What’s that all about? Prog vs. Trad

You may have heard the terms progressive and traditional used within educational discourse. They represent two distinct schools of thought that encompass both the theory and practice of teaching, each with their own unique features and often polarising views based around the underlying purpose of education. On some level these distinctions create a rift that emphasises what Egan has described as ‘the fundamental conflict between forming the citizen and forming the individual’[1], a conflict that is far from unique to education.

There are fairly clear identifiable common components within each approach, yet it must be stressed that the following descriptions may not be representative of all real-world examples (if, indeed, any pure examples exist beyond the confines of the theories).

The Differences

Progressive schooling is generally associated with a more child centred approach while the traditionalist ideology is more teacher led. Progressive schools encompass a more democratic style while their counterparts are more authoritarian, with a culture based on routine, order and discipline. While progressive schools are often also concerned with student wellbeing, traditional schools emphasise academic achievement above all else. Differences are also identifiable in their methods of teaching. Progressive schools rely more on child led discovery learning and collaborative activities while tailoring lessons for individual students by, for example, identifying their individual learning styles. Traditional schools are more likely to employ direct instruction and rote learning while emphasising the importance of curriculum content and the use of tools to track student progress, such as regular testing. There is also some suggestion that traditional schools employ methods that have greater empirical support, however (ironically perhaps) there is as yet little empirical evidence to support this suggestion. It might well be that many research-informed and traditionalist leaning schools do use methods supported by research, but there is little way of knowing how these have been implemented, how accurately they reflect the theory they are based on, or how successful they have been.

Both educational ideologies have their supporters and detractors. Progressive methods have been criticised for the emphasis on process over content and, consequently, weakening the academic foundations necessary for learning across the lifespan. Detractors also point to the misplaced emphasis on factors such as self-esteem and emotional development and have accused progressive methods of undermining adult authority, leading to greater instances of poor behaviour. Finally, it has been proposed that progressive methods neglect the basic characteristics of human cognitive architecture, such as working memory[2]. On the flip side, traditional methods are said to impair children’s development by imposing a rigid learning sequence which ignores individual differences in the ways children learn and unfairly holding students to standards that are inconsistent with their learning styles. Detractors also point to the overly narrow focus on academic achievement and the neglect of other aspects of child development, such as emotional adjustment. Finally, the emphasis on direct instruction and rote memorisation stifles, it is argued, children’s natural sense of exploration and creativity.

Of course, few schools fall into these pure categories and teachers are often left with with two equally unattractive options. This leads to many teachers ‘hugging the middle’ between the two extremes or, as Cuban points out, ‘blending and creating hybrids of the two educational philosophies, but with a strong emphasis on traditional education.[3] Teachers then, to paraphrase Darling-Hammond, have to find their own personal approaches for dealing with the rift, and they do this by both following the curriculum and remaining mindful of differences in interests, abilities, starting points and pathways.[4]  On the whole, the traditional method, according to Labaree, has dominated due to its appeal to those in power, specifically its ability to produce convincing empirical evidence.[5]

The Importance of Dualisms

The progressive versus traditional distinction, just like any dualism, is useful because it allows us to explain and classify our ‘life world’[6]. The use of dualism is a legitimate and widely used methodology and has been used through the centuries by the likes of Descartes and Dewey to keep things that are experienced together conceptually distinct. Our experience of the world, for example, can be thought of as either objective or subjective. The objective world is a given, a place where it’s possible to obtain real and objective knowledge about truths, independent of humans observing the world. The subjective world, on the other hand, is imagined and constructed by humans; all knowledge is subjective and personal. 

However, we could argue that a dualism that is useful from a theoretical position is less so within real-world contexts. The world is, after all, full of complexity and nuance and often such absolutest thinking can stifle progress. For example, the behaviourist ascendency in psychology around the 1930s led to mental processes becoming an inappropriate area of investigation. Had the cognitive approach not replaced behaviourism as the dominant psychological paradigm, learning would have remained a product of conditioning rather than internal cognitive processes, most notably, memory. 

Nevertheless, we can argue that a traditional ideology is objective, while progressive educational methods are subjective. These rifts aren’t uniques to education of course. If we again take the relatively young discipline of psychology we can see that as far back at the 1800s the fledgling discipline was already split between those who viewed it as a branch of physiology and those who supported a more philosophical direction. Through its short history, psychology shifted several times between the subjective and the objective, from the introspection of the early German laboratories and Freudian psychoanalysis to behaviourism, with it’s emphasis on only that which could be observed. Today psychology has reached a somewhat uneasy truce as it continues to shift from the current dominant paradigm (cognitive psychology) towards one based largely in neuroscience.

Learning and Psychology

No doubt education will continue to witness further shifts in emphasis, perhaps following a similar route to that of psychology. Already we are seeing other influences creep into teaching, including cognitive neuropsychology and behavioural genetics. At the same time there is a growing interest in mental health, as well as in the interaction between cognition and emotion (the latter being an area that is already well established in both cognitive psychology and neuroscience). 

Psychology underpins theories of education. For example, many of the behaviour management principles promoted by specialist have their roots firmly set in the classic behaviourist tradition, even though psychology has, for some time, been moving towards a more socio-cognitive view of behaviour. Similarly, traditionalist teachers turn to models of memory in the implementation of instructional methods of teaching, for example, theories of working memory and cognitive limitations. From a progressive standpoint, teachers draw on psychological models of anxiety, motivation, curiosity and autonomy as a means to implement their own styles of teaching. Wellbeing and mental health, again, are well established psychological concerns. 

Teaching and learning is, therefore, largely informed by and perhaps even inseparable from the history of psychology, which sits at the centre of both traditional and progressive schools of thought.

[1] Egan, K. 2002. Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget, London, Yale University Press.

[2] Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E. 2006. Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

[3] Cuban, L. 2007. Hugging the Middle: Teaching in an Era of Testing and Accountability, 1980-2005. Education policy analysis archives, 15(1), 1-29.

[4] Darling-Hammond, L. 2012. Powerful teacher education: Lessons from exemplary programs, San Fransisco, CA, John Wiley & Sons. 

[5] Labaree, D. F. 2012. Someone has to fail, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

[6] Egan, K. 2008. The future of education: Reimagining our schools from the ground up, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

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