A Recurring Question
I really value Twitter as a source of information, learning resources and educational debate. In particular forums like #SLTchat on Sunday evenings have been hugely helpful in my development as a school leader because it’s such an accessible way to connect with a wide community of colleagues. I’ve been inspired, gained an insight into solutions and ways of working, and been given pointers to useful resources and contacts. The debate itself has helped my own thinking, and I hope others have found my own contributions useful. I believe in the value of partnership see this as a way of collaborating with a wider group of colleagues.
As many others have commented however, Edutwitter isn’t always a pleasant place. I’m fortunate never to have been caught up in any acrimony myself, but I’ve witnessed plenty of it. I appreciate that people hold strongly-held views, but it has often struck me as somewhat worrying that a few educators who must be either directly or indirectly involved in teaching children how to behave responsibly online don’t always manage that themselves.
One question that seems to involve more than it’s fair share of venom is the debate about ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ pedagogy. I’ve put those terms in inverted commas because (takes deep breath an pauses to put on tin hat) I have to say I don’t really understand how they apply to everyday teaching in schools. I know it’s a debate (often an argument and sometimes just an undignified brawl) that has been going on since before I was born, but it has always seemed distant from the day-to-day reality of how most teachers work. I’m now on my 50s, so surely, as far as those active in the profession are concerned, my own education must represent what is traditional – anybody who was at school during an earlier period than me is likely to be retired.
My own old-fashioned education
When I think back to my early education, what I recall seems to bear all the hallmarks of progressive teaching. Bear in mind this was ILEA in the late 60s / early 70s. Memory is a capricious entity, but I think there were actually kaftans. Here’s what I recall of my early primary (broadly what we’d now call KS1) education:
- Making models using stickle bricks.
- Being told by the headteacher, on a visit to the class, that I should stop playing with stickle bricks and do some writing.
- Reading. Lots of reading. Reading myself. Being read to by the teacher. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes stands out. It must have been recently published.
- Tie-dying t-shirts, which we then wore (I told you it was the 70s).
- Drawing rainbow colours on a page in pencil, covering it in black wax crayon, then creating a picture by scraping the wax off, revealing the colour underneath.
- Everyone in class being given sticker book about the 1972 Munich Olympics.
- Picking apart owl pellets to discover the bones of small mammals inside (where do you find owl pellets in Ealing?!)
- Doing bomb drills where we all went behind an grassy mound behind the school.
- Doing a magic trick in class. I can’t remember why, or the actual trick but I had a matchbox with matches in up my sleeve which would rattle when I shook an empty match box in my hand, fooling onlookers that it was full. It must have been about the matches disappearing then reappearing.
- Going to the hall to see a play about pirates. I seem to think this was linked to a book, possibly a reading scheme.
- Making clay pots which the teacher fired in the kiln (a primary school with its own kiln!)
- Doing a class survey about what jobs people wanted to do when they grew up and drawing a bar chart. Most of us wanted to be astronauts.
- Having a Japanese class meal as part of a project. I remember seaweed.
- Waiting, sitting cross-legged with the rest of the class in the ‘television room’ watching a clock count down before the start of an schools’ programme (Picture Box?). No way to record TV – classes had to catch it live!
That’s about it. Whatever your perspective, And granted that I may now only recall the fun stuff, I think you’ll agree that from the list above, my early school learning, and what must be by now the most ‘traditional’ education experienced by anyone still teaching, was very ‘progressive’; the very stuff of the Plowden report.
Perhaps this is the root of my views on the trad / prog dichotomy: I just don’t think it’s helpful. In my experience, both as a pupil and a teacher, is that good teachers apply a variety of strategies, some of which might be labelled ‘traditional’, some ‘progressive’. They are not only reflective about their practice, but keen to share and learn from others. They understand that the same technique or strategy will not be the best fit for every child or class and become adept at matching their teaching to pupils needs.
Some Help from Aristotle
So where does that leave the debate? Perhaps a way forward lies in looking to the past and one of the great teachers in Western philosophy: Aristotle and the concept of phronesis. Aristotle believed that we all seek to flourish, physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively. We do this through exercising virtues such as generosity, industriousness, wit and bravery. Aristotle didn’t view these virtues as dipoles, for example bravery or cowardice, industriousness or laziness, but rather developed the doctrine of the mean. He taught that each characteristic had two forms of vice, one of deficiency, the other of excess. Virtue lies between these extremes.
For example, bravery is a virtue. A deficiency of bravery leads to the vice of cowardice, and an excess of it leads to the vice of empty bravado or rashness. According to Aristotle, bravery is not the absence of cowardice but rather the virtuous mean between cowardice and rashness. Phronesis is the practical wisdom that allows us to discern the mean in any particular circumstance, in this case where bravery lies between cowardice and rashness.
What if we thought about our approach to teaching as an Aristotlean virtue? I believe this reveals the trad / prog debate as a false dichotomy. It could take an eternity to agree exactly what a ‘virtuous mean’ of pedagogy looks like, but for the sake of argument, or perhaps phronesis, let’s say teaching takes place in a structured environment where teachers use evidence-based strategies, and their knowledge of individual pupils to plan challenging learning. They set clear boundaries and expectations, using these to create an atmosphere where children are confident to try, where failure is recognised as a valuable part of learning and where successes are celebrated.
I think our extremes of deficiency and excess now become not ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ but perhaps what concerns traditionalists about progressive ideas, and what concerns progressive about the traditional approach. One way of thinking about this might be the degree of structure. An excess of structure (let’s call this “constrained”), leads to a rigid one-size-fits-all approach, is focussed on summative assessment, and offers little room for empiricism or experimentation. On the other hand, a deficit of structure (perhaps we could call this “facile”) leads to a lack of pace and challenge, vague objectives and insufficient consideration of assessment criteria, and an unsettling absence of focus.
What I’m trying to say here is not ‘Traditional? Progressive? You’re ALL wrong!’ I believe that both perspectives have much to offer and that the role of the teacher is phronesis: to use our knowledge, understanding and experience to craft the best lessons that we can, drawing on all the tools at our disposal to strike the balance needed for a virtuous mean. Let’s just call that virtuous mean ‘teaching’.
As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Let me know if it’s safe to take my tin hat off now.