Dear Tristram, What’s it to be; 21st century progressivism or “empiricism and quackery”?

I recently “blogged” to you about the future of education. I just thought I would remind you that there is a tradition of education that is based upon the notion of democracy and a progressive ideology.

Progressivism: what is it?

Progressivism in education is essentially a challenge to “what is”? It is very much embedded into the history of educational theory and research. John Dewey outlined the need for a politically aware pedagogy.

It is not an “anything goes” ideology. It has nothing to do with post modernism or relativism nor is it 21st century skills or child centred pedagogy. Those pedagogical approaches have to find their own space in the educational conversation.

Progressivism is a democratic pedagogy:

A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience – John Dewey in Democracy and Education

A way of being; a searching for social democracy and an openness to new ideas based on some old principles.

A challenge to quackery and blind empiricism

Dewey was anti-intellectualist. In particular the brand of intellectualism or policy making that is divorced from praxis. The kind of research that is conducted in cold clinical psychology labs and interpreted through the lens of mathematical sleights of hand.

Moreover, it is easy to assume that “the problems which exist are already definite in their main features,” and if so, then inquiry could be aimed at finding the best methods of solution. The result is that “methods for resolving problematic situations are proposed without any clear conception of the material in which projects are to be applied and to take effect,” with often a worsening of the situation which generated the inquiry (LW, 12: 487). The analogy between current modes of inquiry in social science and pre-scientific medicine was apt. 

He describes research not based on practice as being a combination of “empiricism and quackery”. Problems should be identified by practice and then resolved in the field of research informed by practice.

There are some issues that need to be challenged from a progressive perspective:

  • reclaim pedagogy from the neo-traditionalists who fetishize knowledge leading to a divorce between knowledge and the social conditions that generate it
  • reclaim the pragmatic notion of “what works”  from the technocratic neo-liberals who seem more intent on measuring “what is” as opposed to finding out “what works”. Weighing rather than fattening the educational pig.
  • reclaim pedagogy from the relativists who de-construct “what is” but are unable to re-construct  “what should be” or “what works”

That’s a brief taste of it. Here are my ten points of progressivism you may find useful when you take office:

1) Progressive education is in the domain of the social sciences and is not an art or natural science

2) Progressive views should be embedded in praxis based upon a philosophical and theoretical educational tradition.

3) The purpose of progressive education can be viewed pragmatically as a critical pedagogy for a democratic Society in a dialectical conversation with the knowledge of the past and a progressive vision of the future

4) Progressive education gives primacy to independent thinking based on knowledge and not knowledge itself

5) Progressive practitioners are collaborative and outward looking

6) Progressive education is evidence informed (not evidence based) based upon practice informed research using qualitative and quantitative research methods.

7) Cognition is not based upon memory it’s holistic; social and emotional

8) Progressives see knowledge from a fallibilist perspective; constructed but not transmitted

9) Pedagogical approaches are used dependent upon context not on dogmatic assumptions. Pedagogical approaches include; teacher talk, inquiry / discovery based learning and assessment but are structured within a framework of communication, instruction and supportive feedback (see the dynamic model of educational effectiveness (Creemers & Kyriakides, 2006)

10) Progressive education views knowledge of the world as separate to the way it is thought about and socially real

I hope these are of some use. After the last five dismal years we are all backing you to the hilt so best of luck in the election.

Best regards


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