Traditional vs progressive teaching

Educational approaches adopted by teachers have been presented in terms of ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ for many years. These terms have long served as signposts to point in the general direction of particular teaching philosophies or methods, but it looks as if in recent years they have become reified; what happens when abstract ideas are treated as if they have a concrete existence. Attempts have been made to define ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’, or to point out the advantages of one over the other, and they are often presented as polar opposites, as if approaches to teaching form a spectrum with extreme ‘traditional’ methods at one end and extreme ‘progressive’ methods at the other. I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a general definition of ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ teaching, and it certainly isn’t helpful to frame the debate in that way. Here’s why.

Defining traditional and progressive teaching

‘Teaching’ can be adequately defined in fairly simple terms, but in the real world ‘teaching’ is a pretty complex thing involving many activities and processes. If we were to define ‘teaching’ not verbally, but in the form of a Venn diagram, it would be a set containing many elements. If we then tried to divide the elements in our set {teaching} into two subsets {traditional} and {progressive}, that might help us discover the characteristics of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching.

Some elements, such as ‘only use talk and chalk’ would clearly fall into the set {traditional} whereas ‘always using discovery learning’ would clearly fall into the set {progressive}. But some elements, like ‘reading for more information’ or ‘asking questions’ would fall into both sets i.e. the intersection of the sets. Some elements I found difficult to allocate; I couldn’t decide if ‘watching a dvd’ or ‘using a whiteboard’ could be included in {traditional} because both technologies are so recent they wouldn’t qualify as ‘traditional’ for historical reasons. However, they could both be used in ‘direct instruction’, one of the elements that’s frequently cited as a feature of a traditional approach. The more elements I tried to allocate to either the {traditional} or {progressive} set, the more elements ended up in the intersection of the two. I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to arrive at a general definition of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching, not just because different people have different ideas about what constitutes ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’, but because it’s not a valid way of representing teaching – it doesn’t reflect accurately what happens in the real world.

An analogy would be comparing ‘the olden days’ with ‘modern times’. These are useful verbal signposts pointing to what happened a long time ago and what happened recently, but to an historian interested in tool manufacture, the 18th century would be ‘modern times’, whereas to an IT specialist the 1960s are ‘the olden days’. Even if you were to agree a boundary between the two, as say, midnight on January 1st 2000, there would be many things that were going on in the olden days that are still happening in modern times, so a clear definition would be impossible.

Working definitions

Some people do want to frame teaching in terms of traditional or progressive, however. If they do, and if they want to discuss those issues with others, it’s important that they explain their own definitions, so everyone knows exactly what they are talking about. Working definitions are widely used for concepts that are a bit fuzzy. For example, a sociologist studying the way single parents behave might define a single parent as living in a home where ‘no other adult is resident for more than five nights a year’. Or as ‘self-identifying as a single parent’. Both are valid definitions; they both map accurately on to the lives of lone adults looking after children. Sociologists recognise that the situations of single parents vary widely, so trying to find a definition that accommodates all of them might be a pointless exercise. But if the definitions used for each study are clear, then at least everybody knows what’s being referred to.

The problem with ambiguities

The subject of my previous post was Old Andrew’s definition of traditional and progressive teaching. Most people wouldn’t have a problem with a working definition even if they disagreed with it, as long as it made clear what the person using the definition was talking about. My problem with Old Andrew’s definition was that even as a working definition it contains ambiguities.

There are two potential sources of ambiguity in a working definition; ambiguity in the terminology used, or ambiguity inherent in the thing that you’re trying to define. One example of ambiguous terminology is Old Andrew’s use of the term ‘practice’. ‘Practice’ could mean learning by ‘rehearsal’- a key feature of ‘traditional’ teaching, or learning by ‘doing’ – a key feature of ‘progressive’ approaches. Sometimes the constructs themselves can be ambiguous; in his definition old Andrew equates ‘tradition’ with ‘body of knowledge’ – when both are rather fuzzy complex concepts with blurred boundaries that themselves need working definitions before people can be clear what’s being referred to.

I can’t say that Old Andrew’s working definition of traditional teaching is right or wrong; it’s his working definition and it’s helpful to have it for future discussions. What I can say is that it contains ambiguities that need further clarification. What I can also say is that although you could have as many working definitions of traditional or progressive teaching as there are people talking about them, it will be impossible to arrive at a standard definition of traditional or progressive teaching that everybody signs up to because the number of ambiguities involved is so great. The Venn diagram exercise suggests that because of the ambiguities, traditional and progressive aren’t actually helpful ways to frame the debate. The terms simply add an unnecessary additional layer of complexity.

Old Andrew responded to my criticism of his definition. I’ve replied by commenting on my previous post.

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