Category Archives: Education

The Narrowing Curriculum

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Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: it teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation. But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.

Jonathan Haidt

A good education doesn’t offer one lens through which to see ourselves and the world, rather it offers a great variety of lenses. Whatever reductive pressures are exerted onto a curriculum or onto the teaching of a subject, those of us who have an interest in what we term, broadly, ‘the liberal arts’, need to ensure we teach and design courses which offer up arguments rather than just presenting narrow answers or a ‘world view’. The pursuit of wisdom is never served by insisting one way of seeing the world has dominion over all others.

This is not to say that all things are relative. Far from it. It is only by engaging in debate, by testing out ideas and hypotheses, with the underlying belief that some things are better than other things can we free up individuals to think for themselves and enable them to add to the great conversation in a way that opens and engages minds rather than closes and disengages them. A relativist can leave all others numb by saying ‘well, it’s my opinion,’ and refuse to engage any further. In other words: ‘truth is an individual construct – so leave me alone…’ relativism is also antithetical to a liberal arts education.

An educational institution should not be a place which suggests it ‘knows’ the truth. The age old adage that the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know should underpin the academy. This gives us great hope in that it has a vested interest in the importance of the voices of those who teach, the voices of those whom they teach about and also the voices of those who are taught and those whose voices will follow. This social contract between the dead, the living and the yet to be born insists on no group having more insight than any other but that by coming together we might find ourselves closer to wisdom than by keeping resolutely apart.

The academy should be notable by its variety of subjects from across the spectrum of knowing and students at school and university should be educated through as many substantial and different lenses we can muster to enable a more thoughtful engagement between themselves and the world. The more perspectives that we can offer the more likely we are to educate successfully. These perspectives need to offer breadth and they also need to be experienced in depth in order to unveil their truths. This means some inevitable compromises are made, but young people should experience learning from as many broad lenses as we can muster.

There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity” be. (Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. trans. Maudemarie Clarke and Alan J. Swenswen. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1998)

If we narrow or reduce perspectives we are more likely to falter in error than we are to glimpse the truth. Students need to access a full and varied curriculum from an early age and for as long as is possible in such a way so that their thinking and experiencing will not atrophy over time. Subjects should be taught with dialogue, argument and debate at their heart, to ensure that perspectives can clash along nicely throughout the heart of the school’s offer. Pupils should also get a good grounding in philosophy, thought, ethics and aesthetics.

In order to ensure an education that offers a good range of perspectives there needs to be a range of subjects on offer. This means starting specialist subject teaching sometime during primary education, expanding the offer during key stage three and ensuring pupils are able to access a good number of subjects at key stage four. The arts and humanities, languages and social sciences, technology and physical/health education options ought to be kept up as long as is possible alongside English, Maths and Sciences. This means either not worrying about the Ebacc or ensuring other options are available alongside it. It is essential to offer a good extra curricular programme as well, including the traditional, school productions, orchestras, galleries, sports teams, quiz and debating teams etc. At key stage five either the IB or A levels with EPQ, voluntary work and a recognition of involvement in extra curricular activities. A house system helps develop pupil leadership and widens participation in such team events beyond elite inter-school level competition.

For those who study or intend to study more vocational options I would hope an academic/cultural stream of opportunities both for study and extra curricular work is also accessed. All work and no play/reading/writing/thinking about ‘the big questions’ makes Jack and Jill dull…

This is what an expansive curriculum can offer, not dullness, but vibrancy, and the opportunity for young people to flourish.

Nothing Will Come From Nothing

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“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Is a quote often attributed to Einstein which is actually from a piece by BF Skinner called “New methods and new aims in teaching”, in New Scientist, 22(392) (21 May 1964). The quote was retweeted into my timeline today accompanied by a tweet saying: ‘Focus on 21st century skills, character-building, and the big ideas of your curriculum. Memorization of large quantities of information is temporary–skills are forever. ‘.

I have come across the quote quite a few times before and always thought that it was saying something around the habits of mind one gets from school are the most important things but then I looked again at the quote

and again…

Now far be it for me to take on the great BF Skinner or pretend Einstein for that matter…

but

it’s nonsense.

What do we ‘learn’ at school? We learn many things, facts, skills, nuggets of knowledge, habits of mind, ways of behaving, when to laugh, when not to laugh… to cry… to think… all these things are things we learn.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark define “Learning [as] a change in long-term memory” and if we are to accept this definition, which we might argue with should we wish (see Willingham here), then should all this learning be forgotten we could suggest the education received has been an expensive and monumental failure.

Perhaps Skinner is thinking about conscious recall of all the ‘facts’ we have learned but even many of those that we think we have forgotten sometimes find their way into our consciousness when we’re watching a quiz programme on TV or doing one of those time wasting click bait quizzes that crop up online. So do we ever ‘forget’ what we have learnt at school? Some of it. But if we are taught a lot and taught it well we will remember a lot more than someone who wasn’t. And, as the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it:

“…it can only be a good thing to know as many matters of fact as possible.”

So I would suggest changing the quote to:

Education is what survives when you have learned and not forgotten all of it…

As I was sourcing the quote I came across another one of BF Skinner’s bon mots:

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading”

I could go on…

but I won’t.

Knowledge Belongs to the Many, Not the Few

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Angela Rayner’s speech to the Labour Party conference contained many interesting ideas. The National Education Service, of course, echoes the UK’s beloved NHS:

The next Labour Government will create a National Education Service, a cradle-to-grave system supporting everyone throughout their lives. It would start in the early years, where we know it has the most impact in changing people’s lives – just like my life was changed by a Labour Government.

And Rayner’s backstory is an important one, secondary modern, left school at sixteen, is as much a part of our school experience as left school at 18 with three A levels to go to Russell Group Uni.

The idea of education starting through Sure Start centres – maybe helping children to read and write and do number early on is a pertinent one.

To never give up on children, on people, is also important, again Rayner refers to her own experiences:

Workplace education meant we had the chance to learn more and earn more. Other people need that chance. So, our National Education Service will be lifelong, providing for people at every stage of their life.

This idea of lifelong learning is a vital one. I think every business and industry should either provide training or give employees the time and the wherewithal to study. Rayner wishes to start the conversation about what a National Education Service would be like:

I look forward to that conversation, to visiting schools, colleges, and universities, to talking to pupils, parents, teachers, and businesses, so we can truly build a National Education Service for the many, and not just the few.

This brought her to the strongest part of her speech:

The Labour Party was founded to ensure that the workers earned the full fruit of their labour.  Well, the sum of human knowledge is the fruit of thousands of years of human labour. The discoveries of maths and science; the great works of literature and art; the arc of human and natural history itself; and so much more that there is to learn. All of it should be our common inheritance. Because knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.

This is our historic purpose as a movement. Not just to be a voice for the voiceless.

But to give them a voice of their own. That is the challenge we face. And it is what we will do, together.

This is exactly what education is for. I heard no-one shout Rayner down with calls of: ‘Whose knowledge? Whose inheritance?’ In these concluding remarks she embodied all that is best in the great liberal arts tradition, the great works, knowledge for the many and giving them a voice of their own.

And yet later that same day in Tom Watson’s speech we heard a call for a very different kind of education:

In an age when every child has access to all the knowledge that has ever existed on a device that fits in the palm of their hand, just teaching them to memorise thousands of facts is missing the point. Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms were a useless return to the past – obsessed by what children can remember, instead of how they use the knowledge they have.

The confusion here seems to be about memory and ‘having’ knowledge. Having a device in one’s pocket doesn’t mean ‘having’ that knowledge, just as sleeping with a dictionary under your pillow doesn’t mean you’ll become highly articulate overnight. A child, indeed an adult, does have to learn something and this means committing learning to memory – Gove notwithstanding.

We don’t yet know what the jobs of the future will be, so we’ve got to teach children not just what to learn but how to learn. And how to be. Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning. Transferable skills they can adapt as the new world swirls around them.

In this part of his speech Watson reminds us of the problematic 2007 National Curriculum, where skills and the unlikely nature of their easy transferability is to be suddenly absorbed by children who will, no doubt, ‘have’ these skills in a downloadable form from their phones.

Watson wants our kids to be educated for the unknown:

economy of the future.

Where… Angela Rayner… will lead an education system that prepares our young people for a world we can’t yet see.

A utopian hope built through utilitarian means.

The next Labour Government will educate and train a nation of workers that are the most creative and adaptive on the planet. We’ll give working people the tools to use technology to enhance their lives, rather than restricting them to a digital elite.

The digital economy succeeds only when it gives each of us the means to realise our true potential. Which doesn’t stop in our schools. It must be threaded throughout our economy, throughout our lives.

This is not education, it is training. It is an apprenticeship in becoming working fodder for the needs of business. But business should be providing this. Training for jobs that do or don’t exist should be provided by companies throughout a person’s life, training and retraining them. Yes Government can help with this – it might be a National Training Service – but it’s not a national education service.

Education is about the quality of a human life, it examines what it is to be human in this world. It teaches knowledge that should belong to the many and not the few, this is truly a great hope but if Labour are to return to Government I worry that instead of teaching the great books and thoughts they will, instead, insist on a second rate diet of scientism in which:

Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning

take the place of

the sum of human knowledge [from] the fruit of thousands of years of human labour

Please don’t let this be so.

Creating a Classroom Culture: The ‘Centre’

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Every subject is different, it has its own rhythms and constraints around which a positive classroom culture can be created. Getting changed for PE, putting on lab coats, getting out exercise books and pens, all these seemingly mundane rituals are an essential part of creating a positive working atmosphere.

In the drama room I have no chairs, there are no ‘set’ places for a child to sit, they can run free, make a lot of noise and get away with doing anything they want because, if challenged, they can say: ‘But, we was only acting sir…!’

The drama classroom is thus a terrifying place for the non-specialist cover teacher to venture into and deliver a lesson because all the more usual paraphernalia of the classroom culture are missing. Chaos, far from being hidden away, is in the ascendancy.

This is why, to me, discipline is an essential component of a classroom culture. It’s the same in every class, of course, and the discipline that works best for me is that which is drawn from and refers to the nature of the subject being taught as well as that of the class being taught, the school in which the lesson takes place and the character of the teacher teaching it.

As a drama teacher, the first concept I teach a class is ‘how to centre’. Specifically, how to be quiet, how to be still, and how to obey commands. This, I suggest, is the most important state to conquer. Students have to stand in a space, equidistant from each other, from walls etc. with their arms by their side, feet shoulder-width apart, back, neck, head straight and eyes closed. And, before you ask, this is adapted for individual students who are physically unable to do it. They breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. I then do some other physical exercises and when I say ‘centre’ they have to adopt the ‘centred’ position within 10, 5, then 3 seconds.

This physical focal point is the heart of the classroom culture. Once mastered they learn how to move into other states, how a slight change of the foot or arm, a change in where the ‘centre of gravity in a character’ might be. They see how important the neutral position is, in order ‘to act’, ‘to do’, they need to start from neutral.

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In other lessons I teach in classrooms, I use the same idea, to create pause, focus, reflection. An expectation of individual attention to themselves, I call it ‘sit down, shut up, eyes down, read…’ (or write). It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The point is to have a place where all know there is silence, stillness, reflection, and it feels calmer. This can be the normal state for most of the work in a classroom, but, importantly, it is not a punishment state. This is an essential part of the ritual and discipline of the teaching of the subject and it is present from day one. ‘When I say: ‘——————‘, you do ‘———————-‘. And, later, once mastered, I pick up on their reading or writing. They get to learn that it is important that they do it, because I will question them on it; if writing, it is important they do it, because I will read out what they’ve written. (Not all, of course, but always one, two or more.)

If it takes a minute, five minutes, a whole lesson or term, this is the most important lesson to get across, because from here all other positive elements of a flourishing classroom culture can flow.

Of course, it’s not the only part. It’s, literally, just the start.

Nature or Nurture? Free Will and Education.

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If everyone smoked twenty cigarettes a day the difference between those who got lung cancer and those who didn’t would be almost 100% heritable, even though the cause would be almost 100% environmental. Heritability depends on our environment.

It is believed that IQ is around 70% heritable, if all children were to have an educationally rich environment in which to grow then, due to this environment, the effect of heritability on IQ would increase. If children were brought up in an educationally damaging environment the effects of heritability on IQ would reduce dramatically.

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Director of the TwinsUK Registry at Kings College, London, says that: “Any change in environment has a much greater effect on IQ than genes.”

Twin Studies are often used to justify arguments around genetic determinism. Spector, who has been studying identical twins for over twenty years, believes that when it comes to commenting on their similarities: “We put much more importance on these things than we should,” he thinks their differences are just as important, though not often commented upon in studies. Genes are possibilities, not a story of what we will become. Our environments help write the stories.

Nature and nurture both have roles to play.

But what of free will? If we are a product of genes and of our environment do we have much of a say in what we do? Who is this ‘I’ whom we refer to? Buffeted by both, it seems we have little to do but blame or thank history, geography and biology.

This is what it comes down to at the moment of choice about something, are we responsible for what we choose to do? You might say you are guided by values, beliefs, by ‘who you are’ and yet people do change their mind about quite fundamental things. Renouncing a religion or political affiliation for example… would this be due to a change in the environment, to what you are reading or who is convincing you? Would you be different if you were born in North Korea rather than South London? Or Hampshire?

If we accept biases we are born with, are we more free to reject them? Are we more open to the feelings and beliefs of others? Or do we hate them for it?

Is freedom of will completely without constraints? What would a person be like who was not in some way a servant of his or her environment and biology? Someone completely free would probably have to be locked up for his or her own good. One minute they would murder, the next they would laugh and cry and compose a symphony, and play it loud at 1 am.

Yet, we know, when we do something that it is the ‘I’ that does it. I am a product of my environment and genes, that I might be a servant to them is one thing. It doesn’t mean I’m a slave.

Do we need schools? Yes. To create a positive environment in which all can flourish, and in which they can realise their freedom. This freedom involves constraints and becoming aware of their importance. That everyone’s environment is different makes a difference, this is where our lived humanity comes into play. In the end a society in which everyone has to smoke twenty a day is, of course, inhuman, but we should aim for everyone to have an education, and a good one. However, were we to receive exactly the same education worldwide that would be inhuman too, although our differences in IQ would be  more heritable, what would we have lost?

So teach, learn, and not worry too much about our genes… they make a difference but if you want to make a large difference teach great stuff and teach it well. It can be life-changing and life affirming.

 

NB: In writing this post I am indebted to the book Freedom Regained by Julian Baggini it is also the source of the quotes.

Democratic Education is no Utopia

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Don’t say goodbye to Mr Chips!!!

Maybe its because I’ve read Lord of the Flies but I’m not sure putting children in charge of education is the best thing for them, our schools, or, indeed, all of our futures. In her ‘Utopian Thinking’ piece in the Guardian, Rachel Roberts argues:

There are a few things we are teaching our children that will be redundant. First, memorising and regurgitating a lot of information – they have information at their fingertips, quite possibly beamed directly into their brains by the time they become active participants in adult society. Second, being told what to do – if they are going to have to resolve problems that have never been faced before they need to know how to think creatively, not follow. And, finally, they do not need to be subordinates on the bottom rung of an authority structure that prepares them simply to obey regardless of the orders – they need to be regarded as the experts that they are.

I don’t know whether Rachel has children or not. Imagine, however, if children were brought up by their parents following this fashionable approach. No learning to read, it might be beamed into your head in the future. No telling you what to do, no toilet training, shit when and where you feel like it: Reductio Ad Abturdum… No following any adult orders at all, just cross that road, I don’t want you to obey me, be the expert that you are, under the wheels of that car.

I have an inkling this is not what she means. I expect her views are not shaped by the home experience, I expect she has a fondness for a degree of adult authority in the home. Though I don’t know. But it is the school that is the target of most of her ire. Roberts is an education consultant.

So what does an education system that isn’t entrenched in top-down authority structures look like? What does it take to get to the point where children are entering our adult world with the wisdom and intuition required to navigate the abundance of information and ride the waves of unexpected new realities?

Democratic education is needed

The answer: put children in charge of schools. Allow them to decide when, where, what, how and with whom they learn; have them resolving real problems day in, day out…

Such a system would be supported by two pillars. The first is collective decision-making, with children fully participating in governing the school community. This should go far beyond a school council. There should be a school meeting where one person has one vote – regardless of age – and where school rules, behaviour management and legislation are the matters at stake.

The second is “self-directed discovery”, with children following their inherently inquisitive nature. Young people are curious, they want to make sense of the world, that’s why they ask questions: “why, why, why … ” A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn. It puts the trust in the child, thus increasing their motivation and allowing them to learn what they need to.

This means rights and responsibilities. A child of any age. Now, with anything like this, it all sounds lovely if children vote the way you want them to. Roberts asks:

Wish some of our “grown up” political decisions were made like this? I’d say children are equipped to be involved, I’d trust them to take me through the challenging times ahead. Wouldn’t you?

But in a true democracy they might vote in ways that you don’t want them to. Just as well meaning ‘liberal’ types  have taken part in recent democratic processes and have found that sometimes people with opposing views to them can win and have found it to be a bit of a shock, I wonder what shock awaits the well meaning ‘give the kids power’ education consultant when they find that the children choose to exercise power in ways that they wouldn’t choose. Especially when you consider these are intended to be children who have received little to no authority in their young lives. As William Golding asks

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?” 

Who will intervene to ensure the behaviour management strategy is not ‘beating up the younger children because they are annoying?’ Where the school rules include sexual favours for certain children or where the right to indoctrinate younger children with terrorist propaganda is flavour of the month with the bigger kids? What if they vote to take away the vote from younger kids?

And why not intervene when a child is exploring online? The self centred discovery of a child lacking control as they are let free in a, so called, ‘adult world’ of depraved images and depictions, arguments and falsities. Roberts is entirely wrong when she states that:

A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn 

Because a good education system DOES intervene, it is there to help children navigate a world of complexity and danger, beauty and joy, immorality and judgement, carefree and careful, an education in these things and more needs authority.

And just like the authority of the parent who teaches her child to read, his child to eat well, her child to go to sleep at a sensible hour, this authority is about love.

Exercising authority is about care. Care for our children is part protective and part empowering. This is not a process of throwing babies into a fully adult world. It is one of nurture. Children need to learn that the human condition is not perfect, they must learn how to cope with that realisation. The most caring way of preparing them for this is to educate them properly by teaching them in a structured and thoughtful way rather than neglecting them.

Roberts’ utopian view is a frightening dystopia in which adults lose any semblance of control they have and give it to those who have no experience about what to do with it. Our world is flawed not because we are adults but because we are human. It won’t be made better by putting children in charge, they are human too and, probably, even more flawed than us. Especially if no one has thought about how to best educate them.

Don’t Educate the Working Class

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Not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class.

says Garth Stahl, the author of Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration… emphasising that education is about changing people and not everyone wants to change. We are defined by where we are in the rat race and that is where we feel most secure. This fear that education might change people, who they are at their very core, is something that eats away at some people’s fears about schooling. ‘Shakespeare is not for our kids,’ might be the cry of some secure in the knowledge that teaching Macbeth to the oiks might see them rise up to Upper Middle Class rectitude and result in them indulging in dark arts at the golf club or even, God forbid, in the Labour Party.

Stahl might have a point, imagine an education that sets out to change Upper Class people into Working Class toilers… What would the timetable consist of? The school lunch menu would be relatively simple: KFC. The lessons could comprise the subjects of gambling, tabloid reading, beer swilling, football (playing as well as the pride and prejudice), Brexit fear of foreigners and all sorts of other such stereotypical nonsense. How would the Upper Class like that?! Do we really think that the working class are a morass of people who indulge in such behaviours that define who they are and if they are subjected to opera, fine dining and JMW Turner their entire world view is shattered and they are left bereft?

This is the problem with the model of education that purely celebrates identity. Firstly we rely on the idea that there is a broad ‘type’ of people defined by their job, or lack of it, their gender, fluid or not, their race, culture and creed. This is useful for Marxist sociologists, snobs , advertisers and algorithm designers – and, indeed, it becomes ever so sophisticated as we are all seen as ABC1s D2s and CD borderlines… but do we really fear teaching and learning things that are of human value beyond our algorithmic echo chambers? If we want education to worship at the altar of our own identities then we will never learn to look beyond.

Rather than change people education refines our understanding of who we are as human beings, it adds to our knowledge not through social engineering; neither meritocratic or anti- aspirational, a good education should expand the self. If education is about the rat race then rats are the only ones who will benefit. If education is a personalised, Narcissistic look at trying to make ourselves feel better about who we are or have chosen to be then it will never be about who we truly are. We don’t have to change who we are, but in order to find out, we might have to take a broader view than the one we think justifies our personal proclivities. An education in ‘high culture’ is for all, not just a supposed elite. Shakespeare is for everyone, whether they like it or not.

The Future Fallacy

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Most people know nothing about learning; many despise it. Dummies reject as too hard whatever is not dumb. 
 Thomas More, Utopia

The future fallacy occurs when someone makes a comment about what the future will be like and then says: ‘therefore we should be doing (insert something here)…’

The 21st century skills argument is exactly this, ‘in the future people will need to collaborate more, be more creative and be prepared for change.’ This is a future fallacy because no-one knows what the future will be like, they can guess but they do not know.

The most bizarre aspect of this fallacy is the way that people lap it up, at education conferences I have heard so many people tell us what the future will be like in order to justify how we should be educating our kids in the present. The most absurd example is the oft repeated one that we should prepare children for the jobs that have yet to be invented, which, in itself is delightfully ridiculous, but when allied to the statement: therefore we should teach them 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking etc. is even more surreal, it’s as if the speaker has a crystal ball but they refuse to tell us what the jobs will be like because, like the recipe for KFC, it has to be kept secret. Except even that chicken is now out of the bag.

Sugar Mitra sometimes falls into this trap:

Within a few decades, institutions began to dematerialise – banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, books, money were all strings of zeros and ones inside the evolving Internet that is now simply called ‘The Cloud’. It is already omnipresent and indestructible. In a few more decades, it will probably be sentient, non-material and, therefore, eternal…

We need a curriculum of Big Questions, pedagogy of self-organised learning, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems. People don’t need to be machines anymore. In the Age of The Cloud, schools have to become Schools of The Cloud.

Next time you hear someone tell you what the future will be like, challenge them, for they are in cloud cuckoo land. The next time someone tells you what the future will be like and therefore we have to change what we are doing in schools point out, gently, that this is the full future fallacy in operation. If the speaker is unaware of how fallacious her argument is and she takes it for granted that what she is saying is true and makes it seem like common sense that we should therefore be doing things differently in our schools, beware, for she is basing her argument on the future fallacy but is unaware of this fact.

The only thing we can know is the past and, even that, is open to various interpretations, so arguments and disagreements are always going to be part of our discourse, and long may they be so. Just beware of the futurologists who try to shut down debate by telling you of tomorrow’s utopia and how we should prepare for it, for they know not what they say.

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.

However, as a teacher one can ‘use’ ideas and methods which are progressive or traditional this doesn’t mean the dichotomy is false, the opposition of ideas remains and the contradictions involved are worth thinking through.

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