The Problem with Progressivism: reflections on “Progressively Worse” by Robert Peal.

Reading “Progressively Worse”, I found myself nodding my head and gnashing my teeth in equal measure. This is the book I’ve been waiting to read for 10 years, confirming and providing evidence for much of what I have thought about education in this country generally and about my own experiences in particular. It covers topics that I have frequently discussed with like-minded colleagues and hotly debated with those who defend and prescribe “progressive” methods and ideas in the classroom.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 deals with “History”; in it Peal charts the rise of Progressivism from 1960-2010, showing how the focus on child-centred approaches has led to the erosion of the role of the teacher and the rise and acceptance of unruly behaviour in state schools. Consequently, levels of literacy have barely changed since WW2, and social inequality has been perpetuated by the belief that a good moral and academic education is the preserve of an elite and not something we should expect to be attainable for the majority. Ironically, this has been repeatedly reinforced by a cultural elite of progressive educationists who have controlled teacher training courses and government quangos. These academics (often with no direct experience of state education) have inculcated generations of student teachers in the progressive philosophy of education that champions the work of thinkers who expound ideas that children are innately good and will learn and improve organically if provided with the right environment. Successive Education Ministers of both main parties have failed to change this simply because of the overwhelming number of these people who hold powerful and influential positions and who have become guardians of the progressive education movement and the tools by which this hegemony of ideas continues to pervade the classroom, failing successive generations of students in a deplorable and unforgivable cycle of failure.

Part 2 deals with “Pedagogy”, and bases much of its discussion on the work of Daniel Willingham and John Hattie, whose works everybody in education must by now be familiar with. Hattie’s seminal “Visible Learning” unarguably demonstrated that there is no mystery to teaching effectively; there are strategies that improve student progress and learning and strategies that don’t. Among the most effective is “direct instruction”, the very thing that puts the teacher in charge of the classroom and the learning, and that teachers have been dissuaded from using for decades due to the fact it’s deemed as authoritarian, boring and alienating.

As I read the book, I was constantly reminded of a member of an SLT where I worked several years ago. This person was often given a platform to speak to the whole staff (over a hundred teachers, many in the very early years of their careers) who would constantly reiterate two crazy ideas: one, if you experienced bad behaviour in the classroom it was your own fault for not making lessons engaging or entertaining enough; second, that no teacher was a teacher of a subject; rather, we were all teachers of children. In the first couple of years these ideas used to confuse me; as I became more established, they enraged me. As a teacher of an academic subject (English), there invariably has to be lots of reading and writing involved, which is often just plain hard work. Was it right then for me to expect students to kick off when asked to do these things? Of course not. The second idea I actually found quite insulting. The implication was that anybody could teach any subject because we are all teaching the same skill sets anyway. What rubbish. How can a teacher of English be expected to do a good job of developing enthusiastic and expert geographers, historians, mathematicians or scientists? It just isn’t feasible. I’ve no doubt most of us could hobble through the curricula of other departments. But to do it well and do it justice? I don’t think so. At best, we’d deliver a mediocre course that kids liked; at worst they’d be taught incompetently and put off the subject for life.

This person was a complete advocate of the progressive methods which are so derided in Peal’s book. A firm believer in a permissive and tolerant approach to discipline and pedagogy, this SLT member wreaked havoc and contributed to a legacy that radically lowered standards. I remember one incident where I’d asked for SLT support in a lesson where a Year 11 student refused to do any work and repeatedly told me to “fuck off”. This member of SLT came down (my heart sank as I saw their arrival) and begged and pleaded with the lad to go with them, was told to “fuck off” several times themselves, then proceeded to say to me that I should leave the student be as he wasn’t doing any harm and it was nearly lunchtime anyway. I don’t believe anything ever happened about this incident (needless to say the school is now in special measures and its results threaten to plummet below the government’s floor standards).

Other incidents from my experience came to mind as I read the book. A more positive one is the way I’ve taught my year 10s this year. I started as HoD at a new school last September (2014). When I started I dutifully rearranged the classroom into groups of four. My year 10 group is a very large group with lots of big and boisterous but bright boys in it. For the first term the lessons were ok, but whole class discussions and silent reading and writing tasks were difficult to run effectively due to the fact that students were constantly facing (and therefore distracting) each other. After Christmas, I rearranged the desks into “herringbone” shaped groups of four, and by February half term these groups had morphed into rows formed along the “herringbone” shape. The effect on student participation and concentration was immediate and prolific. Instead of wasting time reminding students of what they ought to be doing, I was spending virtually the whole of the lesson conducting lively debate and discussion or supporting individual students as they got on with the task at hand. Coupled with quality written and verbal feedback, the students made great progress. For me the evidence of the success of this return to a traditional approach was evidenced in two ways: firstly, in a class of 33 students, 14 achieved an A or A* in their summer mock exam; secondly, in an end of year survey, 40% of Y10 students reported that they felt that their progress and the way they had been thoroughly prepared for assessments were positive parts of their experiences this year (the responses were unprompted and completely open-ended).

My only issue with the book is Peal’s unswerving support for the Academies and Free-schools programmes. He sees these as silver bullets that can rapidly improve the life chances of individuals and move schools away from the grip of progressive educationists. I think this is misguided; education really should remain in state hands. There is no evidence to show that the Academies programme has worked; in fact recent reports in the media and from Ofsted show that generally academies do no better than state schools. Peal does pick some examples that buck the trend, especially Wilshaw’s former project, Mossbourne Academy, which really is a shining example of a traditional approach working wonders, but this is an anomaly rather than the norm. Instead of the relentless privatisation of schools, the way to save education is to ensure that schools are ensuring that they deliver education using pedagogy that is effective and evidence-based, something that I think the new Ofsted frameworks are moving towards under the leadership of Michael Wilshaw, who has repeatedly stated that Ofsted inspectors must not seek to find particular methods in the classroom providing that what they see works.

So, despite Peal’s pro-privatisation approach, I whole-heartedly recommend this book to all educators. I only wish I’d had it to hand in the first years of my career when I was constantly railed in observations for the lack of “kinaesthetic” activities in my  lessons or the bad behaviour that arose from the fact that I expected kids to work hard and to read and write at length. After reading Progressively Worse, I feel refreshed, invigorated and empowered. As a teacher, I’m now in a stronger and more confident position to argue for pedagogy that works, not pedagogy that conforms to some misguided romantic philosophical ideal of what childhood should be. The book should be compulsory reading for all student teachers and should be on the staff CPD bookshelf of every school.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

2 responses to “The Problem with Progressivism: reflections on “Progressively Worse” by Robert Peal.”

  1. Paul says :

    The reason why the whole book was written is to vilify education as to push that privatisation agenda you mention. This is the case with all think tanks, left or right.

    • andywarner78 says :

      Absolutely, and I don’t think he makes any secret of that. But a lot of what he says is completely true. Unfortunately he equates the problem of progressive pedagogy with state education. As a state educator and supporter of state education I want to distance myself from pedagogical nonsense and use strategies that work, not ones that are prescribed by a progressive agenda.

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