nothing like the hothouse of progressive ideology some claim – just a slight leaning towards guided discovery, group work before trainees can handle it, and a slight underplaying of the importance of worked examples, individual practice, and testing. We’re dealing with a rate of change from the DfE that it’s hard to sustain and we’re going to lose some good things in all the confusion. But when classroom doors close (perhaps metaphorically) we are in charge, so lets take changes to our teaching very steadily and try to have a half-revolution this time.

2 thoughts on “The Battle for the Middle Ground

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