is systematic synthetic phonics generating neuromyths?

A recent Twitter discussion about systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) was sparked by a note to parents of children in a reception class, advising them what to do if their children got stuck on a word when reading. The first suggestion was “encourage them to sound out unfamiliar words in units of sound (e.g. ch/sh/ai/ea) and to try to blend them”. If that failed “can they use the pictures for any clues?” Two other strategies followed. The ensuing discussion began by questioning the wisdom of using pictures for clues and then went off at many tangents – not uncommon in conversations about SSP.
richard adams reading clues

SSP proponents are, rightly, keen on evidence. The body of evidence supporting SSP is convincing but it’s not the easiest to locate; much of the research predates the internet by decades or is behind a paywall. References are often to books, magazine articles or anecdote; not to be discounted, but not what usually passes for research. As a consequence it’s quite a challenge to build up an overview of the evidence for SSP that’s free of speculation, misunderstandings and theory that’s been superseded. The tangents that came up in this particular discussion are, I suggest, the result of assuming that if something is true for SSP in particular it must also be true for reading, perception, development or biology in general. Here are some of the inferences that came up in the discussion.

You can’t guess a word from a picture
Children’s books are renowned for their illustrations. Good illustrations can support or extend the information in the text, showing readers what a chalet, a mountain stream or a pine tree looks like, for example. Author and artist usually have detailed discussions about illustrations to ensure that the book forms an integrated whole and is not just a text with embellishments.

If the child is learning to read, pictures can serve to focus attention (which could be wandering anywhere) on the content of the text and can have a weak priming effect, increasing the likelihood of the child accessing relevant words. If the picture shows someone climbing a mountain path in the snow, the text is unlikely to contain words about sun, sand and ice-creams.

I understand why SSP proponents object to the child being instructed to guess a particular word by looking at a picture; the guess is likely to be wrong and the child distracted from decoding the word. But some teachers don’t seem to be keen on illustrations per se. As one teacher put it “often superficial time consuming detract from learning”.

Cues are clues are guesswork
The note to parents referred to ‘clues’ in the pictures. One contributor cited a blogpost that claimed “with ‘mixed methods’ eyes jump around looking for cues to guess from”. Clues and cues are often used interchangeably in discussions about phonics on social media. That’s understandable; the words have similar meanings and a slip on the keyboard can transform one into the other. But in a discussion about reading methods, the distinction between guessing, clues and cues is an important one.

Guessing involves drawing conclusions in the absence of enough information to give you a good chance of being right; it’s haphazard, speculative. A clue is a piece of information that points you in a particular direction. A cue has a more specific meaning depending on context; e.g. theatrical cues, social cues, sensory cues. In reading research, a cue is a piece of information about something the observer is interested in or a property of a thing to be attended to. It could be the beginning sound or end letter of a word, or an image representing the word. Cues are directly related to the matter in hand, clues are more indirectly related, guessing is a stab in the dark.

The distinction is important because if teachers are using the terms cue and clue interchangeably and assuming they both involve guessing there’s a risk they’ll mistakenly dismiss references to ‘cues’ in reading research as guessing or clues, which they are not.

Reading isn’t natural
Another distinction that came up in the discussion was the idea of natural vs. non-natural behaviours. One argument for children needing to be actively taught to read rather than picking it up as they go along is that reading, unlike walking and talking, isn’t a ‘natural’ skill. The argument goes that reading is a relatively recent technological development so we couldn’t possibly have evolved mechanisms for reading in the same way as we have evolved mechanisms for walking and talking. One proponent of this idea is Diane McGuinness, an influential figure in the world of synthetic phonics.

The argument rests on three assumptions. The first is that we have evolved specific mechanisms for walking and talking but not for reading. The ideas that evolution has an aim or purpose and that if everybody does something we must have evolved a dedicated mechanism to do it, are strongly contested by those who argue instead that we can do what our anatomy and physiology enable us to do (see arguments over Chomsky’s linguistic theory). But you wouldn’t know about that long-standing controversy from reading McGuinness’s books or comments from SSP proponents.

The second assumption is that children learn to walk and talk without much effort or input from others. One teacher called the natural/non-natural distinction “pretty damn obvious”. But sometimes the pretty damn obvious isn’t quite so obvious when you look at what’s actually going on. By the time they start school, the average child will have rehearsed walking and talking for thousands of hours. And most toddlers experience a considerable input from others when developing their walking and talking skills even if they don’t have what one contributor referred to as a “WEIRDo Western mother”. Children who’ve experienced extreme neglect (such as those raised in the notorious Romanian orphanages) tend to show significant developmental delays.

The third assumption is that learning to use technological developments requires direct instruction. Whether it does or not depends on the complexity of the task. Pointy sticks and heavy stones are technologies used in foraging and hunting, but most small children can figure out for themselves how to use them – as do chimps and crows. Is the use of sticks and stones by crows, chimps or hunter-gatherers natural or non-natural? A bicycle is a man-made technology more complex than sticks and stones, but most people are able to figure out how to ride a bike simply by watching others do it, even if a bit of practice is needed before they can do it themselves. Is learning to ride a bike with a bit of support from your mum or dad natural or non-natural?

Reading English is a more complex task than riding a bike because of the number of letter-sound correspondences. You’d need a fair amount of watching and listening to written language being read aloud to be able to read for yourself. And you’d need considerable instruction and practice before being able to fly a fighter jet because the technology is massively more complex than that involved in bicycles and alphabetic scripts.

One teacher asked “are you really going to go for the continuum fallacy here?” No idea why he considers a continuum a fallacy. In the natural/non-natural distinction used by SSP proponents there are three continua involved;

• the complexity of the task
• the length of rehearsal time required to master the task, and
• the extent of input from others that’s required.

Some children learn to read simply by being read to, reading for themselves and asking for help with words they don’t recognise. But because reading is a complex task, for most children learning to read by immersion like that would take thousands of hours of rehearsal. It makes far more sense to cut to the chase and use explicit instruction. In principle, learning to fly a fighter jet would be possible through trial-and-error, but it would be a stupidly costly approach to training pilots.

Technology is non-biological
I was told by several teachers that reading, riding a bike and flying an aircraft weren’t biological functions. I fail to see how they can’t be, since all involve human beings using their brain and body. It then occurred to me that the teachers are equating ‘biological’ with ‘natural’ or with the human body alone. In other words, if you acquire a skill that involves only body parts (e.g. walking or talking) it’s biological. If it involves anything other than a body part it’s not biological. Not sure where that leaves hunting with wooden spears, making baskets or weaving woolen fabric using a wooden loom and shuttle.

Teaching and learning are interchangeable
Another tangent was whether or not learning is involved in sleeping, eating and drinking. I contended that it is; newborns do not sleep, eat or drink in the same way as most of them will be sleeping, eating or drinking nine months later. One teacher kept telling me they don’t need to be taught to do those things. I can see why teachers often conflate teaching and learning, but they are not two sides of the same coin. You can teach children things but they might fail to learn them. And children can learn things that nobody has taught them. It’s debatable whether or not parents shaping a baby’s sleeping routine, spoon feeding them or giving them a sippy cup instead of a bottle count as teaching, but it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of learning going on.

What’s true for most is true for all
I was also told by one teacher that all babies crawl (an assertion he later modified) and by a school governor that they can all suckle (an assertion that wasn’t modified). Sweeping generalisations like this coming from people working in education is worrying. Children vary. They vary a lot. Even if only 0.1% of children do or don’t do something, that would involve 8 000 children in English schools. Some and most are not all or none and teachers of all people should be aware of that.

A core factor in children learning to read is the complexity of the task. If the task is a complex one, like reading, most children are likely to learn more quickly and effectively if you teach them explicitly. You can’t infer from that that all children are the same, they all learn in the same way or that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Nor can you infer from a tenuous argument used to justify the use of SSP that distinctions between natural and non-natural or biological and technological are clear, obvious, valid or helpful. The evidence that supports SSP is the evidence that supports SSP. It doesn’t provide a general theory for language, education or human development.

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the history of reading methods revisited (5)

My response to some of Maggie’s most recent points:

Frank Smith

Maggie: Indeed, he [Smith] was echoing much earlier theorists, such as Huey, in this belief and, of course, by the time he was writing many readers may have been using such strategies because of being taught by Word methods (I’m sticking to my hypothesis!). I can’t find that he has any evidence for his assertion and, as I pointed out, Stanovich and West disproved his theory.

Me: The first five chapters of Snowling & Hume’s book The Science of Reading are devoted to reviews of work on word recognition processes in reading. Most of the research looks at the ways in which adult, expert readers read. What emerges from these five chapters is that:

• expert readers do not use one single method for reading words; they tend to use rapid whole-word recognition for familiar words and slower, stepwise decoding for unfamiliar words;
• the speed with which they respond to target words increases in response to different types of priming;
• the jury is still out on how reading mechanisms actually work.

It was the fact that expert readers use two strategies that resulted in a plethora of ‘dual route’ models of reading; the first was proposed in the 1920s, but studies of brain-damaged patients had noted this in the 19th century. This is exactly what West and Stanovich found. What they ‘disproved’ was that the use of contextual information by children increased with age and reading ability.

There was a great deal of work on priming effects in reading during the 1970s, so although Smith might have been wrong, he wasn’t just ‘echoing earlier theorists’. He had a PhD in psycholinguistics/cognitive psychology from Harvard, so would have been very familiar with the direction of travel in contemporary reading research.

Your hypothesis that expert readers were using mixed methods because that’s how they’d been taught to read, might be right. But a more likely explanation is that recognition of complex sensory stimuli (e.g. words) becomes automated and fast if they are encountered frequently, but requires step-by-step analysis if they’re not. That’s how human brains deal with complex sensory stimuli.

There is no question that expert readers use more than one strategy when reading. The question is whether explicitly learning those strategies is the best way for children to learn to read.

the rejection of the alphabetic principle


Me: Maggie says my statement that the alphabetic principle and analytic phonics had been abandoned because they hadn’t been effective for all children ‘makes no sense at all’. If I’m wrong, why were these methods abandoned?



Maggie: I still don’t think it makes any sense. For a start, you give no time scale. When did this abandonment take place? And you are conflating Alphabetic with Analytic which I don’t think is correct (see my earlier comment).

Me: They were abandoned gradually. My PGCE reading tutor, who trained in the 1930s, was keen on analytic phonics but not on ‘flashcards’. I remember spending hours preparing phonics reading activities. Several teachers of her generation that I’ve spoken to, took a similar view. They didn’t advocate using analytic phonics ‘systematically, first and only’, but as a support strategy if children were struggling to decode a word. Clearly, the teachers I’ve encountered don’t form a representative sample, but some of them were using analytic phonics until they retired and at least one teacher training college in the UK was teaching students to use it until at least the late 1970s. And this definitely wasn’t ‘alphabetic’, it was phonetic. According to my reading tutor, the alphabetic method was widely perceived as flawed by the 1930s. The consensus amongst these teachers was:

• children use a range of strategies when learning to read
• whatever method of teaching reading is used, some children will learn with little effort and others will struggle
• no one method of teaching reading will be effective for all children, but some methods are more effective than others (which is why they still used analytic phonics).

I’m not saying they are right, but that’s what they thought.

Maggie: Another point is that you are crediting educationists and teachers with a degree of rationality which I don’t think is justified. The widespread acceptance of the Word method, which had no evidence to back it but strong appeals to ‘emotion’ with the language of its denigration of Phonic methods, is a case in point. Boring, laborious, ‘drill & kill’, barren, mechanical, uncomprehending, the list is long (and very familiar). It is a technique promoted today as ‘framing’ (though I might acquit its original users of deliberate use of it). Very easy to be persuaded by the language without really considering the validity of the method it purports to describe.

Me: I think you are not crediting them with enough rationality. The ‘drill and kill’ they were referring to was an approach many teachers resorted to in the early days of state education. Those teachers were often untrained, had to teach large numbers of children of different ages, had few books, were on performance related pay, used corporal punishment and had been taught themselves through rote learning entire lessons. Complaints about children being able to recite but having no understanding were commonplace in those early days. What has happened over time is that denigrating rote learning everything (justified in my view) has morphed into denigrating rote learning anything (not justified).

Prior to the 1980s, teachers in the UK were left to their own devices about how they did things, and some at least, took a keen interest in developing their own methods; they didn’t all slavishly follow fashion by any means. I agree that the ‘Word’ method might have been framed emotively, but it’s not true to say there was no evidence to back it.

The evidence was in the form of adult reading strategies. If you’re a teacher who’s seen ‘drill and kill’ not working for all children, then alphabetic and analytic phonics not working for all children, and someone comes along and tells you that scientific research has shown that adults use a range of strategies when reading (and you check out the research and find that indeed it has shown just that) so it would make sense to teach children to use a range of strategies to learn to read, what would you, as a rational person, do?

I think you are seeing claims that adults use a range of reading strategies through the spectacles of the ‘teaching reading’ literature, not through the spectacles of the ‘reading mechanisms’ literature. The body of evidence that supports the idea that adults use a range of strategies in reading is vast. And every teacher will have witnessed children attacking words using a range of strategies. Putting the two ideas together is not unreasonable. It just happens to be wrong, but it wasn’t clear that it was wrong for a very long time.

Maggie: I would also suggest that the discourse of ‘science’, ‘research’, ‘progressive’ would be enough to convince many without them delving too deeply into the evidence. Brain Gym, anybody?

Me: You’re quite right. The point I’m making is that there was robust evidence to support the Word method. But it was robust in respect of people who had learned to read, not those who hadn’t. The way the brain functions after learning something (in adults) doesn’t reflect the way it learns it (in children). But that was by no means clear in the 1970s. There is still a dispute going on about this amongst cognitive scientists.

using a range of cues


Me: The cues I listed are those identified in skilled adult readers in studies carried out predominantly in the post-war period. Maggie’s hypothesis is that the range of cues is an outcome of the way the participants in experiments (often college students) had been taught to read. It’s an interesting hypothesis; it would be great to test it.

Maggie: I stand by it! I have worked with too many children who read exactly as taught by the Searchlights!
I thought I would revisit these ‘cues’ which are supposed to have offered sufficient exposure to auditory and visual patterns to develop automated, fast recognition. They are ‘recognising words by their shape, using key letters, grammar, context and pictures, recognising words by their shape’.

Confounded at once by the fact that many words have the same shape: sack, sick, sock, suck, lack, lick, luck, lock, pock, pick, puck, pack,

using key letters, Would those be the ones that differentiate each word in the above word list?

grammar, Well, I can see how you might ‘predict’ a particular grammatical word form, noun, verb, adjective etc. but the specific word? By what repeated pattern would you develop automatic recognition of it?

context I think the same might apply as for grammar. You need a mechanism for recognising the actual word.

pictures, Hm. Very useful for words like oxygen, air, the, gritty, bang, etc.

Me: Again, you are confusing the strategies adults use when reading with the most effective way of teaching children to read. They are two different things. Your examples illustrate very clearly why using multiple cues isn’t a good way of teaching reading. But those inconsistencies don’t stop adults using these cues in their reading. If you don’t have a copy of Snowling and Hume’s book, get one and read it.

Maggie: In view of Stanovich & West’s findings I would be interested to see any studies which show that skilled adult readers did use the ‘cues’ you listed. (as above)

Me: There’s a vast literature on this. Summarised very well in Snowling and Hume, which is why I’ve recommended it. Incidentally, a ‘cue’ isn’t a term invented by proponents of the Word method, it’s a perfectly respectable word denoting a signal detected in incoming information; it can affect subsequent information.

Me: In chapter 2 of Stanovich’s book, West and Stanovich report fluent readers’ performance being facilitated by two automated processes; sentence context (essentially semantic priming) and word recognition.

Maggie: I appreciate that but this is described as a feature of fluent, skilled reading. To assume that beginning readers do this spontaneously might be to fall into the same trap as ‘assuming that children could learn by mimicking the behaviour of experts’

Me: In your original post, you said “Stanovich and West showed, in the 70s that these were strategies used by unskilled readers and that skilled readers used decoding strategies for word recognition (this is an extreme simplification of the research Stanovich outlines in ‘Progress in Understanding Reading’) and this has been the conclusion of cognitive scientists over the subsequent decades the validity of these strategies is seriously challenged.”

I think you’ve misunderstood what Stanovich and West (and other cognitive scientists) have shown. The literature shows, pretty conclusively, that fluent readers use word recognition first and decoding if word recognition fails. Sentence context isn’t used as a conscious strategy, it’s subconscious, because the content of the sentence increases access to words are semantically related. It’s not safe to assume that because experts do something, novices learn by copying them. Nor is it safe to assume that experts use the same strategies they did when learning as novices.

Me: According to chapter 3, fluent readers use phonological recoding if automated word recognition fails.



Maggie: Isn’t that the whole point. Fluent readers didn’t use context, or other ‘cues’, to identify unfamiliar words, they used phonological recoding.

Me: No. The point is that they used it if automated word recognition failed.

Maggie: It is also moot that they use context to predict upcoming words (although I do understand about priming effects). There is also the possibility that rapid, automatic and unconscious decoding is the mechanism of automatic word recognition (Dehaene). Possibly with context confirming that the word is correct? A reading sequence of ‘predicting’, then, presumably, checking for correctness of form and meaning (how? by decoding and blending?) seems like a strange use of processing when decoding gets the form of the word correctly straight away and immediately activates meaning.

Me: It’s possible that rapid, automatic and unconscious decoding is the mechanism of automatic word recognition but work on masking and priming suggests that readers are picking up the visual features of letters and words as well as their auditory features and semantic features. In other words, there are things going on in addition to decoding.

Whether readers use context to predict upcoming words depends on what you mean by ‘predict’. Priming results in some words being more likely than others to occur in a sentence; this isn’t a conscious process of ‘prediction’ but it is a subconscious process of narrowing down the possibilities for what comes next. But in some sentences you could consciously predict what comes next with a high degree of accuracy.

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.

Traditional vs progressive teaching

Educational approaches adopted by teachers have been presented in terms of ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ for many years. These terms have long served as signposts to point in the general direction of particular teaching philosophies or methods, but it looks as if in recent years they have become reified; what happens when abstract ideas are treated as if they have a concrete existence. Attempts have been made to define ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’, or to point out the advantages of one over the other, and they are often presented as polar opposites, as if approaches to teaching form a spectrum with extreme ‘traditional’ methods at one end and extreme ‘progressive’ methods at the other. I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a general definition of ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ teaching, and it certainly isn’t helpful to frame the debate in that way. Here’s why.

Defining traditional and progressive teaching

‘Teaching’ can be adequately defined in fairly simple terms, but in the real world ‘teaching’ is a pretty complex thing involving many activities and processes. If we were to define ‘teaching’ not verbally, but in the form of a Venn diagram, it would be a set containing many elements. If we then tried to divide the elements in our set {teaching} into two subsets {traditional} and {progressive}, that might help us discover the characteristics of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching.

Some elements, such as ‘only use talk and chalk’ would clearly fall into the set {traditional} whereas ‘always using discovery learning’ would clearly fall into the set {progressive}. But some elements, like ‘reading for more information’ or ‘asking questions’ would fall into both sets i.e. the intersection of the sets. Some elements I found difficult to allocate; I couldn’t decide if ‘watching a dvd’ or ‘using a whiteboard’ could be included in {traditional} because both technologies are so recent they wouldn’t qualify as ‘traditional’ for historical reasons. However, they could both be used in ‘direct instruction’, one of the elements that’s frequently cited as a feature of a traditional approach. The more elements I tried to allocate to either the {traditional} or {progressive} set, the more elements ended up in the intersection of the two. I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to arrive at a general definition of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching, not just because different people have different ideas about what constitutes ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’, but because it’s not a valid way of representing teaching – it doesn’t reflect accurately what happens in the real world.

An analogy would be comparing ‘the olden days’ with ‘modern times’. These are useful verbal signposts pointing to what happened a long time ago and what happened recently, but to an historian interested in tool manufacture, the 18th century would be ‘modern times’, whereas to an IT specialist the 1960s are ‘the olden days’. Even if you were to agree a boundary between the two, as say, midnight on January 1st 2000, there would be many things that were going on in the olden days that are still happening in modern times, so a clear definition would be impossible.

Working definitions

Some people do want to frame teaching in terms of traditional or progressive, however. If they do, and if they want to discuss those issues with others, it’s important that they explain their own definitions, so everyone knows exactly what they are talking about. Working definitions are widely used for concepts that are a bit fuzzy. For example, a sociologist studying the way single parents behave might define a single parent as living in a home where ‘no other adult is resident for more than five nights a year’. Or as ‘self-identifying as a single parent’. Both are valid definitions; they both map accurately on to the lives of lone adults looking after children. Sociologists recognise that the situations of single parents vary widely, so trying to find a definition that accommodates all of them might be a pointless exercise. But if the definitions used for each study are clear, then at least everybody knows what’s being referred to.

The problem with ambiguities

The subject of my previous post was Old Andrew’s definition of traditional and progressive teaching. Most people wouldn’t have a problem with a working definition even if they disagreed with it, as long as it made clear what the person using the definition was talking about. My problem with Old Andrew’s definition was that even as a working definition it contains ambiguities.

There are two potential sources of ambiguity in a working definition; ambiguity in the terminology used, or ambiguity inherent in the thing that you’re trying to define. One example of ambiguous terminology is Old Andrew’s use of the term ‘practice’. ‘Practice’ could mean learning by ‘rehearsal’- a key feature of ‘traditional’ teaching, or learning by ‘doing’ – a key feature of ‘progressive’ approaches. Sometimes the constructs themselves can be ambiguous; in his definition old Andrew equates ‘tradition’ with ‘body of knowledge’ – when both are rather fuzzy complex concepts with blurred boundaries that themselves need working definitions before people can be clear what’s being referred to.

I can’t say that Old Andrew’s working definition of traditional teaching is right or wrong; it’s his working definition and it’s helpful to have it for future discussions. What I can say is that it contains ambiguities that need further clarification. What I can also say is that although you could have as many working definitions of traditional or progressive teaching as there are people talking about them, it will be impossible to arrive at a standard definition of traditional or progressive teaching that everybody signs up to because the number of ambiguities involved is so great. The Venn diagram exercise suggests that because of the ambiguities, traditional and progressive aren’t actually helpful ways to frame the debate. The terms simply add an unnecessary additional layer of complexity.

Old Andrew responded to my criticism of his definition. I’ve replied by commenting on my previous post.

Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching

Old Andrew”, well-known education blogger, was invited yesterday by the Local Schools Network on Twitter to define “progressive teaching”. He obliged by defining it in terms of “traditional teaching” as follows:

“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.”

One problem with using complex constructs like ‘traditional’ is that they are, well, complex. We all know roughly what we mean by ‘traditional’ (or ‘British’ or ‘doing the right thing’) but defining those terms precisely is tricky for several reasons:

a) Complex constructs are sets containing several, sometimes many, elements.

b) Different people will have different elements in their construct sets. Ask 100 people to give precise definitions of ‘traditional’ (or ‘British’ or ‘doing the right thing’) and you’re likely to find that all their construct sets have some elements in common (‘something we’ve always done’, ‘related to Great Britain’, ‘what’s good for people’), but that some elements are mentioned only by some people, and some will be referred to only by single individuals.

c) Often the elements within the sets are themselves complex constructs so a) and b) above apply to them too.

In Old Andrew’s construct set ‘traditional teaching’, there are three main elements, numbered in his definition. But each of those elements is itself a set of elements. I want to explore each in turn.

the existence of a tradition

Old Andrew equates tradition with ‘a body of knowledge necessary for developing the intellect’. I can see what he’s getting at, but a ‘tradition’ isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s a set of customs or beliefs that are passed on from generation to generation. The customs might or might not be beneficial ones, and the beliefs might or might not be true.

body of knowledge

A body of knowledge, by contrast, is knowledge about a particular aspect of the world. But bodies of knowledge are not canon, with clear boundaries and clearly authenticated content. They are constantly intertwining, enlarging and being revised as new information comes to light. There are parts of bodies of knowledge on which there is broad consensus and for which there is robust evidence, and it makes sense for children and young people to learn about these parts, so they know how the world works. But the reliability of bodies of knowledge is dependent on the reliability of the evidence underpinning the knowledge, not on tradition.

intellect

Then there’s the knotty problem of the intellect. I’m guessing that Old Andrew refers to ‘the intellect’ because he doesn’t see education solely in terms of imparting knowledge, but also in terms of developing skills that enable the knowledge to be acquired and evidence to be evaluated. But he appears to see the body of knowledge as having to precede intellectual development, when in reality they are interdependent, and indeed some intellectual skills are needed before some types of knowledge can be acquired. The intellectual development of young children is pretty basic, but if they had no powers of reasoning at all they wouldn’t be able to make the associations between objects and events that’s essential for all learning.

direct instruction

In Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching, teachers give students access to a body of knowledge by direct instruction. But knowledge isn’t homogeneous. Some knowledge is best acquired by someone telling you about it (e.g. events leading up to WW1); some by reading up on the evidence yourself and evaluating it jointly with others (e.g. causes of obesity). Some knowledge is best acquired by investigation (e.g. how ants interact); and some by practice (e.g. how to bake a Victoria sponge).

practice

Old Andrew would probably say that my exceptions to direct instruction are covered by the element ‘practice’ in his definition. He and I have discussed this before. I’ve pointed out that practice has two main meanings in English; ‘doing’ and ‘rehearsal’. It’s not clear in his definition of traditional teaching, which he means or whether he means both.

the most effective methods of teaching

It might be obvious to Old Andrew what teaching methods are effective and what aren’t, but the debates that have rumbled on since at least the late 19th century suggest that what’s effective isn’t obvious to everybody because different people want different things from education. Until we’re all in agreement about what education is supposed to achieve, the debates about what’s effective and how you can measure it will continue to rumble.

the authority of teachers

Authority is another complex construct. On the face of it, it looks like the right to tell others what to do, but it’s not as simple as that, as most teachers will testify. That’s because teachers’ authority doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it has to be backed by something. It can be backed by behaviour (authoritative personality or bullying or aggression), by knowledge and experience, by power structures within or outside the school, by consent of the students, or by all of the above. It’s not a matter of simply giving teachers authority or just recognising it.

the classroom

Old Andrew’s definition of ‘traditional teaching’ is set in the classroom because children and young people have been traditionally taught in schools and schools have classrooms. For obvious reasons he sees it as essential that teachers have authority in the environment in which they are teaching.

I understand that Old Andrew is primarily concerned about how teaching and learning happen in schools. But I also get the impression that he sees teaching and learning happening only in schools. It doesn’t of course. People learn and teach others throughout their lifespan, in school and outside it. Some teaching and learning is explicit and/or formal, some is implicit and/or informal. And I think that’s where much of the disagreement about teaching and learning comes from. If you see education as what happens in childhood and adolescence in schools, your priorities and expectations will be different from those of people who see education as lifelong and formal schooling as only a part of that.

What’s the alternative?

Having taken apart Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching and, as a consequence, his definition of progressive teaching, do I have an alternative definition to propose? No I don’t, because I don’t see ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’ as valid, reliable or helpful ways of categorising teaching. That’s because knowledge isn’t homogeneous, nor are skills, nor are students – nor, for that matter, are teachers. The most effective way of ensuring that students acquire particular knowledge or skills will need to be derived from the characteristics of the knowledge, skills and students involved. Many teachers apply this principle all the time, but they might not do so explicitly. They know, intuitively, that this year’s Year 7s aren’t going to be able to cope with an approach that worked for last year’s Year 7s, or that an approach that worked really well for one topic won’t work for a related one. So, someone observing a particular teacher’s practice might witness one lesson that could have been lifted directly from 18th century Prussia, and another that looks like child-led learning of the most directionless kind. I’m not talking about using simplistic ‘mixed methods’ approach in the hope that something will work. What I am saying is that to be effective methods need to take into account the knowledge, the skills and the students involved.

If, for some reason people must classify teaching in terms of progressive or traditional, it can’t be done by using two distinct categories, because there’s too much overlap in how people define the categories and what methods teachers use. The relationship between progressive and traditional is more like a normal distribution, with at one extreme a few teachers who use only what they consider to be ‘traditional’ teaching come what may, and at the other extreme a few teachers who use only what they consider to be ‘progressive’ teaching, likewise. In the middle are the majority who use a range of methods for different reasons; from those who use whatever is intuitively appealing, through those who use whatever methods they believe a particular authority figure thinks they should use, to those who use whatever does the job most effectively and have the evidence to prove it.

Until we reach consensus on what education is intended to achieve, develop a robust body of evidence that shows how to achieve it and figure out how to accommodate all the unique individuals we want to benefit from it, it’s likely that arguments about simplistic categorisation will go on and on.