Tradition vs Progress: a True Dichotomy

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Dichotomy: A division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different OED

I keep seeing references from people, too numerous to mention, that traditional and progressive can happily co-exist as, in reality, it is a false dichotomy. There is a problem in this argument and that is tradition and progress are as dichotomous as they come!

Dichotomy comes from the Greek for ‘cutting in half’. A dichotomy can be false if it is proved that there are more possibilities or that the sides have more in common than not.

‘Tradition’ tradicion was mentioned in the Wycliffe Bible in 1382 in the sense of a belief, custom or practice being handed down. It is drawn from the Latin trāditiōnem, meaning ‘delivery, surrender, a handing down’.

Whereas ‘progress’ way back in 1425 meant a forward movement, from the Latin prōgressus meaning to go forward. Progressive is first noted as meaning advocating reform in political or social matters in 1884. In education its use as meaning “that of aiming to develop the abilities and interests of pupils rather than fitting them to a given curriculum” * is first seen as early as 1839 and was later popularised by John Dewey in the 1920s.

Tradition means from the past, progress means toward the future. Traditional is conservative in the sense of keeping things the same; progressive is radical in the sense of reforming things. Conservatives and reformists have been engaged in ideological battles for centuries in many different societies around the world. Even socialists can be conservative or reformist, look at the battle for the heart of the Labour Party with the ‘traditional’ heart of the Party currently being claimed by the Corbynistas whilst the ‘modernisers’ argue for reform.

In education traditionalists argue for the centrality of subject and progressives argue for the centrality of the child. The traditionalists see the importance of a body of knowledge being handed down and the progressives want to shape a personalised curriculum around the perceived needs of each child. The progressives look to the future and want to endow every child with the skills needed for the 21st Century and traditionalists want to endow every child with knowledge about the ‘greatest that has been thought, said and done’.

The argument about ‘factory schools’ not being centred on the needs of the child, too many tests, pupils being stressed out is made by progressives; the argument that child centred teaching and learning has led to a nation with too many illiterate and innumerate young adults is made by traditionalists.

In every classroom throughout the land decisions are made that imbue that class in being more one than the other. If you do project based learning, following the interests of the child, you are breaking tradition; if you insist that children follow a curriculum full of great books you are keeping the tradition alive. If you don’t care about the quality of the books by arguing ‘who says they are great?’ you are flying in the face of tradition and if you say: ‘how do we know what skills will be needed in the future?’ you are undermining the progressivist cause.

Parliamentary democracy has tried to bring the progressive and the conservative together in a political settlement, in the UK this is seen clearly in the House of Commons where Conservatives face Progressives (though I have already argued these schisms run through the Labour Party as they do the Conservatives). The Conservative/Liberal coalition did great damage to the electoral performance of the LibDems with many people accusing them of selling out, many on the far left look at centrist figures on the left and accuse them of being Tories, the dichotomy is real and it gives shape to our ideals and expression to our values. Although you can try to bring the sides together, you will tend to be more one than the other, rather than having a lot in common with each other one is destroyed by the other, with tradition being pessimistic because it is the side that always takes the biggest losses.

Progress happens and tradition gets destroyed. Optimism pervades the progressive cause, pessimism the traditionalist one. As soon as iPads are brought into a classroom you don’t bring the values of progression and tradition together, you destroy tradition. As soon as you knock down the houses in your old Victorian Street you destroy tradition. As soon as you build the houses in the countryside you destroy tradition. As soon as you bring in Votes for the Workers, for Women, you destroy tradition. As soon as you cut the head off the King, you destroy tradition. There is no halfway, no both together. Tradition has to regroup and, maybe, absorb ‘progress’.

But every now and then tradition puts the brakes on reform and starts to restore the way things were: linear exams, knocking down tower blocks, but other reforms remain and tradition tries to bring the sides together enveloping radical ideas like  civil partnerships into the more traditional idea of marriage but this is clearly a progressive step and angers some who see it destroying what is at the centre of their values. Bring back the cane! Centre the curriculum on Bible studies!

The central problem for those who say that tradition vs progress is a false dichotomy is this: the classroom can’t be both subject centred and child centred. You can try to bring the subject to the child, or the child to the subject but this is just trying to sell the tradition or even lie to the child by making it look as though they have some control, though they palpably do not; or you can put the child at the centre and let them dictate their own learning. There is no halfway house.

Values and ideals are important, for without them, what are we? So the next time someone argues that progress and tradition are a false dichotomy, think why would they argue this? They are either lying and are using this argument to hide the fact that they are either on one side or the other. They might be saying ‘what works’ or ‘the evidence says’ but in their classroom it is clear that they belong to one side or the other… or it might be that they have given up on their values altogether and have sold out to pure instrumentalism and are letting the machine drive them like a driverless car, no longer caring about what happens to the children in their care, they follow the data and make all their decisions based on that. In this case the decision they have made to wash their hands of the dilemma and only obey the orders handed down to them, means that the decisions on the dichotomy between tradition and progress are made by other people.

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

GK Chesterton

*Chambers Dictionary of Etymology

27 thoughts on “Tradition vs Progress: a True Dichotomy

  1. PStone

    Nice blog. Not much to disagree with there.
    I think, though, that what might be missing is the effect on the dichotomy, of time. Or space and time if we want to get philosophical.
    In general:
    Children in nursery and reception are not the same as those preparing for GCSE, and neither are their teachers. What knowledge-based traditional curriculum exists for year olds? Is there a child-centred way to teach higher maths? I don’t know. The job of foundation stage teachers is intrinsically progressive because of what the children need. What FS children need is to learn to enjoy school and enjoy learning, to learn how to learn, and their teachers must do whatever is needed to develop this ability to get the best out of school. Little children need to understand that teachers have something to give them. How can that be ‘taught’ traditionally? KS4 children / young people, in the 2016 system that exists in mainstream schools, need a diet of facts, knowledge and information that would be called traditional, if they are not to come out labelled as failures, and their teachers need to respond accordingly.
    The problem, and the claims for the falsity of the dichotomy, I think, come somewhere in the middle. It’s a big middle though. It gets going by the end of year two and can last through to year seven or eight.
    A wise old retiree told me years ago that when teachers seem to have no stress or difficulties with their teaching, it is because they are absolutely convinced they are right – not necessarily because they are right, but because they never for a minute imagine that there might be another way of doing things. Maybe the traditionalists and progressives that argue, in fact all teachers that argue, are the ones who know they are making things work for the children in their charge, and so are unlikely to let someone tell them they are ‘doing it wrong’?
    You mentioned Victorian houses being pulled down? Some people at the starts of their independent lives enjoy flat-sharing with friends or squatting or mooching from place to place, country to country, even. I suppose they could be called progressive. As they get older, most people would become more traditional in their housing needs. Change over time applies to most people’s views about all human activity?
    Education is not a series of villages with countryside between them, it’s a conurbation. It may take time to get from one end to the other, but it’s the same place and the same child that makes the journey. We do that child a disservice if we are constantly sending messages across town that there is some thing wrong with where he is going, where she has been.
    (I’m using this as my 29daysofwriting if that’s OK)

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    1. Brian

      A nice comment which promted even more reflection. You hint at the implicit/explicit knowledge issue but do not develop very far.

      “Some people at the starts of their independent lives enjoy flat-sharing with friends or squatting or mooching from place to place, country to country, even. I suppose they could be called progressive.”

      You seem to suggest here that there is a tradition that some people will flat share/move from place to place. You then describe these individuals as progressive. Are they both?

      I thought your description of a need to be more progressive in the early years transforming to progressive in later years. This I think is very valid.

      However, I got the impression that your definition of progressive was not one where the student decided upon the content of what was to be learnt and is therefore different to Martins. I believe your definition reflects mainstream, where the teacher decides content always but chooses methods depending of age that might seem to some as a bit wasteful, ineffective and dare I say socially constructive

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    2. teachwell

      Your comment simply lays a lie to the reality that 4 years olds have been taught traditionally since we can remember and only in the last century has this been questioned or changed. On the basis of some very flimsy evidence too from constructivists. How can they be taught traditionally? Well quite simply, the teacher decides what the child will learn and teaches it to them. You can do so 1:1, small groups, whole class as opposed to it being child-led.

      Also what precisely are parents doing at home informally? They are teaching explicitly, it is the lack of teaching explicitly that results in emotional, social and educational problems, not the conscious teaching of children in the early years.

      Child-centred has been latched onto by the least intelligent and most immature teachers for the good reason that it means they don’t have to do much and get away with their lack of subject knowledge. It also absolves them of the responsibility of the outcomes they produce.

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      1. PStone

        Hello Teachwell.
        It was three year olds. My three key is not working. I tried to add this information, but Trivium did not approve it. Since statutory education begins in UK at 5, I don’t know what you mean by traditional education for 4 year olds? You write as if you imagine that every child I ever taught is a ‘failure’. I can assure you, this is not the case.
        I really do not understand why you have to be so insulting and rude in your last paragraph? It is not necessary. I can see that you are proud of your own intelligence and where is is taking you, but I am neither unintelligent nor immature and my subject knowledge is comprehensive. If you are not happy with the EYFS curriculum, you need to take that up with Nicky Morgan.
        I’d like to share this with you, from an early years expert. Please don’t insult her, though. She died not long ago.

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      2. PStone

        I refrain, Teachwell, from commenting in detail on the grammar in your comment. I don’t think the year 7 teachers at Michaela would be happy with it?
        Please don’t lecture me about traditional teaching until you have learned its lessons yourself.

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      3. PStone

        More expert child-centred learning here, Teachwell. I wonder how many settings have inertia planned into their daily activities with the bikes and trucks? EYFS really does require the most highly-skilled teachers. Anyone can bang on to 11 year olds about frontal adverbials.

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      4. teachwell

        Firstly, I expressed an opinion about, if you choose to take it personally, that is your choice.

        Secondly, neither of those videos constitute evidence that young children can’t be taught explicitly or that it is problematic. Progressives keep inventing problems to justify their teaching methods. I will reiterate the intellectual vacuity of the progressive approach on the basis that no empirical evidence has led to any revision or adaptation of the essential tenets of the ideological approach. I can not think of another field where this has happened and where criticism and critique has been stifled.

        Third of all, ‘Don’t insult her. She died recently”. Don’t put up her video then – evidently our opinions on what constitutes insulting differ.

        Finally, if you had pointed out dozens of grammar mistakes, it would not have bothered me. If my grammar doesn’t pass muster with Michaela teachers, then fine, I would happily learn more and improve both my grammar and writing. Not all of us need ‘special snowflake’ treatment. There is such as thing as learning from ones mistakes. As many an A-Level teacher reminds me, they are still learning about the English language and its nuances. I don’t see why I should be any different.

        You criticise me for being insulting and then go out of your way to be vindictive and bitchy.

        In a similar vein, you insist that it’s wrong to dismiss progressive teachers but then dismiss traditional teachers because anyone can ‘teach fronted adverbials’.

        You are an utter hypocrite in making both those comments.

        As for the videos – progressives justifying progressive methods is not evidence of the superiority of progressive ideas or the efficacy of progressive methods.

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      5. teachwell

        There are people who claim to be ‘experts’ in geocentrism and the idea of a flat earth. They like to think they are as intellectually sound as their counterparts. It doesn’t mean they actually are.

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      6. PStone

        Teach_well,
        I never called anyone bitchy, a hypocrite, nor vindictive in my life. When I argue, I argue the facts of the matter or express my opinions, sometimes strongly, yes, but never with personal attack. I never resorted to personal insults of the, “You are a this”, or “You are a that” variety, not at work, not at home. Never.
        I will therefore back off and leave you to your own devices.

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  3. Brian

    Wow that was a long one…..fascinating but long. I believe this one is norn out of the Basil Fawlty school of rhetoric, see link below. I believe this is one of the greatest TV programmes ever know or said…i suppose that make me traditional.

    If you are suggesting that in a traditional classroom, teaching is based upon subject matter and and designed by the teacher……and…….

    If you are suggesting that in a progressive classroom, what is learnt and how it is learnt is decided by the student

    then

    You set up a situation in which I cannot disagree with you, almost.

    If a teacher is able to vary their teaching temporally such that they can alternate these approaches then I tend not to agree that the dichotemy is quite so real.

    As I have said, using your definitions I absolutely agree with you, however I do not use the terms in this way as it serves no useful purpose.

    Having set up the false dichotomy you then fllt from idea to idea like a little butterfly, making assertions which often do not follow to justify your view. I truly believe that most of what you say in nonsense.

    As a professional educator, I impart knowledge to my students ensuring that they understand the knowledge to the extent that they are able to solve familiar and unfamiliar problems. I do not let any student choose what to learn. I try my best to ensure that students learn what I am looking for the them to learn is the most productive way, but although I can lead them to water I cannot make them drink. People construct their own knowledge based upon their own learning experiences. When I am teaching facts I tend to do my best to ensure that they construct transferred knowledge in an accurate way. I will tend to do this by teaching in a direct and didadctic way. When students are to solve messy problems, especially those based around people and the irrational nature of decisions they make they need more time to reflect and consider issues before developing opinions etc

    I always make decisions regarding pedagogy, content and materisl.I am always in control of the classroom. On some occasions I will choose to let students use examples of interest to them to build knowledge around which we share, and in this way students practise problem solving while gaining a wider knowledge of examples.

    Knowledge is fundamental to my teaching and so are skills. Using an example of the best of that which has ever been know and said, Dan Willingham has said that using higher order thinking skills to solve problems can help students to learn knowledge of facts, concepts and procedures.

    This one is for me appalling and is symptomatic of the sort of thing that does most damage to the teaching profession.

    “They are either lying and are using this argument to hide the fact that they are either on one side or the other. They might be saying ‘what works’ or ‘the evidence says’ but in their classroom it is clear that they belong to one side or the other… or it might be that they have given up on their values altogether and have sold out to pure instrumentalism and are letting the machine drive them like a driverless car, no longer caring about what happens to the children in their care”

    I am not a liar and I still care about every single student I ever have the pleasure to teach. I also have values.

    You flit from place to place, butterfly fashion only to ask the following question….

    “So the next time someone argues that progress and tradition are a false dichotomy, think why would they argue this? ”

    Having set up you own definitions of progressive and traditional, you now talk about a dichotemy between progress and tradition. Notwithstanding the fact that they are only mutually exclusive if you adopt a “one or the other” view, you seem to be moving away from your own defitions.

    I would be interested to know whether I am traditional or progressive.

    BTW…GK Chesterton didn’t half talk some bollocks at times.

    BTW…your OED definition has not talk of mutal exclusivity which for me is key. Exhaustive population with mutually exclusive membership.

    I am not sure G K Chesterton or OED are good examples of the best that has ever been thought and said. I believe the Basil Fawly example informs the validity of the claims made in this post more than either of these two.

    I enjoyed reading this one.

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  4. cottenhamvccpdl

    Great post and, as always, thought-provoking. I found it very useful to read and re-read to clarify the argument about why there is no false dichotomy.

    However, one thing that concerns me is that there appears, in the discourse about trad v prog, not enough distinction made between curriculum (I mean here WHAT is taught) and pedagogy (the HOW). I would say that it is is possible to have a traditionalist vision / design for curriculum but exist on a continuum between trad v prog when it comes to pedagogy. There is often too little focus on curriculum design and too much on pedagogy in schools and better curriculum thinking is certainly needed. Teachers, not pupils, must clearly decide WHAT is to be taught and learned and must therefore think about what they want pupils to know (the best thought, said and done) by when and the sequence in which that happens but this can be achieved in different ways in the classroom. If teaching is to be judged in terms of outcomes, what pupils learn, then how they learn it is of less concern that what they have learnt, is it not.

    You say, ‘If you do project based learning, following the interests of the child, you are breaking tradition; if you insist that children follow a curriculum full of great books you are keeping the tradition alive.’ However, the first part of this is about how pupils may (or may not) learn and the second is about the crucial what. I have seen plenty of project-based classroom activity that leaves me pulling my hair out because it does not result in learning. But the main problem is not usually the method but the poor thinking about what is supposed to be being taught and learned.

    I think I’m saying I agree with your argument but that sometimes we unhelpfully conflate the what with the how in the trad v prog debate and some pieces I’ve read elsewhere seem unaware of the distinction. A traditionalist curriculum and a desire for all pupils to leave knowledgeable, literate and numerate need not mean a particular style of teaching. I’m not sure I’ve thought this through fully, so would be interested in your thoughts.

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  5. José Picardo (@josepicardoSHS)

    Hi Martin,

    I do get what you mean. There are marked differences between the two philosophies and it sometimes helps to set them out as opposing to facilitate debate, further the dialogue and promote greater understanding. This I get.

    What I suppose most people mean when they say this is ultimately a false dichotomy (though I can only speak for myself) is that, in practice, teachers will adopt whichever strategies their professional judgement calls upon given specific circumstances: more traditional sometimes, less traditional (more progressive?) other times. Your riposte would be that this choice teachers make on a daily basis simply exemplifies the dichotomy you speak of, thus ecce it is real. And perhaps it is at this level. Happy to go along with this and have my thinking challenged and probed.

    Having said that, there are those who insist a progressive tradition (pun intended) is correct and therefore traditionalist thinking (unlike some, I don’t think this is an oxymoron) is wrong. Vice versa also applies. This is where many of us are tempted to point out the futility of drawing this argument to such extremes. Is calling it a false dichotomy technically incorrect? Well, maybe. Is it a useful dichotomy then if taken to these extremes? I don’t think so.

    Why? Because I think the relationship between progress and tradition is much more complex than you make out. I think of progress and tradition as fluid and complimentary, not as opposites. Let me explain. I live in an Edwardian house. When its previous owners decided in the 1930s to adopt that newfangled thing called electricity, they didn’t knock down the house to build a new one. Decades later, some other folk who lived here decided to install central heating. I am very grateful that they kept the fireplaces. Earlier this decade, I moved in and installed wifi, which allows me to sit by my roaring Edwardian fireplace reading your thoughts seconds after they were translated into pixels and to reply with mine. My house was thankfully never knocked down, what actually happened was that progress (my house itself was a symbol progress in 1915) became tradition. Tradition is built on progress. You cannot therefore have tradition without progress, nor can have progress without tradition. And this is why examples such as knocking down houses or bringing iPads into lessons simply don’t cut it. By the way, this is what having iPads in classrooms actually looks like, but feel free to continue believing your own dystopian narrative.

    If you think I’m way off the mark here, I would appreciate it if you explained why.

    Best wishes

    José

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  6. Steve Smith

    One interesting aspect of this to me is that definitions of what is progressive change over time. In José’s field and mine, back in the 1960s, the audiolingual movement in language teaching would have been seen as progressive (an antidote to traditional grammar-translation). Nowadays, audiolingualism us seen as an old-fashioned, skill acquisition, habit forming, traditional approach.

    Subsequently, communicative language teaching became the “progressive” norm, but is now seen by some applied linguists and teachers as traditional, not really progressive as such. They prefer nativist, natural approaches which view second language learning as essentially the same as child language acquisition and therefore somehow easier.

    So I agree that there is a dichotomy, but it can be a moving one.

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  8. John F Brown

    If this trad vs prog debate is to get us anywhere surely we need to come up with some specific claims each would make that we can compare up against what actually happens. This piece seems to do go some way but we could do with a lot more clarity about what each would predict about learning if we are pick the best bits out of both.

    The political analogy seems to trip on its own boot laces because all stable governments are formed around a central consensus, surely that is a definition of politics.

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  9. @shinpad1

    Hi Martin

    I always love reading your blogs and I’m a Trivium fan. I’m still not sure whether I’m trad or prog though. Perhaps you could help me diagnose?

    If I decide to teach my class The Owl and the Pussy Cat by heart because I think no child should leave primary without learning it (part of their cultural heritage etc) AND because I think they will like it (my class this year love a bit of word play) AND because they’re ready for the challenge of it (in a way they weren’t 6 months ago), am I being traditional or progressive? If I decide to read them Pippi Longstocking at storytime because I want them to encounter a strong and atypical female protagonist who will make them laugh, to hear one of the best opening chapters in children’s literature and to discuss the precise and literary sentence construction, am I being traditional or progressive? If I decide to teach my 7 year olds about circumference by going to the park and measuring tree-trunks in groups (because I think this approach will make sense to them and because the previous week, when we learned to identify oak trees and sycamore trees, they asked how old the trees were so discussing the circumference link seems timely), am I being traditional or progressive?
    Please help!
    I’m looking forward to finding out which I am.
    Sinead

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  10. joiningthedebate

    This is quite a heated forum and I’m not sure I’m as qualified to comment as some. Anyway here goes. I am a ‘ born again traditionalist’ . I’ve done my time with the other stuff and then there came a point when enough was enough (BLP). A quick bit of research found many blogs and forums. Anyway personally I try to do as much traditional teaching as possible, text boks, teacher led examples etc. The ‘ other stugg’ comes into its own when there’s some time that needs filling. For example they’ve finished a test and can’t seem to do any more. Work in pairs, create some qus, discuss this or that is a good way to give them a break without actually sending them to break early. Management would like that of course but seem very happy with the progressive stuff.

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