Progressive education

For most of recorded history, the formal education of children entailed an adult teaching a body of knowledge or skills to those a good deal younger than himself. Perhaps the earliest reference we have to schooling of this kind comes from a clay tablet unearthed in Nippur, in Iraq. Dating from around 1700 BC, it says;

The man in charge of Sumerian said: 'Why didn't you speak Sumerian?' He caned me. The teacher said: 'Your handwriting is unsatisfactory.' He caned me. I began to hate learning...

Sounds a lot like my own school days!

There were experiments with other methods of education, especially from the late eighteenth century onwards and including places like Summerhill, but until the 1960s, most schools remained pretty much the same as they had been in Victorian times and before. Rows of children, sitting at desks, facing the front and being handed knowledge by the teacher in charge. No nonsense about the teacher as friend, guide or facilitator; this was the teacher as pedagogue. Those of us who were at school in the 1950s will remember classes of over forty primary school children being taught in this way; all sitting quietly at their desks, copying down what had been written on the blackboard.

The 1960s saw many changes in society. The legalising of homosexuality and abortion, the pill, abolition of censorship, increased freedom of young people and of course enormous changes in the way that schools were run. These changes were part of the revolution which was taking place generally in society at that time. The scrapping of the 11+, the introduction of new and informal methods to primary schools, these are the kind of things I am talking about as regards schools. The changes to primary schools were especially dramatic. Many schools chucked out the desks and arranged the classrooms with small groups sitting around tables. Everything became a lot less formal. Much of what was happening in schools at that time was known by the general term of 'progressive' education.

It is important to realise that the motivations which prompted these changes to the traditional classrooms and teaching methods were philosophical rather than empirical. I mean by this that it was not that objective observers studied what was happening in schools and concluded that the techniques used there were not working. Instead, it was noticed that schools were still being run in a very old fashioned and authoritarian way and this seemed to be increasingly at odds with the changes taking place in the rest of society. The feeling was that it would be nicer if children could stop being regimented and made to sit quietly in rows and if they, like others in sixties society, were allowed more freedom for self expression. Thus did 'progressive' education begin to take over British schools.

From this progressive educational movement grew many of the teaching methods which are common today in schools. Collaborative learning, discovery learning, enquiry-based learning; all these flourished as a result of the ideas which became popular in the 1960s. A lot of the child centred teaching methods used by home educators had their roots too in this period. As I said above, the adoption of all these techniques was not a result of any sort of educational research or evidence that the old, didactic methods had been found wanting. Rather, it was an ethical and philosophical decision because many people felt that it was wrong to boss children about so much and make them sit still while adults taught them. It is important to understand this distinction and not to muddle up the ethical basis for child centred educational methods with any supposed educational benefits. This is not to say that there are no such benefits, but if there are, then these are definitely by way of being a by-product of the whole business.

As I have pointed out recently, questions are now being asked in some quarters about the efficacy of progressive educational methods. Some evidence is emerging which suggests that these methods may not be as effective as straightforward, old-fashioned teaching. Anybody who has watched 'collaborative learning' in action in a classroom setting will readily understand these concerns. It is not uncommon in a primary school to see an entire morning wasted on letting a group of ten year olds find out which substances will float and which will sink in a tank of water. The huge amount of time wasted in some of these episodes puts British children at a great disadvantage educationally compared with the children in some other European countries where more traditional teaching is the norm.

In any debate about unschooling, child centred learning, natural learning, autonomous education, enquiry-based learning and other strands of the progressive education movement, it must always be borne in mind that the motivation behind these things has always been social and ethical, rather than educational. If progressive education were a great improvement in terms of education alone, then we would by now be reaping the fruits of it in a big way. That this does not seem to have happened is causing an increasing number of professionals in the field to start scratching their heads and asking what the educational benefits have been of this revolution.