Tag Archives: Progressive

The Progressive Curriculum. Curriculum Series Number Four.


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.



Democratic Education is no Utopia


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.

Tradition vs Progress: a True Dichotomy


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

It Was the Worst of Times; It was the Best of Times: Are Our Schools and Kids Awful?

In yesterday’s Daily Mail they ran the following headline:

The worst behaved pupils in the world? You’d better believe it: As a study says schools are even more anarchic than we thought, the shocking testimony of a once idealistic young teacher.” What followed was an article reflecting on a survey about how our pupils are rated amongst the worst behaved in the developed world. The article was written by Robert Peal, a person who I have a lot of time for and I think has a valuable contribution to make to our current debates. In the article he seems to put the blame on this classroom anarchy on the Sixties and the rise of “progressive education.” Robert quotes an earlier Daily Mail Headline from 1974: “Stop these trendies before they ruin ALL our children,” to which he adds the thought: “But the rot had already set in — and has endured.”

Just to put some cards on the table I was at school in a disastrous comprehensive school in 1974. It wasn’t disastrous because of trendies, in fact it was disastrous because those in charge of the previous Girl’s Grammar school (the fuddy duddys?) remained in charge of the new school and they had no idea how to cope with boys especially those of us who weren’t particularly respectful of authority. They hit us but couldn’t break us…

But that’s by the by… I couldn’t help reflecting on Robert’s article when I looked at headlines in yesterday’s Times that reported another survey, this time from the University of Cardiff’s Violence and Society Research Group, that comes to the conclusion that our young people are “far more sensible than their parents…” and that this, the adjoining article stated, is backed up by a number of other surveys stating that drug use continues to fall, binge drinking is down, incidents of violent crime are going down, and there is a rise in the number of young people who don’t drink alcohol at all. Added to this the Times reports that ‘Generation Zero’ (aged between 16-25) are: “…hard workers, ambitious and less materialistic…” than previous generations.

So who has not ruined the current generation? It can’t be, can it, those blooming progressive trendies that inhabit our schools, could it be that the chance to let off steam in an anarchic classroom does our young people good?

I think perhaps things are more complex than they seem. Somewhere along the line most teachers are probably doing a good job inhabiting a world that is probably far more traditional than some of the more lurid headlines suggest. Saying that, I do think what we teach and how we teach needs to be discussed openly and honestly and it is in this spirit that I welcome Robert’s book Progressively Worse and wish him good luck in his new school. We do need more teachers like Robert in our schools but I do wonder whether the way we introduce some young teachers to our profession, by throwing them into some of our more anarchic institutions is the best way to bring the best out of them.

Our bad schools need to be sorted out through good discipline policies and procedures in order to enable all to staff to develop their teaching (and children their learning) without the turmoil or even low level disruption that too many teachers are expected to tolerate.