Tag Archives: progressivism

“This debate doesn’t happen in schools”

Ah, the good old debate around traditional and progressive philosophies of education. An important debate for some and one that such people tell us has given them enlightenment and understanding about what they do in the classroom.

Except we all know it isn’t important, no matter what they tell us, don’t we? And you know why we know it isn’t important? We know it’s not important because it isn’t a debate that happens in schools. It all plays out on the internet. And of course, things said on the internet aren’t really real. Those aren’t real people telling us this is important to them. They are just floating avatars spewing out the same rubbish day after day. Probably Russian bots or something. We should ignore them. If the trad/prog debate is something we don’t talk about in schools, it’s obviously not important at all.

Okay, that may be an extreme characterisation, but it is the crux of a particular argument: the trad/prog debate isn’t something that happens in schools so it is not important. The fact it isn’t spoken about in schools is largely true. Walk around any school and you’ll rarely see people having this debate. (The lack of the debate will be even more starkly obvious if you don’t actually work in a school: if you’re a consultant and you visit lots of schools, you will be able to report with confidence that in absolutely none of the schools you visit people have had this debate.*)

I think we’re all agreed then. If we aren’t discussing it in schools, it’s irrelevant. It’s unimportant. And if we aren’t discussing it in schools there’s really no validity in discussing it anywhere.

So let’s all agree that the trad/prog debate is an irrelevancy and let’s disregard it.

But if we disregard on this basis, then in the interests of fairness we should all agree that anything we don’t really talk about in schools is also irrelevant and should be disregarded.

So out goes the trad/prog debate. See ya!

But we’ll also need to say goodbye to the mental health of teachers. That can go too. According to this TES article, “The one place you won’t hear much talk of teacher mental health is in schools.” Well, as we all know, not talking about it in schools makes it irrelevant and unimportant, of course. Bye bye teacher mental health!

Another unimportant issue we should disregard is violence against teachers. Again, in the TES: “I think this issue of violence against teachers is actually a taboo in our occupation. We don’t talk about it.” Well if we don’t talk about it in schools, it means it’s not important. Duh.

And our feelings too. We don’t talk about the emotional labour of teaching and the impact this can have, according to the Washington Post.  Who cares? If we don’t talk about it, it’s obviously of no import.

There’s a whole host of other things teachers and commentators tell us “we need to talk about” more in schools : the joy of learning, financial education, the dangers of pornography and sexting, healthy eating… all of these things are unimportant precisely because we don’t have enough conversations about them, right?

It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that uses “we don’t talk about it in schools” as an argument to disregard some things and suggest they are utterly irrelevant, and yet sees the same “we don’t talk about it in schools” statement as a valid way to highlight that some things are unfairly undervalued.

Of course, I don’t think that any of the things above – mental health, violence, healthy eating, etc. – are unimportant. I think we should be talking about all of them. And I think the same about debates in education – no matter how unfamiliar the debate is to your daily experience, it is still a debate that people are having and to tell them it’s unimportant because it doesn’t happen in other arenas is ridiculous. The first reason/excuse people will give for any of the topics above not being talked about enough in schools is lack of time. Where do we find the time to discuss mental health of teachers, etc? We are so busy, that we just don’t find the time. Well, the same goes for the trad/prog debate. Where in a busy teacher’s day do they have the time to have deep discussions about philosophies of education? Somewhere between getting a cup of tea and going to the toilet before heading back to the classroom to set up their next lesson? Schools aren’t really the place for many topics that need unpicking at length. So what do teachers do if they want to discuss anything they don’t get to delve into in the school day? They use social media. And when they do, they get told: if you aren’t having this discussion in schools, then it’s an invalid discussion here too.

The whole this-debate-doesn’t-happen-in-schools response is an extension of the “you aren’t living in the real world” argument: teachers who debate and discuss the philosophies of education (a debate that has been going on for more than a century, by the way) on Twitter aren’t living in the real world of schools where, as we’ve established, nobody talks about this.

Jeffrey Israel, a lecturer in religion and political philosophy, argues that, amongst other things, the accusation that someone’s opinions aren’t from the real world is narcissistic. He defines narcissistic here as being “characterized by an inability to perceive the lives of others as anything other than examples of one’s own idiosyncratic preconceptions.” In this way, we might see those suggesting that the debate around education philosophies is insignificant (“because it doesn’t happen in real life”) as lacking the ability to attach value to anything that is beyond their own worldview. The debate may not be happening in schools, but it is happening on social media and in blogs and articles and thus it is real and it is significant to the people involved in it and to many reading about it. It might be seen as narcissistic to disregard it on the grounds that it isn’t happening “in real life”.

In fact, there really is no distinction to be made between beliefs held in different domains. Believe it or not, people discussing something on Twitter are real people. As Israel succinctly tells us:

“Everyone who is living is living in the real world.”

And whilst they aren’t having lengthy debates about philosophy in the real world of schools, they are having debates with real people in the shared world of social media.

There are plenty of examples of people who have developed or had their thinking shaped as a result of the debate online. Indeed, I wrote about my own experience last year.


Here’s a couple of tweets from real people telling us that the debate changed their minds:


Is the debate invalid because these people are choosing to discuss it on social media rather than the staffroom? Are they not living in the real world?

It matters not where the debate is happening. If it is happening, it is real. I am happy to listen to any arguments against the debate, but the argument that it isn’t valid because it doesn’t happen in schools is a very, very poor one that simply doesn’t stand up.


(*If you are a consultant and you think that visiting lots of schools and never experiencing something means it doesn’t exist, you are sadly mistaken. You are the least likely to actually experience it as your relationships with the people you come across every day, whilst I’m sure are useful and beneficial to the school and you, are largely of a fleeting nature. The context in which you would be a more able judge of whether something exists in a school is to work at that school. I should also add that you also aren’t privy to the conversations about consultants that undoubtedly happen after you’ve left. They do exist even though you don’t witness them. And they’re always entirely complimentary, of course.)


The Reconciliation of The Debate (Is it possible? Is it desirable?)

Yesterday, I wrote a blog about how important debate around the distinct philosophies of teaching has helped me. I’ve had some really positive responses to it, but I thought it particularly pertinent that a large number of people echoed my experiences of watching and taking part in the debate. By way of showing the extent of the debate and how it has helped shape a number of teachers’ understanding of their practice, I thought I’d share some of the tweets where people claim to have undertaken a similar journey to me. I think this shows how important and useful the debate has been.

There have been some really thoughtful blog posts on this topic too:

Can a false choice be an object of research? by Greg Ashman

Varieties of boredom by David Didau

Boredom by Toby French

Dangerous Conjectures by Horatio Speaks

Shutting down debates by Rory Gribbell

The Unexamined Life by Phil Stock

In the last of these links, Phil Stock expertly draws our attention to the importance of the “insights that can emerge from holding two opposing ideas in tension.” Phil also alludes to the way that many teachers who dismiss the debate actually try to reconcile the two philosophies – he notes how people say things like “one day I am traditionalist and another I am progressive”. As Phil points out, this confuses methods and philosophies, but a wider point that we might draw from it is that some see the goal of the debate to reconcile these ideologies. Indeed, if they claim to be bored of the debate and to have moved on, as Anthony Radice points out, the assumption is that they have managed to reconcile them:

If this is the case, I would dearly love to see someone – who positions themselves as having moved on from the debate – write about how they have reconciled these two competing philosophies. At the moment, I follow Phil’s opinion that holding these opposing ideas in tension is where the power of both of them lies, but I’d be incredibly interested to read, from any commentators, about the reconciliation of progressive and traditional education philosophies.

As you can see from the tweets above, I am confirming my own biases that the debate is useful. This is a genuine open request to challenge those biases. Over to you.

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”.