Are Progressive Teaching Methods A Bit Like Fast Food?

It’s increasingly clear for those of us in education that are interested in doing what works for our students (rather than simply entertaining them) that traditional teaching methods are far more effective and efficient than progressive ones. Having a skilled and highly knowledgeable subject expert delivering a challenging topic to students from the front of the room has far more benefits than setting a class off on some hare-brained, contrived and convoluted inquiry or project based “learning journey” in which they stumble their disorientated way through mistake after disaster in a bid to discover some simple piece of knowledge that they could have just been told in the first place.

And yet (and I hate to admit this), I still find myself occasionally falling back on the odd bit of progressive methodology now and then. The reason for this is because traditional teaching is just much harder than the progressive approach (no place for a “lazy teacher” in the traditional classroom), both for students and the teacher, and therefore takes a much greater toll on all concerned. Everybody in the room is 100% engaged in thinking hard about the subject at hand. There is no place to hide as teacher explanations, targeted questioning, whole class discussions, and independent reading and writing time – when done well – leave no place for passengers. Conversely, stick the kids in groups with some problem to solve, and invariably there is greater scope for wasted time through off task behaviour; suddenly, there are lots of places to hide.

Over the last two weeks my Y10s have been learning how to tackle Q2 and Q3 of AQA English Language Paper 1. This has involved lots of explanation, modelling and questioning on my part and lots of questioning, answering, independent writing and peer assessment on theirs. There is no denying that the answers they have produced, after being carefully guide through the thinking and writing processes, are absolutely top-notch, and consequently it was lovely to be able to give them overwhelmingly positive feedback yesterday after I’d marked their work.

Stupidly though, after I’d done this I explained that they’d be doing a group task during the lesson. They were visibly excited by the prospect and, predictably, as they moved into groups, much of the discussion began to wander away from the task at hand and I had to vigilantly circulate to constantly nudge them back. In my heart I knew I should have been teaching this next part of the unit from the front, but the lazy little progressive devil on my shoulder kept telling me they’d had a gruelling two weeks, had worked really hard and done well, and that this was a little reward for that. It was almost like we’d taken a break from learning; we may as well have been sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant for all the impact this task was having.

This got me to thinking.

I remember driving home from work a few years ago and listening to an episode of Radio 4’s “The Food Programme”. It was all about the “Slow Food Movement”, which at that time I’d never heard of. The basic premise is that meals are much better when cooked from scratch using fresh ingredients and, where possible, locally sourced produce. They not only taste better (because they use better quality ingredients and reflect the love, care and skill of the chef who created them), but are nutritionally much better for us with more long term benefits, generally containing less salt, fat and sugar, and retaining a higher level of essential vitamins and minerals than their processed cousins.

Yesterday I realised that there is an analogy to be drawn here: the dichotomy between slow and fast food is a lot like the dichotomy between traditional and progressive pedagogy.

Take first, for example, the fact that slow food relies on the skill of the cook to produce a nutritional, tasty meal, just as a traditional approach to teaching relies on deep subject knowledge. On the other hand, anybody can work in a fast food restaurant to bang out a few burgers (but hey, think of the 21st Century skills they develop in the KFC kitchen!). This reminds me of what a progressive AHT once told me: “we are teachers of children, not subjects”, the implication being that any qualified teacher can teach any subject they are required to and that subject knowledge doesn’t matter in the least (because we can all go on the “learning journey” together!).

Secondly, fast food restaurants are designed to be fun, entertaining and stimulating, in the same way that a progressive teacher’s lessons will have been planned with these priorities in mind. Customers and students should be engaged through entertainment from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. All the senses will be constantly stimulated to ensure engagement (making sure all those personalised – especially “VAK” – needs are catered for of course). Conversely, a good slow meal relies on great ingredients, just like a traditionalist’s lesson will rely on great content and the belief that, for example, Shakespeare’s plays are fascinating enough in and of themselves, without needing to be set to the theme music of Eastenders or recreating a Country House Murder Mystery to solve the death of Banquo when teaching Act 3 of Macbeth.

Nor can it be disputed that slow food cooks constantly check (i.e. formatively assess) the dish they are cooking through tasting and adjust it accordingly (a little more of this, a little less of that); traditional teachers are constantly assessing the progress of their students through low stakes quizzing and questioning and then revisiting or reframing content. In progressive lessons, the activity is king and the teacher facilitates by taking a hands off approach and allowing the students to fumble their own way through. In the same way, the Whopper needs no testing as it will serve its purpose in its standard form.

And, just like traditional teaching, there is no denying the fact that slow cooked food has long term benefits and “sticks to the ribs”. Its nutritional value has innumerable positive longer term effects on the body and a slow cooked meal will keep you feeling satisfied until the next meal time. On the other hand, many of us love to eat a Big Mac, but you’ll feel lousy afterwards and hungry again within a couple of hours (you’re not really hungry – it’s just your body craving more salt and sugar). The staple methods of traditional teaching ensure that the content you learn stays with you: lots of explicit instruction, quiet writing time, feedback and redrafting inevitably commit learning to long term memory. With progressive methods, the students will remember the activity because it was great fun and probably crave another fix very soon, but it’s doubtful they’ve ever engaged with the content in anything more than a superficial way.

So there we have it. I’m sure I’ve missed some other analogical connections between these dichotomies, but to me the message is clear: if you want your students to benefit from education in the long term, go slow (traditional). If you want them to have a great time but gain little, go fast (progressive).

I now intend to go into consultancy on the back of this unimpeachable educational theory. Thank you for reading.



About Andrew Warner

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

10 responses to “Are Progressive Teaching Methods A Bit Like Fast Food?”

  1. Diarmuid says :

    So, to be clear: it is increasingly clear to you that the way you believe you teach is much better than any of the teaching done by people who believe differently to you? I’d recommend reading Sam Leith’s “You Talkin’ To Me?”

    Inquiry and project based teaching is never done by “skilled and highly knowledgeable subject experts” and always involves abandoning all supervision and guidance of the people in your charge?

    Education is about acquiring “simple piece[s] of knowledge” rather than developing an understanding of the processes that lead to the acquisition of this knowledge?

    If one applies what you characterise as “traditional teaching”, one can count on “[e]verybody in the room [being] 100% engaged in thinking hard about the subject at hand”?

    In a recent podcast, an MFL teacher from Micaela talked about how her one-time dalliance with what you would call progressive teaching resulted in a LOT of work and a lot of time and effort. Yet you write, “traditional teaching is just much harder than the progressive approach (no place for a “lazy teacher” in the traditional classroom)”. Clearly, only one person can be right…should we assume that it is you?

    “I had to vigilantly circulate” – that answers my question about the view of so-called traditional English teachers on the split infinitive! 😉

    Have you considered the possibility that your characterisation of “progressive education” might be wrong? Have you seriously written off “progressives” as lazy, feckless freeloaders? Are you seriously lambasting “progressives” for being ideologically driven and blind to their own faults when you clearly have a great big beam sticking out of your own eye?

    Your analogy is flawed. You compare the producers of slow food with the workers in fast food restaurants. A better analogy would have been with the producers of fast food…errr…food. And you might be surprised by the knowledge and science that drips off the CVs of these people. You would almost certainly be surprised by the amount of checking and assessment that goes into creating not just the final piece of food, but the ingredients of the same. One could even twist your analogy and say that any fast food worker could be taught (using “traditional” methods) how to parrot off the delights of slow food and then set to work in a Slow Food restaurant.

    You say you might have missed some analogical connections. I thought much the same thing. I came across this from Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement, and thought of how this might apply in this tiresome polarisation of educational thought:

    [i]We’re all full of gastronomy, recipes etc. Turn on a TV anywhere in the world and you will see an idiot with a spoon. And every newspaper and magazine has recipes and a photo of the dish taken from above like a cadaver. It’s a form of onanism and is masturbatory. We must normalise food rather than put it on a pedestal far out of reach.[/i]

    • Andrew Warner says :

      Hi Diarmuid. Yes, traditional methods are more effective than progressive ones.

      The “lazy teacher” reference was an allusion to Jim Smith’s “Lazy Teacher’s Handbook”.

      Split infintives are fine in English. The myth that they aren’t dates back to the 19th century when classics scholars misapplied the rules of Latin to the English language. Hope that helps.

      • Diarmuid says :

        OK, now that you’ve addressed those central points of my response, I’m interested to hear your responses to the secondary issues I raised.

  2. Anneka says :

    I really don’t understand this need to create two opposing ‘factions’ in approaches to teaching. Pretty much everything you have listed above goes on in my classroom: imparting subject knowledge ‘from the front’, modelling, redrafting, independent writing, peer assessment, etc., but also the dreaded group work. The idea that project-based learning or group work is meant to ‘entertain’ pupils seems very silly to me. If your students messed around when put into groups, perhaps they were simply unused to their new-found independence and initially needed a little more structure to guide them until they were better able to work together effectively (also important to learn this in a classroom, surely?).
    I was going to write more but Diarmuid has helpfully summed up a common-sense response. Why this constant attempt to divide teachers and pit them against each other this way ? Good teachers of course have good subject knowledge, but also take a considered & often varied approach depending on the needs of their pupils, rather than getting bogged down defending particular ideologies.

    • Diarmuid says :

      …and good science means coming up with a theory with the strongest explanatory power. Having papered himself into a corner, Andrew’s theory fails to provide any convincing explanation for why my kids’ school gets such great results year after year despite having many, many so-called progressive teachers.

      Andrew might benefit from the advice that says we stand to learn more when we question our own beliefs rather than the beliefs of others.

      (Now I feel like I’m writing a report!)

    • teachwell says :

      Progressives such as Dewey set themselves up against what they deemed “traditional teaching”. Ignorance of this seems to drive those who talk of creating factions.

      The fact that everything goes on in your classroom doesn’t mean that it is a good idea per se.

      “silly to me” isn’t an argument it’s a statement of your opinion which I can simply counter with my own. This doesn’t get us anywhere.

      Choices have to be made in the classroom. Why should teachers spend time and effort should be spent on ineffective methods? By talking of “importance” you demonstrate the slipperiness of progressives. When their ideas and methods don’t work, they simply change the goalposts or make unsubstantiated value claims.

      Ditto “common-sense”. Take:

      “Have you considered the possibility that your characterisation of “progressive education” might be wrong? ”

      No reason to believe the blogger hasn’t.

      ‘Are you seriously lambasting “progressives” for being ideologically driven and blind to their own faults when you clearly have a great big beam sticking out of your own eye?”

      Clearly the commenter holds others to a standard he does not apply to himself by refusing to consider if he is wrong in his characterisation of the blogger.

      As for progressives for being blind to their faults. They have spent decades hiding away from them – the fact that the findings of Project Follow Through were suppressed and no lessons were learnt is just one of many examples. Progressively Worse by Robert Peal outlines them in greater detail.

      This feeds into the kind of statements of “end divisions” arguments which are simply calls for people to not criticise their preferred methods and ideas. I don’t see why a century of attacks, mostly unfounded, on traditional education should be met with quiet acceptance of constructivist ideas and method so progressives can escape taking responsibility for their ideas and the consequences of them for others.

      • Diarmuid says :

        You write, “No reason to believe the blogger hasn’t.” But similarly, there’s no evidence that he has. Hence the question.

        You then write, “Clearly the commenter holds others to a standard he does not apply to himself by refusing to consider if he is wrong in his characterisation of the blogger.” There’s nothing clear about this assertion at all. I think you’ll find that it is a very human characteristic to hold other people to different standards to those we apply to ourselves. This is known as the fundamental attribution error. However, I genuinely have not refused to do any such thing as you say.

        I’m wary of all people, even Donald Duck’s nephew Dewey, when they start claiming that All People Who Bear This Label Do This. I don’t believe that there are such things as Progressives and Traditionalists. I believe that there are many people who believe that the way they teach works. What I’d like to see more of is less antagonism and more attempts to engage.

        For the record, if you want to try and pin me down and label me, I’d say that I have a lot more sympathy these days for what you and others call “traditional” teaching than I do for what you would probably call “progressive”.

      • teachwell says :

        You can put down double-standards to human error but it doesn’t mean I should accept that or respect it intellectually (when one knows about bias/error then one can attempt to overcome it).

        We will just have to agree to disagree on the question of whether there is such a thing as progressives and traditionalists.

  3. Paul Kirschner says :

    Interesting! I usually liken a great teacher to a great chef (3 star Michelin). Just as a great chef has tools, techniques and ingredients to prepare a nutritious, great tasting and good looking meal a great teacher has tools media from chalk and talk through virtual reality), techniques (pedagogies), and ingredients (questions, presentations, prompts, etc.) to prepare an effective, efficient and enjoyable learning experience.
    See (and of course the blog itself:

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