THE TRADITIONAL AND PROGRESSIVE PHILOSOPHIES OF EDUCATION

'Progressive People: Those who deliberately or unwittingly promote the Party Line'. A Communese-English Dictionary by Professor Roy Colby (Western Islands Publishers, Massachusetts, 1972).

It is impossible to understand what is happening in our education system without first having some knowledge of the two conflicting philosophies which affect policy. These are usually described as the traditional and progressive philosophies. It must be emphasised that those who support the traditional philosophy are not old-fashioned, right-wing or reactionary: such descriptions are terms of abuse used by supporters of progressivism to undermine their opponents. It should also be emphasised that perhaps more than anything else, progressive educationists fear objective testing, because they know that honest measurement of results highlights the deficiencies of their philosophy and its inherent methods of teaching. Major tenets of the traditional philosophy are listed below with the progressive equivalents alongside. Key words are in italics:

Traditional

Progressive

Education should be reasonably authoritarian and hierarchical

Education must be egalitarian

The curriculum should be subject-centred

It must be child-centred and relevant

Emphasis should be on content

Emphasis must be on skills

(Book) knowledge and accuracy are essential

Experience, experiment and understanding are more important

Rationality and the consideration of factual evidence should predominate

Creativity and feelings are more important than facts

Recognition of right and wrong

Right and wrong depend on one’s point of view

There should be a product

It is the process that matters

The product, or knowledge of content, should be objectively tested or measured

Criteria provide a framework for subjective assessment or tasks based on skills

Competition is welcomed

Co-operation must take precedence

Choice between different curricula and/or different types of school is essential to maximise individual strengths

Entitlement for all replaces choice and differentiation; equal opportunities can be used to construct equality of result

Whereas the traditionalist believes that the purpose of education is to pass on a body of knowledge (both factual and cultural) to future generations, the progressive believes that the purpose of education is to change attitudes and values to construct a politically correct, secular, socialist society. Progressives give particular attention to English, History and RE, because these subjects have enormous cultural importance.

Since the 1960's, state education in this country has been inexorably driven towards progressive ideology by means of teacher training, the 'philosophical cleansing' of the teaching profession and its administrators, the removal of the eleven-plus exam, of different examinations for different abilities, and of the choice of grammar, technical or other types of school.

Progressive ideology includes some good sense, which makes it difficult to recognise or oppose. Of course, children and young people learn better when they recognise the relevance (or child-centredness) of what they are doing. The skills of reading, writing and solving problems are essential, if a young person is to be useful in the world of work. Experience, experiment and understanding are also important.

Difficulties arise because, in order to disguise their true intentions, progressive educationists have their own meanings for key words - meanings which are not immediately obvious to outsiders. To the progressive, a 'skill' may be the ability to find things out for oneself, or to evaluate 'evidence' or 'historical sources' (which may or may not be genuine), or to see 'other points of view'. 'Understanding' may simply mean the ability to recognise a political or philosophical message within a text. Equal opportunity is a desirable objective with which few people would disagree. But progressives can, and do, interpret this as equality of result - they believe that everything should, as far as possible, be geared to achieving equality of outcomes.

Any move away from the subjects and their content allows progressives to introduce their own agenda and make straightforward teaching less effective. Topics, projects and cross-curricular themes are all used in this way. The replacement of content by skills means that the body of knowledge inherent within a subject can easily be lost. Skills of 'interpreting meaning' (or 'deconstructing') are worthless without the ability to read a text accurately. When knowledge is lost, what is there to test, apart from skills, or attitudes or values?

The emphasis has now swung so much towards progressivism that standards are in serious danger. Because the 1988 Education Reform Act named 10 subjects plus Religious Education for the National Curriculum, the clear intention of that Parliament was to follow the wishes of parents by introducing a fairly traditional curriculum, with the standards of learning (and by implication the teaching received) being capable of objective measurement at ages 7,11 and 14.

Unfortunately, when ministers handed over the detailed work of producing the National Curriculum and its testing to educational professionals, they appointed an overwhelming majority of progressive educationists to all the advisory bodies such as the National Curriculum Council and its latest replacement, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. That pattern still continues and that is why the National Curriculum has always been a battleground. Now, with a more sympathetic government, the National Curriculum has become a powerful tool for progressives , who are in no doubt that their philosophical allies control the teaching of the subjects and the testing.

It should also be noted that progressives give particular emphasis to Section 1 of the 1988 Education Reform Act (now Section 351 of the 1996 Education Act), which states that the curriculum should be 'balanced and broadly based', should promote 'the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils' and should prepare 'such pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life'. All these admirable curricular requirements are covered within the subjects of the original National Curriculum. But to progressives, they are more important than the subjects, because preparing pupils for ‘the experiences of adult life’ can be used to justify the integration of subjects, the elimination of content, the introduction of cross-curricular themes (such as citizenship and amoral sex education), the replacement of RE by Personal, Social and Health Education (which, because it is secular, does not allow rights of withdrawal) and so on. All such changes make it easier to use schools to change attitudes and values.

So far, despite the best efforts of a few traditionalists, the National Curriculum has lacked rigour. Instead, it is extremely bureaucratic and has reinforced progressivism on a national scale. Attempts to measure outcomes by testing knowledge have been systematically undermined. The fundamental question must now be: who controls state education? Unless the ideological battle-lines are recognised, the progressives will continue to dominate our state education system, along with the National Curriculum and its testing.

Further reading: 

John Dewey,  Education and Experience,  Collier/Macmillan, 1938 and Democracy and Education, Free Press, 1966.

Donna Brandes and Paul Ginnis,  A Guide to Student-Centred Learning,  Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd,  1996.

Susan Askew and Eileen Carnell,  Transforming Learning: Individual and Global Change, Cassell, 1998.

Marilyn Ferguson,  The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s,  Granada, 1982.

Melanie Phillips, All Must Have Prizes, Little Brown & Company, 1996.

B.K. Eakman,  Cloning of the American Mind: Eradicating Morality through Education,  Huntington House Publishers, 1998.

J.E. Stone,  ‘Developmentalism: An Obscure but Pervasive Restriction on Educational  Improvement’,  Network News & Views,  June  1996.

/Campaign for Real Education, updated June 1999.

 

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