traditional vs progressive: visualisation

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.

systems principles

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.

varied population

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.

human rights

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.

questioning assumptions

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.

  1. There has to be one core educational belief or value. Why not two, three, six?
  1. ‘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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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.

traditional vs progressive: mathematics, logic and philosophy meet the real world

For thousands of years, human beings have been trying to figure out why the world they live in works in the way it does. But it’s only been in the last five hundred or so that a coherent picture of those explanations has begun to emerge. It’s as if people have long had many of the pieces of the jigsaw, but there was no picture on the box. Because a few crucial pieces were missing, it was impossible to put the puzzle together so that the whole thing made sense.

Some of the puzzle pieces that began to make sense to the ancient Greeks involved mathematics – notably geometry. They assumed that if the consistent principles of geometry could be reliably applied to the real world, then it was likely other mathematical principles and the principles underlying mathematics (logic) could too. So philosophers started to use logic to study the fundamental nature of things.

Unfortunately for the mathematicians, logicians and philosophers the real world didn’t always behave in ways that mathematics, logic and philosophy predicted. And that’s why we developed science as we know it today. Scientific theories are tested against observations. If the observations fit the theory we can take the theory to be true for the time being. As soon as observations don’t fit the theory, it’s back to the drawing board. As far as science is concerned we can never be 100% sure of anything, but obviously we can be pretty sure of some things, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to cure diseases, build aircraft that fly, or land probes on Mars.

unknown unknowns

Mathematics, logic and philosophy provide useful tools for helping us make sense of the real world, but those tools have limitations. One of the limitations is that the real world contains unknowns. Not only that, but as Donald Rumsfeld famously pointed out, some unknowns are unknown – we don’t always know what we don’t know. You can work out the unknowns in a set of mathematical equations – but not if you don’t know how many unknowns there are.

Education theory is a case in point. It has, from what I’ve seen, always been a bit of a mess. That’s not surprising, given that education is a heavily derived field; it encompasses a wide range of disciplines from sociology and politics to linguistics and child development. Bringing together core concepts from all relevant disciplines to apply them to education is challenging. There’s a big risk of oversimplifying theory, particularly if you take mathematics, logic or philosophy as your starting point.

That’s because it’s tempting, if you are familiar with mathematics, logic or philosophy but don’t have much experience of messier sciences like genetics, geography or medicine, to assume that the real world will fit into the mathematical, logical or philosophical grand scheme of things. It won’t. It’s also tempting to take mathematics, logic or philosophy as your starting point for developing educational theory on the assumption that rational argument will cut a clear path through the real-world jungle. It won’t.

The underlying principles of mathematics, logic and philosophy are well-established, but once real-world unknowns get involved, those underlying principles, although still valid, can’t readily be applied if you don’t know what you’re applying them to. If you haven’t identified all the causes of low school attendance, say, or if you assume you’ve identified all the causes of low school attendance when you haven’t.

traditional vs progressive

Take, for example, the ongoing debate about the relative merits of traditional vs progressive education. Critics often point out that framing educational methods as either traditional or progressive is futile for several reasons. People have different views about which methods are traditional and which are progressive, teachers don’t usually stick to methods they think of as being one type or the other, and some methods could qualify as both traditional and progressive. In short, critics claim that the traditional/progressive dichotomy is a false one.

This criticism has been hotly contested, notably by self-styled proponents of traditional methods. In a recent post, Greg Ashman contended that Steve Watson, as an author of a study comparing ‘traditional or teacher-centred’ to ‘student-centred’ approaches to teaching mathematics, was inconsistent here in claiming that the traditional/progressive dichotomy was a false one.

Watson et al got dragged into the traditional/progressive debate because of the terminology they used in their study. First off, they used the terms ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘student-centred’. In their study, ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘student-centred’ approaches are defined quite clearly. In other words ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘student-centred’ are descriptive labels that, for the purposes of the study, are applied to two specific approaches to mathematics teaching. The researchers could have labelled the two types of approach anything they liked – ‘a & b’, ‘Laurel & Hardy’ or ‘bacon & eggs’- but giving them descriptive labels has obvious advantages for researcher and reader alike. It doesn’t follow that the researchers believe that all educational methods can legitimately be divided into two mutually exclusive categories either ‘teacher-centred’ or ‘student-centred’.

Their second slip-up was using the word ‘traditional’. It’s used three times in their paper, again descriptively, to refer to usual or common practice. And again, the use of ‘traditional’ as a descriptor doesn’t mean the authors subscribe to the idea of a traditional/progressive divide. It’s worth noting that they don’t use the word ‘progressive’ at all.

words are used in different ways

Essentially, the researchers use the terms ‘teacher-centred’, ‘student-centred’ and ‘traditional’ as convenient labels for particular educational approaches in a specific context. The approaches are so highly specified that other researchers would stand a good chance of accurately replicating the study if they chose to do so.

Proponents of the traditional/progressive dichotomy are using the terms in a different way – as labels for ideas. In this case, the ideas are broad, mutually exclusive categories to which all educational approaches, they assume, can be allocated; the approaches involved are loosely specified, if indeed they are specified at all.

Another dichotomy characterises the traditional/progressive divide; teacher-centred vs student-centred methods. In his post on the subject, Greg appears to make three assumptions about Watson et al’s use of the terms ‘teacher-centred’ and ‘student-centred’ to denote two specific types of educational method;

• because they use the same terms as the traditional/progressive dichotomy proponents, they must be using those terms in the same way as the traditional/progressive dichotomy proponents, therefore
• whatever they claim to the contrary, they evidently do subscribe to the traditional/progressive dichotomy, and
• if the researchers apply the terms to two distinct types of educational approach, all educational methods must fit into one of the two mutually exclusive categories.

Commenting on his post, Greg says “to prove that it is a false dichotomy then you would have to show that one can use child-centred or teacher-centred approaches at the same time or that there is a third alternative that is commonly used”.  I pointed out that whether child-centred and teacher-centred are mutually exclusive depends on what you mean by ‘at the same time’ (same moment? same lesson?) and suggested collaborative approaches as a third alternative. Greg obviously didn’t accept that but omitted to explain why.

Collaborative approaches to teaching and learning were used extensively at the primary school I attended in the 1960s, and I’ve found them very effective for educating my own children. Collaboration between teacher and student could be described as neither teacher-centred nor student-centred, or as both. By definition it isn’t either one or the other.

tired of talking about traditional/progressive?

Many teachers say they are tired of never-ending debates about traditional/progressive methods and of arguments about whether or not the traditional/progressive dichotomy is a false one. I can understand why; the debates often generate more heat than light whilst going round in the same well-worn circles. So why am I bothering to write about it?

The reason is that simple dichotomies have intuitive appeal and can be very persuasive to people who don’t have the time or energy to think about them in detail. It’s all too easy to frame our thinking in terms of left/right, black/white or traditional/progressive and to overlook the fact that the world doesn’t fit neatly into those simple categories and that the categories might not be mutually exclusive. Proponents of particular policies, worldviews or educational approaches can marshal a good deal of support by simplistic framing even if that completely overlooks the complex messiness of the real world and has significant negative outcomes for real people.

The effectiveness of education, in the English speaking world at least, has been undermined by the overuse for decades of the traditional/progressive dichotomy. When I was training as a teacher, if it wasn’t progressive (whatever that meant) it was bad; for some teachers now, if it isn’t traditional (whatever that means) it’s bad. What we all need is a range of educational methods that are effective in enabling students to learn. Whether those methods can be described as traditional or progressive is not only neither here nor there, trying to fit methods into those categories serves, as far as I can see, no useful purpose whatsoever for most of us.

folk categorisation and implicit assumptions

In his second response to critics, Robert [Peal] tackles the issue of the false dichotomy. He says;

…categorisation invariably simplifies. This can be seen in all walks of life: music genres; architectural styles; political labels. However, though imprecise, categories are vital in allowing discussion to take place. Those who protest over their skinny lattes that they are far too sophisticated to use such un-nuanced language … are more often than not just trying to shut down debate.

Categorisation does indeed simplify. And it does allow discussion to take place. Grouping together things that have features in common and labelling the groups means we can refer to large numbers of thing by their collective labels, rather than having to list all their common features every time we want to discuss them. Whether all categorisation is equally helpful is another matter.

folk categorisation

The human brain categorises things as if it that was what it was built for; not surprising really because grouping things according to their similarities and differences and referring to them by a label is a very effective way of reducing cognitive load.

The things we detect with our senses are categorised by our brains quickly, automatically and pre-verbally (e.g. Haxby, Gobbini & Montgomery, 2004; Greene & Fei-Fei, 2014) – by which I mean that language isn’t necessary in order to form the categories – although language is often involved in categorisation. We also categorise pre-verbally in the sense that babies start to categorise things visually (such as toy trucks and toy animals) at between 7 and 10 months of age, before they acquire language (Younger, 2003). And babies acquire language itself by forming categories.

Once we do start to get the hang of language, we learn about how things are categorised and labelled by the communities we live in; we develop shared ways of categorising things. All human communities have these shared ‘folk’ categorisations, but not all groups categorise the same things in the same way. Nettles and chickweed would have been categorised as vegetables in the middle ages, but to most modern suburban gardeners they are ‘weeds’.

Not all communities agree on the categorisations they use either; political and religious groups are notorious for disagreements about the core features of their categories, who adheres to them and who doesn’t. Nor are folk categorisations equally useful in all circumstances. Describing a politician’s views as ‘right wing’ gives us a rough idea of what her views are likely to be, but doesn’t tell us what she thinks about specific policies.

Biologists have run into problems with folk categorisations too.  Mushrooms/toadstools, frogs/toads and horses/ponies are all folk classifications. So although biologists could distinguish between species of mushrooms/toadstools,  grouping the species together as either mushrooms or toadstools was impossible, because the differences between the folk categories ‘mushrooms’ and ‘toadstools’ aren’t clear enough, so biologists neatly sidestepped the problem by ignoring the folk category distinctions and grouping mushrooms and toadstools together as a phylum. The same principle apples to frogs/toads – so they form an order of their own. Horses and ponies, by contrast, are members of the same subspecies.

Incidentally 18th and 19th century biologists weren’t categorising these organisms just because of an obsessive interest in taxonomy. Their classification had a very practical purpose – to differentiate between species and identify the relationships between them. In a Europe that was fast running out of natural resources, farmers, manufacturers and doctors all had a keen interest in the plants and animals being brought back from far-flung parts of the world by traders, and accurate identification of different species was vital.

In short, folk categories do allow discussion to take place, but they have limitations. They’re not so useful when one needs to get down to specifics – how are particular MPs likely to vote, or is this fungus toxic or not? The catch is in the two words Robert uses to describe categories – ‘though imprecise’. My complaint about his educational categorisation is not categorisation per se, but its imprecision.

‘though imprecise’

The categories people use for their own convenience don’t always have clear-cut boundaries, nor do they map neatly on to the real world. They don’t always map neatly onto other people’s categories either. Eleanor Rosch’s work on prototype theory shed some light on this. What she found was that people’s mental categories have prototypical features – features that the members of the category share – but not all members of the category have all the prototypical features, and category members can have prototypical features to different extents. For example, the prototypical features of most people’s category {birds} are a beak, wings, feathers and being able to fly. A robin has a beak, wings and feathers and is able to fly, so it’s strongly prototypical of the category {birds}. A penguin can’t fly but uses its wings for swimming, so it’s weakly prototypical, although still a bird.

Mushrooms and toadstools have several prototypical features in common, as do frogs and toads, horses and ponies. The prototypical features that differentiate mushrooms from toadstools, frogs from toads and horses from ponies are the ideas that; toadstools are poisonous and often brightly coloured; toads have a warty skin, sometimes containing toxins; and horses are much larger than ponies. Although these differential features are useful for conversational purposes, they are not helpful for more specific ones such as putting edible fungi on your restaurant menu, using a particular toxin for medicinal purposes or breeding characteristics in or out of horses.

traditional vs progressive education

Traditional and progressive education are both types of education, obviously, so they have some prototypical features in common – teachers, learners, knowledge, schools etc. Robert proposes some core features of progressive education that differentiate it from traditional education; it is child-centered, focuses on skills rather than knowledge, sees strict discipline and moral education as oppressive and assumes that socio-economic background dictates success (pp. 5-8). He distilled these features from what’s been said and written about progressive education over the last fifty years, so it’s likely there’s a high degree of consensus on these core themes. The same might not be true for traditional education. Robert defines it only in terms of its core characteristics being the polar opposite of progressive education, although he appears to include in the category ‘traditional’ a list of other more peripheral features including blazers, badges and ties and class rankings.

Robert says “though imprecise, categories are vital in allowing discussion to take place.” No doubt about that, but if the categories are imprecise the discussion can be distinctly unfruitful. A lot of time and energy can be expended trying to figure out precise definitions and how accurately those definitions map onto the real world. Nor are imprecise categories helpful if we want to do something with them other than have a discussion. Categorising education as ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ is fine for referring conversationally to a particular teacher’s pedagogical approach or the type of educational philosophy favoured by a government minister, but those constructs are too complex and too imprecise to be of use in research.

implicit assumptions

An implicit assumption is, by definition, an assumption that isn’t made explicit. Implicit assumptions are sneaky things because if they are used in a discussion, people following the argument often overlook the fact that an implicit assumption is being made. An implicit assumption that’s completely wrong can easily slip by unnoticed. Implicit assumptions get even more sneaky; often the people making the argument aren’t aware of their implicit assumptions either. In the case of mushrooms and toadstools, any biologists who tried to group certain types of fungi into one or other of these categories would be on a hiding to nothing because of an implicit, but wrong, assumption that the fungi could be sorted into one or other of these categories.

Robert’s thesis appears to rest on an implicit assumption that because the state education system in the last fifty years has had shortcomings, some of them serious, and because progressive educational ideas have proliferated during the same period, it follows that progressive ideas must be the cause of the lack of effectiveness. This isn’t even the ever-popular ‘correlation equals causality’ error, because as far as I can see, Robert hasn’t actually established a correlation between progressive ideas and educational effectiveness. He can’t compare current traditional and progressive state schools because traditional state schools are a thing of the past. And he can’t compare current progressive state schools with historical traditional state schools because the relevant data isn’t available. Ironically, what data we do have suggest that numeracy and literacy rates have improved overall during this period. The reliability of the figures is questionable because of grade drift, but numeracy and literacy rates have clearly not plummeted.

What he does implicitly compare is state schools that he sees as broadly progressive, with independent schools that he sees as having “withstood the wilder extremes of the [progressive] movement”. The obvious problem with this comparison is that a progressive educational philosophy is not the only difference between the state and independent sectors.

In my previous post, I agreed with Robert that the education system in England leaves much to be desired, but making an implicit assumption that there’s only one cause and that other possible causes can be ignored is a risky approach to policy development. It would be instructive to compare schools that are effective (however you measure effectiveness) with schools that are less effective, to find out how the latter could be improved. But the differences between them could boil down to some very specific issues relating to the quality of teaching, classroom management, availability of additional support or allocation of budgets, rather than whether the schools take a ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ stance overall.

Greene, MR & Fie-Fie, L (2014).Visual categorization is automatic and obligatory: Evidence from Stroop-like paradigm. Journal of Vision, 14, article 14.
Haxby, J.V., Gobbini, M. I. & Montgomery, K. (2004). Spatial and temporal distribution of face and object representations in the human brain. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.) The Cognitive Neurosciences (3rd edn.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition:Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.
Younger, B (2003). Parsing objects into categories: Infants’ perception and use of correlated attributes. In Rakison & Oakes (eds.) Early Category and Concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion, Oxford University Press.

no comparison: Progressively Worse

My children’s (relatively recent) experience of the education system was at times perplexing. The curriculum didn’t seem systematic, rigorous or engaging – a bad combination. Teachers didn’t seem to understand why they did what they did – the younger ones, anyway. The older ones rolled their eyes and told me how long they had to go before retirement. ‘Zero-tolerance’ of poor behaviour amounted to stringent sanctions for having the ‘wrong’ hairstyles, but no action on low-level disruption in the classroom. High aspirations took the form of a big push to get borderline children over the ‘average’ threshold for SATs, but left the gifted and talented bored and those with SEN floundering. Did I attribute these phenomena to progressive education? No. I attributed them to a fragmented curriculum, inadequate teacher training, poor behaviour management and a lack of understanding on the part of central government about how systems work, all of which are possible whether progressive or traditional teaching methods are being deployed. In fact the most perplexing school my kids attended didn’t look in the least progressive. The curriculum was inflexible, the teachers were inflexible, there were a lot of rewards and sanctions and an intense focus on test results.

educational reform

Then I started to hear talk of reforming the curriculum, reforming teacher training, giving teachers more professional freedom, improving behaviour to allow teachers to teach, getting rid of the target culture, and of an evidence-based education system. My hopes were raised, but not for long; what we appear to be heading towards instead is a differently-fragmented curriculum, little or no teacher training, shifting the blame for poor behaviour onto parents, changing the targets and an interesting approach to using evidence. It’s the evidence bit that’s really got to me, which is why I’ve been critical of the ‘new traditionalists’ rather than the education system they too are complaining about.

traditional vs progressive

In Progressively Worse Robert Peal predicted that educational commentators would accuse him of a ‘polarising rhetoric’ that establishes ‘false dichotomies’ (p.8). I’m one of them. In his second response to his critics, he tackles the issue of the false dichotomy.

Robert says “A false dichotomy is an either/or choice where some middle ground is actually possible. At no point in Progressively Worse do I offer an either/or choice between progressive and traditional education.” Well, that’s one definition. A false dichotomy can also be something presented as a dichotomy when other options are available – two categories might not be enough. How people form categories is worth exploring in more depth, but in this post I want to ask what progressive education or progressive schools are being compared to.

In his introduction to Progressively Worse Robert identifies four core themes that he says characterise progressive education. It is child-centered, focuses on skills rather than knowledge, sees strict discipline and moral education as oppressive and assumes that socio-economic background dictates success (pp. 5-8). The implication is that traditional education is characterised by the opposites. But Robert doesn’t see progressive and traditional education as either/or choices with no middle ground. He says;

Such dichotomies (skills/knowledge, child-centred/teacher-led) are perhaps better thought of as sitting at opposite ends of a spectrum. If we are to decide what constitutes a sensible position on each spectrum, we need to appreciate better how far British schools currently gravitate towards the progressive ends. Whilst a wholesale move towards traditionalist modes of education would be harmful, a corrective shift in that direction is desperately needed.” (p.8)

Although this sounds plausible, there’s a problem inherent in this model. Let’s assume that there’s general agreement that Robert’s four core themes do indeed characterise a construct we call ‘progressive education’. Let’s also assume that each of these four themes has been operationalised – we’ve identified what features of a school indicate where they lie on the sliding scale for each of the core themes. Some schools are going to rate high for progressive on each spectrum, or low for progressive on each. Others are going to be somewhere in the middle. But it would still be possible for a particular school to be, say, teacher-led, but focus on skills rather than knowledge, and to have strict discipline but also believe that socio-economic background dictates success – in short, to be strongly progressive on two of the sliding scales but strongly traditional on the other two.

Such a school wouldn’t occupy a ‘sensible position on each spectrum’, but extreme, opposing positions on the different spectra, making it impossible to determine whether the school as a whole could be described as progressive or traditional. And if we can’t decide whether a school is progressive or traditional, it makes it difficult to compare the performance of different types of school – the idea at the heart of Robert’s thesis.

no comparison

Let’s assume we’ve overcome those methodological hurdles and we’ve found a group of schools that are indisputably ‘progressive’. What do we compare them to? In his response to accusations of cherry-picking, Robert says

“I warrant that any historian writing a counter-narrative to Progressively Worse would have a difficult time finding any cherries worth picking. No seminal government document of the period exists which was as traditionalist as Plowden was progressive.”

The overwhelming impression one gets from Robert’s book is that the march of progressivism between 1960 and 2010 was so relentless that there are no ‘traditional’ state schools left, so a comparison in terms of how progressive/traditional specific schools are and the effectiveness of their educational methods, can’t be made.

How about comparing current progressive state schools to pre-war ones that were more likely to be traditional? When I asked Robert about this in a comment on his post, he agreed that suitable data weren’t available. We don’t have comparable data on numeracy and literacy, for example, prior to 1948.

The only schools left with which a comparison could be made are those within the independent sector; in his book Robert describes them as being largely “immune to the winds of educational change” and concludes that “they have withstood the wilder extremes of the [progressive] movement.” The problem with making a comparison with independent schools is of course that there are confounding factors involved, such as selection, socio-economic background, parental educational attainment and educational support at home. A comparison wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a major challenge and because of the confounding factors, the results wouldn’t be robust.

Robert concludes in response to my question about comparisons;

“Anyway, I think you have misunderstood the title, and therefore argument, of Progressively Worse. I am not suggesting that everything was hunky dory until 1965, and schools got ‘progressively worse’. As I write in the introduction, ‘This book is not a call to return to some distant glory, and the world of blackboards, canes and the 11+ is not the future that it proposes.’ What I do argue is that schools which embrace the principles of progressive education are worse. So far as it exists, the historical evidence for this case is compelling.”

He still doesn’t say what progressive schools are worse than. His perception of them as ‘worse’ doesn’t appear to be derived from an evidence-based comparison between real schools, but on historical evidence that shows that some progressive schools had to be closed because they were so awful, and that some other progressive schools have low GCSE results. Those are bad things, to be sure, but unless we have comparable data on the closure of traditional state schools or their exam results, we’re not actually making a comparison.

At one level, I have some sympathy for new traditionalists like Robert; I’d like to see a coherent curriculum, more pedagogical rigour, more freedom for teachers to teach and better behaviour in schools. At another level, I’m nonplussed by why he identifies progressive ideas as the main cause of the education system’s shortcomings, and what he presents as ‘evidence’ supporting the need to replace progressive education with … what exactly? Robert doesn’t say, but it’s difficult to avoid the impression that he thinks state schools modelling themselves on independent schools might be the way forward. I agree that the education system in England leaves a good deal to be desired, but that could be due to a badly designed curriculum, inadequate teacher training, poor behaviour management and a lack of government understanding of how systems function, rather than progressive ideas. Modelling state schools on independent schools could still fail to address all of those issues. My concern is that if the evidence being used to justify such a change is derived from poorly defined constructs that aren’t operationalised, the absence of data, and no attempt to eliminate bias, we will simply be spending a lot of money replacing one opinion-based education system with another. We’ve been doing that since 1944 and look where it’s got us. I’m still perplexed.

getting it wrong from the beginning: natural learning

In my previous post, I said that I felt that in Getting It Wrong From The Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget Kieran Egan was too hard on Herbert Spencer and didn’t take sufficient account of the context in which Spencer formulated his ideas. In this post, I look in more detail at the ideas in question and Egan’s critique of them.

natural learning

Egan says that the “holy grail of progressiveness … has been to discover methods of school instruction derived from and modelled on children’s effortless learning … in households, streets and fields” (pp.38-39). In essence, progressives like Spencer see all learning as occurring in the same way, implying that children find school learning difficult only because it doesn’t take into account how they learn naturally. Their critics see school learning as qualitatively different to natural learning; it requires thinking, and thinking doesn’t come naturally and is effortful so students don’t like it.

It’s inaccurate to describe the learning children do in ‘households, streets and fields’ as ‘effortless’. Apparently effortless would be more accurate. That’s because a key factor in learning is rehearsal. Babies and toddlers spend many, many hours rehearsing their motor, language, and sensory processing skills and in acquiring information about the world around them. Adolescents do the same in respect of interacting with peers, using video games or playing in a band. Adults can become highly competent in the workplace or at cooking, motor mechanics or writing novels in their spare time. What makes this learning appear effortless is that the individuals are highly motivated to put in the effort, so the learning doesn’t feel like work. I think there are three main motivational factors in so-called ‘natural learning’; sensory satisfaction (in which I’d include novelty-seeking and mastery), social esteem and sheer necessity – if it’s a case of acquiring knowledge and skills or starving, the acquisition of knowledge and skills usually wins.

School learning tends to differs from ‘natural’ learning in two main respects. One is motivational. School learning is essentially enforced – someone else decides what you’re going to learn about regardless of whether you want to learn about it or see an immediate need to learn about it. The other is that the breadth of the school curriculum means that there isn’t enough time for learning to occur ‘naturally’. If I were to spend a year living with a Spanish family or working for a chemist I would learn more Spanish or chemistry naturally than I would if I had two Spanish or chemistry lessons a week at school simply because the amount of rehearsal time would be more in the Spanish family or in the chemistry lab than it would be in school. Schools generally teach the rules of languages or of science explicitly and students have to spend more time actively memorising vocabulary and formulae because there simply isn’t the time available to pick them up ‘naturally’.

progressive ‘myths’

Egan’s criticism of Spencer’s ideas centres around three core principles of progressive education; simple to complex, concrete to abstract and known to unknown – Egan calls the principles ‘myths’. Egan presents what at first appears to be a convincing demolition job on all three principles, but the way he uses the constructs involved is different to the way in which they are used by Spencer and/or by developmental psychology. Before unpacking Egan’s criticism of the core principles, I think it would be worth looking at the way he views cognition.

the concept of mind

Egan frequently refers to the concept of ‘mind’. ‘Mind’ is a useful shorthand term when referring to activities like feeling, thinking and learning, but it’s too vague a concept to be helpful when trying to figure out the fine detail of learning. Gilbert Ryle points out that even in making a distinction between mind and body, as Descartes did, we make a category error – a ‘mind’ isn’t the same sort of thing as a body, so we can’t make valid comparisons between them. If I’ve understood Ryle correctly, what he’s saying is that ‘mind’ isn’t just a different type of thing to a body, ‘mind’ doesn’t exist in the way a body exists, but is rather an emergent property of what a person does – of their ‘dispositions’, as he calls them.

Emergent properties that appear complex and sophisticated can result from some very simple interactions. An example is flocking behaviour. At first glance, the V-formation in flight adopted by geese and ducks or the extraordinary patterns made by flocks of starlings before roosting or by fish evading a predator look pretty complex and clever. But in fact these apparently complex behaviours can emerge from some very simple rules of thumb (heuristics) such as each bird or fish maintaining a certain distance from the birds or fish on either side of them, and moving in the general direction of its neighbours. Similarly, some human thinking can appear complex and sophisticated when in fact it’s the outcome of some simple biological processes. ‘Minds’ might not exist in the same way as bodies do, but brains are the same kind of thing as bodies and do exist in the same way as bodies do, and brains have a significant impact on how people feel, think, and learn.

the brain and learning

Egan appeals to Fodor’s model of the brain in which “we have fast input systems and and a slower, more deliberative central processor” (p.39). Fodor’s fast and ‘stupid’ input systems are dedicated to processing particular types of information and work automatically, meaning that we can’t not learn things like motor skills or language. Fodor is broadly correct in his distinction, but I think Egan has drawn the wrong conclusions from this idea. A core challenge in research is that often more than one hypothesis offers a plausible explanation for a particular phenomenon. The genius of research is in eliminating the hypotheses that actually don’t explain the phenomenon. But if you’re not familiar with a field and you’re not aware that there are competing hypotheses, it’s easy to assume that there’s only one explanation for the data. This is what Egan appears to do in relation to cognitive processes; he sees the cognitive data through the spectacles of a model that construes natural learning as qualitatively different to the type of learning that happens in school.

Egan assumes that the apparent ease with which children learn to recognise faces or pick up languages and the fact that there are dedicated brain areas for face recognition and for language implies that those functions are inbuilt automatic systems that result in effortless learning. But that’s not the only hypothesis in town. What’s equally possible that face-recognition and language need to be learned. There’s general agreement that the human brain is hard-wired to extract signals from noise – to recognise patterns – but the extent to which patterns are identified and learned depends on the frequency of exposure to the patterns. For most babies, human facial features are the first visual pattern they see, and it’s one they see a great many times during their first day of life, so it’s not surprising that, even at a few hours old, they ‘prefer’ facial features the right way up rather than upside down. It’s a relatively simple pattern, so would be learned quickly. Patricia Kuhl’s work on infants’ language acquisition suggests that a similar principle is in operation in relation to auditory information – babies’ brains extract patterns from the speech they hear and the rate at which the patterns are extracted is a function of the frequency of exposure to speech. The patterns in speech are much more complex than facial features, so language takes much longer to learn.

Egan’s understanding of mind and brain colours the way he views Spencer’s principles. He also uses the constructs embedded in the principles in a different way to Spencer. As a consequence, I feel his case against the principles is considerably weakened.

the three principles of progressive education

simple to complex

Spencer’s moment of epiphany with regard to education was when he realised that the gradual transition from simple to complex observed in the evolution of living organisms, the way human societies have developed and the pre-natal development of the foetus, also applied to the way human beings learn. Egan points out that this idea was challenged by the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics which states that isolated systems evolve towards maximum entropy – in other words complexity tends to head towards simplicity, the opposite of what Spencer and the evolutionists were claiming. What critics overlook is that although the second law of thermodynamics applies to the isolated system of the universe as a whole and any isolated system within it, most systems in the universe aren’t isolated. Within the vast, isolated universe system, subatomic particles, chemicals and living organisms are interacting with each other all the time. If that wasn’t the case, complex chemical reactions wouldn’t happen, organisms wouldn’t change their structure and babies wouldn’t be born. I think Egan makes a valid point about early human societies not consisting of simple savages, but human societies, like the evolution of living organisms, chemical reactions, the development of babies and the way people learn if left to their own devices, do tend to start simple and move towards complex.

Egan challenges the application of this principle to education by suggesting that the thinking of young children can be very complex as exemplified by their vivid imaginations and “mastering language and complex social rules when most adults can’t program a VCR” (p.62). He also claims this principle has “hidden and falsified those features of children’s thinking that are superior to adults’” (p.90), namely children’s use of metaphor that he says declines once they become literate (p.93). I think Egan is right that Spencer’s idea of cognition unfolding along a predetermined straight developmental line from simple to complex is too simplistic and doesn’t pay enough attention to the role of the environment. But I think he’s mistaken in suggesting that language, social behaviour and metaphor are examples of complex thinking in children. Egan himself attributes young children’s mastery of language and complex social rules to Fodor’s ‘stupid’ systems, which is why they are often seen as a product of ‘natural’ learning. Children might use metaphor more frequently than adults, but that could equally well be because adults have wider vocabularies, more precise terminology and simply don’t need to use metaphor so often. Frequency isn’t the same as complexity. Research into children’s motor, visuo-spatial, auditory, and cognitive skills all paints the same picture; that it starts simple and gets more complex over time.

concrete to abstract

By ‘abstract’ Spencer appears to have meant the abstraction of rules from concrete examples; the rules of grammar from speech, of algebraic rules from mathematical relationships, the laws of physics and chemistry from empirical observations and so on. Egan’s idea of ‘abstract’ is different – he appears to construe it as meaning ‘intangible’. He claims that children are capable of abstract thought because they have no problem imagining things that don’t exist, giving the example of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit (p.61). Peter Rabbit certainly isn’t concrete in the sense of actually existing in the real world, but all the concepts children need to comprehend his story are very concrete indeed; they include rabbits, items of clothing, tools, vegetables and gardens. And the ‘abstract’ emotions involved – anger, fear, security – are all ones with which children would be very familiar. Egan isn’t using ‘abstract’ in the same way as Spencer. Egan also claims that children’s ability to understand symbolic relationships means that Spencer was wrong. However, as Egan points out, symbols are ‘arbitrarily connected with what they symbolize’ and the ‘ready grasp of symbols’ is found in ‘children who are exposed to symbols’ which suggests that actually the children’s thinking does start with the concrete (what the symbols represent) and moves towards the abstract (the symbols and their arbitrary connection with what they symbolize). Spencer might have over-egged the pudding with respect to concrete to abstract principle, but I don’t think Egan manages to demonstrate that he was wrong.

known to unknown

Spencer was also insistent that education should start with what children knew – the things that were familiar to them in their own homes and communities. Egan raises several objections to this idea (pp.63-64):

1. “if this is a fundamental principle of human learning, there is no way the process can begin”
2. ‘if novelty – that is things unconnected with what is already known – is the problem … reducing the amount of novelty doesn’t solve the problem”
3. this principle has dumbed down the curriculum and comes close to “contempt for children’s intelligence”
4. “ this is the four-legged fly item … no one’s understanding of the world … expands according to this principle of gradual content association”

With regard to point 1, Spencer clearly wasn’t saying we have to know something in order to know anything else. What he was saying is that trying to get children to learn things that are completely unconnected with what they already know is likely to end in failure.

I can’t see how, in point 2, reducing the amount of novelty doesn’t solve the problem. If I were to attend a lecture delivered in Portuguese about the Higgs’ boson, the amount of novelty involved would be so high (I know only one Portuguese word and little about sub-atomic physics) that I would be likely to learn nothing. If, however, it was a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in English for a general audience, the amount of novelty would be considerably reduced and I would probably learn a good deal. Exactly how much would depend on my prior knowledge about sub-atomic physics.

I do agree with Egan’s point 3, in the sense that taking this principle to extremes would result in an impoverished curriculum, but that’s a problem with implementation rather than the principle itself.

It’s ironic that Egan describes point 4 as the ‘four-legged fly’ item, since work on brain plasticity suggests that gradual content association, via the formation of new synapses, is precisely the way in which human beings do expand their understanding of the world. If we come across information with massive novel content, we tend to simply ignore it because of the time required to gather the additional information we need in order to make sense of it.

a traditional-liberal education

Egan’s critique of Spencer’s ideas is a pretty comprehensive one. For him, Spencer’s ideas are like the original version of the curate’s egg – not that parts of them are excellent, but that they are totally inedible. Egan says “I have already indicated that I consider the traditional-liberal principles equally as problematic as the progressive beliefs I am criticising” (p.54), but I couldn’t see where he’d actually done so.

A number of times Egan refers with apparent approval to some of the features commonly associated with a traditional-liberal education. He’s clearly uneasy about framing education in utilitarian terms, as Spencer did, but then Spencer was criticising a curriculum that was based on tradition and “the ornamental culture of the leisured class”. In the section entitled “What is wrong with Spencer’s curriculum?” (p.125ff) Egan highlights Spencer’s dismissal of grammar, history, Latin and the ‘useless arts’. In doing so, I think he has again overlooked the situation that Spencer was addressing.

As I understand it, the reason that Greek and Latin were originally considered essential to education was that for centuries in Europe, ancient Greek and Latin texts were the principal source of knowledge, as well as Latin being the lingua franca. From the Greek and Latin texts, you could get a broad understanding of what was known about literature, history, geography, theology, science, mathematics, politics, economics and law. If they understood what worked and what went wrong in Greek and Roman civilisations, boys from well-to-do families – the future movers and shakers – would be less likely to repeat the errors of previous generations. Over time, as contemporary knowledge increased and books were more frequently written in the vernacular, the need to learn Greek and Latin became less important; it persisted often because it was traditional, rather than because it was useful.

I’ve noticed that the loudest cries for reform of the education system in the English-speaking world have come from those with a background in subjects that involve high levels of abstraction; English, history, mathematics, philosophy. Egan’s special interest is in imaginative education. I’ve heard hardly a peep from scientists, geographers or PE teachers. It could be that highly abstracted subjects have been victims of the worst excesses of progressivism – or that in highly abstracted subjects there’s simply more scope for differences of opinion about subject content. I can understand why Egan is wary of utility being the guiding principle for education; it’s too open to exploitation by business and politicians, and education needs to do more than train an efficient workforce. But I’m not entirely clear what Egan wants to see in its place. He appears to see education as primarily for cultural purposes; so we can all participate in what Oakeshott called ‘the conversation of mankind’, a concept mentioned by other new traditionalists, such as Robert Peal and Toby Young. Egan sees a good education as needing to include grammar, Latin and history because they are pieces of the complex image that makes up ‘what we expect in an educated person'(p.160). I can see what he’s getting at, but this guiding principle for education is demonstrably unhelpful. We’ve been arguing about it at least since Spencer’s day, and have yet to reach a consensus.

In my view, education isn’t about a cultural conversation or about utility, although it involves both. But it should be useful. The more people who get a good knowledge and understanding of all aspects how the world the works, the more likely our communities are to achieve a good, sustainable standard of living and decent quality of life. We need our education system to produce people who make the world a better place, not just people who can talk about it.

the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies: getting it wrong from the beginning

Alongside a recommendation to read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse, came another to read Kieran Egan’s Getting It Wrong From The Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Egan’s book is in a different league to Peal’s; it’s scholarly, properly referenced and published by a mainstream publisher not a think-tank. Although it appears to be about Spencer, Dewey and Piaget, Egan’s critique is aimed almost solely at Spencer; Piaget’s ideas are addressed, but Dewey hardly gets a look in. During the first chapter – a historical sketch of Spencer and his ideas – Egan and I got along swimmingly. Before I read this book my knowledge of Spencer would have just about filled a postage stamp (I knew he was a Victorian polymath who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’) so I found Egan’s account of Spencer’s influence illuminating. But once his analysis of Spencer’s ideas got going, we began to part company.

My first problem with Egan’s analysis was that I felt he was unduly hard on Spencer. There is a sense in which he has to be because he lays at Spencer’s feet the blame for most of the ills of the education systems in the English-speaking world. Spencer is portrayed as someone who dazzled the 19th century public in the UK and America with his apparently brilliant ideas, which were then rapidly discredited towards the end of his life and soon after his death he was forgotten. Yet Spencer, according to Egan, laid the foundation for the progressive ideas that form the basis for the education system in the US and the UK. That poses a problem for Egan because he then has to explain why, if Spencer’s ideas were so bad that academia and the public dismissed them, in education they have not only persisted but flourished in the century since his death.

misleading metaphors

Egan tackles this conundrum by appealing to three metaphors; the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies. The curate’s egg – ‘good in parts’ – is often used to describe something of variable quality, but Egan refers to the original Punch cartoon in which the curate, faced with a rotten egg for breakfast, tries to be polite to his host the bishop. The emperor’s new clothes require no explanation. In other words, Egan explains the proliferation of Spencer’s educational theories as partly down to deference to someone who was once considered a great thinker, and partly to people continuing to believe something despite the evidence of their own eyes.

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

Aristotle’s flies

The Aristotle’s flies metaphor does require more explanation. Egan claims “Aristotle’s spells are hard to break. In a careless moment he wrote that flies have four legs. Despite the easy evidence of anyone’s eyes, his magisterial authority ensured that this “fact” was repeated in natural history texts for more than a thousand years” (p.42). In other words, Spencer’s ideas, derived ultimately from Aristotle’s, have, like Aristotle’s, been perpetuated because of his ‘magisterial authority’ – something which Egan claims Spencer lost.

It’s certainly true that untruths can be perpetuated for many years through lazy copying from one text to another. But these are usually untruths that are hard to disprove – the causes of fever or the existence of the Loch Ness monster, or, in Aristotle’s case, the idea that the brain cooled the blood, for example – not untruths that could be dispelled in a few second’s observation by a child capable of counting to six. Aristotle’s alleged ‘careless moment’ caught my attention because ‘legs’ pose a particular challenge for comparative anatomists. Aristotle was interested in comparative anatomy and was a keen and careful observer of nature. It’s unlikely that he would have had such a ‘careless moment’, and much more likely that the error would have been due to a mistranslation.

The challenge of ‘legs’ is that in nature they have a tendency over time to morph into other things – arms in humans and wings in birds for example. Anyone who has observed a housefly for a few seconds will know that houseflies frequently use their first pair of legs for grooming – in other words, as arms. I thought it quite possible that Aristotle categorised the first pair of fly legs as ‘arms’ so I looked for the reference. Egan doesn’t give it but the story about the four-legged fly idea being perpetuated for a millennium is a popular one. In 2005 it appeared in an article in the journal European Molecular Biology Organisation Reportsand was subsequently challenged in 2008 in a zoology blog.

male mayfly

male mayfly

Aristotle’s observation is in a passage on animal locomotion and the word for ‘fly’ – ephemeron – is translated by D’Arcy Thompson as ‘dayfly’ – also commonly known as the mayfly (order Ephemeroptera, named for their short adult life). In mayfly the first pair of legs is enlarged and often held forward off the ground as the males use them for grasping the female during mating. So the fly walks on four legs – the point Aristotle is making. Egan’s book was published in 2002, before this critique was written, but even before the advent of the internet it wouldn’t have been difficult to check Aristotle’s text – in Greek or in translation.

Spencer in context

I felt also that much of Egan’s criticism of Spencer was from the vantage point of hindsight. Spencer was formulating his ideas whilst arguments about germ theory were ongoing, before the publication of On the Origin of Species, before the American Civil war, before all men (never mind women) were permitted to vote in the UK or the US, before state education was implemented in England, and a century before the discovery of the structure of DNA. His ideas were widely criticised by his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong about everything.

It’s also important to set Spencer’s educational ideas in context. He was writing in an era when mass education systems were in their infancy and schools were often significantly under-resourced. Textbooks and exercise books were unaffordable not just for most families, but for many schools. Consequently schools frequently resorted to the age-old practice of getting children to memorise, not just the alphabet and multiplication tables, but everything they were taught. Text committed to memory could be the only access to books that many people might get during their lifetime. If the children didn’t have books they couldn’t take material home to learn so had to do it in school. Memorisation takes time, so teachers were faced with a time constraint and a dilemma – whether to prioritise remembering or explaining. Not surprisingly, memorisation tended to win, because understanding can always come later. Consequently, many children could recite a lot of text, but hadn’t got a clue what it meant. For many, having at least learned to read and write at school, their education actually began after they left school and had earned enough money to buy books themselves or could borrow them from libraries. This is the rote learning referred to as ‘vicious’ by early progressive educators.

The sudden demand for teachers when mass education systems were first rolled out meant that schools had to get whatever teachers they could. Many had experience but no training and would simply expect children from very different backgrounds to those they had previously taught to learn the same material, such as reciting the grammatical rules of standard English when the children knew only their local dialect with different pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical structure. For children in other parts of the UK it was literally a different language. The history of England, with its list of Kings and Queens was essentially meaningless to children whose only prior access to their nation’s history was a few stories passed down orally.

This was why Spencer placed so much emphasis on the principles of simple to complex, concrete to abstract and known to unknown. Without those starting points, many children’s experience of education was one of bobbing about in a sea of incomprehension and getting more lost as time went by – and Spencer was thinking of middle-class children, not working-class ones for whom the challenge would have been greater. The problem with Spencer’s ideas was that they were extended beyond what George Kelly calls their range of convenience; they were taken to unnecessary extremes that were indeed at risk of insulting children’s intelligence.

In the next post, I take a more detailed look at Egan’s critique of Spencer’s ideas.