Dear Tristram, What’s it to be; 21st century progressivism or the battle of Agincourt?

21st century skills_1

Dear Tristram

I couldn’t help but notice that the schools Minister, Nick Gibb, writing an article in the independent today is taxed by facts, or the lack of them. Apparently when asked:

83 per cent of (University) students did not know that Wellington led the British and their allies to victory at Waterloo and 88 per cent could not name a single 19th-century prime minister: not Disraeli, not Gladstone.

Who knew things were that bad?

I have a confession to make I can waffle on all day about Foucault and could even recite a passage or two from the Qur’an in Arabic but I had no idea that it’s been 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt. There is a lot of stuff to know in this world.

If  you didn’t know any better you could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Gibb’s article in the Independent had been written by a neo-traditionalist edu-Blogger. Such is the conformity you could take a pick from a few. It’s become somewhat of a mantra. So I’m offering an alternative vision.

That of progressivism. It’s an old  – new vision really. You need to know a bit of history.  I mean the history of ideas and not that of battles….erm between Knights….a long time ago. Personally I leave that kind of thing to my kids. So does Mr Gibb by all accounts.

So progressivism: why and what is it?


Like most things in education the roots of progressivism are contested. You could say it stems from Greek empiricism and American pragmatism. Greek because the British variant of empiricism rendered the individual “knower” impotent searching for facts in a fixed world. Arguably this is the fault line between progressivism and neo-traditionalism; the latter is forever locked into Hume’s skepticism.

This progressive view is that of a world inhabited by individuals simultaneously experiencing the world and changing it. William James described pragmatism as such:

A pragmatist . . .

. . . turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins

. . . turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power.

Later James, in his doctrine of radical empiricism, outlined his view of empiricism. In particular the relationship between the world, as it is experienced, and cognition.

In “Experience and Nature” another pragmatist much maligned by neo-traditionalists, John Dewey, asserted that any philosophical worldview is flawed if it fails to explain how meaning, values and intentionality can arise.

In other words we experience the world but our understanding of that experience is seen through the prism of our own subjectivity. You can see why the work of Dewey influenced Piaget and other cognitive scientists. The world of experience is measurable.  It is in the domain of the empirical.

Dewey’s Pragmatism sees truth not in terms of facts but in terms of its utility; what works. The progressive way forward is to ask the questions:

  • What do we need to do to progress?
  • How do we do it in practice?
  • How do we measure that progress?

It’s also easy to see that discovery learning and other progressive techniques have been much misunderstood. This is not a pedagogy that just leaves learners to get on with it but allows them to experience the world as it is, and to construct their understanding based on an environment rich with instructional materials and guidance.

Learners become independent and develop expertise. Minimum guidance is not a method of teaching but it is the intended outcome. It does not leave learners to discover things by themselves quite the opposite the progressive teacher is inherent to the construction of the learning.

If progressivism is a pedagogy based in the empirical world with a philosophical approach based on “what works”, the alternative, neo-traditionalism is one that freezes knowledge at some point in the past. The emphasis is on rote  learning facts. I don’t know about you but I think history should be used to inform the future, learning the dates of things is hardly purposeful.

You have to choose one or the other. You can’t combine “bits of them”. They are not two different independent “things” rather they are two ways of looking at the same thing. You can find a middle ground on individual teaching approaches such as didactic instruction (teacher talk) but ultimately you have to look at that teaching approach through one prism or another; progressive or traditional.

The question is how do we want to teach our young people? Do we equip them for the problems that we face today, with 21st century skills, based on what is measurable and achievable? Or alternatively 19th century rote learning of facts about the battle of Agincourt?

Progressivism based on “what works”, and some idea about how we measure what works before we do it, seems to be the only way forward. I fear it maybe some time before the neo-traditionalists have found enough causal relationships in education using the scientific method to make a difference.

My worry is that by the time Mr Gibb realises that the Chinese may not have been entirely candid with their PISA returns they will have moved from rote learning to something more substantive. Good luck to them. I dare say they aren’t quaking in their boots at the thought of our students entering the global marketplace armed to the teeth with an in depth knowledge of the Magna Carta. On reflection I think perhaps we should be…!

Best regards


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