The issues of ‘Progressive Education’

Everything is subject to trends, even education. A recent book by Robert Peal, Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools, examines one such trend, and claims that this trend has, almost single-handedly, ruined education for generations of British students.

The trend in question is called ‘progressive education’. The word ‘trend’ may, in fact, be a bit of a misnomer, as progressive education began to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s, and has remained somewhat prominent. Without knowing it, many students and parents will have come into contact with at least some aspects of the progressive theory of education. Progressive education is formulated around the idea that children are better learners when they are given the freedom to experiment, explore, and discover things for themselves. This view holds that teachers are most effective when they avoid a didactic method, wherein they stand in front of a class presenting knowledge to students to commit to memory. Rather, teachers should be more like facilitators, setting the stage for students to learn on their own.

Peal claims that the lackadaisical approach to building bodies of knowledge espoused by this teaching ideology, as well as a permissive approach to behaviour in schools, has led to increasingly poor outcomes for students, a persistent ‘dumbing-down’ of the curriculum, increasingly bad discipline, and high turnover rates for teachers, to name but a few.

JV, a primary teacher in Brent, notes that things have changed quite a bit in the past few years, “ Every school I’ve ever taught in has recommended a blend of child-centred and more formal teaching, but I know from some of the older teachers that I’ve worked with that this is a new-ish development. But I do think that the progressive approach might be clinging on a bit more when it comes to discipline, and maybe even expectations.”

The merits, or not, of progressive education will not be discussed here. As with most things, implementing education policies and practices that tread the middle path between progressive education and more traditional ideas, taking elements from each, seems the best way to serve students, and Peal makes this argument as well. However, Peal’s book inspires some interesting questions in regards to private tuition.

The pervasiveness of progressive ideas in education may also help to explain why tutors can be such an effective tool in increasing a student’s ability levels. While the one-on-one atmosphere most certainly helps, the true driver behind success may very well lie in the fact that many tutors use more traditional, didactic teaching styles with their pupils.

Private tutors don’t have access to resources or funds for complex, interactive lessons, nor are these types of activities particularly useful without an entire class to work with. Rather, tutors focus on imparting the key information and knowledge that unlocks subjects for students, helping their students remember and apply that knowledge, and deploy that knowledge across a range of skill sets. Additionally, time constraints mean that tutors must teach in the way that is going to achieve the greatest impact in the shortest time, regardless of whether that method is necessarily the most fun.

For instance, at Hampstead and Frognal, our tutors who work with students preparing for the 7+ use phonics to increase literacy, rather than the whole-word teaching style recommended by advocates of progressive education. While phonics is often perceived as tedious and boring, students progress much more quickly when this style of instruction is used.

Indeed, Peal points to a shocking statistic that our tutors are too familiar with. Nearly 20% of students in British schools are classified as having Special Educational Needs. This figure stands well above the numbers for any other OECD nation. For our tutors, discussions of children being ‘dyslexic or borderline dyslexic’ are quite common. When tutoring is undertaken, and progress is made, it becomes clear that Peal’s analysis holds quite a bit of weight; the majority of the students classified as having Special Educational Needs, don’t, in fact, have Special Educational Needs. Rather, they are being failed by the educational practices of their teachers and schools.

The same may be said of students who are diagnosed, somewhat casually, as having ADHD. When students, from the time they enter schooling, are never required to focus on a teacher or lesson for an extended period, because lessons are designed, always, to be child-centred, interactive, groupwork-based, or discursive, they never develop the skills necessary to sit still, maintain attention, or follow instructions closely.

In a one-on-one setting, where tutors are better able to exercise discipline over an individual pupil, the problems with attention tend to fade. This is, of course, due in no small part to the more personalised attention. However, if a student can focus in a one-on-one environment, it throws into question any ADHD labels, and leads to a questioning of the classroom environment instead.

In reality, the best way to instruct students is by using a combination of teaching styles, a variety of lesson structures, and a range to techniques. In recent years, it appears as though more schools have been moving away from a strictly progressive teaching and administration style, and towards something a more around the middle ground. This benefits students immensely, and underlines what makes private tuition successful; the ability of the tutor to complement what the pupil experiences in the classroom.