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 too. 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.

References
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.

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.

the new traditionalists: there’s more to d.i. than meets the eye, too

A few years ago, mystified by the way my son’s school was tackling his reading difficulties, I joined the TES forum and discovered I’d missed The Reading Wars. Well, not quite. They began before I started school and show no sign of ending any time soon. But I’d been blissfully unaware that they’d been raging around me.

On one side in the Reading Wars are advocates of a ‘whole language’ approach to learning to read – focusing on reading strategies and meaning – and on the other are advocates of teaching reading using phonics. Phonics advocates see their approach as evidence-based, and frequently refer to the whole language approach (using ‘mixed methods’) as based on ideology.

mixed methods

Most members of my family learned to read successfully using mixed methods. I was trained to teach reading using mixed methods and all the children I taught learned to read. My son, taught using synthetic phonics, struggled with reading and eventually figured it out for himself using whole word recognition. Hence my initial scepticism about SP. I’ve since changed my mind, having discovered that my son’s SP programme wasn’t properly implemented and after learning more about how the process of reading works. If I’d relied only on the scientific evidence cited as supporting SP, I wouldn’t have been convinced. Although it clearly supports SP as an approach to decoding, the impact on literacy in general isn’t so clear-cut.

ideology

I’ve also found it difficult to pin down the ideology purported to be at the root of whole language approaches. An ideology is a set of abstract ideas or values based on beliefs rather than on evidence, but the reasons given for the use of mixed methods when I was learning to read and when I was being trained to teach reading were pragmatic ones. In both instances, mixed methods were advocated explicitly because (analytic) phonics alone hadn’t been effective for some children, and children had been observed to use several different strategies during reading acquisition.

The nearest I’ve got to identifying an ideology are the ideas that language frames and informs people’s worldviews and that social and economic power plays a significant part in determining who teaches what to whom. The implication is that teachers, schools, school boards, local authorities or government don’t have a right to impose on children the way they construct their knowledge. To me, the whole language position looks more like a theoretical framework than an ideology, even if the theory is debatable.

the Teaching Wars

The Reading Wars appear to be but a series of battles in a much bigger war over what’s often referred to as traditional vs progressive teaching methods. The new traditionalists frequently characterise the Teaching Wars along the same lines as SP proponents characterise the Reading Wars; claiming that traditional methods are supported by scientific evidence, but ideology is the driving force behind progressive methods. Even a cursory examination of this claim suggests it’s a caricature of the situation rather than an accurate summary.

The progressives’ ideology
Rousseau is often cited as the originator of progressive education and indeed, progressive methods sometimes resemble the approach he advocated. However, many key figures in progressive education such as Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget derived their methods from what was then state-of-the-art scientific theory and empirical observation, not from 18th century Romanticism.

The traditionalists’ scientific evidence The evidence cited by the new traditionalists appears to consist of a handful of findings from cognitive psychology and information science. They’re important findings, they should form part of teacher training and they might have transformed the practice of some teachers, but teaching and learning involves more than cognition. Children’s developing brains and bodies, their emotional and social background, the social, economic and political factors shaping the expectations on teachers and students in schools, and the philosophical frameworks of everybody involved suggest that evidence from many other scientific fields should also be informing educational theory, and that it might be risky to apply a few findings out of context.

I can understand the new traditionalists’ frustration. One has to ask why education theory hasn’t kept up to date with research in many fields that are directly relevant to teaching, learning, child development and the structure of the education system itself. However, dissatisfaction with progressive methods appears to originate, not so much with the methods themselves, as with the content of the curriculum and with progressive methods being taken to extremes.

keeping it simple

The limited capacity of working memory is the feature of human cognitive architecture that underpins Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s argument in favour of direct instruction. One outcome of that limitation is a human tendency to oversimplify information by focusing on the prototypical features of phenomena – a tendency that often leads to inaccurate stereotyping. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark present their hypothesis in terms of a dispute between two ‘sides’ one advocating minimal guidance and the other a full explanation of concepts, procedures and strategies (p.75).

Although it’s appropriate in experimental work to use extreme examples of these approaches in order to test a hypothesis, the authors themselves point out that in a classroom setting most teachers using progressive methods provide students with considerable guidance anyway (p.79). Their conclusion that the most effective way to teach novices is through “direct, strong, instructional guidance” might be valid, but in respect of the oversimplified way they frame the dispute, they appear to have fallen victim to the very limitations of human cognitive architecture to which they draw our attention.

The presentation of the Teaching Wars in this polarised manner goes some way to explaining why direct instruction seems like such a big deal for the new traditionalists. Direct instruction shouldn’t be confused with Direct Instruction (capitalised) – the scripted teaching used in Engelmann & Becker’s DISTAR programme – although a recent BBC Radio 4 programme suggests that might be exactly what’s happening in some quarters.

direct instruction

The Radio 4 programme How do children learn history? is presented by Adam Smith, a senior lecturer in history at University College London, who has blogged about the programme here. He’s carefully non-committal about the methods he describes – it is the BBC after all.

A frequent complaint about the way the current national curriculum approaches history is what’s included, what’s excluded, what’s emphasised and what’s not. At home, we’ve had to do some work on timelines because although both my children have been required to put themselves into the shoes of various characters throughout history (an exercise my son has grown to loathe), neither of them knew how the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Vikings or Victorians related to each other – a pretty basic historical concept. But those are curriculum issues, rather than methods issues. As well as providing a background to the history curriculum debate, the broadcast featured two lessons that used different pedagogical approaches.

During an ‘inquiry’ lesson on Vikings, presented as a good example of current practice, groups of children were asked to gather information about different aspects of Viking life. A ‘direct instruction’ lesson on Greek religious beliefs, by contrast, involved the teacher reading from a textbook whilst the children followed the text in their own books with their finger, then discussed the text and answered comprehension questions on it. The highlight of the lesson appeared to be the inclusion of an exclamation mark in the text.

It’s possible that the way the programme was edited oversimplified the lesson on Greek religious beliefs, or that the children in the Viking lesson were older than those in the Greek lesson and better able to cope with ‘inquiry’, but there are clearly some possible pitfalls awaiting those who learn by relying on the content of a single textbook. The first is that whoever publishes the textbook controls the knowledge – that’s a powerful position to be in. The second is that you don’t need much training to be able to read from a textbook or lead a discussion about what’s in it – that has implications for who is going to be teaching our children. The third is how children will learn to question what they’re told. I’m not trying to undermine discipline in the classroom, just pointing out that textbooks can be, and sometimes are, wrong. The sooner children learn that authority lies in evidence rather than in authority figures, the better. Lastly, as a primary school pupil I would have found following a teacher reading from a textbook tedious in the extreme. As a secondary school pupil it was a teacher reading from a textbook for twenty minutes that clinched my decision to drop history as soon possible. I don’t think I’d be alone in that.

who are the new traditionalists?

The Greek religions lesson was part of a project funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a charity developed by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust in 2011 with a grant from the DfE. The EEF’s remit is to fund research into interventions aimed at improving the attainment of pupils receiving free school meals. The intervention featured in How do children learn history? is being implemented in Future Academies in central London. I think the project might be the one outlined here, although this one is evaluating the use of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge framework in literacy, rather than in history, which might explain the focus on extracting meaning from the text.

My first impression of the traditionalists was that they were a group of teachers disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of the pedagogical methods they were trained to use, who’d stumbled across some principles of cognitive science they’d found invaluable and were understandably keen to publicise them. Several of the teachers are Teach First graduates and work in academies or free schools – not surprising if they want freedom to innovate. They also want to see pedagogical methods rigorously evaluated, and the most effective ones implemented in schools. But those teachers aren’t the only parties involved.

Religious groups have welcomed the opportunities to open faith schools and develop their own curricula – a venture supported by previous and current governments despite past complications resulting from significant numbers of schools in England being run by churches and the current investigation into the alleged operation Trojan Horse in Birmingham.

Future, the sponsors of Future Academies and the Curriculum Centre, was founded by John and Caroline Nash, a former private equity specialist and stockbroker respectively. Both are reported to have made significant donations to the Conservative party. John Nash was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools in January 2013. The Nashes are co-chairs of the board of governors of Pimlico Academy and Caroline Nash is chair of The Curriculum Centre. All four trustees of the Future group are from the finance industry.

Many well-established independent schools, notably residential schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities, are now controlled by finance companies. This isn’t modern philanthropy in action; the profits made from selling on the school chains, the magnitude of the fees charged to local authorities, and the fact that the schools are described as an ‘investment’, suggests that another motivation is at work.

A number of publishers of textbooks got some free product placement in a recent speech by Elizabeth Truss, currently parliamentary Under Secretary of state for Education and Childcare.

Educational reform might have teachers in the vanguard, but there appear to be some powerful bodies with religious, political and financial interests who might want to ensure they benefit from the outcomes, and have a say in what those outcomes are. The new traditionalist teachers might indeed be on to something with their focus on direct instruction, but if direct instruction boils down in practice to teachers using scripted texts or reading from textbooks, they will find plenty of other players willing to jump on the bandwagon and cash in on this simplistic and risky approach to educating the country’s most vulnerable children. Oversimplification can lead to unwanted complications.