Traditional v progressive? Arguing over teaching methods is as old as the Acropolis
You’d think that arguing over which teaching methods were most effective was a modern argument. But you’d be wrong.
Today’s traditionalists regularly blast the Plowden Report (1967), Dewey (1859-1952) and Rousseau (Emile, 1762) as if the idea of child-centred learning, invariably misrepresented as child-led, began in the Enlightenment. Progressives invoke Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) in which school governor Gradgrind says facts should be poured into children’s heads like water into ‘little vessels’. But the controversy predates these.
French essayist, Montaigne (1580, Of the education of children) believed educating children was ‘the greatest and most important difficulty of human science’: boys should be removed from the softening influence of their family at an early age and placed with a good governor with ‘rather a well-made than a well-filled head’. He recommended harsh exercise so boys may be ‘trained up’ to endure pain, even ‘the rack itself’. But he was no vindictive disciplinarian. He loathed ‘pedagogues drunk with fury’ who taught with ‘rod in hand’. Rather, he would ‘paint the school with the pictures of joy and gladness’.
But Montaigne wasn’t the earliest thinker to engage with educational theory. He quotes a previous source, Diogenes Leartius (180-240 AD):
‘Tis the custom of pedagogues to be eternally thundering in their pupil’s ears, as they were pouring into a funnel, whilst the business of the pupil is only to repeat what the others have said...’
Tutors, Diogenes wrote, should permit pupils to learn from experience, ‘to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them.’ Sometimes the tutor would show the way and sometimes leave it to the pupil ‘to open it for himself’.
Experiential, child-centred, then, or rather boy-centred. There’s little here about the education of girls.
But leave that aside, the traditional v progressive controversy doesn’t begin with Diogenes. He was writing a biography of Greek philosophers. We can, then, trace our argument back to Ancient Greece. And nowhere is this more vehemently exposed than in Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds (423 BC, revised 420-417 BC). As I wrote in Schools Week, the play satirises Socrates as a ‘grey-headed hunter of phrases artistic’ and ‘master of twaddle!’ His method is lampooned as ‘logic-chopping and hair-splitting’.
Aristophanes sets up an argument about the ‘future of learning’. The character named Right is the traditionalist praising methods used to breed the ‘men who fought at Marathon’. The character named Wrong says Right’s views are ‘fit for history’s dustbin’.
So who won? It would appear to be tradition because Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting Athenian youth. But perhaps the reason for his state-mandated suicide was because his methods were successful. Too successful, perhaps: states don’t always welcome questioning. And the Socratic Method didn’t die but lives on, two-and-a-half millennia later.
It’s unlikely the argument will ever be settled despite the wishes of school minister Nick Gibb and his disciples. That’s because it isn’t either ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’. Neither is it ‘direct teaching’ of facts v ‘enquiry-based learning’. The truth is, learners need both.
CLARIFICATION: 15.35 The paragraph beginning 'Aristophanes sets up...' has been amended to make it clear that Right and Wrong are characters in The Clouds.