Forget Trad vs Prog – there’s some genuine debate to be had!

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Let’s talk about beliefs, convictions and assumptions.

Let’s talk about those inclinations and cognitive structures that often lurk unseen for months in the backgrounds of our minds – perhaps being pushed aside in favour of simply catching the balls which are thrown our way, as the firehose of term-time school life … (the overcrowded curriculum, the unmanageable lists of non-negotiables, the ever-more-complicated-than-we-would-like-it-to-be conundrum of how actual children think, feel and act…) … hits us squarely in our faces.

Yes, let’s try to bring back out into the open those underlying ideals which perhaps drove us into teaching in the first place, which were fanned and inculcated in us during our initial training, and which underpinned how we imagined we would approach everything which lay before us.

But let’s stop talking Traditionalism vs Progressivism for a few moments. Let’s assume that both of these labels identify IDEOLOGIES – and by that I mean systems of beliefs – things which only really apply if you buy-into the whole package, but which seem to dominate the entire landscape at the grittier end of the educational blogosphere and EduTwitter. Why…?

The Trad v Prog debate stifles real discussion for the following reasons:

  • It is assumed that the two full-on polarities of Traditionalism or Progressivism must categorise everyone, despite the fact that there are multiple blends possible of the different aspects which make them up. Quite probably [made up stat alert] more than 95% of teachers wouldn’t identify themselves fully as either properly Prog or Trad.
  • To make things worse though – to avoid people simply absenting themselves from the proper Trad v Prog war – there is the insistence by Andrew Old, the king of the teaching ‘battleground’, that you are only really a trad if you fulfil all the criteria which make up the full ideology (he lists them under the headings of Authority, Content and Methods) – and critically – if you don’t fulfil those criteria, you are, by default a Progressive (explained here and here). It’s as if he’s generously giving the other side a much bigger team, but that act forcibly sweeps up multitudes of people who really don’t think the label fits, who don’t want to fight on those terms anyway, and who – together – don’t have any coherent group identity other than simply being ‘not pure-blood trads’. It’s a clever sell to a degree, in that people who are disappointed as to have not made the trad team due to maybe a third of their approaches being outside it, feel compelled to buy-in to the full creed so as to belong. It regularly happens in religions and political parties of course. [You’ve described yourself as politically centre-left Andrew – so are you a Communist or a Capitalist..?!]
  • Finally, the whole teaching philosophies and practices cake could actually be cut in multiple other ways anyway, if we really tried to mark out the lines and get some steam up. How about banging-on about the real war being between the following 3 philosophies, and categorise each other according to them?
    1. Behaviourist: Children are basically part of the animal kingdom, and need to be trained by stimulus-response, and assessed by outward signs of behaviour.
    2. Cognitivist: Children are basically rational information-processing mechanisms, and need to be programmed to function in the most logical way, and assessed according to levels of rationality.
    3. Humanist: Children are spiritual beings which need to be set free, and should be nurtured to be the most creatively distinctive and truly individual people they can be.

These categories have been used very actively to keep debates going in the realms of psychotherapy for decades – why aren’t they our battle lines?

Or – if binaries are your thing, why not sort ourselves into whether we think human education should be completely devoid of digital technologies, or whether it should be enhanced by them as much as possible? There is of course plenty of this debate going-on anyway.

Of course, as with the Trad/Prog differentiation, both of these ways of carving ourselves up are probably met with the vast majority of teachers saying… “but it’s more complicated than these positions – it’s not necessarily either/or.”

But why does this stifle, rather than stimulate, proper debate?

The really big problem I think with the flaws of the Trad/Prog debate outlined above, is that it is gradually turning a lot of people to say that there really is no fundamental disagreement about teaching approaches or positions to be had at all. Not only is it not about those two ideologies, it’s not about beliefs, convictions or assumptions either – we just tend to pragmatically pick and choose ‘what works’ according to the needs of the situation, and we should just discuss techniques based on how well they fulfil that need in our differing situations.

Now, I would largely agree with this, and describe much of my varied practice being ‘pragmatic’. But then, we still find ourselves at loggerheads about ‘what works’ – for example whether or not there is good research evidence to support our claims, and we end up talking past each other in never-ending Twitter discussions, quibbling over details which aren’t actually the things which are getting in the way.

This is because, beyond the need to teach-to-the-test, our opinions about what works are massively coloured by the individual beliefs, convictions and assumptions – whether conscious or not – which we bring into the classroom each day.

THESE are the things which we need to try to bring out into the open if there is disagreement on technical details, and try to have fertile, respectful, energetic debates about – without trying to constantly herd each other’s opinions towards one of two polarised mega-ideologies.

The things we need to be getting our teeth stuck into:

If you’re wondering what I might be referring to, try these as starters:

  • What do you believe is the natural essence of humans and children…?
  • How do you believe children naturally best learn…?
  • What do you believe to be the primary purpose of education…?
  • What do you believe the primary purpose of schooling should be…?

Personally I don’t believe that there is a single overarching answer to any of these, but it would appear that many teachers believe that there is, or indeed that there should be one single, fundamentally overriding, soundbite. Do you personally have ones which you like to profess or bring to mind?

Additionally, if you’re really struggling to avoid the shrug of the shoulders which says “I really do just go with the hunch of what’s pragmatically the best thing to do in each situation,” try starting with the phrase “In an ideal school….” and play around with different endings and the response they prompt in you. For example:

  • In an ideal school… children would discover as many things for themselves as possible.
  • In an ideal school… children would know as many things as possible.
  • In an ideal school… I would personalise the education of children as much as possible.
  • In an ideal school… I, as a teacher, would be almost invisible in the learning process.
  • In an ideal school… the teacher would be deferred to as the relative expert in the learning process.
  • In an ideal school… children would show respect to teachers irrespective of whether it had been ‘earned’ or not.
  • In an ideal school… there would be no subject boundaries at all.
  • In an ideal school… what gives each subject its distinctive flavour would be passionately communicated to children.
  • etc. etc. etc.

I think that most of us would find ourselves either agreeing or disagreeing with most of the statements above – in other words, we have a belief or conviction which will colour our pragmatic choices whenever we have some freedom to choose. And if for any of them you found yourself saying “Well, DUH! Of course! Doesn’t everyone think that?!” then you really do have underlying assumptions which are worth pulling-out into the open and discussing with others as to why they might not agree with you. All of the above will make a significant difference as to how we all teach, and experience teaching, over time.

Of course, some of the things I’m talking about might be based on such personal beliefs and world-views that to debate them would either be crass, futile, or more usefully discussed in a different sphere of human discourse. Nevertheless, acknowledging them, and pointing to their roles in underpinning our educational decision making, is vital for real discussion of contentious issues.

There’s some genuine debate to be had out there!

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