traditional vs progressive: the meta-debate

The traditional vs progressive education debate has been a contentious one. Some have argued that there’s a clear divide between traditional and progressive education, and others that it’s a false dichotomy. So in addition to the traditional/progressive debate, there’s been a meta-debate about whether or not a traditional/progressive divide actually exists.

the meta-debate

Two features of the meta-debate have puzzled me. One is; amongst those who recognise a traditional/progressive divide, which educational practices are considered traditional and which progressive? The other is; why those who recognise a traditional/progressive divide feel so strongly about people who don’t.

Here for example is the usually mild-mannered Martin Robinson, on his blog Trivium 21C.

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.”

My initial understanding of Martin’s argument was as follows;

  1. In general, the term traditional means ‘belief, custom or practice being handed down’, ‘from the past’, and ‘conservative in the sense of keeping things the same’. Progressive means ‘advocating reform in political or social matters’, ‘toward the future’ and ‘radical in the sense of reforming things’.
  1. In education, “traditionalists argue for the centrality of subject and progressives argue for the centrality of the child”.
  1. It’s not just Martin who defines the terms in this way; the general meanings are used widely, and the specific educational meanings are shared by John Dewey and Chambers etymological dictionary, no less.
  1. The beliefs, customs and practices referred to by the terms traditional and progressive are mutually exclusive; you can’t prioritise what’s handed down from the past and prioritise reform at the same time, and “the classroom can’t be both subject centred and child centred.”   Therefore the categories traditional and progressive must be mutually exclusive.

I agreed with Martin on some points. Beliefs, customs and practices have indeed been handed down, and political and social reforms have been carried out. Subject centred and child centred education has certainly happened. And there’s widespread agreement on what traditional and progressive mean generally, and in education. However at this point Martin appears make some assumptions, and this is where we parted company.


The first assumption is that because certain beliefs, customs and practices exist out there in the real world, the categories to which people assign those beliefs, customs and practices, must also exist out there in the real world; the categories have external validity.

The second assumption is that if there is widespread agreement on what the terms traditional and progressive refer to, the categories traditional and progressive have, for all intents and purposes, a universal meaning; the categories are also reliable.

The third assumption is that the beliefs, customs and practices assigned to the categories traditional and progressive are mutually exclusive, therefore the categories traditional and progressive must be mutually exclusive.

Those assumptions were the only reasons I could think of that would prompt Martin to accuse people of lying or covering up if they claimed that tradition vs progress was a false dichotomy.

I think the assumptions are unfounded, largely because, although there might be widespread agreement about what traditional and progressive refer to, that agreement isn’t universal. Other proponents of the traditional/progressive divide apply different criteria.

differences of opinion

Here’s Old Andrew’s definition from 2014; “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.”*

And here’s Robert Peal, in his book Progressively Worse;

It has become fashionable to pose the ideas of progressive education against those of, for want of a better term, ‘traditional’ education. Educational commentators are likely to say that such ‘polarising rhetoric’ establishes ‘false dichotomies’. When in reality a sensible mix of the two approaches is required. This is true. …Such dichotomies, (skills/knowledge, child-centred/ teacher-led) are perhaps better thought of as sitting at opposite ends of a spectrum.” (p.8)

Each of the three commentators appears to believe that a traditional/progressive divide exist out there in the real world, but they have different ideas about where the divide lies. Or if there are several divides. Or whether the divide is actually a spectrum. But despite differences of opinion about exactly where the divide is, or whether there are any divides as such, each of the commentators cheerfully castigates anyone who questions the location or the existence of the divide.

Robert Peal says in a blogpost that those criticising the categorisation of issues in education are “more often than not just trying to shut down debate.”  Old Andrew has also alleged that those who think the divide is a false dichotomy are in denial about the existence of the debate.

I was perplexed. I just couldn’t see how a wide range of educational theories or practices could be shoe-horned into two mutually exclusive categories, but I wasn’t lying about that, or covering anything up, and I can hardly be accused of wanting to shut down debate.  Then a recent Twitter exchange shed more light on the subject.

trad:prog values

Although proponents of a traditional/progressive divide often refer to values, I’d had no idea that they were basing the divide primarily on values. Or for that matter, what values they might be basing it on.   Martin’s post now made more sense. If he defines traditional and progressive education in terms of single mutually exclusive core values that he believes exist out there in the real world, then I can see why he might feel justified in accusing people who disagree of lying or covering up.

who disagrees?

One problem for people who disagree with proponents of the traditional/progressive divide is that the proponents appear to assume their definition of traditional and progressive education is valid (which is questionable) and reliable (which it clearly isn’t if other proponents of the divide don’t agree about where the divide is).

A second problem is an assumption that the core values that characterise traditional and progressive education are mutually exclusive. I would question that as well. Clearly, education can’t be subject centred and child centred at the same time, but who decided a label can be attached to only one value? Or that education has to be centred on only one thing?

A third problem is that although proponents of the traditional/progressive divide might be arguing that the divide exists only at the level of values (and in Martin’s case might involve only two core values), each of the proponents I’ve cited has made numerous references to practice. This might explain why I, and others, have gone ‘Dichotomy? What dichotomy?’, or have claimed to be eclectic, or somewhere between the two, or whatever.

I’ve argued previously that it might be helpful to represent abstract concepts like traditional and progressive diagrammatically. I still think this would be a good move. A few Venn diagrams and a bit of graphical representation would force all of us to clarify exactly what we mean.

*I can’t locate the original tweets, but blogged about them here.