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.

IT in Schools

Education ministers and policy-drivers often go to great lengths to emphasise that education should do nothing if not prepare students for the world that awaits them when they leave school and enter the world of work. And a noble aim this is. While most would agree that education for its own sake is an enriching and rewarding way to spend your time, few would contest that education should also reflect the ‘real world’. It is in this spirit that subjects such as ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) have been steadily introduced to the curriculum.

ICT (including computing, or computer science) would appear to be a perfect choice for those looking to provide themselves with a skill that holds some currency on the job market. More and more jobs require more than a basic grounding in computer programmes, and technology start-ups and businesses form a vibrant part of the economy. Furthermore, IT has come to form the backbone of many more established industries, including, notably, finance.

Despite this, only 10% of students sitting their GCSEs in 2013 chose ICT as a subject. While this number is a huge increase (of 38%) from 2012, this explosion is from a frightfully low base. What explains the low uptake?

The answer may lie in the fact that technology moves incredibly quickly, making it hard for the exam boards that develop curricula to keep up. Even those designed in conjunction with tech giants (such as AQA’s collaboration with Microsoft) run the risk of giving students a thorough grounding in technologies that may be too narrow, or may soon be obsolete.
Ronan, an IT professional with 12 years’ experience working in the industry, points out that a crucial problem is that there are simply too many different technologies, coding languages, and frameworks in use. Moving from one IT job to another, even within a company, may require entirely different sets of skills, a breadth that is hard to condense into an exam-based curriculum. This is not just a challenge faced by schools, universities are just as prone to creating computer science degrees that are effectively worthless.

Exam boards have set about addressing this problem by focusing on the fundamentals, such as how computers interpret and use data, but, at GCSE level, many courses still feature too much of the ‘how to use Powerpoint’ material, leaving students bored senseless. Newer course materials feature some introductions to coding, and problem-solving using advanced technologies, but this doesn’t solve the obsolescence problem.

To further compound this issue, there is a distinct scarcity of highly-qualified computer science teachers at GCSE and A-Level. This is largely due to the fact that those with the relevant knowledge are working in the field, rather than teaching. Of those who have entered the teaching profession, many graduated with their degrees in computer science too long ago, making the information and technologies that they studied out-of-date.

What we are left with is a seemingly impossible task: to create a curriculum that provides a strong foundation in the key technologies, whilst simultaneously providing the skills for an ever-changing field; a curriculum that anticipates a changing jobs landscape without being too in hock to trends; a programme that helps students develop skills to a reasonable degree of proficiency, whilst acknowledging that focusing on one or two sets of skills or technologies ignores the sheer volume of other systems in operation.

The answer to this dilemma may very well be to treat ICT qualifications almost like a vocational course. IT resources and materials are available in large quantities online, and are often free to use. The relative abundance of ‘self-help’ materials encourages students who are passionate about computer science to strike out on their own and develop skills they find interesting or relevant. Additionally, job placements are very often the best way to develop IT skills.

Ronan confirms that entering the workforce with any amount of real-world experience is more valuable than any qualification or degree. ‘You may start out doing menial tasks, like migrating data or fixing minor bugs, but eventually you move on to bigger or more complicated tasks, and grow your skill set from there.’

Working with companies to create internship-type placements for GCSE or A-Level students could be a promising way to create an environment in which fundamentals (however those are defined) are learned in the classroom, and the ‘nitty-gritty’ of coding, systems, and frameworks is learned in real-world situations, thus also encouraging students to learn crucial job-market skills and teaching them to adapt to new challenges, think on their feet, and study independently.

Exam boards are right to review skills such as creating documents and spreadsheets and using databases, but their focus needs to be beyond this; on programming for mobile technologies, web-based technologies and programming, and coding languages and frameworks. Only with an emphasis in these areas will British students emerge with a qualification that would ever mean something to an employer. Many examiners are moving decidedly in the right direction, but encouraging practical skill development in the workplace would better serve students.

Gove is Gone

It’s official. Michael Gove, in all of his divisive glory, is no longer the Education Secretary, and will be setting up camp instead in the Chief Whip’s office. Teachers across the country tripped over themselves in the rush to cheer his demise, but what does Michael Gove’s removal, and his replacement with Nicky Morgan, mean for education in the UK?

The decidedly unexciting answer is: probably not much.

Nicky Morgan, first elected to Parliament as Member for Loughborough in 2010, has moved to the education brief from a stint as a Treasury Minister. She will also hold the Women and Equality portfolio—something which is already raising eyebrows considering her votes against same-sex marriage and her points of view on abortion access. Apart from serving, for a time, as a school governor, little seems to qualify Mrs. Morgan for her role at the helm of the Department for Education, and her voting record suggests that she agrees with the vast majority of her predecessor’s reforms.

Many may laud the raising of a woman to such a high position, as opposed to the ‘pale, male, and stale’, but Mrs. Morgan’s privately educated background would appear not to be a vast departure from the Tory stereotype. Michael Gove’s personal story, and his personal experiences of education, may have been more of an asset to him in his Education role than Mrs. Morgan’s may prove.

More importantly, perhaps, is the timing of Mrs. Morgan’s appointment. With this reshuffle coming as close as it does to the next general election, it is unlikely that she is expected to implement anything real or new, and, assuming that she wanted to, there would be very little time in which to do it. For the time being, she is likely to remain a place-holder of sorts, and to be one of the many recently promoted female MPs intended to make the Conservative cabinet more representative of the party as a whole.

Though many of Mr. Gove’s reforms were controversial, and he singularly failed to get teachers and other academic professionals on-side, the broad sweep of his reforms was generally in the right direction. Moves to increase accountability, create a more rigorous curriculum, and free schools, teachers, and parents to create dynamic and independent learning environments have followed the patterns set elsewhere in the world that have achieved strong results for students.

That is not to say, of course, that every reform, or reform proposal, was on target. Nor did his abrasive approach win many friends. However, his time as Education Secretary forced schools, teachers, parents, and society at large, to think seriously about what is most important about education and different ways to achieve it.
If we are to take anything from Mr. Gove’s replacement, it is that the Government seems willing to acknowledge that the furious pace of his reforms needs a cooling-down period, and reforms need time to settle in. While teething problems with policies are worked through, it may be helpful to have a face in the Department for Education without such a strongly established agenda.