Traditional v progressive? Arguing over teaching methods is as old as the Acropolis

Janet Downs's picture

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.  



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Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 13/04/2017 - 15:05

Janet - Your article mentions Rousseau as the originator and theorist of 'progressive' education. While this is true the label 'progressive' as distinct from 'authoritarian' covers a wide spectrum of educational approaches that have enormous and fundamental differences from each other. 'Classic' progressivism may be exemplified by A S Neil and the Summerhill Independent Boarding School, which he founded.

This is from Wikipedia.

"Summerhill School is an independent British boarding school that was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill with the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. It is run as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. These meetings serve as both a legislative and judicial body. Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others, according to Neill's principle "Freedom, not Licence." This extends to the freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attend."

Versions of this model were taken up by a group of brand new, purpose designed, 14-18 comprehensive Community Colleges in the late 1960s/early 70s led by the then Director of Education, Stewart Mason. The three founding schools were The Bosworth College, Countesthorpe College and Wreake Valley College. I joined the first of these as a science teacher in 1975 and later served as Vice Principal and Acting Principal. I left in 1989 to take up my Cumbria headship. Two of our children attended Countesthorpe College, our local catchment school. They both did well and went to university, one gaining a PhD in Chemistry at Leeds University.

So I know a lot about progressivism as a teacher and SMT member, but also crucially as a parent. My experiences and consequent educational views have to a considerable degree informed my book, 'Learning Matters'.

These three Leicestershire schools did indeed share much of the A S Neil philoposophy. There was also a strong Quaker influence leading to the practice of all schools members, students and staff alike, including the Principal, referring to each other by their first (given) names, which tended to shock and sometimes horrify visitors. My previous school, Wyggeston Boys' School in the City of Leicester was a prestigious traditional grammar that could not have been more different. Here the head referred to all staff in the same military way that they referred to their pupils - by the bare sirname. The boys used 'Sir' to address their teachers.

To be clear, I do not support the underlying pedagogy of those 'progressive' schools or that of A S Neil, or for that matter Rousseau himself. How I came to these conclusions is a long story, possibly for another time and place, but it is very important to be clear that the weaknesses of such progressivism, and they are many, in no way derive from the use of given names or the absence of school uniform. Neither did these things result in poor discipline. Classes were generally orderly as was the overall culture of the schools. Much teaching was inspired and of very high quality, by deeply committed, bright young teachers. However, many students maintained a fairly mimimal level of engagement with what could often be an undemanding and passive learning culture. In fact the worst classroom indiscipline I witnessed in the whole of my teaching career was at Wyggeston Boys' School where corporal punishment was routinely administered.

The essential distiction between all varieties of progressivism and the 'traditionalists' is fundamental. The former all implement 'developmentalism' in some form and the latter 'behaviourism'. See my article

The essence of Rousseau pedagogy and its great weakness is shared with the philosophy of the William Morris led, 'Utopian Socialists' generally. They believed that all children were born essentially 'noble and good' and that it was necessary to protect them in their education from the corrupting influence and degradation of the evils of capitalist society. The essential educational concept is one of 'unfolding', which explains the AS Neil emphasis on pupil freedom and autonomy combined with an almost medieval, Pre-Raphaelite approach to education. The staff decision making process at Countesthorpe College was a 'moot' in which everyone had an equal vote regardless of experience or status.

I reject much (but not all) of this completely. I believe in the essential correctness of the learning theories of Piaget and Vygotsky and their modern interpretation by Michael Shayer and the late Philip Adey, both of whom helped me with my book. This will come as no surprise to anyone that has read my book or my articles on my website, or here on LSN.

Piagetian developmentalism is not just 'cognitive unfolding', although age related 'natural' development certainly takes place. The theories of Piaget and Vygotsky underpin a cognitive developmentalism that involves deliberate and careful mental stimulation through inducing cognitive dissonance in learners and helping them to resolve it individually through personal 'thought experiments' (metacognition) and crucially sharing their mental efforts and failures with peers, with the help of the teacher.

The latest incarnation of this approach is the much misunderstood and misused 'Growth Mindset' approach.



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