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What’s all the fuss about?

The Prog/Trad dichotomy from the viewpoint of a Centrist

Dr Valerie Daniel


The trad/prog dichotomy appears to be heavily based in ideology that is shaped and influenced by a set of principles that individuals and like-minded people hold dear. These principles could be based on personal philosophy, political affiliations, religion and/or circumstances that contribute to a person’s opinion of the government, our economic system and the country’s various social structures.  I strongly believe in the mantra ‘if you don’t stand for something you fall for anything’, so I am not averse to people with strong opinions. However, despite the passion of both sides of this issue I found it necessary to explore my response to the current situation regarding Traditionalist educational approaches and Progressive educational approaches and the volatile and unhealthy space it occupies on twitter.

We are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle     and flight Where ignorant armies clash by night.           —Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

The battle rages on but, are we clear about the the precise nature of this cultural, ideological, and psychological war that is being waged, presumably in the best interest of children and their futures? We have to agree that there are some irrefutable facts that come to bear on this issue:

  1. Socio-economic disparities in income, health, social class, educational achievement, professional backgrounds and demographic deprivation.

  2. Grave inequities in the funding systems for education

  3. Unprecedented population growth and endemic pockets of multi-culturalism or ethnocentric mono-culturalism which add to the demographic challenges of standardising education.

School leaders face the crushing weight of political machinations on a daily basis, they have to become adept at knowing how to traverse a shifting educational landscape, they have to learn the skills necessary to control and navigate paradoxical situations alongside constantly contemplating differing situations, theories, facts, techniques, skills and educational approaches.These are only some of the issues that school leaders face, never mind the enormity of an ongoing pandemic and a hostile attitude towards teachers in general. So, amidst all of this I find it difficult that as educators we don’t appear able to debate what is essentially a philosophical standpoint and moreover, adopt and adapt good practice where it is evident. We appear to have become entangled in the context of relativism, employing questionable loyalties, seeking to quell thought, voices and actions that do not conflate with our own, mounting ill-informed or outdated scientific ‘facts and figures’ in order to shut down meaningful debate. As educators, collectively, we need to be mindful of promoting and adhering to notions of truth that don’t stand up to scrutiny and public debate.

My Understanding

I am prepared to accept that I may have totally misunderstood where traditionalists and progressives are coming from especially as I do not find myself leaning towards the extreme of any of these two approaches. To be honest I hate labels but if I had to choose a label for my personal belief system I would choose the label of ‘Centrist’.The general definition of the word ‘traditional’ is ‘following, conforming or adhering to past practices or established conventions’, and the general definition of the word ‘Progressive’ is ‘favouring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform toward better conditions by employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, new or experimental methods as opposed to maintaining things as they are’. It appears then that the traditionalist/ progressive divide is grounded in material or social facts on the traditionalist side, and as cultural or subjective interpretation on the progressive side. Meaning is derived from the same turbulent social circumstances that surround schools in the current climate but the context of ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ emerges from the analytical lens through which the situation is viewed.

The traditionalist standpoint places emphasis on knowledge, memorisation, formal teacher-led schooling and unquestioning compliance while progressives value critical thinking, less formal schooling and the capacity for students to exercise some agency over their learning. Ideas and how they are interpreted have divided the philosophical world since the days of Plato and Aristotle, so in that respect we are in good company. This is essentially a discourse of educational structure, culture and agency. Education is controlled by a hierarchical structure of social groups (Government, school leaders, and influential stakeholders) who are intent on saturating it with social relevance. Education has cultural meaning. Culture consists of values and beliefs that influence practice and an individual’s approach to education, and ultimately determines how society educates its citizens. Education has a unique property that derives meaning from how individual agents interact with it and sadly in a lot of cases bears little resemblance to the cultural meaning given to it by society.  Therefore, the current context holds the dichotomy of ‘fact’ whatever that is, or subjective interpretation depending on who you are and the context in which you receive education.

The Traditionalist education approach

The traditionalist education approach focuses on the values that are deemed as ‘culturally important’. Cultureis a complex concept that is inclusive of different aspects and can have different meanings in different situations. Institutional culture directs the policies, teaching standards, and educational methods used to bring about academic and social success in schools that employ a traditionalist educational approach. School cultures within the traditionalist paradigm are broadly defined by the standards set by school leaders regarding behaviour and the positionality of the teacher as the expert and the dispenser of knowledge.

The main objectives of a traditionalist educational approach

I have done quite a bit of reading on the topic and this is obviously not an exhaustive list but these are the elements that stood out for me.

  1. Enable the young to understand the customs and traditions of our society

  2. Instil moral and social conduct such as independence and respect for authority, that educators consider necessary for future material and social success

  3. Encourage the mastery of skills such as sitting quietly while listening to a teacher, showing up on time, taking turns while talking and respect for historical and classical figures

  4. Focus on basic key skills like reading, writing, math and science and preparing students for the workplace

  5. Create or generate individuals that are economically viable within the context of wider social norms and values

  6. Approach education as a mental discipline that requires “rigorous mental involvement to strengthen the mind” (Majali, 2014)

  7. Improve student knowledge through memorisation and apply a universal school curriculum to all students

  8. Acknowledge the curriculum as a learning plan that is applied in the classroom

  9. Define the curriculum by content and subject matter and base learning on identification, selection, organisation and evaluation (Majali, 2014)

The Progressive education approach

Progressive education focuses on the uniqueness of every student as an individual and advocates for respect for diversity; “recognising each individual for his or her own abilities, interests, ideas, needs, and cultural identity”. The culture surrounding progressive education is “child-centred” and defined as valuing experiential learning rather than formal rote learning.  Progressive education encompasses a broader social agenda and operates on the assumption that education should not be coercive or imposed on the child as an external force but rather draw from the latent potential within each child and to concentrate on the development of a child’s talents. “Progressive education established environments where civics and democracy were embedded into school life reflecting the larger society. Progressive educators pointed out the importance of diversity, multiculturalism, multiple intelligences, cooperative and collaborative learning” (The Children’s Sangha). This concept relies on the democratic principle of individual worth and the development of independent thinking skills and critical reasoning to enable each student to understand and participate effectively in their learning. Students access and engage with knowledge that is complex and stratified with the emphasis being on the ability of the learner to interpret and apply knowledge in a practical sense and not just about acquiring knowledge; therefore, learning is about engaging with both intellectual intelligence and social intelligence.

The main objectives of a progressive educational approach

Again, I did extensive reading and these are the points that stood out for me.

  1. Emphasis on learning by doing – hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning, problem solving and critical thinking

  2. Focus on the students and how they learn

  3. “Attending to the whole child: Schooling isn’t seen as being about just academics, nor is intellectual growth limited to verbal and mathematical proficiencies” (Kohn, 2008). Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge

  4. Integrating the curriculum and focusing on thematic units

  5. Group work and development of social skills alongside collaborative learning and cooperative learning projects, a sense of community: “Learning isn’t something that happens to individual children — separate selves at separate desks. Children learn with and from one another in a caring community, and that’s true of moral as well as academic learning. Interdependence counts at least as much as independence, so it follows that practices that pit students against one another in some kind of competition, thereby undermining a feeling of community, are deliberately avoided” (Kohn, 2008).

  6. Incorporating education for social responsibility and democracy (The Children’s Sangha) and developing a sense of social justice: “A sense of community and responsibility for others isn’t confined to the classroom; indeed, students are helped to locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond friends, beyond their own ethnic group, and beyond their own country. Opportunities are offered not only to learn about, but also to put into action, a commitment to diversity and to improving the lives of others” (Kohn, 2008).

  7. De-emphasis on only textbooks in favour of varied learning resources

  8. Emphasis on lifelong learning and social skills

  9. Assessment by evaluation of child’s projects and productions

So, what’s all the fuss about?

Attempting to synthesise the discussion of traditional and progressive educational approaches has been an interesting process especially in regard to the question ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ The fuss seems to be about a clean and clinical approach to teaching and learning as essentially the domain of school life and the classroom where the teacher reigns supreme on the traditionalist side as opposed to learning that is organised around “problems, projects and questions” integrated with a social agenda and where teaching is interdisciplinary on the progressive side. Traditional schools centre their ethos on the teacher and what they teach while the focal point of progressive schools is the students and how they learn. Traditionalists emphasize, “what information is taught to students, not how it is taught”, (Majali, 2014).

I stand with Kohn (2008) when he states “It’s not all or nothing, to be sure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a school — even one with scripted instruction, uniforms, and rows of desks bolted to the floor — that has completely escaped the influence of progressive ideas. Nor have I seen a school that’s progressive in every detail.” I firmly believe that education is whatever works to allow learning to happen for each child and essentially, that relies on my expertise as a teacher to know my students, assess their learning needs and support them in whatever way allows them to thrive. This is where I am centrist in my views. I have no issue with viewing education as the pursuit of knowledge and from my reading on schools like Michaela, I don’t perceive that learning is solely about memorising facts and dates and definitions but where I part company with the traditionalist approach is the idea that the undertaking of students is mainly to understand how the teacher has interpreted or applied knowledge and then model or reconstruct the teacher’s thinking. While this may be appropriate for some students it is not appropriate for all students and in this regard I lean towards the progressive approach as I firmly believe that students should construct their own understanding of ideas for sustained learning.

My understanding of traditional teaching methods is a lecture style approach which assumes ‘a one size fits all’ approach. “The time-honoured method of “presenting” factual material to a class of passive learners is still considered good teaching. We may even judge a passive lecture that is well organized, clear, relevant, and up-to-date as being high quality” (Blouin et al, 2009). My question is whether this approach maximises learning potential for all students considering passive lecture style learning is known to produce the lowest knowledge retention rate of any method of learning and learning in these circumstances operates at the lowest levels of cognitive function. It is often argued that the traditional approach is not conducive to providing students with valuable skills and there is a strong viewpoint to suggest that traditional methods lead to students not retaining knowledge after exams – they have little or no recall of the body of knowledge learned (Tularam, 2018). In contrast, active learning that involves practice by doing, discussion and teaching and learning from others is more effective in knowledge retention and higher levels of cognitive function. So, I suppose the question is ‘are we just getting students through exams or are we encouraging learning as deep understanding?’ One feature of the traditionalist approach is the promotion of being beneficial for students from low income families and families from the non-majority population. This deficit model persists despite studies that have found “that an “inquiry-based” approach to learning is more beneficial than conventional methods for low-income and minority students” (Kohn, 2008), so questions need to be asked about the resistance to sustained learning for students who are viewed as socially deprived. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead concluded that “A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.” So, while facts matter they are useless without context or purpose. The idea of learning surely must centre on the ability to think deeply about issues that matter; seeking to understand concepts and make connections in a meaningful way.

The biggest issues of this debate appear to be attack/defence from both sides and the eulogising of the traditionalist approach to evangelistic proportions. There is also a “tendency to paint progressive education as a touchy-feely, loosey-goosey, fluffy, fuzzy, undemanding exercise in leftover hippie idealism — or Rousseauvian Romanticism. In this cartoon version of the tradition, kids are free to do anything they please, the curriculum can consist of whatever is fun (and nothing that isn’t fun). Learning is thought to happen automatically while the teachers just stand by, observing and beaming” (Kohn, 2008). This is erroneous at best and propagandist at worst! The notion that ‘out of control’ students are running through the school corridors and hurling desks and chairs in classrooms is heavily promoted by traditionalists and the idea of oppressed students existing in a prison style environment where the authority of the teacher is akin to a prison warden is heavily promoted by progressives. What needs to be considered is who benefits from keeping this toxic divide in education. Steve Watson, Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge says, “…progressive or traditional is a false dichotomy. It hides the real issue. It has become an expression of confusion and anger relating to the complex wider picture. And this is why I am reluctant to engage in it, because there is a much bigger fight to be had. That’s with the people who perpetuate the myth, policy makers pursuing ideological privatisation of our education system and with those who have vested interests and something to gain out of the current policy direction. It is time to see through the myth.” It is very interesting that very little is being done by anyone to effectively move this debate forward.

The more I work through this lengthy blog and the more I draw from Kohn (2008) and the Children’s Sangha, the more certain I become that I am centrist in my views but with a very strong lean towards progressive educational approaches. I am a strong advocate for social justice and I find it strange when educators view this as negative and start throwing labels of hard left political affiliations to what I perceive as education working for the greater good, and I say this while wearing the hat of a black female and all the societal challenges that goes with that dynamic. Then I am reminded that education does not exist outside the political arena and is in fact a social macrocosm in itself. A progressive approach to education values “scepticism, questioning, challenging, openness, and seeking alternate possibilities” which bears the hallmark of challenging the political system and in the current political climate it is clear that the people who are in power do not like being challenged. Questions about curriculum content persist as progressive educators continue to argue for better representation, a broader and more relevant history curriculum and more contemporary issues to be present in the traditionalist approach to education. This argument is not about excluding what is being taught now but rather about including what is not being taught and to ask traditionalists to consider the damage to students whose diverse backgrounds are perceived as sub-standard and not good enough to be addressed in the classroom although they live these realities on a daily basis outside of the classroom and school life.


I do not feel like I have nearly scratched the surface of this fascinating debate even with the length of this blog! Despite my ‘centrist with a progressive lean viewpoint’ I am aware that schools are located at any point on a continuum between the extremes of total progressive and total traditional. I am also aware that as people we frequently fall into the habit of accepting narrow definitions and we are equally guilty of a stubborn resistance to broadening the narrative around contentious social issues, but as educators we have to commit to being ‘comfortable with uncertainty’ and we have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions about our personal drivers and motives. Kohn points out that “a school that is culturally progressive is not necessarily educationally progressive. An institution can be steeped in lefty politics and multi-grain values; it can be committed to diversity, peace, and saving the planet — but remain strikingly traditional in its pedagogy”. Such is the intricacy of this debate which we throw around in a public space like twitter with little regard to the damage it may be doing to our noble profession.

This thought keeps popping into my mind, would I go to a dentist whose only skill is to extract teeth? My answer to that is a resounding no! If the dentist had no skills or expertise in how to preserve teeth then I would go to a dentist who does. Extracting teeth does the job no doubt, but it is not an appropriate course of action for teeth that can be saved. Traditional education does the job and no doubt it is an easier option because progressive education is far more demanding on teachers and requires a deep understanding of pedagogy because no amount of expert subject knowledge can inform you of how to facilitate learning for a diverse student cohort. The belief that anyone who has expert subject knowledge will automatically make a wonderful teacher “is a corollary of the belief that learning is a process of passive absorption —a view that cognitive science has decisively debunked” (Kohn, 2008). We as educators need to think deeply about what it means to be a good teacher. That ‘feel good’ factor you enjoy about being a knowledgeable lecturer looking over a sea of passive, enrapt faces hanging on your every word, is purely about you and not about the children. It smacks of egocentrism and not of learning. Contrary to popular belief, progressive teachers need to have expert knowledge, their goal is the desire for their students to deeply understand the subject matter and be able to make connections and apply their knowledge in different contexts as opposed to simply memorising knowledge. We have an enormous, diverse world with limitless possibilities; let’s open up the windows and the doors to these possibilities instead of closing the net around the limits that are comfortable for teachers which results in reining in potential and locking it all into this narrow field of  power, subjectivity and context of the traditional classroom.

Dr Valerie Daniel

Further reading

Blouin RA, Riffee WH, Robinson ET, et al., Roles of innovation in education delivery. Am J Pharm Educ (2009) 73(8).

Kohn, A., Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard To Beat, But Also Hard to Find (2008), Independent School

Majali, D., Introduction to curriculum theory (2014), Muta University

Tularam, GA, Traditional vs Non-traditional Teaching and Learning Strategies – the case of E-learning! International Journal for Mathematics teaching and learning (2018) 19(1).

Progressive Education Overview

The Hot War Over Our Schools:The “3 R’s” and the “Progressives” Meet Head On

What Teachers Tapped This Week #19 – 5th Feb 2018
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