The Great Education Debate
Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate. Hubert H. Humphrey
With increasing frequency, someone will pop up on social media to announce to the world that debating the best way to approach the project of education is a waste of time. These are the reasons I’m typically presented with when I demur:
1. It’s boringly repetitive and nothing new is ever contributed.
2. It’s just a bun fight rather than an actual debate and no one ever changes their minds.
3. Real teachers in real schools don’t know anything about it so it obviously can’t be that important.
4. It’s a false dichotomy: there is no best way to teach so discussing this question is just silly.
Clearly though, not everyone feels this. Some of us think there is a best way to teach and that discussing this is a professional responsibility. Here are a couple of polls that have been conducted on Twitter over the past few days:
Which of these best describes your position on education debate?
— David Didau (@DavidDidau) April 10, 2017
Then one from @theprimaryhead:
Do you fully understand what prog and trad means?
— The Primary Head (@theprimaryhead) April 11, 2017
This latter is fascinating and suggests that if teachers aren’t clear about what’s at stake then it’s perhaps no wonder that they’re not willing to ante up. If you do care about what these terms mean – and you really should – this is a useful reference point.
In order to unpick these results a little, I’ll discuss each of the objections to debating the best way to teach in turn.
1. It’s boringly repetitive and nothing new is ever contributed
It always surprise me that some people have such a capacity for sharing those things they have no interest in. If you’re bored by the debate, fine. Go do something else. In this post I wrote about the varieties of boredom and said this:
The real reason I don’t care about ostentatiously communicating my ennui about subjects in which I have no interest is because they don’t threaten me. Maybe those at pains to tell others what they find boring do so because they actually feel threatened? If you have nothing to contribute, proclaim yourself bored. The philosopher, E. M. Cioran, noted that what’s true and important is often uninteresting: “If truth were not boring, science would have done away with God long ago. But God, as well as the saints, is a means to escape the dull banality of truth.” Maybe you need to escape the dull banality of truth? Fine. But don’t bore me with how much the truth bores you.
The thing is, anything about which we’re already certain is unlikely to reveal much in the way of anything new; we only really think when we’re uncertain. So sure, if you’re certain you’re right and believe you have nothing left to learn, then maybe the debate is dull.
2. It’s just a bun fight rather than an actual debate and no one ever changes their minds
Debate on Twitter can be ill-tempered at times. but maybe that’s the price we pay for the freedom to speak our minds. A lot of back and forth between those entrenched in their beliefs is most certainly unproductive. But, there’s nothing you can do about the ‘unswayable minority’. Instead, we should try to rise above name-calling and provocation to persuade those who haven’t yet made up their mind. Perhaps if we were all to apply the principle of charity there’d be a lot less bad blood.
Plus, to say no one changes their mind just isn’t true. After all, I did. I wrote this back in 2014 about why and how this happened.
3. Real teachers in real schools don’t know anything about it so it obviously can’t be that important
This is both true and false. Most teachers really are unaware of a tension between progressive and traditional education. I certainly didn’t before I joined Twitter in 2010. Most teachers really do just get on with their jobs and do whatever seems best at the time. But, it doesn’t follow that this makes the debate irrelevant. The fact that some teachers don’t know what it means to traditional or progressive in one’s outlook makes it al the more important. The fact is, we’re influenced all the time by arguments of which we’re unaware. Meta beliefs about education operate beneath the surface of our consciousness and dictate many of the choices teachers make.
If we’re unaware there’s a debate about how best to teach, then we won’t be able to think critically about what we’re told. We cannot think about something we don’t know. Ignorance only increases the likelihood that we’ll be a hostage to every new fad or gimmick that rolls along. To defend ourselves against being taken in – both by frauds and well-intentioned bunglers – we need to be professionally sceptical, and to be professionally sceptical we need to know what sorts of questions to ask.
When I speak to teachers and visit schools I deliberately avoid banging on about the tenets of traditionalism or progressivism, I tell my story. I explain how I used to have all sorts of misguided beliefs about the best way to teach that had been picked up in training, through CPD and in response to Ofsted. I explain why I now think these beliefs to be false and what I do instead and the overwhelming majority of teachers I speak to are relieved. The thing is, most teachers seems to instinctively know that most of the child-centred, discovery approaches they’ve been told are the best way to teach don’t work well in practice but the feel guilty about ‘just telling kids stuff’. A great many teachers reluctantly play the game when on view, but when their classroom door is closed, just get on with making sure kids understand the curriculum. Explaining that there is a choice and that teacher-led instruction is a legitimate approach to teaching comes as very welcome news.
4. It’s a false dichotomy: there is no best way to teach so discussing this question is just silly
Of course you can do a ‘bit of both’, but why would you if you believed one approach was the most effective. As I explained here, I think the debate represents a real dichotomy. Suggesting that teacher should pick and choose from teacher-lead and child-centered approaches is to what I’ve termed the And Fallacy. In my experience, only those who espouse progressive sympathies tend to say that they use explicit instruction at times because they know students otherwise wouldn’t learn very much. But, since I’ve been persuaded that explicit instruction is always the most effective way to teach school age children, I’ve never needed to use a discovery approach because they add nothing. This is less idrologicsl than it is practical. You only need to use a bit of both if you’re ideologically determined to include some discovery learning in your lessons.
And just in case you still think all of this is meaninglessly academic, the debate is not simply a point scoring exercise between people who just happen to like different teaching methodologies, it’s an argument about the best way to achieve social justice. As I explained here, explicit approaches to education are more likely to close the gap between those who start life with advantages and those who are disadvantaged by their background. If this is something you care about, doing a bit of both is self-indulgent dilettantism at its worst.
The debate really is important
The pendulum is swinging and the debate on social media and blogs over the past five years or so has had a profound effect both on policy at the highest level and, whether teachers are aware of it or not, in classrooms. Reforms and myth-busting from Ofsted and DfE are far from panaceas and there is still a great deal to be done, but the debate is, slowly but surely, winning hearts and minds. The fact that some people want to shut it down or hurl insults is testament to their fear at losing influence and credibility.
Here is a summary of what I’ve learned through debating ideas in education.