Trad and Prog: My Two Penn’orth

You may have heard of a Progressives versus Traditionalists debate.

It is among the thornier thickets of EduTwitter. The boundaries of each theoretical/philosophical standpoint are contested. Rumour has it that if a Knowledge Organiser is printed in colour, and given to six children to look at as part of a group work task, everybody dies.

Whilst definitions abound, the lack of a mutually agreed demarcation of what is and is not a ‘progressive teacher’ and a ‘traditional teacher’ makes for a scrappy discourse. Each side points to the other’s ‘looney fringe’ and there is seemingly a mutual disbelief in the middle ground, despite it being the place most teachers like to see themselves, especially off Twitter (although, as is also well-harked, many teachers off Twitter do not discuss this debate or know of it existing as a ‘Tekken-like’ dichotomy).

Because the work a teacher does is ultimately relational – the core of our work exists in the interactions between teachers and pupils and what happens in those interactions shapes learning – it is also personal. The way that somebody teaches is, in large part, reflective of them as a person. Criticisms of traditionalists often, for example, go beyond suggesting that not enough consideration is given to pupils’ individual needs, and often stray into the grounds of moral judgement; these teachers do not ‘care’. Michaela gets a lot of unfair flack for this. Similarly, criticisms of progressives often go beyond suggesting that not enough consideration is given to the rigorous construction of a curriculum, and this often strays into suggestions that these teachers lack professional judgement by undervaluing the importance of knowledge.

Things are taken personally because teaching is personal. To be criticised as a teacher can rankle because it is – to a greater or lesser degree – a criticism of individuals and the way they are.

Teacher identity is difficult in these grounds. A teacher may consider themselves to be progressive, but be considered ‘not progressive enough’ by others. A teacher may consider themselves traditional, but be denied symbolic entry to this identity by those who perceive themselves to be the true emissaries.

For what its worth, I have found this debate to be useful in nudging me along towards understanding and refining my educational standpoint, even though I try to avoid being an active participant in it. Tone matters – I know this makes me a progressive milksop in certain eyes – and simply put, I don’t go on Twitter to engage in these kind of interactions. This doesn’t mean I am not listening though.

I think I genuinely do have a mix of approaches, and whilst everybody does say that, I think I have my feet more firmly in both camps than most. Hear me out.

I think that not enough consideration is given in primary schools to the importance of knowledge and to teacher subject knowledge. I think that many teachers are content to know just enough to get by, and that they don’t necessarily see it is a reasonable expectation for them to deepen their subject knowledge. This is borne out by the research done in the Research Rich Pedagogies project, for example, that indicates the limited understanding and experience of children’s literature among primary teachers. For the last four years, I have been doing a longitudinal research project with the Prince’s Teaching Institute looking at the impact of raising teachers’ subject knowledge upon pupils’ learning outcomes in Geography. The outcomes point to the key finding that scaffolds the work of the PTI – stronger teacher subject knowledge is necessary to ensure stronger learning outcomes.

My teaching is, and has always been, quite pared back. My school is not a very techy place at all, so my engagement with developments in ed-tech is minimal. I am very chalk and talk, except when it is clearly massively beneficial for children to have manipulatives to work with – Dienes in maths, etc. I generally feel that the relative success or failure of one of my lessons usually hinders on the clarity, quality and content of my direct instruction.

I really value the importance of knowing stuff, and I do buy into the idea that children would benefit from knowing more before they begin working on more open-ended tasks.  I do feel that children can learn well by ‘doing’, but I think we often present them with tasks that presume them to have a knowledge they do not have, or that presumes the activity will do the active teaching, when it often does not.

In response to the recognition that the kids in my school had a very weak base of geographical knowledge – countries, continents, cities and so on – we re-wrote the curriculum and I brought in a Geography Bee, which grew into a borough-wide event. Now we have about 14 local primaries who have built in the Geography Bee into the work they do. The fact that children are working towards learning and memorising these facts, alongside learning and memorising maps, allows them to deal with far more complex ‘enquiry’. Beyond blunt simple questioning (What is the capital of Mongolia?) I can ask questions that require them to pull together different known facts using their wider knowledge of maps for more complex inferential questions (e.g. Which of these four capital cities has the highest average temperature in July?)

I don’t think knowledge-development is the only thing that primaries should focus on, and I don’t think that all of the other things will naturally fall into place if pupils were to have a deep and brilliant subject knowledge. I think that whilst sometimes knowing lots of things can be very empowering, it can still be inhibiting if children absorb whatever information they receive without questioning it. 

Telling a child to question the veracity of knowledge won’t make it happen; critical enquiry and discernment need to be taught too. So, for example, whilst I might ask ‘What processes cause global warming?’, I might follow this up with ‘Why don’t people change these processes?’ Facts are crucial but not the sole thing to strive towards.

My progressivism kicks in when I consider the wider purpose of education. Knowledge and tradition are not enough, especially given that we are in danger of routinely regenerating pre-existing traditions of inequity. I think that a role of schools is to gradually integrate children into society and into social life; the single-minded primacy of knowledge as liberation is disingenuous. Whilst we talk often of knowledge – teachers’ and pupils’ – as being domain specific, we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which ‘success’ is domain specific too – LKMCo’s 2016 report ‘Ethnicity, Gender and Social Mobility’ talks of a ‘broken mobility promise for Asian Muslims, especially girls’, for example, whereby educational achievements are not translating into professional achievement.

This, too, leads me down paths that would be considered progressive: whilst passing exams is obviously going to be better than failing them, I do try to bear in mind that this alone may not be enough, especially for the pupils I teach, the majority of whom are likely to come up against discrimination. As such, my pedagogies seek not only to boost pupils’ knowledge that is required in the specific curricula on which they will be tested, but I also try to foster their critical enquiry, such that they get into the habit of questioning and challenging the texts they are given and the topics they explore. In asking my South Asian children why they create a legion of white protagonists in their stories, I am not focusing on the lexicographical and linguistic features of their writing, but on the role of writing and literature within society and culture.

Whilst arguments could be made that this could happen later in their educational lives, I have found that many children I teach are very capable of quite refined enquiry of this sort. In so doing, whilst they are also developing their in-depth knowledge of grammar, features of speech and so on, they are able to be inventive, productive and experimental in their own outputs. Irrespective of the calibre of this output, at this early stage, the self-driven desire to create is motivational and leads often to pupils seeking out more knowledge.

So I see no cognitive dissonance in running core knowledge Geography Bees and Poetry Retreats. 

Knowledge is hugely important, but I feel there is a danger of presenting knowledge at ‘the only knowledge’; absolutely, schools have to make choices about what is and is not included, but this time constraint is sometimes used to justify the maintenance of a curriculum that is culturally narrow. 

This rests upon the idea of nation – is ‘the nation’ the geographical space or the people who populate it? If the concept of nation, in the national curriculum, is one of ‘the story of this island’ then the curriculum would differ from one that tells the stories of the people who inhabit the nation now.

Reflection and enquiry, which draw heavily on what pupils know whilst placing this knowledge within a social context of an imperfect society, have a deeply significant place in my teaching.

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One thought on “Trad and Prog: My Two Penn’orth

  1. Great post, Jonny – balanced and sensible. Much of it chimes with how I see this particular debate, and, like you, it isn’t a debate I actively engage in via Twitter. I don’t think Twitter is the best medium for that.

    Hope you have a really good Easter break. Also hope perhaps to see you at some event in the summer term.

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