All curricula involve the teaching of knowledge which is why some people baulk at the idea of a ‘knowledge-based curriculum’. ‘We all teach knowledge’ they point out, as if there is no difference between anyone teaching a progressive curriculum and those teaching a more traditional academic one.
As soon as one gets into the argument it is easy to find that there are important, ideological differences. “Whose knowledge?” might be the refrain or comments about the teacher as an authoritarian figure, these arguments get to the nub as to the differences offered by a more progressive curriculum.
In answer to the question ‘whose knowledge?’ a progressive curriculum might answer, the knowledge a pupil most wants to learn; a progressive curriculum will tend to be more child-centred than knowledge centred. I will explore this distinction in more detail in later posts, neither is ‘bad’, and though they are very different ideologically and practically both involve some overlap with the other. But a progressive curriculum is concerned with the child’s development, and the motivation of the child to learn, their needs and, importantly, their interests. If a child is not interested in learning something that is felt to be good for them then it must be made accessible to them in order to encourage them to learn it.
Like a knowledge based ‘liberal arts’ curriculum, progressive minded educators may wish to ‘free the person’ and this is often through the idea of something akin to self-actualisation. Maslow argued that:
[this] refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially.
The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions’ (Maslow, 1943, p. 382–383)
It is the variance in what we will become that entails a more individualistic approach to how we begin. Interestingly a more ‘knowledge centred’ curriculum theorist ED Hirsch believes that self-actualisation is an important goal for schooling though this would be the job of secondary rather than primary education, where, he argues, a significant absorption of culturally relevant and important knowledge is essential for social justice.
An enthusiast for progressive education once described it to me as letting a child free in a sweet shop. The curriculum is enticing the child in various directions encouraging them to try things out, to develop their taste in certain directions, and to be motivated to do so by the exciting discoveries on offer. The analogy soon fell apart when we explored the health benefits for later life. Maybe Howard Gardner’s description of his ideal curriculum being like a good interactive museum of life in which a child can make their own way is better, appealing to aspects of their intelligences and in which one that a teacher can encourage children towards intelligences that they might struggle with and use their skills to motivate them to do better in those areas. To have a growth mindset, if they find the going too tough.
There is not ‘one’ type of progressive curriculum offer, just as there is not one type of ‘knowledge-based’ approach either. So it is difficult to suggest an over-arching tick-list for a progressive offer, but there are some aspects that a progressive education leans towards.
The teacher is less of an authority figure and is seen not as an expert ‘sage on the stage’ but more of a ‘guide on the side’. The teacher listens to children encouraging them to take up the mantle of teacher, whilst the teacher becomes the pupil, eager to learn what the child wishes to share. The teacher creates the learning experiences and environment and, maybe like a child-friendly museum, children can explore and develop outlets for their curiosity. In the book ‘Nudge’ (not an education book) Thaler wrote that: “A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” This echoes what Dewey wrote years before: ” The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.” The teacher is a ‘choice-architect’ encouraging children to make the right choices, not through coercion, but through soft persuasion ‘assisting’ the child in making the right choices.
This then is our narrative. Instead of a teacher teaching knowledge they might first cultivate an interest in a topic and then encourage exploration of that topic through means such as projects or motivating tasks based around performances, products, posters and presentations. Cross-curricular approaches are encouraged, the demarcation between subject areas can be quite fluid. Children are also encouraged to work in groups and, the argument is often made, that this is most like the real world and it is beneficial for children to collaborate creatively. Children are encouraged to discover new areas of learning for themselves and to construct their own models of understanding. They continually progress and it is their skills that are to the fore.
Children have fun in this environment, they are motivated to learn, and they learn skills and knowledge. They are free to learn what they want to, and though the teacher will be guiding their learning in certain directions, this is not done in an authoritarian manner. The knowledge content is secondary to the skills that a pupil is learning. By being encouraged to be lifelong learners, children taught a progressive curriculum will be used to being able to learn what they want to learn and when they want to learn it. They will be adept at using Google and other methods of research to find out what they need to know. They will be used to a more egalitarian classroom, be less respectful of authority and be likely to criticise those who try to take more authoritarian positions in the future. That is the hope.
Although some progressive classrooms veer more to the creating a better society narrative and some towards a more individualised or ‘personalised’ approach the progressive curriculum is very different to the more traditional one. It is also an approach that is being made more accessible through the advent of the internet and the proliferation of information at your fingertips.
The progressive curriculum is less likely to value a linear narrative in terms of knowledge, it is more unstructured, and can be unpredictable. The teacher needs to be highly responsive and foster deep, professional relationships with their pupils, being hyper aware of their needs and helping them to realise their potential. As Ken Robinson says:
The key… is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.
Ken Robinson: “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”
Some schools mix the traditional and progressive approaches together. This might be due to various examination demands that tend to recognise domain based knowledge as essential. A primary school that does ‘project work and topic’ in the afternoon and more maths and english in the morning might be one; a secondary that has a freer ‘creative’ key stage three with cross curricular approaches and then a more rigid, subject based key stage four, might be another.