I Was a Teenage Progressive: A Defence of the Debate

I listen to a lot of podcasts and one of my favourites is David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’, in which he discusses and explores the cognitive biases and self delusions we all have as humans.

Yesterday, as Twitter responded to some prominent bloggers’ attempts to suppress the debate over progressive and traditional philosophies of education, the latest edition of YANSS hit my iPhone. It was called, ‘Bullshit’. The episode mainly discusses PhD candidate Gordon Pennycook’s excellent work on the topic of, well, bullshit (apparently it is a clearly defined concept which is marked as quite different to mere ‘lies’) – work which you can read here.

But the preamble to the podcast really reminded me of my formative years in teaching and on Twitter, and how taking part in the progressive vs. traditional debate, as well as observing it, has helped shape and develop my understanding of the differing philosophies of teaching. You should listen to the whole podcast, but I’ve transcribed the first seven or so minutes of it below.

The podcast starts off with David McRaney narrating the story of web developer, Seb Pearce, who then picks up the story himself…

David:  Seb told me that, as a teenager, he became fascinated with new age thinkers, new age writings, and new age personalities.

Seb: When I was about 19 or so, I was kind of a self-help junkie.

David: But the more he learned about new age ideas and new age personalities, the more he read books by these people and the more he connected with them and their online presences, the more he noticed something that… unsettled him.

Seb: I noticed after being involved in that stuff for a while that there were a lot of things that they were saying that didn’t really match up with what they were doing.

David: Public tantrums, egotistical behaviour, flaunting of wealth and status… you know: people stuff. It all began to take a toll on Seb’s belief and his trust in these supposedly enlightened individuals.

Seb: It all culminated in this debate I was watching on YouTube one time. It was a debate – I can’t remember where it was, but it was called ‘Does God Have a Future?’

David: ‘Does God Have a Future?’ was a debate televised on ABC in which science communicators, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, debate famous new age figures, Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston.

Seb: When questions were asked to Chopra and Houston, their answers were just kind of like the spiel that they would do on their book tours and stuff that was just… it was like selling their product. Full of buzzwords – yeh, they would throw out these words that they knew that other people didn’t understand, um, but they sounded scientific and so that kind of lended (sic) authority to them I think.

David: Here’s a sample of what Seb is talking about…

Deepak Chopra (clip from ‘Does God Have a Future?’): Science tells us that nature is a discontinuity, that is, an on-off phenomenon. That there are gaps between every two ones where you find a field of possibilities, a field of pure potentiality. Science doesn’t call it God, but what is God if not the immeasurable potential of all that was, all that is, and all that will be? Science also tells us that there’s a field of non-locality where everything is correlated with everything else.

David: Seb was so struck by what he heard as a nonsensical verbal smokescreen, that he wondered if he could write a computer programme that could replicate it. Basically, he took all the buzzwords that he could think of that felt ‘new-agey’ and fed them into a programme that was written to obey the rules of English sentence structure. And then he added code that would produce the sort of statements that use, as he explains on his blog, “language games and emotions that lure people into this stuff”.

Seb: You notice the people who think that they do understand it, like the followers… even they don’t understand it – to them understanding it just means not disagreeing with it, I think.

David: Yeh, because its purpose is to create an emotion, to create a feeling…

So Seb created the New Age Bullshit Generator, which is quite good fun. You can play with it here.

But it isn’t what Seb created that struck a chord with me, it’s his journey from self-confessed new age ‘junkie’ to skeptic that seemed very similar to my development through understanding philosophies of teaching.

You see, I was once what you might consider a progressive teacher. I believed in progressive aims of education, and my approaches in the classroom reflected this. But – and this is important – I didn’t actually know that my philosophy was progressive. I thought I was just teaching and that the beliefs I had and approaches I undertook were entirely neutral in their ideology. They were just what was handed to me by my entirely impartial and objective teacher training.

And then I got involved in social media. I saw people like Andrew Old arguing against some of the things that I believed in. I argued against Andrew. He was obviously wrong and was tied to some ideology. I made it clear that what I was doing was free from ideology, it was just common sense in teaching. Andrew very patiently argued his case clearly and coherently. It was frustrating. Infuriating, even.

And I watched others argue against Andrew. And like Seb with his new age thinkers, I started to see how what they were doing didn’t stand up to the arguments Andrew made against them. Andrew was patient. He wouldn’t deviate from his argument. His arguments were logical. I noticed that the arguments against him were often fallacious and the behaviour of his interlocutors often didn’t match up with what they were saying – here were people arguing for group work, social interaction, critical thinking, individuality, etc., and yet they were displaying behaviour that seemed antithetical to this. What’s more, and this is hard to admit: I was one of these people behaving this way.

I started to understand that there were these two movements: progressive and traditional education. As I began to understand that my philosophy came from a tradition – that of progressive education, I also began to debate what I believed. Some of my beliefs stood up and I still hold them; but many of them, under scrutiny and challenge, shifted and changed. They often didn’t change in the moment of debate, but more likely over time as I took things away from the discussion and reflected on them. I would defend the same idea against different challenges from different people and each time I was able to add light and shade to my belief: sometimes the idea stood up under challenge, and sometimes it crumbled. I would go away and seek out reading and research based on the debates I was having or witnessing.

The discussions were never framed as Progressive vs. Traditional, but the knowledge that these competing ideologies were circling around the debate was vital to understanding them.

So, like Seb, I shifted from one side of the debate to the other because of my experience of seeing the debate in action. Where Seb shifted from new age junkie to self-help skeptic, I too have swung from being knee deep in progressive education to being heavily skeptical about its claims. I even wrote about how I’d changed a while ago.

So I am thankful for the debate. I hope it continues to enlighten people as to the philosophies and ideologies of education that are often hidden from us when we train. It may not change people’s beliefs as it has mine, but it will enlighten them as to the tradition of their beliefs. It may even strengthen the beliefs that they already hold.

Like Seb, I listened carefully to the debates and it took a toll on my belief and trust in what I had been told. But, unlike Seb, I wouldn’t go as far as to call progressive education ‘bullshit’. That would be like calling a debate ‘boring’.

25 thoughts on “I Was a Teenage Progressive: A Defence of the Debate”

  1. Great blog. Your point about believing oneself to be free of ideology is an important one.

    Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. – Keynes.

  2. “Yesterday, as Twitter responded to some prominent bloggers’ attempts to suppress the debate over progressive and traditional philosophies of education”

    An interesting take. I keep a close eye on much of the educational twittershere but I haven’t seen anyone trying to suppress debate.

    Would it be possible for you to post a couple of links that exemplify these attempts.


  3. Great blog James. It’s important for more people to describe the process of changing their minds. Sometimes context changes perspectives. I’ve had a definite swing back towards Trad ideas since working at Highbury Grove. However I don’t identify as having a Trad ideology per se. Maybe I’m in denial! I think there is a synthesis to be found and I’m not fond of absolute positions. Some of the best lessons I’ve ever seen were distinctly progressive – but almost always with high performing students with strong prior knowledge. I’m a Trivium fan – that makes sense of it all to me. Also I do think Twitter debates polarise views and force a binary debate onto an area that’s much more complex. As you say, the debate itself is important. On Twitter I’ve seen it get rather personal too quickly so I tend to opt out. Some might see that as trying to prevent the debate; I know people who find the conduct of it off-putting so arguably their absence limits the debate to the same degree – when people start taking the piss. One thing I’ve realised is that it’s rare to find an explicitly prog blog that promotes ideas that I would share with colleagues – something practical. Usually I find the more explicity trad ideas have the greatest resonance and value in my current context. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Tom. I very rarely use the word ‘traditional’ when I talk about my teaching or ideology. Everything you say here resonates with me – practical ideas have come from more traditional sources. I also love the Trivium, which again comes from that classical liberal philosophy. I’m open to being persuaded by progressive ideas – it just seems that I very rarely am!

      On a side note, I’ve been particularly interested in your approach ‘Towards Impeccable Behaviour’ – I’ve been sharing it in with a few people in my school and I look forward to seeing how it develops.

      Happy new year to you and hope things go from strength to strength at HG.

  4. Hi James. I enjoyed reading this and like you, I’ve been challenged by Twitter/blogs and seen many of my own classroom practices in a new light after taking part in or witnessing discussions on here. And I would also instinctively agree that there must be an ideology/belief system underlying all actions, including educational/teaching practices. However, like Tom (above), I cheerfully pick and choose from a range of strategies in order to teach. In teaching, as in research, I want to choose the best tools for the job. In research I also resist aligning myself with qualitative/quantitative approaches because the way I go about answering a research question depends what is being asked. How I teach does also depend on what I want the children to learn.
    I’m still confused as to what ‘progressivism’ is though. Is it teaching practices which take the learner’s (or learners’) current understanding/knowledge/skills as the starting point? Is it constructivist teaching practices? Or would you define it differently? Perhaps a definition of what exactly traditionalist approaches to teaching are might be an easier starting point. Is ‘traditionalism’ just a list of practices (valuing knowledge, the right of the teacher to talk, practising something till it is learned, quiet students) or is there a coherent philosophy or ideology underlying them? I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.
    But I enjoyed your blog and it’s got me thinking about this all over again (when I should be making a birthday cake).

    1. Thanks Sinead. As Greg Ashman often points out, Alfie Kohn is one of the few progressive educators who actually gives a definition of progressive education:

      I would definitely align it with constructivism and some of the things I listed in the blog post above. As I mentioned in my reply to Tom, I don’t often use the terms myself, but I am aware of the traditions of the ideologies when discussing teaching.

  5. Thank you James, this is insightful & honest, I admire your humility in expressing how your opinions have changed in public. Mine have too. As @headguruteacher mentioned the Trivium 21c was also, v significant for me.
    Like the other commentators on your blog, it has really made me think about where I stand & why I do. I was lucky this week to be involved in a very positive tweet flurry with science educators & scientists on the importance of the epistemology and nature of science in science education, I have enjoyed similar conversations with @shinpad1 on the topic. We have to consider the epistemology of this body of knowledge that we call pedagogy. Sinead, in her comments, talks about the need to appreciate the role of both qualitative & quantitative data in research. I think your blog is a perfect example of how the qualitative narrative can contribute to the building up of a body of knowledge.

    At one stage I was trying to express my thoughts on this matter with an extended metaphor relating to the cultural debate which influenced by school years. I was going to blog about what I call the Peter Gabriel v Mark E Smith question. I am nervous about blogging & I subsequently noted (I can’t remember where) newbie education bloggers should avoid going on about your own record collection. Which is probably sound advice & your blog has said, what I wanted to say really.

    As I now find myself involved in science ITE, I am quite saddened by the fact that often,in twitter land, people report that their PGCE training pushed a certain philosophy or methodology. All I can say is ‘not on my watch’. There are a growing body of colleagues in ITE, who share this view & I hope the situation will improve. As I write this, I should be ‘checking things have been done’ in preparation for PGCE student tutorials tomorrow. This is really the debate I want to share with them & encourage their involvement in. I will however still do the checking

    In terms of where I now stand,,,I will always believe that children are not blank slates, the confusion & the reassurance for me is that this seems to be a central tenet of both ideologies.

    Finally & ignoring the advice, when I was in the 5th year at school, a trainee English teacher, lent me an LP by Magazine, saying ‘here, you’ll like this it’s a bit like (nodding to Genesis fans) what they like & a bit like what they (the Fall fans)’ like. I did.

    1. Hi Andrew – thanks for this very thoughtful response. It’s a real shame you don’t write that Mark E Smith blog… I’m really intrigued about that now. And it even mentions Magazine too. I want to read that blog!

  6. Thank you James, that trainee teacher’s actions in conjunction with John Peel , sent me spinning off into a world of music & literature (Cocteau, Camus, Burroughs, Ballard, Dostoevsky. Kafka). I think I will write that blog after all, thanks for the encouragement .

  7. For many years, I hadn’t questioned things. Then my school bought into Guy Claxton’s BLP. Then I got criticised for using it! So I started doing some research which was basically googling around for criticisms of BLP. I stumbled upon https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/snake-oil/
    Andrew’s excellent site and links elsewhere has liberated me from assuming that those above me always know better (and more than me). I would say I now have a healthy balanced view of things. Some of my friends would say I have too much of an obsessive interest and am waiting for some kind of revolution. I do feel I am part of an underground movement at the moment. I feel sorry for teachers who are too weighed down by workload to ever read sites like https://educationechochamber.wordpress.com/

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