Philosophy of education · Progressivism · Traditionalism

Recent history shows the value of the Prog v Trad divide

prog v trad

There are, on the internet, numerous lists categorising progressivism and traditionalism. Mostly they are wrong for one simple reason, the dividing line between the two is not pedagogical but philosophical.

You can use direct instruction in both approaches but in different ways and for different reasons. It is not only how it is taught but what is being taught that is the issue (curriculum).

Let me make it clear I am not suggesting that the Prog v Trad divide is the future of academic thinking rather it is a vehicle to enhance practitioner discourse. Teacher’s get the arguments. It is, I suppose, an embryonic structure v agency debate that will hopefully develop into something more. Possibly a bridge between research and classroom practice.

A progressive view is based on a practical pragmatic approach to classroom practice that sees the classroom as society in a microcosm. It is usually measured by social scientific, or mixed, methods and is intended to be purposeful in some way.

Traditionalists are right that this approach has led to an overly instrumentalist approach that has lost its way. Largely, in my view, because of the divide between policy makers and educational academics.

The former being traditionally orientated whilst the latter more progressive. The BLOB has become anathema to policy makers. The consequence has been that social practices by progressives encounter traditionalist ways of monitoring and measuring. The two simply collapse into incoherence.

Traditionalists are also right that progressives lose sight of the purpose of education. Persistently using blunt tools to solve complex social problems whilst neglecting the very thing it is supposed to be doing. Making society better by enhancing the knowledge, and skills, of all.

How did it happen that secondary schools ended up using vocational qualifications to gerrymander league tables? How did the education system end up in such a banal place?  Where was the industry watchdog?

Traditionalism on the other hand is a kind of individualistic idealism. Knowledge somehow represents the “best that has been thought and said”. No one knows why other than it is old or that is has cultural capital. Cultural capital seemingly always conflated with cultural literacy.

Ironically in the absence of an ontological explanation for knowledge the scientific method and positivist approaches are invoked. Thought and knowledge are conflated and education becomes a relationship between knowledge and long term memory.

Primarily because the latter is the material essence of the former and can be studied using scientific methods. The mind, or cognition, becomes the essence of reality. The premise being the more knowledge you have the better you understand reality, the better you will succeed in life. Society is collapsed, reality is mind centric.

The Prog v Trad divide is not going away because they both attempt to answer the fundamental question of education from opposing sides of the the macro / micro divide.

One reminds the other of its failings. The dichotomy doesn’t work when one forgets that the other has its purpose. Or, as we have seen, one view becomes too dominant.

Quite simply without a position on things based upon a tradition, whether progressive, traditionalist or something else, the social media debate among teachers descends into endless fads and personal opinion.


2 thoughts on “Recent history shows the value of the Prog v Trad divide

  1. Aha! This bit “The premise being the more knowledge you have the better you understand reality the better you will succeed in life” is the bit I really have a problem with.
    First (obviously), which knowledge & who chooses it?
    Next, whose reality? My reality is far removed from Mr Cameron’s reality which is in turn far removed from that of many of the kids we teach. The overlap between these realities is becoming ever smaller. Knowledge will not necessarily bridge these gaps (didn’t someone call them chasms recently?)
    Then, how do we define success? Material wealth? Power? Notoriety? Happiness? How much good we do for humanity?
    Finally, I think the entire statement is wrong. I’m pretty convinced that now as much as, if not more than ever, advancing up the “success” ladder for at least the first two of those definitions demends on who you know rather than what you know.
    Oh, and am I allowed to be a pragmatic idealist (in the everyday sense of the word)?

    1. Thanks for your comment Mavis Agree totally the divide is philosophical based upon how we see the world. Traducing education to a relationship between teaching and long term memory is a big step backwards.

      And yes I think Dewey outlined a progressive idealism (ordinary sense) of the word. It is the default norm for most educationalists I think or used to think anyway

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