We are number two but we try harder: the underdog narrative of progressivism

“It can be good to start with a shipwreck. Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbour.”

Christopher Hitchens,  Hitch-22

In 1962, advertising executive Paula Green came up with a slogan for Avis car rentals that is still used today: ‘We try harder.’ It was based on the premise that they were not the ‘top dogs’ in the industry but “a No.2 company”, and that “[w]hen you’re a challenger brand, you have to constantly try harder for every customer and can’t afford to offer anything less than great customer service.”

Avis - 'We are No. 2 so we try harder'In creating this campaign, Green established what is now known as an underdog brand biography – a rhetorical device used by companies “that chronicles the brand’s origins, life experiences, and evolution over time in a selectively constructed story”, often of “humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and noble strategies against adversaries.” This strategy has been taken up by many companies since: think Apple’s largely apocryphal ‘we started in a garage’ story, or the Adidas ‘Impossible is Nothing’ campaign, which tells the story of “a simple shoemaker from a small town”:

The concept of the underdog brand biography (introduced by Avery et al. in 2010 and given subsequent focus in their 2011 paper, ‘The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination Through Brand Biography’) taps into an enduring narrative that has a history for inspiring people. From the stories of David and Goliath and The Lord of the Rings to the well-spun narratives of presidential candidates (both Obama and McCain positioned themselves as the underdog in 2008), and taking in the life stories of Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling along the way, we like to root for the tenacious trier from humble beginnings. The 2011 study identifies the “two main dimensions of an underdog: (1) external disadvantage and (2) passion and determination.” It’s very easy to recognise these in so many of the narratives of culture today.  Why do they endure and entice? According to the researchers, it is because we identify with them due to the underdog aspects of our own lives. As most of us have felt disadvantaged at some point in our lives, we are drawn to “the disadvantaged position of the underdog and share their passion and determination to succeed when the odds are against them.”

But it is important to see this as rhetoric. It is an advertising agency’s conjuring trick. Avis, Apple and Adidas are huge, multinational companies. They are top dogs (Apple and Adidas are arguably the top dog in their respective industries). As Avery et al. tell us: “Being an underdog brand can be a matter of consumer perception rather than a market reality.” Top dogs want to be perceived as underdogs because it lends them authenticity and garners them trust and identification from consumers.

I think that a similar trick has been performed in the rhetoric of progressive education. It seems strange to me that progressive approaches have dominated my short time in education, from training through to inspection (although this latter part seems to be changing), yet the progressive argument continues to take the position of underdog.

The greatest of these rhetoricians is Sir Ken Robinson. His ‘How schools kill creativity’ 2006 TED talk has had 31 million views (when it was at 25 millions views, his website equated this to having been seen by “250 million people in 150 countries”), making it the most viewed TED talk of all time. I am sure you have seen it in a school inset or during your initial teacher training. It is a pervasive narrative in education, a domain where Sir Ken is one of the most powerful people. As well as being professor emeritus at Warwick University, Sir Ken has been bestowed honorary degrees and doctorates from a range of academic institutions. This snippet of the biography from his website gives you a sense of the power and position he holds:

“Sir Ken works with governments and educations systems in Europe, Asia and the USA, with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations. In 1998, he led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK Government. All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (The Robinson Report) was published to wide acclaim in 1999. He was the central figure in developing a strategy for creative and economic development as part of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, working with the ministers for training, education enterprise and culture. The resulting blueprint for change, Unlocking Creativity, was adopted by politicians of all parties and by business, education and cultural leaders across the Province. He was one of four international advisors to the Singapore Government for its strategy to become the creative hub of South East Asia.”

Despite all this, the image presented of Sir Ken Robinson – a knight of the realm, no less – is that of someone fighting against a system (“Bring on the learning revolution!”) I’m not certain that he is such a revolutionary. It seems to me that his beliefs are ubiquitous in education.

This isn’t about challenging Robinson’s ideas – that has been done in earnest by Tom Bennett, Alex Quigley and Joe Kirby; this is merely a contention that he holds a false position as ‘underdog’. I think his ideas actually prevail in education.

And so this narrative of progressivism as underdog is carried up by others. Debra Kidd’s book ‘Teaching: notes from the front line’ carries this grave incipit on its cover: “We are, at the time I write this, in need of a revolution in education”. Debra’s position is one of “activism”, railing against the powers that she personifies as “politicians, advisors and consultants.” Yet, most biographies of Debra include various ‘consultant’ positions amongst her many roles within education. As Robert Peal puts it, “Debra and her ilk inhabit those palaces” that they want to storm. Again, this is not a critique of Debra herself or her ideas – I know she is a brilliant and dedicated educator. I do, however, question the positioning of her ideas as revolutionary, and thus positioning progressivism as the underdog.

Another such book which takes the mainstream position and recasts itself as the outsider is Tait Coles’ ‘Punk Learning’. Yet much of what is in this book is the kind of stuff that is embraced in every school I’ve experienced, and has been pervasive in initial teacher training over the last decade.

Even a lot of edtech advocacy I’ve read presents itself as a revolution, struggling against the resistant stance of the establishment (schools and teachers). I don’t think it is struggling though. This BESA report paints a promising picture for tablet adoption, suggesting that the trajectory for 75% of schools is to adopt a 1:1 policy by 2020. Even now, tablets are doing pretty well for themselves in schools. I asked this question a few days ago:

Of course the responses I collated aren’t reliable data. But they give an idea of the prevalence of iPads in schools. I stopped logging the responses at 100 (they were slowly dripping in at that point – there were only a few more after this), but of those, 67 said ‘yes’, 30 said ‘no’, and three said that they were ‘coming soon’. Now, those positive responses will range from having a set for just one class or use in a specific department, right the way through to whole-school 1:1 adoption. These responses don’t seem to suggest a lot of resistance to tablets in schools, and they certainly don’t suggest that edtech is any kind of underdog, pursuing a revolution in education.

By tapping into the two dimensions of underdog brand biography – external disadvantage and passion/determination – many arguments for progressive education create a false position that lends it an enticing authenticity. It is easy for us to identify with the sense of disadvantage; and we are attracted by the passion and determination to overcome it. Indeed, these dimensions are inherent in the discourse of education: how many teachers do you know who don’t identify with the disadvantaged position? How often do you see or hear the word ‘passion’ in teacher’s CVs, job interviews and social media profiles?

Ironically, then, it may be the allure of these precise underdog dimensions that have allowed progressive approaches to occupy a position as top dog in education.

With this in mind, and despite progressivism’s already lofty position, I’m certain we’ll continue to hear the argument: “we are number two but we try harder”.

11 thoughts on “We are number two but we try harder: the underdog narrative of progressivism”

  1. Oh come on. Seriously?

    1. This whole ‘progressives say’ ‘traditionalists say’ arguing is ridiculous – some do, some don’t and it’s not helpful to set up false dichotomies when we should be trying to work together. I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past, and I’ll play along below with the idea of two camps again now, but I really do want to emphasise that I think it’s unhelpful to do so.

    2. You are right to say that sometimes progressives present universally accepted principles as revolutionary when they really aren’t. They do. So do traditionalists. So does pretty much everybody.

    3. Anyone making a case for doing something that is – in their view – different is almost bound to present it as not being the dominant view. If they thought it was completely dominant they wouldn’t think it worth advertising.

    4. Progressives can perfectly well present specific ideas as being ‘underdog’ ideas even if the general consensus of Western education is progressive (I’d actually argue very much that it isn’t, but that’s beside the point here). Take something like proper project-based learning. That’s not in my experience the normal way that a Maths lesson happens, even if the teaching in general is child-centred and so forth. So PBL could be presented as an underdog idea within a dominant progressive system.

    5. I think ideas are actually more often presented as being destined for domination that at great risk of failure (which is what I would consider ‘underdog’ to mean). Your example of ed tech is a great example of that.

    6. Traditionalists are just as guilty of presenting themselves as the underdog. ‘Seven Myths About Education’ and ‘Progressively Worse’ are two very prominent neo-trad books that even in their title present themselves as being underdogs fighting against a progressive flood. Tom Bennett in the article you link says of his own view “That opinion won’t draw applause at a TED conference populated by believers and acolytes, but it’s the truth.” Is he perhaps presenting it as an underdog view?

    How about we just consider each approach to education on its individual merits and make experience and evidence based decisions rather than deciding what we like and don’t like based on whether it’s perceived as traditional or progressive?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      1. I’m sorry that you find it ridiculous. Interesting that you still continued to argue though.
      2. My point is quite specifically about some progressive arguments.
      3. I think you’ll find that top dogs still advertise. It’s about maintaining a position. And often top dogs will advertise their position as being number one, as we often like to align ourselves with this position.
      4. I’m glad that you concede that there is a dominant progressive position.
      5. Of course. My blog is about a specific type of narrative: the underdog narrative. I’d be interested to read your blog on ideas being presented as being destined for domination and their risk of failure.
      6. My point here is that I don’t think traditional teaching is widely accepted. So, I’d agree with those two books arguing from an underdog position. Do you agree with the arguments in those books?

  2. Interesting stuff James. Whilst reading, it also occurred to me that Sir Ken’s Robinson’s thesis of ‘Schools kill creativity’ is an odd one if he’s been the one who’s been advising the policy makers all along. Is it that he has simply failed, or that it is impossible to create the revolution that he hopes for? Or, as you suggest, maybe we’re already *in* the revolution. In which case, as it’s demonstrably failed, the revolutionary thing to do would be to try something like direct instruction.

  3. I find this a very interesting blogpost, especially with the underdog slant. Using the ‘underdog’ position is certainly a well-known rhetorical and political strategy to manoeuvre. In certain countries it even has a name if you you do this “In the Netherlands and Belgium, the term “Calimero complex” is used to denote someone who thinks the world is against them because they are an underdog; often the character’s lines from the show are cited, “They are big and I is [sic] small and that is not fair, oh no!” (translated back from Dutch, with intentional error).[5]”

    What I don’t really understood is your particular linking to progressives. This, however, became clearer after one of the responses to a comment. It is clear you contend that if you *are* an underdog than using this approach is justified, if you are *dominant* then they are not? I think this makes the distinction less useful, because it makes it time and domain dependent. Today here, tomorrow the world. Although I must admit that as a human I also think the world is against me, hell I could even say that being blocked by an influential blogger shows how I’m being oppressed, making me the underdog! 😉 I tend to agree with the commenter here: unfortunately many people have a ‘calimero complex’, they think the world is after them. You can hardly claim to be a real underdog if the government or others quote you widely, I would think. Tag prog or trad is inconsequential. We might not even know and hear from the real underdogs, that’s the scary part of it.

  4. Interesting blog. I’ve been fascinated for a long time now by the psychology that allows dedicated and caring people to blinker themselves to the evidence that phonics and DI, for example, appear to work best for the disadvantaged – the very children that such people care about the most.

    I think, though, that the progressive education movement can’t be viewed in isolation. Even if every school in the land was thoroughly progressive, those who drive the movement would continue to see themselves as underdogs and revolutionaries, due to their values having not (yet) permeated the rest of society.

    In reality, of course, the simple fact that many progressive educational ideas don’t work very well means that there will always exist a “counter-revolutionary” push-back from government, parents, free-thinking teachers, etc, sufficient to keep the underdog narrative fed.

  5. Thanks for your responses, which were interesting to read. Just to come back on a few points:

    2. Why focus on progressive ideas though? Why not make a general point about what other commenters have called the calimero complex? I don’t see how it applies any more to progressives than to traditionalists. see point 6 for a response to what I anticipate your response to this to be!
    3. Yes, true. You’re right. I guess my point wasn’t conveyed very well, but what I was trying to say was that if I thought everyone was doing teaching method X I wouldn’t go into the staff room and tell everyone about this exciting new method X and try to convince them all to do it.
    4. I actually don’t concede that at all. In fact I said “even if the general consensus of Western education is progressive (I’d actually argue very much that it isn’t, but that’s beside the point here)”. I would concede that some progressive ideas are thought of as ‘better’ than chalk-and-talk styles, but I don’t think that *truly* progressive approaches are the mainstream so far as actual implementation goes. Lip service more so.
    6. I think it’s interesting that everyone seems fairly sure they’re the minority position here. I often feel deeply depressed by how dominant I perceive the traditionalist position to be. You clearly feel the opposite. I think probably the reality is a centrist position and we are both focusing on the things that go against us.

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