Questioning Progressive Education’s Sacred Cows

As someone who blogs, tweets, wikis, flickrs and youtubes [and turns nouns into verbs], I suppose I’m a fairly modern teacher. But I’m also very suspicious of “student-centered learning” and the sort of unyielding optimism that its adherents seem to possess. Maybe I’m just an old crank, but modern education seems consumed by a cheery Pollyanism that appears both uncritical and self-serving. Part of the progressive ethos that I find so unnerving is a whole set of assumptions that are repeated like mantras. Rarely – actually, never – do I hear people questioning these sacred cows of progressive education. So I’ll take a crack at some of them…

1. Don’t teach to the test: If a test is well written, and covers skills and content effectively, why wouldn’t I teach toward it? “Teaching to the test” can only be bad if the test is poorly written. And if that’s the case, the onus is on the teacher to write a better test. Moreover, almost every book on “best practices” in education argues that effective teachers create their assessments first, and then build their units around them. This is the essence of “backward design”. So I do teach to the test, and am proud to do so. I should add that standardized tests can be problematic if they are designed, marked and revised by people outside the profession. That’s why I’ve always believed that teachers must be deeply involved in this process, like they were for British Columbia’s well-designed Grade 12 provincial exams of the past.

2. All learning must be relevant to the student: If much of the life of teens is consumed by pop culture, shopping, video games and socializing, isn’t teaching what’s irrelevant a virtue? If our students claim that algebra, the history of Confederation and comma splices are irrelevant, must we collapse over ourselves and surrender to these youthful experts on curricular relevance? Any education system governed by the preferences of adolescents is a system where adults have abrogated their role as adults, and is a system (well, more like a warmed-over Rousseauian philosophy) that I will resolutely oppose.

3. Teachers mustn’t lecture: But have you noticed that a “mini-lecture” is OK? Of course, if a  certain pedagogical practice is unacceptable, then why does a certain measure of time make it acceptable? And have you noticed that teachers always seem to face unremitting lecturing from progressive “experts” during pro-d days?

4. “I never teach from the book!” Really? Never? Aside from reinventing the wheel and exhausting yourself, is your stuff always better? I’m not advocating the exclusive use of the textbook, but let’s be adults here: textbooks are a vital and crucial educational tool. So let’s give them the due they deserve.

5. We must emphasize cooperative learning: But if the primary goal of learning is to stimulate thinking, then it stands to reason that an emphasis on cooperative learning leads to an emphasis on cooperative thinking. So my question is this: Why is cooperative thinking so important? Shouldn’t we want children to think for themselves? How do we build autonomy and self-reliance when our students look to someone else for the answer? In my professional experience as a dock worker, retail manager, insurance adjuster and educator, thinking for one’s self is a critical and perhaps decisive foundation for a successful career… and a successful life. To think otherwise is, to me, a total absurdity. And for children who prefer to think for themselves – especially introverts – a classroom that focuses on cooperative learning means that they can’t hear themselves think. I wonder if this is the cause of so many problems in the classroom, particularly at the elementary level.

6. Content doesn’t matter; we should only teach skills: According to the Premier’s Technology Council, “The content relevant to a student’s interests is constantly changing and growing so students will have to continue learning new things throughout their life. Instruction should more consistently focus on the skills required to find and use relevant content rather than on the delivery of pre-determined content.” Are you kidding me? Are the rules of grammar completely arbitrary? Is the logic of balancing equations a matter of taste? [And aren’t they both content and skill at the same time?] Is the role of federalism in Canadian politics, the increasing complexity of animal phyla or the key formulas of geometry simply a jumble of random factoids that we can look up in Google? I shudder to think that anyone who is serious would say yes to any of these questions. Most of the content in our curricula is indeed quite stable, and needs to be mastered (and internalized) before any real critical thinking can occur. As more and more researchers are finding, skimming for information is not the same thing as deep thinking. Moreover, this content helps create a pool of common knowledge, and this commonality helps advance a national identity and cultural conversation beyond the latest fashion faux pas of Kim Kardashian. Content provides both the building blocks of thinking, and the glue that holds together a common heritage.


Have I missed anything? Am I Mr. Crankypants, destined to line the landfill of Luddite reaction? Please let me know!

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1 Comment to "Questioning Progressive Education’s Sacred Cows"

  1. Carol Plafcan's Gravatar Carol Plafcan
    September 29, 2017 - 4:14 am | Permalink

    Wonderful! I agree completely. Where has common sense gone in education?

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