‘Trad’ v. ‘Prog’ Education? Let’s get past this false dichotomy.

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.

Image: commons.wikimedia.org


How schools can help tackle knives

I wrote this post in February 2018, then updated it in April to include information about the Home Office #KnifeFree campaign launched in March. This new UK-wide anti-knife campaign picks up on many of the themes of the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives campaign, which I mentioned in the original post, and forms part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

Knives and Children

This post is about a difficult topic: knives and children. Often thought of as an issue for schools in urban areas, the last couple of years have seen an upsurge in knife carrying and knife crime among children and young people across England and Wales, with knife crime increasing by 21% overall in 2017, despite increases in sentencing. In part, this has been driven by ‘County lines’ operations by drug gangs seeking to recruit children outside of large cities. As a 2017 National Crime Agency report describes, ‘County lines’ is characterised, among other features, by the exploitation of children and vulnerable people and the use of violence, with 85% of police forces reporting drug transportation and knife carrying being synonymous. The Children’s Society has more information about County lines on their website and have also produced a guide for parents who are worried that their children might be being criminally exploited.

Prompted by a lack of publicly available demographic information about those who died from knife attacks, The Guardian newspaper ran a Beyond the Blade campaign throughout last year. This collected both figures on knife crime and collected individual stories of those affected by its effects. As it turned out, 39 children and teenagers killed during the campaign, the worst year in 40 years. For each of these young lives lost there is a poignant story of a lost future and a family left to grieve.

Positive news from Scotland

In contrast to the worrying upward trend in knife crime reported in England and Wales, the Figures in Scotland are in decline, with no deaths of young people due to knife attacks in 2017. Scotland has a national approach to knife crime which addresses it as a social policy issue, rather than just a criminal justice issue, and attempts to address root causes. This approach was originally adopted in response to a 2005 UN report identifying Scotland as the most violent country in the developed world. The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) has adopted a public health approach where the police, health, social services & education work together to address the issue by tackling the causal factors. Scotland also has a national knife crime information website: No knives, better lives. It provides information for young people, as well as separate sections for parents and practitioners, and allows conversations to start and information to be given, both anonymously. It’s well worth giving it a look, whether or not you live in Scotland.

This approach has had considerable success. During 2006 – 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in Scotland, but during 2011 – 2016 this number had reduced to just 8. Incidents of individuals carrying knives dropped by two thirds in same period.

Initially, policing and prosecution led the approach with harder sentencing and more stop-and-search, although less than 2% found with knife. The VRU did not stop there however. The police mapped all the gangs. Those at risk of prosecution were invited to a meeting which started by warning gang members that if thy continued would be convicted and go to prison, but then went on to educate. Police officers spoke about the injuries they saw and bereaved mother spoke about the loss of her son to a stabbing. The gang members were then offeredhelp – education, employment, housing. VRU is state funded, not charities competing for funding.

I think the positive impact of the national, collaborative approach taken in Scotland offers a model for the future in the rest of the UK. We haven’t yet got a national strategy, but we can make a start where we are by using the same elements:

  • Education about the impact of knife use and the penalties under law
  • A strong stance on prevention
  • Lines of communication and approach for children and young people
  • Collaborative work to provide real alternatives and a way out for those involved

What about schools?

So, what does this mean for those of us working in schools who have seen an increase in knife carrying and maybe violence among young people, perhaps as a result of ‘county lines’ linked activity? These are my thoughts on what is important:

1. Recognise that the behaviours we see are part of a bigger picture. It may also be the result of exploitation (whether or not the young people recognise it). The solution to such behaviour is far likely to come from a coordinated multi-agency approach, involving police, schools, social services and other parties. Schools can play a key role in working with others to help children understand the risks associated with knives.

2. Take a strong stance on safety. Of course there is a very real safety issue here, and I’m certainly not proposing that knife carrying is tolerated because those doing it may be exploited and/or afraid. The Scottish model shows us, however, that a strong legal stance is unlikely to work on its own, but is successful when combined with education and real initiatives to provide young people with a way out. Schools also need to think about how seriously they take the safety of pupils and staff: there are many institutions that would permanently exclude a pupil for possession of a knife, but are reluctant to use metal detectors (wands or knife arches) for fear of how this will be perceived. The DFE has recently updated the guidance on Searching, screening and confiscation with a particular emphasis on tackling bullying. This new guidance confirms the legal right of schools to use metal detectors without the need for consent from parents or pupils, and to refuse entry to those who do not comply.

3. Work with others, not in isolation. When a crisis hits a community, it can be tempting for everyone to hunker down in their own silos. This can sometimes lead to a blame game which solves nothing and hinders the communication and cooperation between education, police, social services, and the community which are vital to success. Schools also need to work with each other, recognising that issues affect whole communities, rather than just individual ‘problem’ schools. Teachers in particular can play a vital role in picking up early warning signs – even in helping to map involvement within a community – and communicating these to other agencies.

4. Help provide a way out to a better life. Distraction from drug-related and or gang activities can be useful, but there is a lot of evidence to indicate that once children are entangled financially, this is unlikely to be successful. The VRU project went as far as rehoming people when necessary. Local projects may not have the facility to do this, but schools can play a big part in providing alternatives through education and training, even for youngsters who may be the most challenging.

I also think it’s high time that teachers and school leaders started discussing this nationally. I suspect that the problems that have emerged for schools in Oxford, where I work, are being mirrored in towns and cities across the country – anywhere in easy reach of a big city by rail or road. Some great work is emerging in tackling knives, drugs and gang culture. There needs to be a way of sharing this.

April 2018 Update – #KnifeFree Campaign

In March, the Home Office launched a new anti-knife campaign called #KnifeFree, using advertising on social media and digital channels and the new KnifeFree website. This campaign draws on the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives format to tackle misconceptions about knife carrying and to provide routes to advice and further help. In particular, it uses real-life stories of young people who have made the choice not to carry knives to explore the consequences of carrying a knife, and to inspire young people to make the positive choice not to. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd has announced that this campaign will form part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

I think that this campaign to raise awareness of the consequences of knife carrying is a welcome step towards tackling the issue. The successes of the approach in Scotland have been achieved through an integrated approach. Advertising campaigns and websites formed only one part of this and I believe that the rest of the UK will need to adopt a similarly collaborative approach between services, at both national and local level, if it is to achieve the same success in reducing the number of deaths, injuries, and violent crime among young people.