Why education isn’t about traditional vs progressive

  • Why education isn’t about traditional vs progressive

It is easy to be duped into believing that there are only two alternative ways of being a school in England these days. You either have a tight focus on certificates – EBacc, test scores and Ofsted (a view favoured by employers, government and ‘traditional’ thinkers) or you see the development of character and more holistic approaches as the goal (the view often associated with more ‘progressive’ educators).

But this simple set of false opposites is lazy thinking about what schools are for. Just in the last few weeks we have the CBI calling for schools to develop character and resilience and the Secretary of State for Education telling us that she, too, believes in character and wants pupil well-being to be a priority.

There is another perspective needing serious exploration: cognition – the mental actions and processes of acquiring knowledge, understanding and learning capability. For it is through these that children both to acquire certificates and develop character. Discredited in the 90s by some fads like Brain Gym, this is now a serious area of study to which such well-regarded researchers as John Hattie, Lauren Resnick, Carol Dweck and others are contributing.

In Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn, Guy Claxton and I try find a sensible way through these competing viewpoints. We think that it is a thoroughly good thing to develop a deep understanding of various subjects (though we’ll want to debate which these might be). We are convinced that schools need also and simultaneously to be cultivating character in two senses of the word – moral (kindness and ethical behaviour, for example) and performance (attributes like perseverance, curiosity and creativity). We know that the ethos of the school and the mindset of the teacher is crucially influential (role models are important).

And most importantly we utterly reject the idea that just because you want to challenge the dominant emphasis on tests and academic subjects that means you must not be concerned about young people getting good results. We are. But we are more concerned to get results the right way, at the same time as learning how to think and learn. In Educating Ruby we use the 7Cs – confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity commitment and craftsmanship – as illustrative of the kind of wider character capabilities we have in mind.

Let’s try to understand a little more about what each of the three ‘tribes’ of educational opinion brings to the debate. Each has a different diagnosis of what is wrong with schools, and correspondingly three different sets of ideas about what needs doing to put it right.

One or the other

Let’s call the first tribe the Roms, short for romantics. Roms believe in the innate goodness of children and therefore assume that education should allow children to express themselves and discover their own talents and interests. Didactic teaching and adult authority are seen as impositions that cramp and quite possibly damage this inherent spirit. The most extreme Roms have a deep trust that if children are just left alone, all will turn out for the best. Perhaps the most notorious exponent of the Rom philosophy was A. S. Neill of Summerhill. The main characteristic of the Roms is that they are few and far between these days. While we understand the principled views expressed by many Roms, we just don’t think that there is evidence that these approaches are the best for developing character of that they equip young people for the complexities of a life in which they will have to be able to thrive in exam systems too.

The second tribe are the traditionalists, Trads for short. They tend to think that the ideal school is the grammar school, with lots of chalk-and-talk teaching, strong discipline, conventional examinations and an emphasis in the curriculum on literacy, numeracy, timeless classics (Shakespeare, Beethoven) and difficult abstract subjects (grammar, algebra). To the Trads, teachers are respected sources of culturally important, tried and tested factual knowledge (the periodic table, the Tudors). Their job is to tell children about this knowledge and to make sure they have understood it well enough, and remembered it long enough, to pass exams in it. These exams are vitally important and entirely fair and reliable, and they act as the gateways to the best universities (which, in turn, give access to well-paid jobs). After children have taken these exams, Trads seem to lose interest in the question of what this patchwork of factual knowledge actually enables children to do. Trads believe that success in this educational obstacle race reflects the joint operation of a trio of entirely unproblematic factors: ability (which is fixed), hard work (which is under pupils’ control) and good teaching (by the school).

Trads believe that armies of Roms have for years been trying to take over the education system. As scholars, Guy and I relish deep subject knowledge, so we do have some sympathy with Trads: it’s just that the world really is changing and schools, too, need to adapt to prepare young people for more than exams.

The middle ground

There is a third very important tribe of people who are neither traditional nor progressive and are trying to think more carefully about how schools can best prepare all children and young people to flourish in the real, turbulent world of the mid-21st century. We’ll call them the Mods, which is short for both modest and moderate. Mods know, when things are complicated, that patience and humility are required, and like the famous racing tortoise, they make, over time, better progress than the more doctrinaire hare.

Mods are at home with the kind of intelligence that the great psychologist Jean Piaget described as ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. Mods become pensive, they tinker and explore, while the Trads get more pugnacious and the Roms disappear to the margins. Almost everyone who works in education is to some degree a Mod. But because Mods tend to be less vocal, it is easy to underestimate how many there are, and how much progress teachers, head teachers and their schools have been making.

Subject knowledge is important, but the world is changing. Knowing something and getting lots of A*s is not enough. There are growing numbers of high-achieving university students who are seriously stressed, and of thoughtful parents realising that the overly competitive approach to school life may actually be undesirable. As you will have guessed, we are Mods, and a good deal of our working year is spent with tens of thousands of students, teachers, parents and employers who know that we have not got the balance right yet. Employers tell us that they want a much broader set of outcomes from school education than is currently on offer. A sizeable number of headteachers and teachers know this to be the case. We have to think carefully, debate respectfully, experiment slowly and review honestly as we go along. In this way genuine progress will be made. We hope you will want to join us.

Character, cognition or certificates? Students need the first two to thrive throughout their lives. It’s up to any country to decide which certificates it wants its young people to acquire. But whatever the answer is, learners will do better in life and in the test if they have character and cognition in large measure, too.

About The Author

Bill Lucas is Professor of Learning at the University of Winchester His latest book, with Guy claxton, is called Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn (Crown House). Join the campaign at educatingruby.org. Join other schools using research to underpin schools fit for Rubys at expansiveeducation.net.