How Progressivism cripples creativity, and how to stop Traditionalism from stifling it

I planned to write this post a few weeks ago, after my post Knowledge Vs Skills: Seeking a little wriggle room triggered some exchanges about creativity with Sue Cowley on Twitter [NOTE: The ideology I’m critiquing isn’t one to personally identify with her]

Ultimately I’m not interested in blogging unless I can take an idea forward, so I’ve taken my time to try to dig-deep into this. I truly believe the points I generate break new ground.

My basic points are:

  • The concept of creativity is critically confused in society and education
    • Personal – ‘Small c creativity’ – is not the same as Socio-Cultural  – ‘Big C Creativity.
    • Progressivism has two completely separate goals related to educating for creativity – personal fulfilment and societal salvation.
  • In the way it champions personal fulfilment with ‘Small c creativity’, Progressivism is actually crippling its potential to solve upcoming Socio-Cultural problems.
    • Through dismissing the need to master the knowledge domains of existing experts
    • Through the project of ‘personalisation’, which leads to…
      • A reduction in the potential for creative analogy-making
      • A reduction – rather than increase – in personal adaptability
      • An explosion in ‘creative noise’ at a societal level
  • Traditionalism can better achieve Socio-Cultural creativity with some simple ‘tweaks’.

My depiction of Progressivism may strike some people as a straw man based on their personal practical experience, but I think it presents a very real voice at the back of many sincere people’s minds; representing an ideal which they believe they should be aiming for if only they were freed from the demands of exam boards and statutory curricula.

What is creativity?

Let’s think. What do we count as creativity?

  • If a child is given some paint and freely dawbs on a piece of paper – are they being creative? Or rather just ‘expressive’, or ‘experimental’ ?
  • What if the same abstract ‘dawbings’ are in response to being told to paint a garden? Is ‘personal interpretation’ always being  creative?
  • What if the child explains, they were trying to copy – as best they could – a picture they’d seen? Is their ‘highly original’ painting creative… or merely a failure?
  • What if the child ‘creates’ a great painting by carefully using a ‘paint by numbers’ set? Have they created, or merely ‘made’?

Most infant teachers would probably group all the efforts of the child above in the category of them being creative (or learning to be creative).  What about the following two cases?

  • The adult individual who is able to adapt to constantly changing workplace demands, reinventing themselves several times during their career?
  • The inventor who comes-up with a completely new form of electrical storage, based on principles not normally considered in that industry?

Are these last two people creative? If so, what is their link with the first set of examples?

Psychologist Robert Sternberg points out that the lack of clear focus in psychological research on creativity comes from a muddled mix of societal ideas about it. As Keith Sawyer explains, creativity as we know it isn’t a scientific concept – it’s something culturally and historically specific, meaning different things in different contexts. He distinguishes between individual creativity and socio-cultural creativity.

Individual creativity – is what Sawyer and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi both  call ‘Small c creativity’ – something which occurs at the level of personal originality – something which is simply new for that person to come up with. The Socio-Cultural form of creativity however is what we might think of as something more game-changing – what they refer to as ‘Big C Creativity’. This is the kind which results in innovations for all of us.

Now, the human capacity for creativity is hard for any of us to dispute. Nevertheless, progressive educationalists sometimes slip into almost mystical assertions about where the building blocks of creativity originate from – suggesting that the answers to our problems are simply ready to be unleashed from the human mind if only we would allow them out. They worry – not unreasonably – that as we learn established knowledge structures, the less we are likely to experience and tolerate divergent – unconventional – thinking. Therefore we should cherish and try to keep open the apparently more fertile imagination of the child as actively as possible.

It is indeed true that in growing-up we learn to more quickly filter-out the less cogent random associations which arise in our minds – the ones seemingly less likely to go somewhere rational. I believe that children indulge them more than adults due to a lack of reasoning structures and experience rather than greater inherent creativity.

What has become the key definition of creativity for researchers – and Sir Ken Robinson – is that creativity is originality with value – or ‘applied imagination’ as Robinson puts it. It may well be that personal pleasure is sufficient value to be gained from the creative act, but he’s adamant that the two creative adults I outlined earlier are the kind we need to be educating for. Rapid population growth and the speed of technological transformation mean we’re hurtling into a world situation which may be beyond our current controls.

His solution is for us to produce creative individuals who can produce novel solutions to new global problems, as well as being able to adapt to a workplace of as yet unknown multiple job roles.

Now, my focus here isn’t the ‘Shift Happens’ side-line to this, asserting the need to teach transferable skills in place of fundamental knowledge to prepare people for the jobs that don’t exist yet. I think THIS gives one of the best answers to that.

No, I’m actually going to agree with Sir Ken, and say – YES, as a species we are going to need to be able to adapt creatively, more rapidly than ever before. We could indeed be hurtling towards a precipice we have no current control over, changing many certainties in our lives.


You see, Progressivism likes to align its methods as being the best way to achieve this fresh headline goal for education because it involves talk of the need for creativity, and it has always been keen on creativity for a completely different reason: Namely, that we should open up children to creative experiences because, whatever they want to do in life, the act of ‘creating’ in some way – just like the act of acquiring knowledge for traditionalists – is an intrinsically worthwhile form of human experience. I have no problem with this as a goal – I think it is a value worth having.

BUT… the fulfilment of the first goal requires ‘Big C Creativity’, whereas the second is satisfied with ‘Small c creativity’, and focusing on the second one the way progressive education does cripples the first.

Why? Based on my broad reading around the subject the criteria below could be said to represent the full requirements for reaching ‘Big C’ – game changing – Creativity:

  • The ability to think ‘divergently’ – going beyond the natural stream of thought.
  • The freedom to allow your personal expression out – not repressing it in the face of conventional opinion.
  • An intrinsic interest in pursuing novel solutions to a problem, rather than doing it because you are required to.
  • The mastery of a domain of knowledge which allows you to fully survey the range of existing approaches to it.
  • Sufficient grasp of contrasting domains of knowledge, in order to create fertile counterpoint perspectives to allow innovative creativity to occur in the first place (unless you believe in mystical sources to our creative insights)
  • The access to, and due respect from, a field of influential experts who can evaluate the quality of your creative insight and give it the approbation to allow it to succeed.

Well… The first three of these perfectly fit with the Progressive domain of education for creativity. But the second three actually come from the Traditionalist domain of education…

Ignoring the importance of domain knowledge

Here’s the first problem: Progressivism’s focus on nurturing the creative impulse – or “creative confidence” as Robinson calls it – only goes beyond the personal sphere if it is book-ended by two critical bands of knowledge:

  • Firstly, truly game changing insights arise from having the comprehensive knowledge to see the whole picture of the domain that you are operating within (as well as having unusual knowledge of usefully analogous areas for inspiration purposes)
  • Secondly, you can only get a breakthrough if you, and particularly influential others, are in a position to knowledgeably evaluate your innovation. Why should this idea be worth anything?

Progressivism mitigates against this happening because it shuns the acquisition of established domain knowledge in favour of ‘transferable skills’, reducing the opportunities to become real experts in a specific field. Just having the information skills to access lots of knowledge as and when it seems to be required simply isn’t the same thing as having spent years internalising knowledge and gaining intuitive mastery of a domain.

Progressive educationalists may struggle with this. Based on their traditional focus of enabling everyone to express their innate creative muse, they constantly bear witness to incredible, original demonstrations of the power of creativity. You don’t need a lifetime of training to be ground-breakingly creative!

Here’s the thing though: It is easier to witness ‘the ordinary person’ having creative inspiration in the arts than with – say – technology. In the case of visual art for instance, we are all constantly seeing a rich mixture of things in everyday life, and through the marvels of TV we can all gain an incredibly diverse tacit knowledge of visual concepts. Diverse musical notions are also easy for anyone to absorb in our modern world (and the technical means to bring new ideas to the attention of others is now much easier too), and even narrative ideas abound amongst the least cultured due to the ubiquity of story-telling on screen.

In the Arts in general then, it seems that pretty broad creative innovation can arise from almost anyone if they just have the technical capacity and opportunity to express it. In other professional areas however this is much harder to achieve – access to the richer knowledge base isn’t something which you naturally pick-up through walking down the street or watching TV. Additionally, in the Arts it’s generally easier to find someone who thinks your creativity is worth something to them. Your mate Bill might enjoy listening to you singing in the local pub, but he might not want to buy the new Smartphone you say you’ve just invented in your shed.

Now, so far all I’ve really done is reiterate the common criticism by traditionalists regarding the progressive focus on skills rather than knowledge.

But there are further, insidious sides to Progressivism’s pursuit of ‘personalisation’ which I believe are less obvious, but also ultimately damaging to ‘Big C Creativity’.

The closing down of potential for creative analogy-making

You see, Progressivism also acts to shut-down the potential for creative counter-point areas of knowledge to be acquired. In other words – the unexpected places that truly deep and original insights arise from. How? By striving from too early in life to personalise education to the strengths and interests of individuals and seeking to create the smoothest run into becoming the most naturally comfortable version of themselves. It does this as follows:

  • by seeking from the start to uncover a child’s ‘element’ – the thing that their natural passion and aptitude seems to indicate would be their most naturally satisfying success area through life . I think ideally we would all find our element – but after a nutritiously formative period of battling with and exploring what we feel disinclined towards.
  • by prioritising what is considered relevant to a child based on their professed interests and cultural background – in pursuit of pleasing ‘engagement’.
  • by attempting to teach them in the way that a child appears most inclined to enjoy – in pursuit of easy, trouble free learning.

Progressivism seeks to give people earliest access to the area where they may have the passion and aptitude to be their best. However as well as trivialising the deep knowledge which real specialists require, it also discards the wider awareness of contrasting fields of knowledge which characterises the great innovators in a field.

The knowledge areas which seem less relevant to children – less obviously appealing –  are the grains of sand which sit unused in the recesses of the mind slowly creating pearls. The whole point of creativity is that it is unexpected. If we just focus on the things that most obviously fit together for us, then we are unlikely to be surprised by a creative insight.

Divergent thinking properly takes us to new places when we’ve had divergent experiences.

The reduction of personal adaptability

I’ve spoken about transferable skills previously.  I think they do exist in two forms: If you learn about a field in depth, some aspects of what you’ve learned in that area will be applicable to pretty much any other human domain (once you know enough about that domain to spot the relevance). Also, there is a narrow slither of skills and dispositions which can be taught separately and be used flexibly. Their usefulness may only be marginal though.

For instance, the skills which Progressivism can give to people to help them become the adaptable workforce of the future are rather like saying you’ve trained people to be able to work successfully anywhere in the world by showing them how to get through airports and teaching them ‘please and thank-you’ in twelve languages. Handy, but not really the hallmarks of groundbreaking success. Oh, and it would have to be a place in the world that appeals to them. Progressivism works to produce individuals who are qualified to flit between the shallows of different domains, as long as it appeals to them. Are these the adaptable productive citizens of the future?

Ponder this: Irrespective of whether Learning Styles exist or not – I have always had problems with the assumption of teachers that a knowledge of learning styles should result in them aiming to teach a child through their preferred sensory domain. Surely we should use our ‘knowledge’ of learning styles to help strengthen the weaker faculties of a child – not collude in making them yet more limited?

Personalisation is broadly used to make things easier for a child – to get obstructions out of the way of them enjoying a smooth-flowing learning process. Aside from the obvious character development benefits to children of desirable difficulties, the experiences which go against the grain of the child also sow the seeds for the most interesting creativity later in life.

Ultimately, through easing children into doing what they most want to do, we actually make them less likely to be adaptable to an uncertain future workplace. Our precipitous future isn’t simply about undreamed of opportunity, it’s also about unpalatable, but essential, necessities. We’re creating a generation of children who are used to the world being adapted to their needs and choices, so that everything fits them better. What aspect of this is meant make them more able to cope with changing demands imposed on them?

Adaptable adults are those who have learned to take the rough with the smooth – to cope with necessity as well as opportunity.

The increase of creative noise

There’s more as well though… I pointed out before that real innovation in a field requires the knowledgeable appraisal of new ideas in order for them to be adopted and developed further. Progressivism even makes this less likely. How? By championing an unprecedented level of ‘creative noise’. The gatekeepers to real power in all kinds of knowledge domains have probably never been as bombarded as they are now by other people’s creative ideas. What I’m writing now could be a stroke of genius, but since anybody can set-up a blog to write thoughts about education (and we’re all widely encouraged to do it!), why should my own thoughts get noticed?

Let’s look at this general argument in a different way:

See below how Bloom’s taxonomy has been changed in recent years:

It has become the norm now to reword nouns with verbs and replace ‘synthesise’ with ‘creating’, moving it up above ‘evaluating’. So… when a child dawbs paint freely on some paper, they are exhibiting the most sophisticated form of thinking…?

The thing is, synthesising was above analysing for a reason. Newsnight presenters seem to find it easy to analyse and rip to shreds the arguments of politicians. It’s much harder however for them to create a brilliant new political strategy from the pieces left behind. It is indeed easier to distinguish the separate parts of a whole, than it is to visualise a previously un-thought of new whole from a given bunch of separate parts.

Of course, such synthesising should rightly be associated with the concept of creativity BUT not all creativity should be associated with synthesising.

And there’s more – take a look at the next revision of the taxonomy:

Now, hands up – what’s the problem with any pyramid of this kind? What if ‘remembering’ was replaced with ‘listening’ and ‘creating’ was replaced with ‘talking’? Like many teachers I give pupils the pithy advice “you have two ears and one mouth – listen twice as much as you talk”.

Given the access to information we now have – a wonderfully talented individual could become quite an expert in a field without having ‘chartered’ access to its traditional systems of power. They could indeed conceivably produce radically better ways of doing things. But no one will hear them, because everyone is creating, and no-one is seriously considering it all. There just isn’t the time.

Traditional education which fosters creativity

So having ripped into Progressivism for undermining ‘Big C Creativity’ and the production of adaptable workers of the future, what is my creative way to achieve this goal?

My prescription would be to give children a traditional education, which seeks to transmit the heart of what we culturally most value in what has previously been said and done, but with tweaks to ensure that open, inquiring, creative minds don’t become stifled.


Stick close to the knowledge  – that is what you are aiming to teach – not transferable creativity. However – there is ‘what’ you teach, and there is ‘how’ you teach it. Keep a constant awareness of the oblique learning that can occur through how you do things.

Now, the beautiful thing for progressives is that traditionalists now believe that you only really acquire knowledge if you actively think about it, and there is little which requires as much thought as trying to think creatively about areas of knowledge. Consequently, once you’ve presented your key knowledge area and gone through your process of choice to ensure it’s accurately understood, present pupils with challenges to creatively think about this work. You can do this constantly with questioning, discussion and paired talk without it needing a whole project.

Be astute of course – getting them to do a poster or a PowerPoint about it may involve no creative thinking whatsoever about the content of learning. It may purely be aesthetic creativity, which is missing the point.

However – more fundamentally, prime pupils with the three following pieces of conceptual knowledge and you will rarely be in danger of shutting down divergent thought:

  • Firstly – imbue them with the realisation that any area of human knowledge can be linked with any other area with a bit of creative thinking (a bit like 6 degrees of separation)
  • Secondly – point out to them that although knowledge is what we consider the most convincing and compelling version of the truth as we know it, any factual phenomena can logically be explained by more than one explanation and anything that we do can be done in a different way. The trick is to have good reasons to prefer a different version. In other words, there’s always more than one way to do, or to explain anything.
  • Thirdly – get them to grasp that we can never fully know the extent of what we don’t know.

If both teachers and pupils believe these three facts, why should any pupil ever lose their impulse to be creative?

27 thoughts on “How Progressivism cripples creativity, and how to stop Traditionalism from stifling it

  1. Hi there, just to clarify, I don’t class myself as ‘progressive’ or even as an ‘educationalist’. I find that labels have a tendency to narrow and polarise (and are sometimes used specifically for that purpose), so I personally try my hardest not to use them.

    I’m actually not trying to suggest that creativity comes from somewhere mystical in my blogs about it (perhaps you are mistaking my use of metaphor for me being literal), rather, I’m suggesting that human beings seem to be genetically inclined towards creative approaches. (See here for a good example: of how creative ideas ‘strike’). The hard work that comes afterwards is part of the creativity, but it’s not really the same as that initial creative impulse or linking of concepts. If you work with small children, there is no denying that they can be amazingly creative, with only tiny amounts of what you might refer to as ‘knowledge’. They seem to have an automatic instinct or impulse to create, it is an immensely satisfying activity for many human beings.

    I would also take issue with the idea of wanting ‘easy, trouble free’ knowledge. That’s not my intention at all, when I suggest that we follow a child’s interests. Once a child can read, knowledge is fairly easy to gain – it’s out there in all those books, after all. But the idea that learning has to be ‘easy’ or ‘enjoyable’ is simply inaccurate – it is *motivation* that is key. I work hard and seek knowledge in those things I am *motivated* to do, rather than it being about finding the thing that is *easiest* or most *fun* for me. (Although it is worth remembering that ‘fun’ is not necessarily a bad thing, and is actually important in allowing us to be playful enough to be creative. When we lose the ability to be playful, we lose the ability to be creative. Honest.)

    The stumbling block for me in the ‘knowledge is key’ argument is the fact that I have written (‘created’) more than 25 books. Whatever you think of what I write, I did that and lots of other people didn’t. I certainly don’t have as much knowledge as many of the people whose stuff I read online, indeed I probably have much less than you as you sound pretty clever. However that didn’t stop me being much more creative in my life than many of the people whose stuff I read online. Go figure, hey? 😉


    • Thank you so much for taking the time to both read and comment on this Sue – it is hugely appreciated 😀

      Instantly I feel bad that I’ve associated you directly with my critique, and that wasn’t the intention at all. I mentioned the straw man at the beginning because I wanted to unravel an ideology rather than a person. I’m more than happy for you to distance yourself from what I’ve written about, and I’ll create a slight edit at the top to try to make this a bit clearer.

      Regarding some of your comments – 2 things:

      I agree with you (honest!) about the need to retain playfulness in learning – I have no problem with that. The reason I make the point about making learning ‘easy’ is because I’m talking about a more subtle process which is not the obvious one (It’s not about dumbing down or too much ‘engagement’). Why do teachers aim to differentiate to children according to their learning style if they aren’t actually deaf or blind etc? (again, irrespective of the actual respectability of learning styles theory). It is to remove obstacles and complications from the whole learning process – NOT something representative of the world we want them to be able to adapt to.

      I also now need to be really careful about how I say this last bit, because I greatly admire your achievements and respect your intellect, your integrity and your reputation. I also think that your 7 T’s of Differentiation book is probably the best single volume I’ve read on the subject (please do read my post on Differentiation if you haven’t already!). SO THIS ISN’T ABOUT YOU! What I want to say though is that writing 25 books can indeed be seen to be a tremendous outpouring of personal creativity, BUT such creativity could have no bearing on whether a field is changed one way or another, and indeed society developing the ingenuity to solve the problems of our precarious future, as Sir Ken Robinson is adamant it should do. As I explain, there can be a complete separation between ‘small c creativity’ and ‘Big C Creativity’ – and indeed a profuse amount of the former may go counter to the achievement of the latter.

      Thank you once more for your time and care!


      • One might want to consider the extent to which young children’s apparent creativity is actually little more than cognitive overdrive. All young minds are acquiring information at such a huge rate that there may be little time (or ability) to filter the useful from the random – which may appear ‘creative’ to older minds. Whether it has any lasting value is another matter…

        Liked by 1 person

    • I know I am late to this but I do think that
      a) Children’s creativity does not come out of thin air. They are still making connections with what is known to them.
      b) Following a child’s interest is not bad in itself however, I can’t be alone in having changed my interests over time. Also, how can a child know what they are interested when there is so much of the world that is unknown to them. I didn’t know about the Romans before I learnt about them in school. If you had asked me before I had then I may have expressed my interests very differently. That was the start of my love affair with history but it didn’t happen until I was 8. Again I would not have realised what that history truly motivated me if I had not continued to learn about different types of history and still maintain that interest and motivation.
      c) Education for me is about opening up the world not narrowing it – that seems to be what the progressive agenda has done. Constantly focusing on oneself is a recipe for naval gazing and little else.
      d) Last but not least – in all honesty while there are many who are breaking out in defence of their ‘traditional’ education, I can’t see the progressive equivalent. Having dominated education for over 30 years one has to question why that is. In the end the proof of the pudding is in the eating and if the progressive agenda can not put forward shining examples it has to be questioned why.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you last point is highly original – not a perspective I’d approached it from before. And there simply has to be something incredibly powerful about taking children to places that they just would never go if left to their own devices and inclinations. They simply can’t decide whether they’ll like something that they’ve never seen before. They don’t know what they don’t know…

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  2. Hum…that’s a big chunk of thought to get my head round in the middle of a holiday! I think I’ll need to re-read that at least once. However, a few initial thoughts:

    True creativity in the sense of pulling something from nothing is extremely rare, especially at this late stage in human development. Most new ideas derive from prior knowledge/experience – what makes them creative is the new slant, interpretation or association that is fostered. One can only do these things if one has good working knowledge of one’s domain – and ideally others with which cross-fertilisation might occur.

    Even in areas like fine art or music much new work is actually the product of existing knowledge – even if in the form of a violent reaction against it.

    On the other hand, many people who become truly great in their fields start doing it to the exclusion of much else very early in life. It may require the hand of another to guide such decisions at such an early stage. However, I’m not fully convinced that it is really a desirable pathway for a balanced life, and it certainly is not always a freely-made decision…

    So yes, traditional education can enhance creativity rather than destroy it. One of the fundamental failings of progressives is to ignore the distinction between information and knowledge. The former is indeed fairly useless on its own: it’s like having a pile of data without an operating system to process it.

    All information needs to be contextualised in order to turn it into useful knowledge – and arguably then again to turn it into wisdom. Traditional education at its worst probably was about the mindless absorption of information – but at its best it is about the evaluation of that information in a way unstructured, unguided progressive techniques rarely achieve. As you say, this is the essential part of the traditionalist’s approach – what you *do* with the knowledge. One way of doing something with it is to evaluate it in the light of alternative understandings. That’s critical thought, and can of course be taken to an extremely high level.

    Oh! I seem to be growing an argument in favour of an baccalaureate-style theory of knowledge course…

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    • Thank you so much for all your time with this ij – I do keep aiming for a pithy 1000 words, but I’m not doing very well am I? I feel compelled to lay out my argument as completely as possible, but goodness knows how far most viewers get!

      As ever, your comments are deeply insightful and rich. One day I will probably try to re-write all these posts in a more succinct way, but integrating all your own thoughts. 🙂


  3. Google Cars and the numerous facsimiles are coming. Unlike the number of horses at the beginning of the motor vehicle era we can’t reduce the numbers of people that will have been employed in the numerous facets of this ‘industry’. I suspect for many of this workforce the future is pretty bleak. And they are the first in line of the AI (artificial intelligence) revolution. Apparently the top thirty odd areas of employment in the world are ripe for some degree of automation. Are we too late to be discussing creativity as something that needs enriching in our educational mix or do we need to fundamentally change our education systems to make it the only game in town?


    • Thanks Tim – I’m delighted your comment has managed to stick this time!

      Wow… this has triggered more thoughts than I thought it would, and I might follow it with the first in a new breed of much shorter posts…

      I’m getting a slightly nauseous feeling: The kind of change you are talking about (where professional drivers may become unemployed in large quantities over a relatively short period of time) clearly implies two big needs from society: The ability to innovate society as well as technology, and the ability for individual humans to adapt to changes imposed on them.

      Now, as I’ve argued above, there is a big difference between creativity which relates to these capabilities, and the personal creativity which tends to be the focus in early schooling. Indeed, I think that the personal adaptability aspect only relates to creativity at all in as much as people might need to think outside the box in terms of how they could re-invent themselves. Beyond this, it seems to be about resilience and being motivated to start afresh. There is some mileage here for ‘transferable skills’ talk, but my biggest concern is that it largely involves throwing off all the expectations that an education system built up around ‘personalisation’ has created in us regarding what to expect from life.

      The two striking thoughts for me however are… What kind of ‘knowledge base’ – and indeed power base – does it require for creative people to be able to successfully innovate society when effectively a human need disappears? Almost innevitably it is done through evolution rather than clever social engineering – we have global depressions, social unrest and gradually individuals reinvent themselves in whatever way appears to enable them to better survive (and eventually thrive). Ouch…!

      The second thing is the really queasy bit for me… Assuming we do become better at educating people to knowingly innovate (Big C Creativity) – this will inevitably accelerate the production of problems as well as solutions. The more capable we become of societally innovating ways to help us cope with change, the more capable we will become at creating fresh technological reasons for our changes… !

      Quick – who do we warn…?!


      • This is (once again) why it is so important to educate for the whole person. Notice the word ‘for’: I am not suddenly turning all progressive 😉 The whole instinct to educate with a specific purpose in mind is doomed to failure because we cannot know what that purpose needs to be – or in what circumstances those being educated will find themselves. That applies equally whether that purpose is economic participation or some notion of creativity.

        I agree that the future does not look promising – and that’s without the contradictions we seem to have built in, such as aiming to produce more graduates at a time when much work is being dumbed down and causalised. But we can’t really know what else will emerge to fill the gaps, such as perhaps work in the green sector.

        The only watertight purpose, so far as I can see, is to aim to develop the intellect. That means exposing the brain to situations where it is best able to develop its higher functions, be they rational or creative. In fact, I suspect that amounts to the same thing, if one thinks about it in terms of neural connectivity. The only difference is the part of the brain being used. I believe that the best way of doing this is through the rigorous use of formal intellectual activity – even if it superficially appears ‘useless’ it is the best way to target the necessary cognitive processes. It is also as much about equipping people with knowledge of the world around them as it is the skills to manipulate it.

        By focusing on, for example, workplace skills, one only closes off other aspects of development, such as the ability and desire to pursue leisure activities for their inherent interest. This particularly concerns me as I see far too many pupils whose lives seem to consist only of work and loafing. Increasingly few seem to have much notion of lines of thought pursued simply for the intrinsic pleasure involved. They also seem to have worryingly scant conceptions of the social and cultural landscape in which they belong, or which they might help create. Perhaps the only widespread exception to this is participation in sport, which seems to be more about the ‘body beautiful’ than the ‘mind beautiful’.

        We need people to have not only the developed intellects but also the perception of the need to deploy them in all aspects of life, including the workplace, but also in their personal lives, leisure lives and the communities and environments in which they might participate. Only by doing this do we stand any chance of future-proofing humankind against whatever comes next.

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      • Thanks again ij – two things which I think go very powerfully together from what you said were… Educating ‘for’ the whole person, rather than trying to educate ‘the’ whole person, added to… focusing on developing the intellect plus the importance in people of then applying it to all aspects of life.

        It was also good to see you mentioning our inability to be able to predict specifically what an individual will need from their education, as this echoes my concerns about personalisation in my previous blog on differentiation.

        Cheers again.:)


  4. Hi Chris,

    Just wanted to say that this is a highly intellectual piece of writing where your main points are put across with sound reasoning and logic. I agree with what you are saying (it must’ve taken you ages to write!) and there are many individual points where you have provided further clarity for me. In particular, your acknowledgement that ‘small c creativity’ is actually a sort of mask to allow teachers not to teach those tricky, knowledge-heavy subjects in primary schools really got me thinking……

    I am now of the opinion that the only teachers who should really seek to facilitate creativity are actually those working with young adults. The rest of us really need to make damn sure that children have very high levels of skills and knowledge required to solve those unknown problems of the future. and children should be made to learn rather than indulged if they are to develop the character to withstand change in the future.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks QT – I posted my most recent comment on your own post after you’d posted this, but I wasn’t paying attention!

      I really appreciate your… appreciation! 😉

      Your comments about young adults are interesting, and at first I thought a little extreme! I think we can ‘massage’ creative faculties and impulses from the year ‘dot’ in the way I outlined at the end of my post, and keep weaving in more benign opportunities for delivering creative satisfaction, which I am progressive enough to see as a good in itself.

      Perhaps though you’re right that there should be some kind of staged expansion of creative opportunities. Perhaps only at a key formative age should we start to encourage what might be considered more ‘outspoken’ creative endeavours – attempts to confront ‘Big C’ creative problems – where there is a clear need for knowledge, awareness, responsibility and judgement towards the ends. I always feel a bit queasy for instance at seeing kids speaking at political conferences. Sure it’s good for those who are keen to have a training ground for that kind of thing, but…

      There’s lots of different aspects to this…!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sue: “Once a child can read, knowledge is fairly easy to gain…”

    I teach a small group of 13 to 18 year olds. One has a genuine SEN. One of them can’t read at all (not the one with the genuine SEN. Enquiries revealed that no-one had ever tried to teach him to read.) We suspected that several of the group are dyslexic but we have now realised that they haven’t been taught how to read properly. When they come across a word they haven’t seen before they simply ignore it. If there are too many new words they give up. None of them are interested in finding out the meaning of new words. All they have to do is ask, but that would mean an explanation involving the risk of meeting more new words. So they never ask. It took an hour of hard work to discover that they had assumed that “North”, “South”, “East” and “West” were peoples’ names. That is why my first attempt to teach map reading didn’t work.
    All of them avoid reading whenever they can. There is almost no chance at all of them learning any of the things I taught myself from books by the time I was 10 years old. They don’t have the vocabulary and they resist learning any. They won’t go looking for information unless it is in the form of pictures or videos.
    By contrast we had two pupils from a private school. They were quiet, well mannered and I suspect had numeracy and literacy skills well beyond my own. They soon left.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The gap is growing between state and private schools and this is not alarming the progressives as you say the chris says their concern is personal creativity. The fact that those who they teach are not necessarily becoming productive young adults is less of a concern. It makes me wonder to what end it is a vanity project for some teachers. They can congratulate themselves on how well they have helped nurture a child but then abdicate responsibility for their failures.


  6. Hi again Chris, I’m not keen on the way that the term ‘the progressives’ is being used here (to ‘other’ people with a differing viewpoint). In my experience, very few people fall under either of the labels that people use around the concept of progressive/traditional. My own children’s education is very much an example of how most schools aim for a balance between transmitting knowledge and allowing for personal agency and creativity. I simply don’t recognise this merry band of people called ‘progressives’, although if ‘traditional’ education is what my own schooling was (dry, repetitive, fearful) then, hey, ‘no thanks’. 😉

    It’s also interesting that people are using the ‘children who are privately educated’ as an example, because again my experience is that private schools have much more freedom to educate in an holistic manner, with a focus on the arts and wider enrichment as well as technique and knowledge. If you look at Tricia Kelleher’s school (The Stephen Perse Foundation, among the top independent schools in the UK), you will see exactly what I mean. This may be at least partly to do with parental support and input. If you are not having to deal with children from very deprived or chaotic homes, and you have far smaller classes and much better facilities, then this gives the teachers a head start in having the freedom to allow for a wider expression of what ‘education’ can look like. It does trouble me that we are seeing a narrowing of the curriculum for the most deprived, while those from advantaged homes are more likely to have access to the widest and most enriching experiences.


    • Thank you Sue – I’m glad you’ve made a rejoinder.

      Yes – there is a danger in sliding into talking about ‘progressives’ as opposed to ‘progressivism’, which was the intended focus of my post. As I put near the beginning:

      “My depiction of Progressivism may strike some people as a straw man based on their personal practical experience, but I think it presents a very real voice at the back of many sincere people’s minds; representing an ideal which they believe they should be aiming for if only they were freed from the demands of exam boards and statutory curricula.”

      I personally think almost every teacher works with a fair degree of cognitive dissonance as they simultaneously try to balance a mixture of voices at the back of their minds, matching up ideals which aim to achieve different goals. My own aim here was to look closely at the logical implications of one of those ideals, and you’re right we shouldn’t make it about ‘us and them’.

      I also agree that it shouldn’t slide into a ‘private vs state’ debate, as that again is a different issue, and I agree with the spread of differences which can be prominent in Independent schools, leading to differences in outcome.

      I guess the difficulty is that – assuming that the ideals I talk about in the post DO exist at the back of some peoples minds – people will naturally start to reflect on the circumstances in which they’ve seen them come to the fore, which I guess is what has been happening in the comments.

      I’m certainly keen not to ‘other’ you – I’ve been working on several extended metaphors for you for a start, for you to post on your blog ;-D … Got two humdingers of posts which are more pressing for me to nail at present though, and my paid job…!


  7. Hi Chris,

    I didn’t think you were trying to ‘other’ me, but some of the comments here refer to ‘progressives’ as a group. Oddly, given their apparent prevalence, I’ve never met them. 🙂

    Someone (I think Teachwell) was asking what evidence there was that progressive approaches could be making a positive impact, especially on creativity. If you look at the year on year increase in how the creative industries are growing within the UK economy, that might do the trick. 😉

    See, for instance, here:


    • Thanks again Sue – … have you ever met any ‘traditionalists’…?! 😉

      Thank you for your link. I followed it on through to the Government produced statistical breakdown as I was interested in what industries were covered. I do genuinely rate the thriving of our creative industries in Britain and support a push to boost the Arts in general in schools – whether for productivity purposes in such industries, or indeed pure self-fulfillment. I have a big thing about educating for the worlds of ‘necessity’, ‘opportunity’ and ‘experience’. [If we don’t value the role of doing things purely for ‘experience’ in our lives, then frankly, what’s the point of any of it?]

      The thing that bothers me most here – with this post – is how we best prepare people for that world of ‘necessity’ which apparently is ominously circling our global population with unavoidable problems we’ve never experienced before (but which keeps tending to be slightly eclipsed in our by that alluring world of opportunity which dazzles the young).

      … So…I guess my question is… do you think that this thriving of the creative industries is matched by greater innovation in our non-creative industries and professions…? – The ones that we will be relying on to solve the problems thrown up by our rapidly changing world…? I suppose this is the thing I’ve been driving at with this post. Those at the top of their games in the industries which we rely upon for survival still rely very heavily on knowing in as much detail as possible ‘what’s what’. In a literal sense, we can’t pin our destiny on people who think it might be worth spending time trying to reinvent the wheel. We’ve been there, done that, and we need to make sure our young realise what we’ve been there and done (good and bad) as efficiently as possible if they are going to benefit from the wisdom we’ve already accrued.

      My angle then is for us to aim to keep the creative juices flowing naturally while our youth learn as much as they can about how the world works, rather than to give them bits of incidental knowledge as we focus on developing their creativity.

      Darn it – I was just intending to thank you warmly and give you a cheeky smile 😀


  8. Hi Chris, when you get to my age, you realise that the ‘unavoidable problems’ have always been there, they just seem to change names over the years. There was a distinct threat of Nuclear War when I was a child, with government leaflets about survival and everything. Nope, I’ve not met any ‘traditionalists’, though I’ve heard of a few people who like to style themselves as such (this might be a publicity/ego thing, perhaps?)

    Remind me to tell you about the ‘Saffy Effect’ sometime, it’s a very neat way to explain all this trad/prog stuff that’s going on right now. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sue – I’d be very interested in that – I also suspect that you might be right about the never-ending cycle of threats to society – perhaps the human species as a whole just adapts as necessary whenever a new challenge comes along – almost irrespective of our attempts to engineer things. 🙂


  9. Ha! 😀 … Well I’ve creatively decided to Google it – but the closest I could find was ‘Saffy’ standing for Serious Active Forward Facing Youth – which I don’t think quite is what you are probably referring to.

    Having said that, I guess this acronym was chosen because it represents the daughter Saffy from Ab Fab… and you could say that her own approach to things came about partly as a reaction against the excesses of her mother… So maybe the Saffy Effect is how movements arise as a reaction to the perceived excesses of another movement, and this can keep going backwards and forwards like a pendulum?

    I certainly think that this is the case in education. I personally believe that what we try to achieve is a paradoxical blend of contrasting goals, which mirrors the paradoxes at the heart of life in general. Therefore we can never quite fully define what the perfect education would be for example. I think that there is a truthful resonance at the heart of progressivism representing something essential about human existence, in the same way that there is a truthful resonance at the heart of traditionalism (notice again I’m talking the theoretical ‘isms’ not the mythical ‘ists’!).

    My own belief is that if we stand back the right distance to bring everything into resolution, then we’ll see that the truthful resonances at the heart of each movement are both vital and reconcilable. Indeed, I think that this could be the longer term goal of this site.

    …Has my diversion into inquiry-based learning got me to a better place than you giving me Direct Instruction would have…?! I’m not in a position to tell yet! 😉


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