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.