Are you a Progressivist?

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You may have noticed there is a narrative argument currently popular among some education commentators that lays the blame for all our educational ills at the door of the progressive movement.

This argument makes the claim that the progressive movement is built on a central principle, originating from the French philosopher Rousseau, that children are natural learners who learn best when they are left alone to discover things for themselves. This is a mistake, they say, which has distorted and corrupted our system of education in the 20th century and resulted in a facile curriculum and ineffective teaching methods.

Progressivism has become so deeply embedded in the system, the argument continues, educators and curriculum designers are not even aware of its malign influence on their thinking. It has even permeated the very language of educational discourse, making it almost impossible to stand outside the system and analyse it dispassionately.

It is a beguiling narrative because it allows us to blame the educators of the past for our current ills and gives us the chance to wipe the slate clean and start again. Much of our beloved secretary of state’s pronouncements have used this argument allowing him to justify his neo-liberal reforms as the sweeping away of the evils of trendy teaching that have infected our schools since the 1960s. Apparently freeing schools from the corrupting influence of progressivists in the local authorities and universities will allow them flourish and grow again. A bit like a garden after it has been weeded.

Leaving aside for the moment whether the ‘blame the progressives’ argument has any merit (I plan to write about this soon), being labelled as a progressivist in such a highly charged and hostile environment – you’re either right or you’re wrong’ – is not a comfortable state of affairs. Who wants to be considered a weed?

It is, therefore, I would suggest, important to be clear about what we mean by progressivism and what it is to be a progressivist. Since being on the wrong side of the argument runs the risk of being an apologist for everything that is, and has even been, wrong with the system.

The rest of this blog, then, is an attempt to uncover the fundamental principles that underpin progressivism: that is the ideas, values, and theories that make it a distinct ideology. Readers can then examine their own ideas, values, and theories against this list and decide for themselves if they are what might called, a progressivist.

First, some history…

Herbert Spencer

Kieran Egan, an educational philosopher at Simon Fraser University, has written extensively on the subject of progressivism. In his 2002 book, ‘Getting it Wrong from the Beginning’ he argues the true founding father of progressivism is the Victorian philosopher, Herbert Spencer.

220px-Herbert_SpencerNow, little remembered, Spencer was a super star in his day, feted and honoured in both Britain and the USA, and sold over a million books in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Although influenced indirectly by Rousseau (he never actually read ‘Emile’ because he was horrified by socialism and all its associated ideas [p.24]), Spencer was most influenced by the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century that proved everything in the universe is in not fixed, as once believed, but in a constant state of change or, as he saw it, progress.

Spencer took this discovery and made a universal theory of it, which included educating the young.

As Egan writes, Spencer proposed we live in a dramatic universe that is subject to constant change and this change follows developmentally from the simple to the complex. We can see the same laws operating in the cosmos at large, in the evolution of species, in the development of societies in history, and in the changes from the child is to the adult’s mind.” [p.15]

This idea of universal progress (progressivism) took hold and was expanded in the twentieth century by educationalists, such as Dewey and Piaget, and became the dominant ideology for thinking about and planning for education in Britain and the USA, even by people who had never heard of Herbert Spencer.

The principles of progressivism

The central tenet of Spencer’s pedagogy is the claim that children’s understanding can only expand from things they have direct experience of. Therefore, educators should always start from what the child already knows and progress from there. This is a natural process, Spencer argues, because children are naturally inquiring, constructing, and active beings. “We must constantly conform to the natural process of mental evolution. We develop in a certain sequence and we require a certain kind of knowledge at each stage.” [p.17]

From this starting place Spencer laid out seven principles for intellectual development:

1. We should proceed from the simple to the complex.

2. Development of the mind, as all other development, is an advance from the indefinite to the definite.

3. Our lessons ought to start from the concrete and end in the abstract.

4. The education of the child must accord, both in mode and arrangement, with the education of mankind, considered historically.

5. In each branch of instruction we should proceed from the empirical to the rational.

6. In education, the process of self-development should be encouraged to the utmost. Therefore, children should be led to make their own investigations, and to draw their own inferences. They should be told as little as possible, and induced to discover as much as possible.

7. Students should find the experience of learning pleasurable. [pp. 17–20]

Decide for yourself

I don’t have the time to go into each of these principles in detail – if you are interested then I recommend Egan’s book, it is both erudite and accessible – but these bare bones should be enough for readers to use as a checklist against their own principles and to decide if they correspond enough to justify the label, progressivist.

FalseDilemmaFor my part, I don’t think it is enough to call someone a progressivist just because they are not convinced by the values and methods of traditional education. Neither, is it justified to call someone a progressivist just because they desire similar outcomes to those who are happy to carry the label. Rather, I would argue, progressivism is a distinct ideology (as outlined in the seven principles above), which either you adhere to or you don’t. If you read through the list and find yourself agreeing with most, if not all, of Spencer’s principles then I would say you’re a progressivist. If, on the other hand, you read through the list and you find yourself disagreeing more than agreeing, then I would say you’re not.

And don’t let people tell you otherwise.

 

8 Comments

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  1. @manyanaed March 13, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

    How on earth anyone who is rational could agree with number 6 is beyond belief!

  2. bt0558 March 13, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    How on earth anyone who is rational could not agree with number 6 is beyond belief.

    • @manyanaed March 13, 2014 at 5:29 pm #

      They should be told as little as possible????

      • bt0558 March 13, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

        Yes point taken.

        Maybe “as little as necessary and induced to discover as much as possible”

        I stand corrected.

        • @manyanaed March 13, 2014 at 7:53 pm #

          Ok. And what do you think a child might be able to truly discover? Any example would be good to consider.

          • bt0558 March 18, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

            How about……that a chafficnh is a little bird you find in your back garden

            • @manyanaed March 18, 2014 at 7:30 pm #

              Really? ‘that a chafficnh (sic) is a little bird you find in your back garden’ They would have to be told that a chaffinch was and looked like. Also that it is a small bird in relation to, say, a crow. And to recognise it in the wild. And wait for one to appear in their garden. Rather than telling the child that a chaffinch is a little bird you can find in your garden. You think one of those might just be a rather poorer way of a child learning? Heaven help us if discovery was used for much of a child’s learning.

              They would ‘discover’ that TREX was a dinosaur in what way? Read it in a book? See it on a film? Come across one eating a chaffinch in their garden?

              And how would they discover what a dinosaur was? Do you not see it as a rather inefficient way to learn something? How do you know they will discover what a dinosaur is rather than the many other things they might come across in their discovery? Perhaps you just happen to drop the dinosaur book open at the TREX page and they ‘discover ‘ it that way?

              And they would do that by what method? Ask each person in the class? Would they remember what everyone had said? Would they record the responses? I might just ask the class as the teacher and record the responses in a table. I doubt that a child would be able to structure the information if they were discovering it. Or if they knew about how to structure the information then they are not discovering.

              Do you really think your examples are valuable as learning?

  3. Harry Webb March 25, 2014 at 9:35 pm #

    I think you’ve spun this a bit. Points 1-3 are the effectively same point but expressed by different people emphasising different things; the idea is that the mind develops through a series of stages. This is probably best know via the work of Piaget. Statement 4 is pure Herbert Spencer and is rejected by the succeeding progressives due to its association with a racist view of history and progress. I wouldn’t include this on the list. One key omission is the frequent reference by Egan to progressive rejection of ‘rote’ learning. This clearly should be on the list. Although point 6 hints at it, you haven’t really explicitly stated the concept that learning should occur according to nature’s plan; that there is a natural way of learning that we should seek to replicate. And what about ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ learners? Egan makes a big point of this distinction.

    No, I’m afraid that you seem to have rigged this list so that the fewest people possible would sign up to it and in order to prove your point.

    Another key feature, although perhaps one that people wouldn’t sign up to, is that progressive education always thinks of itself as new and revolutionary, sweeping away the dreary factory model schooling of the past.

    Here’s a quote:

    “These teaching and learning episodes are created through INDUCTIVE teaching methods which challenge, wholesale, the notions of learning set up in the orthodox ‘crisp and pacey’, teacher led, instructive modes of learning experiences associated with military obedience so prevalent currently.”

    And

    “The schooling models of the past are beginning to waver in the face of the need for humanity to pervade the system and we see a new horizon for secondary settings opening up in the guise of a ‘liberated’ curriculum.”

    These strike me as quintessentially progressive. I found them here:

    http://www.mantleoftheexpert.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/Teaching-Drama-2008-ArticleMoE-1.pdf

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