Reframing the debate: It's not what you do, it's why you do it

//Reframing the debate: It's not what you do, it's why you do it

For the past few years I’ve regularly railed against anyone who claims that either there is no debate about the best way to teach, or that said debate isn’t worth having because the vast majority of teachers either don’t know there’s a debate or don’t care about it. While this may or may not be true, some of the people I’ve interacted with in this time have, like me, come to change their mind about how best to teach, and some have become ever more deeply entrenched in opposing schools of thought.
Calling these schools of though ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ is probably unhelpful in that I’m not sure either label does justice to the position it’s trying to define, and, it’s probably also true that there’s a fair degree of slippage between the two camps. I’ve resisted the idea that it’s possible to ‘do a bit of both’ claiming instead that the difference between these positions is dichotomous, but I’ve been confounded in this endeavour by those who, correctly, point out that most teachers, regardless of their ideological stripe, do pretty much the same things in the classroom. This is undeniably true: most teachers do spend at least some of their time in lessons giving instructions and explaining concepts. Similarly, most will allow students some degree of autonomy and let them try to work out some concepts for themselves. So are we basically all the same?
Well, no. We can’t be. If we were we wouldn’t have arguments about whether it’s right for teachers to tell students off for misbehaving, or about whether to focus on teaching generic skills like creativity, or on imparting propositional subject knowledge. Maybe instead of a dichotomy there’s an ideological continuum?
I don’t think this works either. Whilst a teacher can certainly alternate between talking from the front of the classroom or having students work in groups, can they also alternate between believing dance is as important as maths and believing that certain subjects are more important than others? Of course a teacher can decide to spend one lesson trying to make children more creative and the next lesson teaching them facts, but can they decide skills are more important than knowledge on day and then change their minds to the opposite point of view the next day? I sup[pose they can, but this sort of vacillation would seem confused rather than a conscious decision to do a bit of both.
The point, as Old Andrew pointed out teachers are divided by their values, not just their methods; it’s not what we do, it’s why we make the choices we make that matters. Whatever we call ourselves, however we caricature those we see as different, we define ourselves as teachers by what we value.
This is more complicated than disputing the purpose of education. We might have different priorities but everybody wants children to go out into the world and flourish. We all want children to be happy, resilient, confident, creative and we all value a society which treats the less fortunate fairly. But although we want the same things, we disagree on how to get them. Those who would position themselves more to the right of my continuum tend, I think, to see themselves as practical whereas those who place themselves on the left are more romantically minded.
The practical, pragmatic approach to education favours expediency, efficiency and effectiveness. Its aims are primarily academic. Proponents take the view that if a school is orderly and calm, then children will better learn the knowledge that will enable them to learn the skills they need to thrive, and, as children are too immature to make appropriate choices, these must be made for them by adults. They believe that if children learn a curriculum based on a culturally agreed canon of the arts and sciences then they will be best prepared to meet the challenges they’ll face in an uncertain future.
The romantic view of education prioritises what’s more natural over what seems forced. Its aims are more therapeutic; emotional development and well-being as being are as, if not more, important than academic achievement. Those with a more romantic approach to education will tend to see children as essentially wise and good, and that, if given the right, nurturing environment, will make good choices without the imposition of adults. They are more likely to believe that children should have the opportunity to study what interests them and their creative impulses should take priority over learning listing of facts and rules, only then will they develop the skills needed to thrive in an ever-changing, unpredictable world.
Maybe this makes for a better continuum?

You can still argue that it’s possible to ‘do a bit of both’, but can you argue that you value bother equally? Is one set of values as good as any other?
Maybe not. Although you really can be a bit pragmatic and a bit romantic, maybe this doesn’t really get to the heart of the distinction either. For instance, does knowing that Dewey was a pragmatist help anyone or heal any wounds? Probably not. I think probably the most useful distinction is that between academic and therapeutic aims identified by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes in their book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. In it they see therapeutic education as being predicated on the concept of a ‘diminished self’ and the idea that we’re all damaged, vulnerable, emotionally fragile and suffering from low self-esteem. Therapy is all around us. What was once seen as a treatment for those who were disturbed or mentally ill is now embraced as nurturing for everybody. We are all damaged by our toxic childhoods and we all need to talk about the underlying causes for everything all the time.
Does this continuum work any better?

What you choose to do in the classroom will, inevitably, depend on your immediate concerns. No matter how much you value raising children’s self-esteem, in the run up to exams you’ll probably place more emphasis on learning the abstract concepts needed to be successful. Likewise, regardless of how fixated you are on academic ends, if a child has suffered a personal loss or is in emotional turmoil, you’ll probably adapt your approach in light of their feelings, at least to some degree. This is not in question. What you value informs much more than your decision on how best to deal with Year 8 on Monday morning, it informs why you do it. Of course you can value more than one thing at a time, but, by definition, you can’t have more than one priority.

2017-05-23T07:37:16+00:00May 23rd, 2017|Featured|


  1. Andy Leask May 23, 2017 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Interesting; I think your final continuum is the most satisfactory, though it still doesn’t sit quite right with me. For instance, I’m not sure discipline and creativity should be at opposite ends of the spectrum: discipline, both external constraints and self-discipline, are important aspects of creativity, surely? Similarly I’m not sure “freedom to choose” stands contrary to efficiency, and I definitely value things on both sides of the spectrum. Maybe I am genuinely in the middle?
    (Amusingly, this spectrum does slightly remind me of the old right-brain / left-brain bobbins – I know yours isn’t based on false claims, but I wonder if the inherent dichotomy you’ve described here is what allowed the brain sides fallacy to persist for so long? That it felt intuitively right, descriptively, it was just the “why” that was wrong?)

    • David Didau May 23, 2017 at 9:33 am - Reply

      Hi Andy – I’m deliberately not claiming a dichotomy. The point is that you can place yourself along that continuum anywhere you want, whenever you want.

  2. Anthony Radice May 23, 2017 at 9:07 am - Reply

    In the end, it’s the truth that matters, isn’t it? Is it true that children are best left to their own devices, to develop naturally without artificial adult intervention? Or is this a dangerous lie that cripples them, undermining their ability to lead happy and fulfilled lives?

    • David Didau May 23, 2017 at 9:35 am - Reply

      As you know, I share (many) of your views; the problem is, not everyone agrees that this is ‘true’. Maybe a more subjective view of truth makes up one end of another important continuum?

  3. education86466 May 23, 2017 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Agree that the traditional, progressive split isn’t really helpful. How about another dichotomy – prepared to follow the best research-based evidence we have regarding instruction and interventions when it is available or prepared to follow ideologically-based theories because they feel right. I think you are either in one camp or the other.

    • David Didau May 23, 2017 at 9:36 am - Reply

      Yes, I included those ideas in my prog-trad continuum. I think you’re right that you can only really embrace progressivism by prioritising what feels good over what research indicates.

      • Jennifer May 23, 2017 at 10:41 am - Reply

        For a long time progressive education appeared to teachers to be based on research e.g Piaget. Rousseau isn’t research but was certainly taught in the university where I did my PGCE as true . My first degree included philosophy and I had to examine and disect Rousseau so I should really have smelled a rat in my teacher training, but it ‘felt right’. This is true for many teachers.

        • David Didau May 23, 2017 at 10:45 am - Reply

          Sadly, yes. Education is (or has been) more concerned with ‘truthiness’ than truth.

        • Tom Burkard May 23, 2017 at 7:57 pm - Reply

          Ironically, what ‘feels right’ in ITT is little short of disastrous for pupils with low fluid intelligence–and for those who teach them. Schooling becomes a boring and humiliating farce when learning objectives are opaque and unattainable. For all that the Daily Mail might thunder on about giving violent pupils what they deserve, a number of schools serving disadvantaged pupils achieve exemplary standards of behaviour without resorting to permanent exclusions. From what I know of them, they all emphasise knowledge and understanding, and use regular quizzes and tests to confirm and consolidate learning.
          In a Lancashire school that is introducing knowledge books and regular testing, teachers who were initially sceptical are rapidly coming around as they see the dramatic improvement in their pupils’ engagement, learning and behaviour. They no longer dread teaching bottom set Yr 11.

  4. Alex May 23, 2017 at 10:15 am - Reply

    Hi. Enjoyed reading.
    Maybe I’ve misunderstood the final continuum, but surely raising student self-esteem (at least in an education context) is best achieved by making students cleverer? I get that it’s not a dichotomy. So where should I place myself if I believe both aims to be true at the same time?

    • David Didau May 23, 2017 at 10:44 am - Reply

      Oh, I agree. Although the aims of therapeutic education may be worthwhile, the way they go about achieving them is rarely effective.

    • Chester Draws May 27, 2017 at 11:10 am - Reply

      Alex: the dichotomy is in the order.
      I believe that teaching kids to do things well raises their self-esteem. So I teach students skills first, and correct them when they say they have learned something when really they have half learned it.
      I know others that swear that you need to have high self-esteem in order to be able to learn to do things. They will do exactly the opposite of me — when a skill is half-learned they will praise the student because they believe that belief leads to wanting learn more.

  5. Gvginkel May 23, 2017 at 10:45 am - Reply

    Interesting that your last dimension largely coincides with the dimension underlying the five teaching perspectives identified by Pratt in a large scale interview study. See Pratt indicates that teachers tend to have a dominant perspective in a teaching domain, sometimes more than one dominant. It’s also a dimension from more ‘objectivist’ to more ‘subjectivist’ for lack of better terms. What seems to be the most distinguishing feature is how teachers think about assessment – which goes to the heart of what they value most.

  6. Terry Elliott May 23, 2017 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Alfred North Whitehead wrote about learning in stages and insisted that one needed both romance and precision. Fits here, doesn’t it. Thanks for the post.

    • Michael pye May 23, 2017 at 7:26 pm - Reply

      Nice deepisim.

  7. Michael Pershan May 23, 2017 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    Very interesting stuff. Each of your continua/continuums captures an important bit of the educational world that I see. To me, it’s hard to call any one of these distinctions the ‘main’ one. Each of your dimensions is an important piece of the puzzle.
    I think there’s another continuum that we could identify, though it interacts with a lot of what you already have here. I agree with you that most teachers basically teach the same, but can sometimes do so with vastly different values systems. But — given how important the value debates are to some and how unimportant they feel to others — it would be helpful to distinguish between these groups of teachers as well.
    So: some teachers are value-driven, ideal-driven, ideologically concerned. These teachers may be Romantic and seek to situate their practice to the natural growth of the child, or they may be concerned with connecting teaching to learning science. Either way, these are teachers worried about the theory, the principle of the matter. The debate matters.
    Other teachers, simply, aren’t. They’re pragmatic, though this pragmatism is different than they pragmatism you identify above. They have beliefs, sure, but don’t hold them particularly strongly. They talk about how the debate just doesn’t matter. To them, it doesn’t. They teach basically the way everyone else teaches. What’s the ultimate aim of education? What are the values? Interesting theoretical question, but they get their cues from their schools, parents and students. And that’s that.
    What I’d add, though, is that these sort of pragmatist teachers might be very interested in investigating their practice and developing their knowledge about teaching. It just might not be about the theory and philosophy. They are interested in theorizing, but theorizing about practice. (Basically everyone teaches basically the same, but these people are interested in the differences, the craft. Can you guess where I see myself?)
    Anyway, let a thousand flowers bloom. Everybody should get a chance to be fascinated by the things they’re fascinated by.

    • Chester Draws May 27, 2017 at 11:17 am - Reply

      I agree with you that most teachers basically teach the same
      Next class, ask your students whether teachers “basically teach all the same”.

  8. mc May 24, 2017 at 8:41 am - Reply

    From a Myers-Briggs perspective, this is largely a Thinking-Feeling continuum situation. It can also be thought of as an inner brain-outer brain one.
    People need to both know how to do things and feel motivated, in order to both learn and ultimately be able to do useful things. This is not to say you can’t have high levels of both knowledge growth and motivation at all times. But only the most outstanding teachers can achieve that. Most settle for strong success on just one of the two sides.

    • David Didau May 24, 2017 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      Myers-Briggs is largely debunked as being too unstable to be meaningful.

  9. Briar May 25, 2017 at 1:04 am - Reply

    I saw this today
    and it reminded me of your excellent post.
    Any idea what an education (rather than political) version would look like?
    Could it squeeze the motives of edtech firms, and those calling for employability skills into it too?

  10. Reflections of a trainee – Site Title September 10, 2017 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    […] I’ve also been introduced to the ‘traditional vs progressive’ debate (interesting blogs here, here and here) via Twitter, which has really opened my […]

  11. […] is debate on the merits of having the debate. The debate between constructivists and instructivists, between progressives and […]

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