Is “our knowledge” different from theirs?

We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive. C. S. Lewis

Over on the Progressive Teacher blog, my case against ‘neo-progressivism‘ has been critiqued. This is much to be welcomed and, as the anonymous author embraces rather than tries to deny that there is a debate, I want to do it the courtesy of a considered response.

In it, my position is described as follows: “students should acquire knowledge, then use that knowledge as an object for critical thought.” Broadly, that’s about right. The case against rests on this, very interesting contention: “…progressives are as interested in knowledge as traditionalists, but our ‘knowledge’ is different to theirs. The traditionalists’ concept of knowledge cannot lead to all those worthy goals Didau aspires to achieve.” I’m sure that those who use progressive methods are interested in knowledge, but I struggle to accept that they’re as interested as those who teach more traditionally, because for progressive, the process of how knowledge is acquired – as the writer makes clear – matters more than the product.

The first criticism made is that it’s not clear when students should be encouraged to think critically. In response to my observation that “the more you know, the better you can think,”  the author makes the claim that, “the better the critical thinking, the more knowledge acquired.” So, OK, we need to establish what comes first. I think it’s self-evident that critical thinking can’t occur in a vacuum; you must have something think critically about. This is knowledge. Once you know something you can start to think about it. And when you’ve begun to critique what you know, you are engaged in a process of making new knowledge.

The process of thinking combines attending to external stimuli and remembering previously learned concepts and experiences, but where does this knowledge initially come from? Although we seem to have in-built adaptations for acquiring certain types of knowledge almost effortlessly, we still require access to an environmental stimulus. So, although we’re born with an innate capacity to learn spoken language, where we’re born dictates what language this will be. In other words, knowledge comes from the environment; we need to be exposed to it before we can do anything with it. And the more information we acquire from external sources, the richer our thought processes will become. This much seems self-evident.

The question of ‘when’ children should be encouraged to think critically seems unimportant because it ‘just happens’ whether we want it to or not. That said, I think it makes sense to firmly establish a consensus position about whatever aspect of the curriculum you’re trying to cover before trying to tear it down with dialectic. So, if you really need an answer to this question, here it is: You can think critically when you know something to think critically about.

But then we have the more serious objection that I’m defining  knowledge as being, “purely cognitive … isolated from the developmental and social aspects of learning.” Well, yes and no. Knowledge is purely cognitive. The term ‘non-cognitive skills’ is meaningless as everything which takes places in our minds requires, in fact is, cognition. But I’m not sure how or why you could isolate cognition from developmental or social aspects of learning. Some development is, of course, on a biological timetable and takes place even in the absence of thought, but mental development is cognitive. It’s the same thing. And how could the “social aspects of learning” ever be separated from cognition? Wouldn’t that presuppose we could have a social experience without thinking about it is some way. I doubt that’s possible. The point is that while learning and cognition are not the same thing, they’re inseparable. One cannot happen without the other.

Progressive teacher says, “Only when the individual mind acts in the interests of the social advancement of knowledge, as happens in progressive classrooms, can collaboration and cooperation take on their full significance.” I really don’t see how or why that follows. First, we should ask, does the individual mind ever act in the interests of social advancement?This seems unnecessarily naive. Evolutionarily speaking, altruism is a form of selfishness in that it benefits us as much as it helps anyone else. If the social advancement of knowledge depended in any way of selflessness, we might not have made it to the agrarian stage of cultural advancement.*

Then comes the weary cliché that, “traditionalists reduce knowledge to a body of disjointed facts and hollow verbal definitions that the student is expected to commit to memory’. Where does that come from? This is, I think, a straw man which nobody actually believes. I tried to show, in my taxonomy, that knowledge is a bit more complicated than that.

What we knowingly “commit to memory” is the merest tip of an unimaginably vast iceberg. What we know consists of vast oceans of stuff we don’t even know we know. Everything we ever experience in our long lives is knowledge. I think the problem is that ‘memory’ and ‘memorisation’ are poorly understand and carelessly used. Long-term memory and knowledge are perhaps better thought of as being synonymous; memorising isn’t “a purely intellectual and passive pursuit,” it’s the very stuff of life. We have no personality or experience without memory.

This is, perhaps, the most interesting of Progressive Teacher’s pronouncements:

For the progressive, knowledge is stripped of meaning if the process by which it has been developed is missing. At the centre of this process of coming to know lies students’ activity. Knowledge then becomes “an outcome of inquiry and a resource in further inquiry” (Democracy and Education, p. 220) and, as such, takes its place in critical and creative thinking that informs and is informed by an active process of learning.

That might well be true. For me, the process by which knowledge is developed is utterly irrelevant. I couldn’t care less how children acquire knowledge, as long as they do. This might account for the ideological nature of much progressive thought; if the process is what matters then of course it matters how you teach. For the pragmatist though, the fact that there is a process is all that matters. The only reason I espouse explicit instruction and high standards of behaviour in schools is because i think they make the process of acquiring and critiquing knowledge more likely to occur. But, honestly, I couldn’t care less outside of that.

Finally, we have the assertion that progressivism is best way to advance the cause of social justice because Dewey. The reliance on the authority of Dewey is problematic because it encourages us to take what he says as inscribed on tablets of stone. I’m as keen on intellectual freedom as anyone else and I choose to use my intellectual freedom to think critically.  So is the knowledge of progressives different? Is it somehow purer or more noble because children have had to blunder into it rather than having had it patiently explained? Does the process of acquiring knowledge somehow make it better or worse? No. Knowledge is knowledge however you acquire it. There is no logical premise to suppose that progressivism is anything more than a well-intentioned but wrong idea that’s had its day and is anything but progressive. It is a reactionary impulse to inflict ideological conceptions of how some people would like children to learn to the detriment of the very children it professes to want to empower. ‘Progressivism’ might be fine for the elite, for those for whom culturally rich knowledge is something they can take for granted, but by leaving so much to chance it only ensures an ever-widening Matthew effect between those who have and those who have not.

*I’m aware of the argument that the agricultural revolution can be seen as a cultural disaster, but still.

29 Responses to Is “our knowledge” different from theirs?

  1. Tom Burkard says:

    Very well argued, but this could go on forever. A few thoughts:

    The capacity and desire to learn about a subject grow in proportion to what we know about it already. The more knowledge we have, the more likely it is that new input will enhance our existing schema. To a novice, new information will have relatively few points of contact with them, so memorisation and practice are essential to ensure retention and growth. To the expert, new information will enrich our existing schema effortlessly–I agree that this happens more or less automatically. Because the new information is meaningful, we don’t necessarily need input or direction from a teacher to absorb it in long-term memory.

    As we develop expertise in a subject, it is inherently far more interesting, and we take pleasure (if not pride) in what we know. We no longer need as much input from teachers and experts, not do we need external motivation. We not only understand when new information–from any source– is relevant to our interests, but we actively seek it out

    One of the sad little ironies of contemporary education is that primary school teachers are the most likely to trained to use discovery methods at the stage where it is most inappropriate. This is so counter-intuitive that until relatively recently ITT courses used firmly didactic methods to impart this methodolgy on trainee teachers, as Francis Gilbert commented in his first book. Of course, left to themselves young children are highly unlikely to ‘discover’ much of anything worth learning; even Jerome Bruner admitted that discovery learning “…is the most inefficient technique possible for regaining what has been gathered over a long period of time”. Or, as RS Peters commented on Emile,

    “…the methods of learning from Nature and things are so contrived and controlled that even Skinner might be envious… the tutor, who is the only model available to the child, exercises his authority by structuring Emile’s learning environment, not by directly imposing his will on him”.

  2. Michael Pye says:

    I found your response interesting Tom but got a bit lost about what you were trying to say. Was it intended to be like that?

  3. Catherine Scott says:

    A reflection. I remember as an undergraduate being bothered by essays that wanted me to ‘critically reflect” or somesuch. I was very keenly aware that I did not know nearly enough to be able to do that properly. I also remember when I finally regarded myself as fully equipped to do that and that was at some point during my phd.

    Since then I’ve marked a lot of undergraduate essays where students attempt to ‘critique’ and pretty much what turns out to be their just parrotingvcrutiqyes they’ve read. This does serve the purpose of alerting them to the existence of debates about things.

    That said a preparation for being able to critique is the expectation that all arguments should not be just ‘what’ is believed but ‘why’.

    Re my book if it is beyond your means I’m happy to send you the text of two of the chapters that I think are most relevant. Funnily enough those chapters have a lot of material on why we believer what we do about education

    Don’t know if you can see my email but it’s

    • Michael Pye says:

      Catherine at what point (for arguments sake lets use academic levels) do you think genuinely new reflections would become common place ? My experience is that most radically new idea are generated by people who lack the knowledge to realise why it won’t work or simply don’t care. I also think most are a bit naff. Even world class experts often only add slight variations to previous arguments, though that may not be apparent to outsiders unfamiliar with the history of that topic.

  4. Alan says:

    Are labels such as traditional and progressive helpful in the debate? To my ears traditionalist may imply old, stuffy, outdated and progressive may imply innovative, original, improvement.
    It seems like willingly entering into partisanship. Are there progressives who could never accept new evidence on direct instruction or traditionalists who could never accept new evidence that critical thinking is a learned skill? With the labels, do we risk having teachers who deny the educational equivalent of climate change or another group too naive about ideas to affect any real change. I worry about the twisting of facts to fit held beliefs.

    • Michael Pye says:

      The labels are often not helpful, they are however well recognised. The traditionalist (especially neo-traditionalist) is also an insult. The Progressive title is obviously a better bit of branding.

      • Alan says:

        They are well recognised indeed but they seem to have become ideologies (in particular on progressive blogs). For example, the Progressive Teacher blog seems as concerned with attacking traditional ideas as it is with progressive ideas. I doubt any research could convince someone so ardently progressive to accept the other perspective in any way at all. People seem more worried about protecting the political party than improving the country.

  5. J.D. Fisher says:

    “The question trads never answer: When does a child have enough knowledge to think critically? Just ‘fill the pail’ and hope for the best.”

    The tweet quoted intimates a ‘progressivism-of-the-gaps’ argument: if science can’t tell us when a child has enough knowledge to think critically, then we get to put in any answer we choose. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it doesn’t work that way.

    We know that “from the beginning” is not an acceptable answer to the question. And we also know that knowledge, primarily, is what closes the distance between “from the beginning” and whenever it is that ‘critical thinking’ (whatever that is) happens. When those two propositions become uncontroversial among the general public and among educators, then perhaps we’ll then be freed up to work on narrowing down exactly when ‘critical thinking’ can happen.

  6. Grumpywearymathsteacher says:

    Small child: what’s the biggest number? Is it 100?
    Parent: there is no biggest number. (Thinks – I’ve told him, so now he knows. Job done.)
    Child: but is 100 the biggest number?
    Parent (sighs): what about 101?
    Child: Oh. Is 101 the biggest number?
    Parent: what about 102?
    Conversation continues, on and off, for some days…
    A week later, child says ‘I told my friend there isn’t a biggest number because you can keep on counting but he didn’t believe me!’
    I think the ‘prog’ believe that the ‘trad’ believe that you should ‘just tell them’ a load of facts. (Though, very sadly, there has been so much maths teaching just like that, which enabled students to pass the poorly-designed GCSE, that I can see why people would think that.) l guess you would say that the ‘logical argument’ is part of the knowledge…

  7. Michael Pye says:

    Nice example.

    • Grumpywearymathsteacher says:

      Thank you.
      But…while some might say it’s an example of ‘trad’ learning (because the child has learnt a load of knowledge, including how the argument works), I think many would argue it’s ‘prog’ because it started out as an ‘enquiry’ from the child, the parent’s initial ‘just tell him’ approach had no effect at all, resulting in a dialogue during which the child formed sufficient understanding to be able to tell his friend…
      (Looks around nervously and takes cover)
      I’m not just trying to be awkward, I genuinely think it’s more complicated than just one or the other.

      • Michael Pye says:

        Your example is not much use as a clear example of either. I assume you presented it to show how knowledge and thinking are synergistic.

        To me the practical question is what should I focus on. In your example it is the idea that there is always a larger number, This is knowledge. The child doesn’t just hear about infinity he is forced to discover it. However the conceptual leap is made extremely small and flows predictably from the prior knowledge. We can even stretch further if we want to by offering infinity as a definitive answer, a concept the child is unlikely to passively accept (and rightly so).

        A clear scheme of knowledge can leverage this into showing and reinforcing generalised rules for dividing by zero or any number by itself which links to fractions by mixed numbers. It even shows how we can remove unwieldy unknowns, a concept useful later for imaginary numbers and algebra. The child can discover all of this but they will do so quicker and with more clarity because I have planned the route and am familiar with its potential misdirections and pitfalls. This limited freedom is more engaging and rewarding because it minimizes frustration. It can also be shared more easily between students and especially staff.

        Progressive and traditional teaching may not be useful terms for clarity and it is obviously complicated but not because of the labels rather due to the multitude of co-variables that need be be teased apart and stuck back together.

        The underlining arguments around evidence, discipline, efficiency, equality are the important bits and I believe we have made progress on these.

        • Grumpywearymathsteacher says:

          Yes, yes, yes….I totally agree with all of that, Michael P, you explain better than I can.

  8. JL says:

    True progressives apparently would never start the conversation if the child didn’t ask. Which means that the children who never wondered or cared about that question wouldn’t learn the answer–unless they stumbled across it by themselves. Or perhaps the child who had learned it might start the conversation with the other child who didn’t believe him. Would the other child be left to his ignorance? The other child didn’t believe him even though it was two students socially collaborating–which is supposed to work magic. I think the key is that the adult did not provide JUST a fact; it was supported with follow up examples to illustrate.

    Unfortunately, a lot of progressives would envision the traditional classroom something like a room full of zombified children sitting in rows chanting “There is no biggest number” with blank stares.

    I wish very much that my personal traditional view of progressive teaching were as much a caricature. But I hear from students on a regular basis that their math classes consist of being put into assigned groups, given an “essential” question and then having the teacher refuse to answer any questions. Most of their tests are group tests as well. If the one kid that understands it can’t explain it to the group, the group will get a good grade but only one student actually understands.

  9. Grumpywearymathsteacher says:

    And I wish there were not so many maths classes where the students memorise facts and procedures without any understanding. When DD writes in his blog that he ‘couldn’t care less how children acquire knowledge’ my knee-jerk ‘prog’ reaction is ‘aaaaagh!’ because I think of all those students who have memorised formulae but have no idea ‘where they come from’, how or why or when they work, how they link beautifully to other ideas….
    …but the absolute revelation for me has been that what my inner ‘prog’ would call ‘understanding’ would simply be classified by DD as more bits of ‘knowledge’, which most of us (I think) want people to have. So most of us, whatever we call ourselves, are more nearly on the same page as we think we are? And actually, to think of it as knowledge is immensely helpful in planning how they are going to get it. Thank you, DD.
    I still feel uneasy about the ‘don’t care how they get the knowledge’ comment, because the difficult bit, in my subject, _is_ how students get the knowledge: how, and how well you explain really does make a difference to how well students can, ahem, construct (yes, I said construct, shoot me!) their schema (hopeful attempt at technical word 🙂 ).

    • Michael Pye says:

      Stop focusing on the arguer and not the argument. David often loses his temper and likes to be quite specific about his reasoning. Both leave him vulnerable to having all his flaws of reasoning on full display which is a good thing. The comment you are fixated on is an obvious example.

      By the way while memorising facts and procedures without any understanding is obviously flawed I doubt any maths teacher on either side of the debate advocate’s this. In classes were this occurs I would suspect you are seeing ineffective teaching due to inexperience or lack of subject knowledge. Alternatively if it is second hand information it may just be wrong.

      Also most people have vastly more memorised knowledge compared to knowledge they truly understand.(I laughed when I wrote that). David frequently talks about working memory because easy factual recall can create the conditions for later understanding. At least briefly because we will likely need to relearn it several times.

      • Grumpywearymathsteacher says:

        Oh dear, I really didn’t think I was having a go at the arguer. Sorry if that’s how it came across. I can’t disagree with anything you say, except ‘I doubt any Maths teacher advocates this’. I’m happy to admit that there is still a whole load of pedagogical subject knowledge I’m catching up on all the time, I think most of us have some deficit, but of the 8 HoDs I’ve worked under, only 1 has thought it important to teach in the way you describe further up, with a carefully structured SoW to build concepts. In my experience, the desperation to get exam results, combined with pressure from line managers who have no subject knowledge, leads to consistent procedural cramming. It makes me sad. Sorry for ranting, I know this is not really the place to do it…

        • Michael Pye says:

          You were not having a go at David. Just fixating on a largely irrelevant bit.

          The HOD’s behavior is predictable. The scheme we both want would be challenging and have a high up front resource cost in time and effort.
          It would also be difficult to justify to non-maths teachers and senior leadership to accept. This is why this debate matters. The more we can drip feed basic and very practical procedures upstairs the easier and more effective out teaching will become. It doesn’t even really matter if they understand it so long as they accept it.

          By the way plenty of ranting goes on here and your fairly restrained in comparison.

          P.s I work in a college Foundation department and have loads of gaps in my maths knowledge. Most of my colleagues also seem to be believe the subject is akin to some kind of Hermetic wizardry and don’t see the point of challenging misconceptions or focusing on details they can’t see as useful because they struggle with them. Those concepts are extremely basic like the ones I mentioned previously as possible stretch and challenges.

    • David Didau says:

      The key word is ‘how’. I *really* don’t care how somebody comes to construct their understanding as long as they do. I’m just mindful that this is most likely to happen if they’re taught explicitly.

  10. Talking of methods of arriving at the learning of knowledge, have you noticed that more and more is being delegated to digital worksheets on internal school internets? So, whatever wasn’t covered in lessons and/or the child was away for some reason and/or homework, the child does face to face with a screen lesson.

    This may be the first time the child has encountered this piece of knowledge: e.g. the future tense in French, ratios in maths, or whatever. As a process, the key flaw is that where there is a gap or hole which the child cannot bridge ie where the child doesn’t ‘get’ the next stage/page and the task being asked, there’s nothing the child can do. It’s full stop. Hopefully the teacher with a class of over 30 can be asked and there is time for the teacher to tell the child, but maybe not.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Short of 1;1 lessons what else are they supposed to do? This is a classic problem with any work sent home digital or otherwise.

      • I don’t know the answer to ‘what else they are supposed to do?’ I was at one step earlier than that in the discussion: namely, in the real world, some of this knowledge transmission is going on in a rather patchy way. Of course we can discuss this matter as if it’s a perfect knowledge-transmission situation, or we can discuss it at a level of what is theoretically most desirable or most efficient, but I was highlighting what is actually taking place.

        • David Didau says:

          I’m more than willing to accept that knowledge transmission is very far from perfect. It’s often assumed to be trivially straightforward and hence something not requiring much thought. A worksheet – digital or otherwise – is good enough. I think everyone would likely benefit if we took the situation a bit more seriously.

    • David Didau says:

      I’d thought this was more of an unfortunate by product of student absence. More worrying that it might be a first choice response to delivering what isn’t covered in lessons.

      • Michael pye says:

        I took it as catch up work or recap.

        If this is genuinely new content then the hinge point though isn’t that this material is new or challenging (this has to happen somewhere) but what is done about correcting any errors and reinforcing understanding. This does seem unlikely unless the school is operating a flipped classroom system.

        Digital resources can also be hard to navigate and often are poor in quality as teachers are usually responsible for placing them in the system rather then more specialist staff. This is why flipped teaching is more rather then less resource intensive to do well.

        At my college we did shift some teaching hours over to independent learning. Naturally staff were expected to design and monitor this despite no longer being paid for it. I am dubious about the quality but got a pass as my HOD stopped it in most of our Foundation department.

  11. Another interesting article, David. A lot of it chimes with Joe Kirby’s writing on Knowledge, memory and testing which I agree with whole-heartedly, and the importance of didactic instruction. Whilst you rally against the emphasis on the process of knowledge acquisition, what of course is pertinent is a continued pursuit to understand the process of how knowledge embeds in long-term memory – with further research on concepts such as spacing, interleaving, over-learning and low-stakes testing.

    I’m in the middle of Lucy Crehan’s interesting book ‘Cleverlands’. She talks about the ‘timing’ of teacher intervention in her analysis of the Finnish model, whereby children start school at 7. She identifies that children in pre-school there with rich cultural knowledge make stronger progress and the gap widens between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ pupils in this respect. However, the gap narrows considerably and quite strongly in the first year of schooling. The assumption potentially is that the later start affords the latter pupils more ‘exposure’ to environmental stimulus, meaning they are more ‘ready’ to acquire knowledge when they start school.

    Therefore, surely, the dynamic inter-relationship between environmental stimulus and knowledge acquisition, and the subtle implications for the development of a chronological memorable schemata, is also worthy of further research.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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