In the previous post about the traditional vs progressive education debate, I suggested that visual representation of the arguments might make them clearer. Here, I attempt to do that, starting with Martin Robinson’s conceptual model that he sets out in a post on his blog, Trivium 21c. The diagram below obviously represents my understanding of Martin’s model and might be wrong. It appears to involve only two mutually exclusive pathways from values and beliefs to customs and practices.
I then mapped out my conceptual model. Here’s a first draft:
And an explanation:
You could describe the importance of systems principles, errors and biases, a body of knowledge, human rights and a varied population as my ‘values and beliefs’. But they’re not values and beliefs that sprang fully-formed into my head, nor have they simply been handed down via cultural transmission. They’ve all emerged from a variety of sources over several decades, have been tried-and-tested, and have changed over time.
errors and biases
Everyone views the evidence for what’s optimal politically, socially and educationally through the lens of their own knowledge, understanding and experience. We now know quite a lot about the errors and biases that affect our interpretation of the evidence. Knowing about the errors and biases doesn’t eliminate them, but it can reduce their impact.
We also know quite a lot about the features of systems (features of systems generally, not just specific ones). Applying systems principles is essential if an education system is to be effective.
body of knowledge
I agree with Martin that a body of knowledge handed down from the past is crucial to education, but I wouldn’t frame it in terms of ‘the best which has been thought and said’, mainly because that definition begs the question of who decides what’s ‘best’. I’d frame it instead in terms of validity (what’s been tried-and-tested) and reliability (what’s generally agreed on by experts in relevant fields). It’s important to note that reliability alone isn’t enough – history is replete with examples of experts being collectively wrong. This is one reason why I’m sceptical about Hirsch’s model of cultural literacy.
Education is a universal good in most countries, and as such has to take into account the characteristics of individuals in a large population. And large populations vary considerably. 70% of children would probably cope with a one-size-fits-all subject-centred education, but 15% would be bored or might question what they were taught because they’d be running ahead of it, and a different 15% would struggle to keep up. I’m not making those claims because I’m an IQ bell-curve believer, but because that’s how large populations work and that’s a pattern that’s emerged over time, from universal education systems.
I’ve called this core element of education ‘human rights’, but I’m thinking more ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ than UNHRC. General principles tend to be more flexible than statutory ones.
customs and practices
Applying these underlying principles would result in particular educational customs and practices based on teaching an interconnected body of knowledge rather than ‘subjects’, a curriculum that was adaptable rather than ‘personalised’, and a framework for personal and social development. I haven’t detailed the customs and practices because they would vary across and within schools, classes and groups of students.
My conceptual model of education is very different to Martin’s, and to other traditional/progressive models. I would question some of the fundamental assumptions of the traditional/progressive dichotomy.
- There has to be one core educational belief or value. Why not two, three, six?
- ‘Traditional’ and ‘progressive’ are polar opposites. The core concepts are, but life is not just about core concepts. Some beliefs, customs and practices that have been handed down are invaluable; others aren’t. Some changes are mistakes; others change everyone’s life for the better.
- The traditional v progressive model assumes that the body of knowledge that’s been handed down is valid and reliable, when in fact some parts aren’t and need revising; that’s how knowledge works.
- The traditional v progressive model assumes that the only alternative to teaching ‘the best which has been thought or said’ is a ‘personalised curriculum’. It isn’t. The body of knowledge can be adapted to particular groups of students. That’s where professional expertise comes in.
why does any of this matter?
Some of the points of the traditional v progressive debate have been pretty obscure and not everyone recognises the divide, so I can understand why people might be asking why the debate matters. It matters because a simple but wrong idea can be halfway round the world before a more complex but right idea has got its boots on. And simple but wrong ideas can have a devastating impact on many people, especially when they creep into public policy because politicians are in a tearing hurry to implement vote-winning wheezes.
At one time, a government-commissioned committee of enquiry might take years to examine research findings and evaluate opinions. The Warnock committee’s Enquiry into the education of handicapped children and young people for example, was commissioned by a Conservative education secretary in 1973, reported to a Labour government 5 years later, and some of its recommendations were enacted under another Conservative government, three years after that.
In contrast, Nick Gibb’s recent speech to the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney relies heavily on anecdotal evidence and references to the opinions of particular contributors to social media. It’s a speech, not a committee of enquiry, but clearly there’s been a shift in the level of rigour.