Traditionalist nonsense or progressive flimflam?

Innovation is desirable in every other aspect of life. The constant tinkering, tweaking and adjusting that makes for faster trains, safer aircraft and life-saving surgery. “No, Doctor, I don’t want any of that newfangled key-hole surgery, I want to be ripped right open just like in the good old days” said no one, ever. But not in education. Oh no. In education we’ll have none of that (spits) progressive flimflam.

The latest twitter spats and blogging battles seem to be being fought on the right by traditionalists who support a teacher centred approach where the student is a passive recipient of knowledge vs. progressives on the left, who espouse a child centred approach favouring change and innovation.

Just like when recently you were being asked to pick between teaching knowledge or skills (because, apparently, it had to be either or), now you need to pick between being a traditionalist or a progressive. And if you can’t or won’t, that’s because you’re probably either a little too simple -ah, bless- or you lack principles.

The thing is, when I think about my own teaching style I’m pretty traditional. I’m very much a starter/presentation/guided practice/feedback/further practice/plenary kind of guy. There is actually quite a bit of direct teacher instruction and didactic teaching in my lessons. A stickler for tradition, me. Why? Because it works.

But there is also quite a bit of group work, peer assessment and self assessment about my lessons, much of it supported by innovative use of technology. These are activities that lend themselves very easily to more a progressive approach to teaching and learning. Why? Well, for the same reason. Because it also works.

You see, I’m a languages teacher. I find grammar is best taught in a didactic manner in my setting. Lots of teacher input; clear explanations. But, in order to ensure that new vocabulary and structures are acquired and used and reused appropriately, students need a great deal of deliberate practice, which, in a classroom setting, is often best supplied by carefully planned group work. It’s really effective and, to boot, I have a bookshelf full of books that explain why that is so. Traditionalist chaps who have spent all this time deriding group work in their blogs will just have to take it from me (and the no-doutb-in-their-minds progressive blob who wrote those books) that, in languages, group work works and yes, they do learn from one another.

The use of new technologies and peer assessment are also often met with disapproval and a not insubstantial amount of condescension. “The only tablets my pupils need are the ones prescribed by their psychiatrist” I once read on twitter. Pretty unprofessional stuff, I hope you’ll agree. Not just because of the disdain shown to students, but also because of the sheer, wilful, proud lack of understanding of the potential new technologies have been shown to have.

Take this example. Year 8 writing and speaking. In Spanish. The work is started in class, finished for homework and completed with a peer assessment task, making the most of the available technology, in this case the faculty’s blog. The comments left by students for other students are beneficial per se, but what’s really valuable is the way that the comments help to tell me, the teacher, what progress the students have made, thus informing any future lesson planning. And it so happens that the student’s work and their comments are recorded as evidence in blog format for parents, inspectors and whoever else would like to take a peek. Yet some on twitter try to assure me that this is worthless progressive nonsense. Well, I respectfully disagree.

So, forgive me if I refuse to be made to choose between traditional and progressive teaching, because I am a well informed professional who knows what works in my classroom and can be traditional when I must and progressive when I need to be. I thought that was what all good teachers did.

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  1. Well I appear to have missed all the fun! You know I’m your corner Jose, just waiting for people to realise that a teachers role has changed. We teach kids who literally have everything at their iFingers. No longee does the teacher run the classroom with a “what I say is the only truth you need” attitude because the kids can google whatever they want for themselves! Our role has become a facilitator of learning. We are the experts in our subject there to answer questions and help guide our students towards a common goal – learning. Groupwork, AfL, interactions through Edmodo and the like are all part of how our students want to learn. I’m fortunate to now teach in a school where the students default behaviour is respect and the desire to learn. That means nothing could be easier than a traditional style of notes, examples, practice, check; especially as I teach maths. However, now more than ever before I can try things because I’m fortunate to have these students. That said, I’ve tried to change the view of maths and how it is taught for years and with all manner of students. What can be more powerful than moving the desks out of the way, creating statistical displays on the floor, taking a picture on the iPad, throwing that image in the screen and letting the class talk about what the graph shows, what is missing, what is good etc. Walking round the class with a live video feed to the board using my iPad camera and showing full correct algeabraic method in the students books. A typical lesson on a typical subject with instant feedback to all. I could go on but I won’t. If you need a towel man I’m there. Keep up the good work mate.

  2. As an older soul, I have come to the conclusion that when there are two opposing camps, invariably both are right and both are failing to be understood.

    The blogpost above and the comments that it inspired seem to have misunderstood what “The Traditionalists” are saying. I don’t think that there is an awful lot of debate to be had here: The Traditionalists (TM) appear to me to be making the perfectly reasonable claim that application of knowledge (what The Progressives would call “skills development”) is self-evidently dependent upon possession of that knowledge. When we are talking about children, we don’t need to present them with the nuances at the cutting edge of knowledge, we present them with simplified, hardly disputable nuggets of knowledge. Teachers who have been labelled traditionalist are saying no more than we don’t need to disguise this knowledge-teaching with games, fun, wackiness and creativity. They argue that to young,enquiring minds, the acquisition of knowledge can be…can be…its own reward. They caution that too much emphasis on fun and engagement can refocus students’ expectations of the classroom and may lead to them missing the point of the lesson:

    Parent: What happened in class today?
    Student: We made something explode!
    Teacher: We studied how acids and alkali can lead to chemical reactions that produce carbon dioxide.

    Similarly, I don’t think that “traditionalists” are arguing for scientia gratia scientiae. To suggest that they are is to suggest that they want to see a world full of lots of people who know lots of things but can do nothing. I seriously doubt that there is anyone in education who would stand up and say that this is precisely what they are aiming for. The question is really about epistemology. Where does our knowledge come from? Does it come from being told thing or from doing things? Or…you may need to sit down for this…could it come from both being told things and from doing things?!?!?!

    It is absurd to think that the “traditionalists” aspire to boring long incantations of chemical formulae or grammatical patterns which students will unquestionably recite in obedience to the authorities. “Traditional” education may have once believed in this, but this was because traditional societies were very, very, very hierarchical. If a student put up their hand to ask why?, they may well have found that hand getting beaten repeatedly with a wooden ruler. However, those who are labelled “Traditionalist” today would almost certainly welcome questions that indicate student engagement and would be happy to offer an explanation of why.

    The debate here -and on Twitter- is a debate against ghosts. Nobody is really arguing for long lines of wooden desks with obedient automatons compliantly chorusing The Facts As We Are Supposed To Welcome Them. And there is a seed of irony in how The Facilitators demand that the Rule of Emergent Learning is accepted unquestioningly. There are no “traditionalists” to rail against. There are people who assert that knowledge does not need to be disguised with fun and games; that students can be engaged in learning facts on the strength of the allure of those facts alone; that games and fun and adventure can sometimes distract and impede efficient learning. These people are not arguing against students exploring how this knowledge can be applied through groupwork, interactive discussion, iPads, drama and games. They are simply putting forward their view that knowledge can be efficiently internalised through explanation and memorisation. As a language teacher of some 20 years experience, I don’t doubt this at all.

    Nor do I doubt that students need to really embed this newly-acquired knowledge through experience. The richer the experience, the more memorable the knowledge. So, in my classes the aim is to make new knowledge salient, explicit and memorable. I do things that many people would see as unimaginative, unoriginal, traditional and teacher-led. But my students rate the lessons highly; they laugh in class; they stay engaged through two hour sessions; and they can link the acquisition of new words to concrete situations in which Student X was trying to talk about her Y and was struggling because she was using the wrong grammar/the wrong words/the wrong pronunciation.

    We do ourselves wrong when we boil down other people’s perspectives into simplistic and misleading representations. If you find yourselves needing to employ boxing metaphors to talk about your colleagues, you probably need to take more of a look at yourself than at them. We don’t need to leave our opponents KO’ed on the canvas. In the words of another anonymous watcher, El mundo que queremos es uno donde quepan muchos mundos. La patria que construimos es una donde quepan todos los pueblos y sus lenguas, que todos los pasos la caminen, que todos la rían, que la amanezcan todos.

    1. Hi Ann (Ann?) – thanks for the wise words. Much to agree in there. Not sure how it relates to the blog though. The point of the post (I encourage you to read it again) is precisely that the debate about being progressive or traditionalist is an absurd one. Which I believe is what you (probably more eloquently) are reframing in your comment.

      I stand by my boxing analogy, I was characterising their attitude, not mine. I think people have taken this post much more seriously and personally than was ever intended.

      1. Hi Jose
        My comments were more in response to the stance taken in some of the comments below. I saw what you wrote in your post and think that it has provoked people more because of your characterisation of them and/or their position. Or…more accurately….their perception of how you have characterised them. Your commenters have taken your post and misconstrued it inavertently. This is what I meant yesterday in my tweet about the medium failing both you and Harry. Blogs are ephemera and people respond to ephemera in ephemeral ways. A throwaway comment, a witty play on words, a crass characterisation…but writing is not ephemeral and some people respond to writing in non-ephemral ways. This is when things turn ugly…

        In Subcomandante Marcos’s utopia, there is no “their” and “mine”. It is all “ours”. We are all educators and we are all interested in doing the best by our students that we can. For this reason, I would be hesitant to publicly set up camps and talk about them and us. There are many ways to teach a class.

        1. Progressive education is not synonymous with formative assessment. Traditionalist teachers would also use self and peer assessment. I am not particularly a fan of group work but sometimes circumstance even foists it upon me e.g. in science practicals. Alfie Kohn explains what progressive education actually is from a progressive perspective. You can read his explanation here:

          Secondly, I would like Jose to refer me to an instance of a blogger asking people to pick between knowledge and skills because it had to be either/or. I have not made this case and I am unaware of anyone else who has done so. Rather, I have made the case that some skills don’t really exist and that others are heavily domain dependent.

          1. I agree with this Harry, it is after all the point of this blog post that good teachers will find whatever works for them and their students irrespective of the very strong opinions on either camp about how we should all teach.

            As I hope I made clear in the main post, I’m quite traditional myself. I understand, however, that there are others who care just as deeply about education and do not appreciate the often combative and indisputable style in which some traditional views are being on propounded mainly on twitter – as I hoped I made clear in the blog my post referred to some twitter comments I read recently – but also in some blogs.

            As a line manager to departments and senior leader in my school, my judgment, informed by experienced and a not inconsiderable amount of research, tells me that what makes students make progress is teachers with fantastic subject knowledge, effective feedback and excellent resources (incidentally we’re finding students prefer multimedia resources these days, well, ours do anyway).

            Different classroom activities and other considerations such as employing traditional or progressive teaching styles have, in my experience, not been that important at all in producing good outcomes for students. This is why I’ve never expected the teachers I have line-managed to teach in a particular way – something that OFSTED is only now enshrining – as I feel it is important we do not to fall pray to educational orthodoxies, on either camp.

            Finally, in answer to your second question, and as I hinted above, what motivated my blog post wasn’t a particular blog post – I don’t tend to read that many blogs these days, I find it can become just an echo chamber where people pat each other’s back – but rather the combative style in which some people I used to follow on twitter joked, sneered and generally poked fun at others who quite innocently, and in a spirit of practice sharing, spoke about their experiences using classroom strategies such as work group, role play or MoE.

            For the record, I think teaching knowledge is essential. As is developing the right skills. This is clearly coloured by my experiences as a languages teacher. I fully understand that your experience may be different and the combination of your experience and all that you know about education, which I don’t doubt for a second is a very great deal, may lead you to a different conclusion.

  3. Jose. Sorry, don’t know how to do the accent on the ‘e’. Can you identify a skill that is part of MFL learning that is not built from knowledge and is anything more than a practising of that knowledge?

    1. Peter, many thanks for your comment. I think you’re misunderstanding my position, which, to be clear, is that you cannot teach knowledge in isolation of skills or vice versa. Please let me know if that answer your question. I’ll be very happy to elaborate if not. Best wishes.

      1. Thanks for the quick reply. My view would be that knowledge can be taught in isolation, I’d be interested in hearing what you would describe knowledge as being in isolation from, and that skills are the process of practising that knowledge.

        1. I disagree that knowledge can be taught in isolation of skills. Not in languages anyway. Examination boards make it very explicit that we have to teach the four skills of speaking, writing, listening and reading. Here is a link to the spec we use in IGCSE. If you find the prospect of reading subject specs daunting, here are some of the skills they require students to develop are:

           develop their ability to listen to and understand the spoken Spanish language in
          a range of contexts and a variety of styles
           read and respond to different types of written language
           communicate in writing
           understand and apply a range of vocabulary and structures
           develop effective language learning and communication skills
           communicate in speech for different purposes.

          If you have semantic objection to the use of the word skill, may I suggest you take this up with them!

          In any case, my views about how potentially detrimental to teaching teaching knowledge in isolation of skills is in languages are better explained in the second half of this earlier post.

          1. Knowing isolated words and speaking a language are very different things. Speakers of foreign language do not simply repeat strings of words. Procedural knowledge (ie skills) are essential in becoming proficient in a second language. Having said that, I’m still at a loss about where you’re trying to get to. Good night and have a nice weekend.

  4. I am new to Twitter and blogs. I have always been a big fan of the use of technology in teaching and so I thought I should get on board, especially when some of the staff at my school said they had found it useful. I have certainly found lots of useful stuff and your website is definitely full of it. However, I have also been astounded by the negativity on display by the ‘loudmouths’ of the internet. I am glad that you have shown the courage to take them to task.

    These traditionalists want to send us all back to the dark ages when everything was learnt by rote without any understanding. They take extreme positions and set-up false choices. You say they should spend more time with their families but I suspect that many of them live alone; who would want a partner like that always moaning? They seem to want to attack people like us who have worked hard and been promoted on merit (I am an Assistant Headteacher at Wychbury High) with their whining blog posts about SMT. I suspect that this is because they do not have the talent to be school leaders themselves and are jealous of the achievements of others. This is why they hang around on the internet moaning all the time. And they are so bad mannered in what they say about others and they lack respect, particularly respect for experience and success. The way you present yourself matters in my opinion.

    You are quite right that it is silly that we are repeatedly asked to choose between teaching just skills or just knowledge. As you say to Peter, they go together. It would be absurd to think you could just teach a kid vocabulary, spelling, phrases, pronunciation etc. because without the skill of speaking or listening or writing then such knowledge would be meaningless!

    More power to you!

  5. I’m a little late on this, but still…

    José, I’m 100& with you, but want to add my thoughts so as not to create an “echo chamber” here, which I’m sure is not what you want.

    …” I am a well informed professional who knows what works in my classroom can be traditional when I must and progressive when I need to be. I thought that was what all good teachers did.”

    Precisely! Isn’t this also to do with teacher autonomy? If we are hired on merit, then it should follow that we are trusted to do what works best in our classrooms (within given parameters since there is also the matter of accountability – and surely we must do our research so that there are no ugly surprises in that area after we’re hired?).

    But the teacher next door may decide to take the opposite approach to ours in his or her practice and if we’re in a grade/subject/school team, it follows that constructive exchanges of views should take place in order for us to function healthily in a school. That said, we should (count on and) respect one another’s professional choices and try our utmost not to ram our ‘either-or’ agendas down anybody’s throats. The pendulum effect is also disturbing – traditionalists, progressives, then those swinging from one extreme to the other, seemingly depending on how the wind blows or where the bandwagon passes so they can jump on. Seen those too.

    Perhaps it also comes down to the old adage, to people being afraid of change. It makes me wonder if they should be in the field of education in the first place.

    I have been in education since 1988, and have taught languages, humanities and maths in grades 4 to 9 in Brazil, UK, Japan and Germany . From my experience, I can attest that what works with one group of learners also does not necessarily work with another; thus putting forth a fixed, radical view on anything, be that collaborative groups, technology on class, and other forward shifts in classroom practice is somewhat vacuous and vapid.

    On another note…I’ve been away from Twitter for a while, and have heard of the rise of the troll, and of the nastiness on the forum from afar. I certainly hope, now that I’m back, that these individuals are not participants in educational forums. It’s hard enough when we have to find ways to work with nay-says in our real school environment; our twitter professional network should be where we continue to move forward in learning from one another, not a place where there is intolerance and irrationality. Let’s hope we can keep the dialogue worthwhile…

    Thank you for the great blog post and the food for thought!

Your feedback and comments are very welcome