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Progressive vs Traditionalist vs Professional

09 February 2014

A couple of decades ago, I found myself standing at a bar in a downtrodden pub on the outskirts of Derry, Northern Ireland. There had been no Good Friday Agreement and the Troubles were still very much alive and real. Not a great place for an Englishman to be whiling away the hours, but the friend I had agreed to meet and who lived locally had failed to show. So there I was, supping a jar, minding my own business.

A hand fell on my shoulder and a voice from behind asked "are you Catholic?"

I wanted to remove myself from the uncomfortable situation, which in this pub would have meant declaring I was indeed Catholic. But I couldn't, because I don't believe and I won't subscribe to a point of view through peer pressure or threat.

So I took a beating instead.

I am reminded of this beating lately when pushy little zealots try to shove a pedagogical ideal down my throat. There is a battle raging in mathematics education and each of the adversaries is every bit as enthusiastic to their cause as the fool in the pub.

There are two players: the Progressives and the Traditionalists.

And what is interesting about watching their game is that, just as the Derry Catholics and Protestants were at the time, both players have bastardised the name of their cause in to something horrid.

And I am an education atheist. I don't and won't subscribe to either team. Because they are idiots.

The terms themselves have become insults from one team to the other. "Progressive" is used with such disdain by the "Traditionalist" and vice-versa, such that you would think them unhealthy and perverted.

Yet, both progressive and traditionalist education, in their true sense, contain great positives. But, in the same way as the word Catholic became an ad-hominem to the Protestant during the Troubles, neither side can see past the filthy word to find the truth in the ideology.

And in another analogy, both Progressives and Traditionalists are determined to convert teachers to their dogma.

So what do I believe?

Firstly, it is important to make clear that I believe there are no proofs in education. There are no silver bullets. And certainly no one-size-fits-all. But it would be obtuse to ignore evidence, to not engage with it so that, at the very least, our practice has an increased likelihood of efficacy.

I have a pedagogy. It is mine. And mine alone. It have developed over many years and it continues to change. Like every other teacher in the world, I have theories. Many teachers don't realise they have theories, but we all do. They come about from thousands of hours of interacting with pupils, from observing the outcomes of our actions, from emotions, from failures, from achievement. And just like the parent who has a second child, we tweak the way in which we go about things based on what happened last time.

My pedagogy is very personal. It can't be codified, because it is ever changing. It can't be written on a standard lesson plan document. There are aspects of my pedagogy that educationalists might consider progressive and there are aspects that might be considered traditionalist. I have at my disposal an arsenal of techniques and approaches, because I am an expert in what I do. I have taught thousands of children over many thousands of hours, just like all other experienced teachers. I know how to change what I am doing according to a myriad of differences in the class, environment, my desired outcome, and even the weather.

None of this makes me special, none of this means I have any particular insight to share with anyone. This is just the nature of becoming expert. The nature of becoming a professional. This is what teachers are, and those who have not taught long enough, or indeed at all, are not.

So, it is a great pain to me – worse than the beating in the pub – to repeatedly encounter teachers who do not understand that the key to success is for them to become experts, to be professionals. Instead, they are being dictated to by fools.

During the last few months, I have had the delight of visiting many secondary schools and a handful of primary schools. In each of these schools, I have been in the fortuitous position to be allowed to watch teachers practicing their art. I love observing colleagues, it is such a great opportunity to learn and continue to tweak my own pedagogy.

But it has been a great sadness too, to witness in each and every one of these schools the fear and anxiety that so many of the teachers carry around with them. As I talk to teachers, the story is a consistent one. Without exception, across all the schools and with teachers of different levels experience, the story is one of being told how to teach. Like low-skilled, untrusted drones, teachers are being dictated to on every aspect of their practice. That very thing which should be personal and personalised, that very aspect of education that has been shown repeatedly to have a significant positive impact: professionalism. It is being snuffed out.

With ill-conceived approaches to whole school planning and intellectually lacking rubrics being used to measure the quality of teaching and learning through observations and learning walks. Senior managers in schools are systematically destroying professionalism.

So, I talk with these managers and plead with them. And a new, consistent story emerges. Ofsted.

The managers themselves claim they are also living lives of fear and anxiety. They talk of an army of consultants who roam the country spilling their bile on schools. Chastising them for any diversion away from their agreed standard approach. And all in the name of what Ofsted will deem to be 'outstanding'.

Returning to the battle.

It appears to me that the battle is becoming more and more aggressive and pronounced. I have come to think that this is for the following reason: the army of consultants are all on one side. It would seem that schools are unswervingly fed the line that outstanding lessons are about group work, independent learning, exploration, fun, peer-assessment, success and a whole host of other child-centred buzz phrases.

These are often categorised as Progressive. So is it any wonder that an emerging team, the Traditionalists are so furious?

I believe in many of those aspects above too. But I also believe in rigour, accuracy, struggle, instruction, memorisation, facts, attention, focus, practice.

But more than any of this, I believe that it is for the individual teacher, in the individual setting, to make professional judgements about how to teach the pupils in their class.

I have talked ad-nauseum with a whole host of people up and down the country about why this bastardised version of progressive education has become the standard diktat of the ever-present, ever-influential army of consultants. For many, the change lies in the National Strategies, for many the blame falls to the universities and the ideologies of the type of person involved in PGCE courses and the like, for many the argument always, always returns to Ofsted.

But what if the word of the jobbing, freelance consultant is actually not the word of Ofsted at all? What if the professionalism of the entire system is being undermined by self-interested consultants with personal agenda and ideology that does not even fit with what policy makers and the regulator are aiming to achieve? What if teachers are living in fear and anxiety, lessons for children are an unvarying diet of bland 'activities' that keep everyone pacified but don't actually lead to learning, all because school managers are buying in to an approach designed to be easy to codify and advise on?

Then the message that teachers hear day in, day out, becomes one so overwhelming and blinkered that dogma does indeed take hold.

There are few education atheists around nowadays. Few of us are willing to take the beating rather than to dance to the beat of someone else's drum.

The war between the Progressives and the Traditionalists is becoming increasingly extreme, to the point that the definition of each has been forgotten. I'd like to see the rise of a new team. The Professionals. A team that shouts from the rooftops about allowing teachers to draw on their own expertise and to act out of experience, out of learning from others, out of engagement with evidence. I'd like to see the end of the Troubles. I'd like to see the army of consultants withdrawn and the knowledgeable and skilled profession to be allowed to become self-improving.

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