Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching

Old Andrew”, well-known education blogger, was invited yesterday by the Local Schools Network on Twitter to define “progressive teaching”. He obliged by defining it in terms of “traditional teaching” as follows:

“Progressive teaching is that which rejects any of the pillars of traditional teaching. These are 1) the existence of a tradition i.e. a body of knowledge necessary for developing the intellect. 2) The use of direct instruction & practice as the most effective methods of teaching. 3) The authority of teachers in the classroom.”

One problem with using complex constructs like ‘traditional’ is that they are, well, complex. We all know roughly what we mean by ‘traditional’ (or ‘British’ or ‘doing the right thing’) but defining those terms precisely is tricky for several reasons:

a) Complex constructs are sets containing several, sometimes many, elements.

b) Different people will have different elements in their construct sets. Ask 100 people to give precise definitions of ‘traditional’ (or ‘British’ or ‘doing the right thing’) and you’re likely to find that all their construct sets have some elements in common (‘something we’ve always done’, ‘related to Great Britain’, ‘what’s good for people’), but that some elements are mentioned only by some people, and some will be referred to only by single individuals.

c) Often the elements within the sets are themselves complex constructs so a) and b) above apply to them too.

In Old Andrew’s construct set ‘traditional teaching’, there are three main elements, numbered in his definition. But each of those elements is itself a set of elements. I want to explore each in turn.

the existence of a tradition

Old Andrew equates tradition with ‘a body of knowledge necessary for developing the intellect’. I can see what he’s getting at, but a ‘tradition’ isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s a set of customs or beliefs that are passed on from generation to generation. The customs might or might not be beneficial ones, and the beliefs might or might not be true.

body of knowledge

A body of knowledge, by contrast, is knowledge about a particular aspect of the world. But bodies of knowledge are not canon, with clear boundaries and clearly authenticated content. They are constantly intertwining, enlarging and being revised as new information comes to light. There are parts of bodies of knowledge on which there is broad consensus and for which there is robust evidence, and it makes sense for children and young people to learn about these parts, so they know how the world works. But the reliability of bodies of knowledge is dependent on the reliability of the evidence underpinning the knowledge, not on tradition.


Then there’s the knotty problem of the intellect. I’m guessing that Old Andrew refers to ‘the intellect’ because he doesn’t see education solely in terms of imparting knowledge, but also in terms of developing skills that enable the knowledge to be acquired and evidence to be evaluated. But he appears to see the body of knowledge as having to precede intellectual development, when in reality they are interdependent, and indeed some intellectual skills are needed before some types of knowledge can be acquired. The intellectual development of young children is pretty basic, but if they had no powers of reasoning at all they wouldn’t be able to make the associations between objects and events that’s essential for all learning.

direct instruction

In Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching, teachers give students access to a body of knowledge by direct instruction. But knowledge isn’t homogeneous. Some knowledge is best acquired by someone telling you about it (e.g. events leading up to WW1); some by reading up on the evidence yourself and evaluating it jointly with others (e.g. causes of obesity). Some knowledge is best acquired by investigation (e.g. how ants interact); and some by practice (e.g. how to bake a Victoria sponge).


Old Andrew would probably say that my exceptions to direct instruction are covered by the element ‘practice’ in his definition. He and I have discussed this before. I’ve pointed out that practice has two main meanings in English; ‘doing’ and ‘rehearsal’. It’s not clear in his definition of traditional teaching, which he means or whether he means both.

the most effective methods of teaching

It might be obvious to Old Andrew what teaching methods are effective and what aren’t, but the debates that have rumbled on since at least the late 19th century suggest that what’s effective isn’t obvious to everybody because different people want different things from education. Until we’re all in agreement about what education is supposed to achieve, the debates about what’s effective and how you can measure it will continue to rumble.

the authority of teachers

Authority is another complex construct. On the face of it, it looks like the right to tell others what to do, but it’s not as simple as that, as most teachers will testify. That’s because teachers’ authority doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it has to be backed by something. It can be backed by behaviour (authoritative personality or bullying or aggression), by knowledge and experience, by power structures within or outside the school, by consent of the students, or by all of the above. It’s not a matter of simply giving teachers authority or just recognising it.

the classroom

Old Andrew’s definition of ‘traditional teaching’ is set in the classroom because children and young people have been traditionally taught in schools and schools have classrooms. For obvious reasons he sees it as essential that teachers have authority in the environment in which they are teaching.

I understand that Old Andrew is primarily concerned about how teaching and learning happen in schools. But I also get the impression that he sees teaching and learning happening only in schools. It doesn’t of course. People learn and teach others throughout their lifespan, in school and outside it. Some teaching and learning is explicit and/or formal, some is implicit and/or informal. And I think that’s where much of the disagreement about teaching and learning comes from. If you see education as what happens in childhood and adolescence in schools, your priorities and expectations will be different from those of people who see education as lifelong and formal schooling as only a part of that.

What’s the alternative?

Having taken apart Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching and, as a consequence, his definition of progressive teaching, do I have an alternative definition to propose? No I don’t, because I don’t see ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’ as valid, reliable or helpful ways of categorising teaching. That’s because knowledge isn’t homogeneous, nor are skills, nor are students – nor, for that matter, are teachers. The most effective way of ensuring that students acquire particular knowledge or skills will need to be derived from the characteristics of the knowledge, skills and students involved. Many teachers apply this principle all the time, but they might not do so explicitly. They know, intuitively, that this year’s Year 7s aren’t going to be able to cope with an approach that worked for last year’s Year 7s, or that an approach that worked really well for one topic won’t work for a related one. So, someone observing a particular teacher’s practice might witness one lesson that could have been lifted directly from 18th century Prussia, and another that looks like child-led learning of the most directionless kind. I’m not talking about using simplistic ‘mixed methods’ approach in the hope that something will work. What I am saying is that to be effective methods need to take into account the knowledge, the skills and the students involved.

If, for some reason people must classify teaching in terms of progressive or traditional, it can’t be done by using two distinct categories, because there’s too much overlap in how people define the categories and what methods teachers use. The relationship between progressive and traditional is more like a normal distribution, with at one extreme a few teachers who use only what they consider to be ‘traditional’ teaching come what may, and at the other extreme a few teachers who use only what they consider to be ‘progressive’ teaching, likewise. In the middle are the majority who use a range of methods for different reasons; from those who use whatever is intuitively appealing, through those who use whatever methods they believe a particular authority figure thinks they should use, to those who use whatever does the job most effectively and have the evidence to prove it.

Until we reach consensus on what education is intended to achieve, develop a robust body of evidence that shows how to achieve it and figure out how to accommodate all the unique individuals we want to benefit from it, it’s likely that arguments about simplistic categorisation will go on and on.