Category Archives: Progress

The Need for a Progressive Attitude

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In her thoughtful essay ‘The Crisis in Education’, Hannah Arendt addresses the difficulty of teaching in the modern world. If you go into teaching with the sole purpose of making a real difference, changing the world one child at a time, you might end up doing nothing of the sort.

A revolutionary or radical attitude is needed in the adult realm because we always need to remake our world. The world is always on the verge of ruin and a traditionalist conservative view where one stands and merely ‘admires the ruins’ will do nothing to make the world a great inheritance for our children.

We should try to make the world a better place than it is. Always. This doesn’t mean an unalloyed progressive mindset is a good thing. It does mean that our arguments are continual, our disagreements fundamental and our need to work together essential. Education has an important role in this, we need to prepare children to take part in the conversations, the arguments and help them develop the wherewithal to do, to contribute and to make change.

In order to do this one can imagine the unthinking classroom being full of novelty, in which the ruins are not examined and the future is always in sight. A classroom that shapes the new utopia and children practice the skills with which they will actively make their contribution. A room where their will is the authority and in which the teacher has the role of guiding them, responding to their playful desires and wishes. This world, shaped by the teacher’s idealism, and the burgeoning youthful enthusiasm will not be tainted by the old.

Here then is the paradox, this world that comes into being will not be radical, as it will have no root. Shaped by a tyranny of the present, it won’t understand the ruins it knocks down to build its gleaming new pathways and concrete blocks – or even the blocks it is cladding. Arendt sees the role of the teacher as a difficult one for an idealist, for the teacher’s job is to bring the past into the realm of the young:

To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity… But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among and with adults and equals. In politics this conservative attitude–which accepts the world as it is, striving only to preserve the status quo–can only lead to destruction, because the world, in gross and in detail, is irrevocably delivered up to the ruin of time unless human beings are determined to intervene, to alter, to create what is new…

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation… Because the world is made by mortals it wears out… The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting–right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is always, from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction…

the modern crisis is especially hard for the educator to bear, because it is his task to mediate between the old and the new, so that his very profession requires of him an extraordinary respect for the past. 

If, however the teacher is determined to make the child make the future in a certain way by dictating the terms of the newness of the world that they make we defeat our darker purpose. The child cannot be told how to draw the new world, they can however be painted pictures of the old one, and these pictures must be painted with warts and all. Cromwell is a great example, hugely important figure, hugely flawed and the English Civil War and its ramifications painted in as many shades of grey one can muster.

As the past isn’t one story but a continuation of one damn argument after another, children should be made aware of these arguments, that we admire ruins but the reason that they are ruins might be this… or this… we conserve in order to learn. We treat the pupil as a stranger to these facts and fictions we teach and by presenting arguments, dialectic, we give them the old world to ensure they will be able to intervene, alter and create the new.

The balance between presenting the old and the arguments within is a careful act. This includes, for example, what should be read and how it should be read. These questions are vital when considering the design of a curriculum and if we listen to the words of Arendt we are helped in our choices.

The trivium curriculum gives shape to these choices – the grammar – ‘the structures, the ‘ruins’ of the past, are examined in context, and, later, examined when the arguments of the past and the present are brought to bear, and, finally, the pupil, with this knowledge, is given the wherewithal, the ‘voice’ with which to express herself. She expresses herself freely within the constraints offered, by accepting or rejecting these chains (or degrees thereof) and offers herself up to the criticism of her teacher and, eventually, her peers. This is a truly progressive approach, rooted in the past.

Shoot the Target Grade

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Despite the person, who came to my school talking about how they arrived at estimated grades, saying that they should never be used as ‘target grades’, the school informed us that the data generated was to be used as a target grade for every pupil.

A grade set by English, maths results at key stage 2 will be used to create an aim for a pupil in year 10, a ‘minimum’ expectation in the GCSE exam…

in drama.

This was not all. I was then instructed to not only inform my pupils but to get them to write the grade on the front of their books so that they would remember it when ‘OfSTED’ came in. In order to ensure this was happening some SLT came into classes and asked a pupil or two: ‘What’s your target grade?’ If they didn’t know, they’d get told off. If they didn’t know, the teacher would get told off.

When I refused to get my pupils to put their grades on their books I got told off. I kept not doing it. After a threat of disciplinary procedures I eventually got my pupils to write the grades inside the books, whilst telling them they were nonsense, that in the drama room we didn’t care about the grade we just cared about the quality of the work. I was also expected to ‘grade them’ accurately every fortnight to see if they were ‘on’ target. This, again was ludicrous. Nigh on impossible in a drama class, well, at least, in my drama class I argued. And as for a one sentence improvement comment, a ridiculous waste of time. Feedback is verbal, I argued, in situ, to the child and is far more than a glib comment. None of this ingratiated me with my line manager.

All we needed, I told my pupils, was to make great work and maybe you’ll get a great grade… if the examiner is good enough.

I remember going through the ‘target’ grades with a class and a girl who loved drama, who was very enthusiastic and new to the school; I called her name, she came up to me to get her target grade…

‘E’.

She had tears in her eyes. I told her it was ludicrous. That I didn’t think it mattered, that tests in English and maths had no bearing on how good she was. She was to become such a great student, producing memorable work and was an extremely important member of the class.

I can’t recollect what grade she got in the end, it was either a B or an A, no matter. The other day I saw her on a terrestrial TV channel acting in a drama serial and acting superbly.

Whether her target grade had been an E or a B, it wouldn’t matter. The grade is a distraction. What the aim should be is not a grade but a profound engagement with the subject.

Yes we might need to get grades as currency but if we make this currency the be all and end all of our learning we cease to focus on the subject and instead see it as little more than the means to get a job or place in a college. Or just a fifth GCSE. Or Eighth. Cynical instrumentalism. The emphasis becomes less about the fascination with a body of knowledge and more about grade capital.

Estimated grades might have a purpose in the back office of a school, but they should not be shared as target grades with individual students. Especially outside of the subjects that were graded at key stage 2. Even in these subjects I think the sharing of the grade might be of little benefit. The focus in the classroom should be in the learning of the material, the knowledge needed, not ‘what do I need to do to get a C or a 4 or a 5…’

This is why I’d like to see us shoot the target grade…

dead.

Get Kids Cultured

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To be cultured means to nail one’s colours to the mast, and those who fear what’s arbitrary in that (and run to theory for protection) fear culture itself.

Howard Jacobson

The importance of tradition, the great tradition, is not that it is the only possibility but it is the best one that we have. For Jacobson, his tutor at Cambridge, FR Leavis, opened up a world of education to him:

Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.

Being right isn’t what matters to Jacobson but it is the ‘nailing one’s colours to the mast’ that does. This is ‘being cultured’. The vision for education is important, to be involved in that conversation, to add to it, to argue, to say ‘yes… but…’ but not to dismiss and the involvement in the dialogue is lifelong.

It is telling that in a piece called:

Building 21st-century skills: preparing pupils for the future, that a life ‘after education’ is envisaged:

In an ever-evolving world, how can we ensure that future generations have the skills that will truly prepare them for life after education?

In the past I have called this type of progressive education ‘neo-progressivism’. Instead of being revolutionary it is tied to the interests of global capitalism. Instead of education being an ever-evolving involvement with a lifetime of reading and exploring the rich tapestry of culture, the neo-progresssive sees education as a finite vehicle for the good of global capitalism. In her sponsored piece in the Guardian Jessica Clifton, the marketing manager for Lego Education nails her colours to the mast:

…there is a certain expectation to simply fill students with facts and figures. However, this can actually hinder learning, limiting students’ potential to explore concepts and discover solutions for themselves. What we need to do is, quite literally, put learning into students’ hands.

Which, for Jessica is Lego. And I love lego, but it is not ‘Culture’. It is a great toy, and toys can be used for great art; through their knowledge of Goya, the Chapman Brothers, were driven to create works of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ by melting down toy soldiers, maiming, twisting and painting them. The art created is dystopian and disturbing. This is not the vision Lego Education has when it wants to put learning in students’ hands. The article sees education as far more sterile, it quotes Andy Snape, assistant head of sixth form at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, as saying:

“As a teacher, I want to give students the greatest opportunities to achieve and I have found hands-on, creative lessons to be the most effective. Why? Because this learning style not only enthuses and engages pupils, but gives them the chance to understand the purpose of what they’re learning… we use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 to teach engineering, mathematics and computing, as well as using it for an extracurricular robotics club. Using the central programmable “Intelligent Brick”, students can design and build robotic solutions to different scenarios and problems. This could be anything from a sorting system that organises items into distinct categories based on colour, or a prototype space rover that avoids obstacles and performs basic tasks remotely.”

Education as a means to an end, not a life within culture but one that sees education as having a predetermined purpose, to serve the needs of business. It is the misunderstanding of creativity that irks me most. Let us nail our colours to the mast, creativity is not a ‘learning style’, it can be downright dangerous and dirty, but as a great  education cliche it has become the clinical servant of capital. Lego education, Persil et al, who peddle this version of creativity are anti-education, anti-culture, and paradoxically anti-creativity. Creativity is a life force, central to humanity and not the servant of a utilitarian drive to get people into STEM subjects to prepare them for the jobs that have yet to be invented.

This is the tension between tradition and progress; on the side of tradition we have great art, literature and the humanities and a continual dialogue, a great cultural education. On the side of progress we have Lego, STEM subjects (not the subjects themselves but their adoption as ‘a thing’) and an education that finishes when the world of work has taken over your life, this education is anti-cultural. It is the philistine fear of a truly cultural education that drives much of the verbiage of the neo-progressive movement. For them it is all brands, futurology, and education for utility: ‘Mcdonaldisation’; it is the sort of education that will halt progress in its tracks, for it forgets the importance of facts and figures and the knowledge and richness of the past. For all their trumpeting of creativity the neo-progressives can’t create a better story than the one education has been telling for centuries.

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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