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.