Powerful knowledge · Progressivism · Teaching and Learning

On “powerful”progressive teaching: creating the discourse of the subject

Josh Skillern street dancing and “breaking the laws of gravity”

Recently I was talking to a group of friends, not high achievers, in the conventional sense,  but well educated. Okay, they were teachers. Somehow the conversation got around to the most pointless things we learned at school.

Universally it was mathematics at secondary school. We could all remember the words: sin, cosine and the quadratic… erm… thingy  etc. but no one could recall the purpose of it. There are those that say we should seek knowledge as a “thing in itself” but it seems to me that the meaning of something is constructed in relation to its purpose in the world.

Education, of course, is about “powerful knowledge” but it cannot escape the everyday. Everyone knows that if you drop a ball it will fall to the floor, however, it is knowledge of the laws of gravity that turns everyday knowing into powerful knowledge. We can answer the “why” question; a ball drops to the floor because……! Every subject has a discourse of the everyday, a conversation that helps to give powerful knowledge its meaning.

Why base teaching on the everyday? It is a pragmatic progressive idea but the everyday re-enforces learning. The more a teacher can infuse everyday events into theoretical propositions the more likely those theoretical propositions will be recalled and contextualised. A child may ask why a ball drops to the floor in general conversation they are less likely to ask about the laws of gravity. The answer they receive when the question is asked contributes to a developing base of knowledge. What prompts the question is the everyday event.

I would suggest that the best thinkers relentlessly frame, and re-frame the everyday world. The construction of conceptual tools leads to ever more complex schemas. There are pitfalls. One criticism of progressive ideas is that everyday knowing has become more important than the “powerful knowledge” that explains it.. Using “Hip hop” to re-enforce some aspect of learning becomes pointless if “Hip hop” becomes the point of the learning.

This is not a new idea. Of course, Vygotsky contributed much to developing theory in this area.

So three questions to ask when interpreting a curriculum:

1) why does the subject matter;

2) what is the discourse of the subject;

3) how does it relate to, and transcend the everyday?


5 thoughts on “On “powerful”progressive teaching: creating the discourse of the subject

  1. I’ve a feeling I wrote an essay about this once. Students/pupils seem to be able to understand & retain more if they can fit what you teach them into their experience of the real world. It’s easy to try to use examples far outside children’s experience, if you do that, they might not understand. I get the impression this is discouraged now having read dismissive articles about how it isn’t necessary to make the work “relevant”, they just need to learn stuff.

    It can be easy & obvious. Some subjects do have immediate real world application. Physics is a good one. When driving I so often wish more people understood at least a tiny bit about momentum. If they did, they might not pull out into tiny gaps in front of enormous lorries.

    1. lol lorries and tiny gaps indeed. Agree totally. There is a general move away from making learning relevant, which I think is a bit sad. It shows very little understanding of cognition. Thanks for the comment as ever

  2. It is one of the greatest losses to educational debate that those of us who advocate progressive education are so easily rubbished by those who hark back to traditional education as if it offers a return to some magical golden era of learning and achievement.

    There are so many pedagogic and curricular approaches that can be taken to achieve learning which has relevance and allows learners to frame and reframe their own world on a life-long basis. Discursive approaches also open up that space where we can start to contemplate the world we have less direct experience of.

    1. Agreed and thank you for the comment. I would say that not only is progressivism relevant but its the only way to secure real long term learning and conceptual development. Transmission based approaches using re-iteration to secure short term memory may work well in cog psy experiments but in the real world it is really little more than spoon feeding to a test that has little purpose.

      I think practice is not research literate, which is a problem. The issue is complexity and the simply fact is that engaging with the certainly of positivism even if it is methodologically flawed is tempting because it offers pedagogic solutions in terms of months; the EEF toolkit is a case in point. It could hardly be described as methodologically sound. Another is John Hattie.

      The really interesting Ed’ Research is complex, theory driven and discursively a long way from that of practice and policy. I think its possible as the edu debate continues the gap may close but politicians and policy makers are a bit of a lost cause at the moment. which is a shame. Perhaps at the point where education has been traduced to facts and multiple choice questions some will stop and think. Time will tell I suppose.

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