Progressive vs. Traditional Teachers and Teaching

I am indebted for this post to Brian Aspinall, who started me down this road when he  wrote An educational debate:  10 progressive vs. traditional teaching ideals, touching on a question that has burdened me for some time,  “what is classical education anyway?” and its corollary, “will I be pilloried for calling myself a classical educator?”

It is possible to claim the that progressive education model is the student-centered one, while the traditional is more teacher centered.  However, it’s not quite that simple.  Another way of looking at it, that traditional education values tradition, while progressive values plans about the future, seems a little more apt; however,  one might also say, traditional education is basing our work on what has succeeded, and continuing it, while progressive education bases itself on what has failed, and seeks to change it to something better.

If you are still with me you will see that this means that, the more successful will tend to favor the traditional models, because this was how they succeeded (the past) while the frustrated will value the progressive, because they are hoping for the future, the past not quite having worked out.  That in itself, however, does not show superiority of one method/approach or the other, it simply tells you a bit about who’s in which camp.

The Hard Liners:

It is impossible, perhaps, to write this post without giving a nod to the polar opposites on this debate.  You can see the approach that traditional education is repressive and static and boring at the website of the Wingra School, and the idea from Blotting out God that progressive education was founded by an atheist communist who wanted to promote his education theories in order to bring our society to the Marxist Workers Paradise.  I acknowledge, but am not a proponent, of hard line thinking like this, but it’s out there.

John Dewey, Father of the Progressive Education Model

Which brings us to the man himself, the father of progressive education.   He is that old villian/hero, depending on who you are, the education reformer John Dewey, who brought up the question of the difference between the two in his book Experience and Education, in which this dichotomy makes up the first chapter.

Modern younger educators have varying responses to Dewey and his progressive vision.  Jovan Miles writes that Dewey did not actually advocate the clearing away of the classical impulse, but “sidesteps the wholesale rejection of all that is typified in Traditional Education and instead advocates that proponents of Progressive Education adopt an approach that encourages them to explore how rules, organizational structure, and content knowledge may be employed in a system of education that is not overly rigid or imposing.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood, (hereafter ECC) not all parents welcomed the progressive education movement: “Critics doubted if Progressive schools were academically rigorous. Students who enjoyed school and felt good about themselves might never learn chemistry and calculus, many parents feared.”  Martin Cothran at Memoria Press continues on the opposition parents often feel to progressive methods : “the traditionalists (are) made up mostly of parents, but includ(e) teachers and private school teachers. ”

There has been the allegation that the progressive model was being created more for the needs of huge corporations owned by magnates such as Rockefeller, a friend of Dewey.   The ECC continues that in the 1930’s, “massive and unprecedented immigration from Europe filled urban schools with students who seemed to need nonacademic training more than Shakespeare or trigonometry in order to become loyal, virtuous, and productive citizens … ”

Progressives were also the original proponents of tracking by ability level .   “Grouping children by ability seemed more democratic to the progressives than holding all children to the same standards,” (ECC).  Most modern educators know that tracking is believed to be hurtful  to disadvantaged students.  So with regard to this aspect, it is the traditional model, not the progressive, that is “student-centered.”

A long and thoughtful blog post from the Objective Standard, “The False Promise of Classical Education” by Lisa Van Damme suggests that, while progressive education is not quite the answer, returning to the past will not suffice either:  ” education also needs reform more radical than harking back to a more traditional approach that mouths respect for facts, logic, and abstract thought … ”  Yet I think Van Damme, like so many others, misses the point in her critique of classical or traditional education methods.  The goal is not to return education to the state it was at in 1900 or 1800 or 500 BC, but to refuse to relinquish certain previous educational discoveries and works which are time tested and in fact superior to what we have discovered about education in, say, the last ten years.

Jovan Miles (again) noted something of the same when he wrote “(w)e will end up borrowing a great deal, at the very least schemes of organization and the identification of content and skills, from Traditional Education to create New Schools … ” and expressed concern that the progressive schools might be co-opted by corporate interests into seeking to instill “college and career readiness” and not love of learning and social justice.

The classical impulse in education, then, puts its hope in human experience, not human science.  Although I am constantly surveying for ways to improve the classroom, including modern reading research and new media literacies, I remain convinced that a  great danger in modern education is abandoning what we know from the past,.  That is why I continue to consider myself a classical educator.

Do you consider yourself a progressive educator?  Classical?  Both?  Neither?  Please comment and let me know!

One thought on “Progressive vs. Traditional Teachers and Teaching”

  1. Such a scholarly, nuanced, and honest article I fear might only have been written by one who had a more classical education. Experimentation, innovation, and questioning are always hallmarks of progress, so as an educational maverick, I consider myself partly progressive. Still, I am siding with Sonja in her resolve to honor what works (and has worked) for kids, whether or not it’s currently in fashion or favored by those who presume to “know better.” We must be scrupulously intentional when it comes to the education and nurturing of children, specifically in regards to how we attend to the immutable needs of the whole child.

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