progressively worse

‘Let the data speak for themselves’ is a principle applied by researchers in a wide range of knowledge domains, from particle physics through molecular biology to sociology and economics. The converse would be ‘make the data say what you want them to say’, a human tendency that different knowledge domains have developed various ways of counteracting, such as experimental design, statistical analysis, peer review and being explicit about one’s own epistemological framework.

Cognitive science has explored several of the ways in which our evaluation of data can be flawed; Kahneman, Slovic & Tversky (1982) for example, examine in detail some of the errors and biases inherent in human reasoning. Findings from cognitive science have been embraced with enthusiasm by the new traditionalists, but they appear to have applied the findings only to teaching and learning, not to the thinking of the people who design education systems or pedagogical methods – or those who write books about those things. In Progressively Worse Robert Peal succumbs to some of those errors and biases – notably the oversimplification of complex phenomena, confirmation bias and attribution errors – and as a consequence he draws conclusions that are open to question.

The ‘furious debate’

Peal opens Progressively Worse with a question he says has been the subject of half a century of ‘furious debate’; ‘how should children learn?’ He exemplifies the debate as a series of dichotomies – an authoritative teacher vs independent learning, knowledge vs skills etc. representing differences between traditional and progressive educational approaches. He then provides an historical overview of changes to the British (or, more accurately English – they do things differently in Scotland) education system between 1960 and 2010, notes their impact on pedagogy and concludes that it’s only freedom to innovate that will rescue the country from the ‘damaging doctrine’ of progressive education to which the educational establishment is firmly wedded. (p.1)

Progressive or traditional

For Peal, progressive education has four core themes;

• education should be child-centred
• knowledge is not central to education
• strict discipline and moral education are oppressive and
• socio-economic background dictates success (pp.5-7).

He’s not explicit about the core themes of traditional education, but the features he mentions include;

• learning from the wisdom of an authoritative teacher
• an academic curriculum
• a structure of rewards and examinations
• sanctions for misbehaving and not working (p.1).

He also gives favourable mention to;

subject divisions
the house system
smart blazers, badges and ties
lots of sport
academic streaming
prize-giving
prefects
pupil duties
short hair
silent study
homework
testing
times tables
grammar, spelling and punctuation
school song, colours and motto
whole-class teaching, explanation and questioning
the difference between right and wrong, good and evil
class rankings

I claimed that Peal’s analysis of the English education system is subject to three principle cognitive errors or biases. Here are some examples:

Oversimplification

For the new traditionalists, cognitive load theory – derived from the fact that working memory has limited capacity – has important implications for pedagogy. But people don’t seek to minimise cognitive load only when learning new concepts in school. We also do it when handling complex ideas. On a day-to-day level, oversimplification can be advantageous because it enables rapid, flexible thinking; when devising public policy it can be catastrophic because the detail of policy is often as important as the overarching principle.

Education is a relatively simple idea in principle, but in practice it’s fiendishly complex, involving political and philosophical frameworks, socio-economic factors, systems pressures, teacher recruitment, training and practice and children’s health and development. Categorising education as ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’ doesn’t make it any simpler. Each of Peal’s four core themes of progressive education is complex and could be decomposed into many elements. In classrooms, the elements that make up progressive education are frequently interspersed with elements of traditional education, so although I agree with him that some elements of progressive education taken to extreme have had a damaging influence, it’s by no means clear that they have been the only causes of damage, nor that other elements of progressive education have not been beneficial.

Peal backs up with numbers his claim that the British education system is experiencing ‘enduring educational failure’ (p. 4). He says the ‘bare figures are hard to ignore’. Indeed they are; what he doesn’t seem to realise is that ‘bare figures’ are also sometimes ambiguous. For example, the UK coming a third of the way down the PISA rankings is not an indication of educational ‘failure’ – unless your definition of success is a pretty narrow one. And the fact that in all countries except the UK literacy and numeracy levels of 16-24 year-olds are better than those of 55-65 year-olds might be telling us more about the resilience of the UK education system in the post-war period than about current literacy standards in other countries. ‘Bare figures’ rarely tell the whole story.

Confirmation bias

Another concept from cognitive science important to the new traditionalists is the schema – the way related information is organised in long-term memory. Schemata are seen as useful because they aid recall. But our own schemata aren’t always an accurate representation of the real world. Peal overlooks the role schemata play in confirmation bias; we tend to construe evidence that confirms the structure of one of our own existing schemata as having higher validity than evidence that contradicts it, even if the evidence overall shows that our schema is inaccurate.

Research usually begins with a carefully worded research question; the question has to be one that can have an answer, and the way the question is framed will determine what data are gathered and how they are analysed to provide an answer. The data don’t always confirm researchers’ expectations; what the data say is sometimes surprising and occasionally counterintuitive. Peal opens with the question; ‘how should children learn?’ but it’s not a question that could be answered using data as it’s framed in terms of an imperative. That’s not an issue for Peal, because he doesn’t use his data to answer the question, but starts with his answer and marshals the data to support it. He’s entitled to do this of course. Whether it’s an appropriate way to tackle an important area of public policy is another matter. The big pitfall in using this approach is that it’s all too easy to overlook data that doesn’t confirm one’s thesis, and Peal overlooks data relating to the effectiveness of traditional educational methods.

Peal’s focus on the history of progressive education during the last 50 years means he doesn’t cover the history of traditional education in the preceding centuries. If Peal’s account of British education is the only one you’ve read, you could be forgiven for thinking that traditional education was getting along just fine until the pesky progressives arrived with their political ideology that happened to gain traction because of the counter-cultural zeitgeist in the 1960s and 1970s. But other accounts paint a different picture.

Traditional education has had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate its effectiveness; Prussia had introduced a centralised, compulsory education system by the late 18th century – one that was widely emulated. But traditional methods weren’t without their critics. It wasn’t uncommon for a school to consist of one class with one teacher in charge. Children (sometimes hundreds) were seated in order of age on benches (‘forms’) and learned by rote not just multiplication tables and the alphabet, but entire lessons, which they then recited to older children or ‘monitors’ (Cubbereley, 1920). This was an approach derived from the catechetical method used for centuries by religious groups and was understandable if funding was tight and pupils didn’t have access to books. But a common complaint about rote learning was that children might memorise the lessons but they often didn’t understand them.

Another problem was the children with learning difficulties and disabilities enrolled in schools when education became compulsory. The Warnock committee reports teachers being surprised by the numbers. In England, such children were often hived off into special schools where those deemed ‘educable’ were trained for work. In France, by contrast, Braille, Itard and Seguin developed ways of supporting the learning of children with sensory impairments and Binet was commissioned to develop an assessment for learning difficulties that eventually transformed into the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale.

Corporal punishment for misdemeanours or failure to learn ‘lessons’ wasn’t uncommon either, especially after payment by results was introduced through ‘Lowe’s code’ in 1862. In The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England Philip Gardner draws attention to the reasons why ‘dame schools’- small schools in private houses – persisted up until WW2; these included meeting the needs of children terrified of corporal punishment and parents sceptical of the quality of teaching in state schools – often the result of their own experiences.

Not all schools were like this of course, and I don’t imagine for a moment that that’s what the new traditionalists would advocate. But it’s important to bear in mind that just as progressive methods taken to extremes can damage children’s educational prospects, traditional methods taken to extremes can do the same. It’s difficult to make an objective comparison of the outcomes of traditional and progressive education in the early days of the English state education system because comparable data aren’t available for the period prior to WW2, but it’s clear that the drawbacks of rote learning, whole class teaching and teacher authority made a significant contribution to progressive educational ideas being well-received by a generation of adults whose personal experience of school was often negative.

Attribution errors

Not only is the structure of some things complex, but their causes can be too. Confirmation bias can lead to some causes being considered but others being prematurely dismissed – in other words, to wrong causal attributions being made. One common attribution error is to assume that a positive correlation between two factors indicates that one causes another.

Peal attributes the origins of progressive education to Rousseau and the Romantic movement, presumably following ED Hirsch, a former professor of English literature whose specialism was the Romantic poets and who re-frames the nature/nurture debate as Romantic/Classical. Peal also claims that “progressive education seeks to apply political principles such as individual freedom and an aversion to authority to the realm of education” (p.4) supporting the new traditionalists’ view of progressive education as ideologically motivated. Although the pedagogical methods advocated by Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori and Dewey resemble Rousseau’s philosophy, a closer look at their ideas suggests his influence was limited. Pestalozzi became involved in developing Rousseau’s ideas when Rousseau’s books were banned in Switzerland. Pestalozzi was also influenced by Herbart, a philosopher intrigued by perception and consciousness, topics that preoccupied early psychologists such as William James, a significant influence on John Dewey. Froebel was a pupil of Pestalozzi interested in early learning who set up the original Kindergärten. Maria Montessori trained as a doctor. She applied the findings of Itard and Seguin who worked with deaf-mute children, to education in general. The founders of progressive education were influenced as much by psychology and medicine as by the Romantics.

Peal doesn’t appear to have considered the possibility of convergence – that people with very different worldviews, including Romantics, Marxists, social reformers, educators and those working with children with disabilities – might espouse similar educational approaches for very different reasons; or of divergence – that they might adopt some aspects of progressive education but not others.

Peal and traditional education

Peal’s model of the education system certainly fits his data, but that’s not surprising since he explicitly begins with a model and selects data to fit it. Although he implies that he would like to see a return to traditional approaches, he doesn’t say exactly what they would look like. Several of the characteristics of traditional education Peal refers to are the superficial trappings of long-established independent schools – bells, blazers and haircuts, for example. Although some of the other features he mentions might have educational impacts he doesn’t cite any evidence to show what they might be.

I suspect that Peal has fallen into the trap of assuming that because long-established independent schools have a good track record of providing a high quality academic education, it follows that if all schools emulated them in all respects, all students would get a good education. What this view overlooks is that independent schools are, and have always been, selective, even those set up specifically to provide an education for children from poor families. Providing a good academic education to an intellectually able, academically-inclined child from a family motivated enough to take on additional work to be able to afford the school uniform is a relatively straightforward task. Providing the same for a child with learning difficulties, interested only in football and motor mechanics whose dysfunctional family lives in poverty in a neighbourhood with a high crime rate is significantly more challenging, and might not be appropriate.

The way forward

The new traditionalists argue that the problems with the education system are the result of a ‘hands off’ approach by government and the educational establishment being allowed to get on with it. Peal depicts government, from Jim Callaghan’s administration onward, as struggling (and failing) to mitigate the worst excesses of progressive education propagated by the educational establishment. That’s a popular view, but not necessarily an accurate one and Peal’s data don’t support that conclusion. The data could equally well indicate that the more government intervenes in education, the worse things get. The post-war period has witnessed a long series of expensive disasters since government got more ‘hands on’ with education; the social divisiveness of the 11+, pressure on schools to adopt particular pedagogical approaches, enforced comprehensivisation, change to a three-tier system followed by a change back to a two-tier one, a constantly changing compulsory national curriculum, standardised testing focused on short-term rather than long-term outcomes, a local inspectorate replaced by a centralised one, accountability to local people replaced by accountability to central government, a constant stream of ‘initiatives’, constantly changing legislation and regulation and increasing micro-management.

A state education system has to be able to provide a suitable education for all children, a challenging task for teachers. The most effective approach found to date for occupations required to apply expertise to highly variable situations is the professional one. Although ‘professional’ is often used simply to denote good practice, it has a more specific meaning for occupations – professionals are practitioners who have acquired high-level expertise to the point where they are authorised to practice without supervision. Regulation and accountability comes via professional bodies and independent adjudicators. This model, used in occupations ranging from doctors, lawyers and architects to builders and landscape gardeners, although not foolproof, has worked well for centuries.

Teaching is an obvious candidate for professional status, but teachers in England have never been treated as true professionals. Initial teacher training has often been shortened or set aside entirely in times of economic downturn or shortages of teachers in specific subject areas, and it’s debatable whether a PGCE provides a sufficient grounding for subject-specialist secondary teachers, never mind for the range of skills required in primary education. Increasing micromanagement by local authorities and more recently by central government has undermined the professional status of teachers further.

I see no evidence to suggest that the university lecturers and researchers, civil servants, local authorities, school inspectors, teaching unions, educational psychologists and teachers themselves that make up the so-called ‘educational establishment’ are any less able than government to design a workable and effective education system – indeed by Peal’s own reckoning, during the period when they actually did that the education system functioned much better.

Despite providing some useful information about recent educational policy, Peal’s strategy of starting with a belief and using evidence to support it is unhelpful and possibly counterproductive because it overlooks alternative explanations for why there might be problems with the English education system. This isn’t the kind of evidence-based approach to policy that government needs to use. Let the data speak for themselves.

References
Cubberley, EP (1920). The History of Education. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press
Gardner, P (1984). The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England: The People’s Education. Routledge.
Kahneman, D., Slovic, P & Tversky A (1982). Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press.
Peal, R (2014). Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools. Civitas.

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