Traditional Progressivity or Progressive Traditionalism: Ditch the dichotomy

Do we need to butt heads? It's not all black & white. Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-africa-animals-wilderness-3158/

Do we need to butt heads? It’s not all black & white.
Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-africa-animals-wilderness-3158/

I’ve never liked labels and boxes. I remember in high school when another student frustratedly asked me, “What ARE you?” I was bemused that this student was seemingly angered that my varied wardrobe (surfie t-shirts, black jeans, hippie skirts) didn’t fit one high school mould. Similarly, I’ve been a bit perplexed with the ongoing social media flurry around the ‘traditional vs. progressive’ debate, which is often positioned as being an ‘us vs. them’ or ‘right vs. wrong’ dichotomy.

I get uncomfortable when things get dichotomised as I think it increases unproductive antagonism and shuts down nuances and possibilities. Even Star Wars recognises the light in the darkness and the darkness in the light. My sentiments are similar to those of David Rogers who describes himself as a prog-trad continuum slider, and of Stephen Tierney who argues that traditional vs. progressive is a false dichotomy. I agree that traditional and progressive approaches in education aren’t warring factions. We don’t need a hard black line drawn between them. They can co-exist in schools and classrooms, with approaches moving along the continuum depending on teacher, students and the purpose of a lesson. We can attempt balance and compassion in debate and in teaching.

The trad-prog debate is often seen as rooted in ideology. As an educator I am a product of my own childhood, education, previous teachers, teaching experience and life. In order to tease out my perspective on the trad-prog sliding scale, I’ll try here to be transparent about my own beliefs about education, in order to perhaps illuminate the decisions I make about my teaching practice and my perception that we should consider traditional and progressive, rather than traditional or progressive.

I have core beliefs about what teaching should be, including that it is about empowering young people with the knowledge, skills and capacities to be critical (questioning! skeptical! even subversive!) consumers, creators and challengers of knowledge. As an English and Literature teacher I believe in the power of language, and that an ability to decode, interpret and wield language is part of empowering students to be people who can successfully navigate their worlds. I believe that students should learn the literary and artistic canon, the classics, philosophy, history, but also that these are shaped by their contexts (who wrote them? who had power? whose story is told? whose story is absent? who was unable, within that context, to share their [hi]story?). Students also need to navigate popular, multimedia and new media texts and discourses.

I teach English, a compulsory subject, to sometimes reluctant students who are studying English because they have to, not because they enjoy it or see its value. Many students struggle to find success in the English classroom, yet they have to attend. So my approaches to teaching English (as opposed to Literature, where students have chosen to do the course and are often enthusiastic and motivated) are influenced by this. I use Understanding by Design to backward plan curricula, starting with what it is that students need to know and be able to do – KNOWLEDGE. SKILLS. – as well as overarching essential questions.

Students need to be able to read, analyse, critique and develop evidenced arguments. But first they must know the content. The texts. The concepts. What a good argument looks like; what it doesn’t. I use diagnostic tools and pre-testing and rigorous assessment. I instruct, a sage-on-the-stage passionate about the content. I model analysis and argument. I provide exemplars. Texts are chosen for their merit and for their likelihood of being engaging for students. We read texts together and independently. I write. We write. They write. I work with small groups and with individuals to push them to the next phase of knowledge and understanding. I work hard on my questioning technique. I use regular formative assessments to gauge students’ understandings so that I might address pace, or go back or forward a few steps.

Yet I also on occasion – gasp – let students, to some extent, choose their own edventure, personalise their learning and have some autonomy about how they communicate their understanding. I’ve played with genius hour. I’ve negotiated tasks from an adjusted Bloomgard matrix. I use online discussion forums to develop students’ engagement with each other, and with me, around texts and concepts. I use the debate-promoting tool of the ‘human continuum’ in which students choose and defend a position along a classroom wall on a topic (To what extent is Macbeth a villain? To what extent is Frankenstein’s creature a monster?). My creative writing group has a blog in which they add to a collective story. When I’ve taught Romantic poetry, students have spent a lesson channelling their inner Romantic, taking a notebook and pen to a quiet spot around the school to write poetry which embodies Romantic ideals (a task which needs a knowledge of Romanticism and skills to control and manipulate language for effect). My creative writing lessons at the river and the cafe strip aren’t going to win any awards for knowledge-transmission. I don’t set up my desks in rows like isolated islands, but incorporate comfort and flexibility into learning spaces. I don’t see my students as vessels to be filled with knowledge. I expect students to do the work set, but I encourage them to intelligently question and challenge rather than mindlessly comply.

The thing is, I want my students to know that English is entrenched in life and ideas and society. Language is about knowledge and rules, and knowing when you’re accepting the knowledge and rules, and when you might challenge them. It can be about fun and satire and aesthetics and critique and expression and enjoyment. It can challenge the status quo or celebrate the way things are. It’s not black and white; knowledge or process; fun or seriousness; acceptance or opposition. This isn’t about my whims as the teacher or an ideal of free thinking do-what-you-like-preneurship. It’s about making deliberate practitioner decisions based on a knowledge of students, context, teaching, learning and the classroom, without feeling the need to conform to an extreme or singular view.

Students need knowledge. Students need skills. In English, they need to know and remember and synthesise and read and write and speak and listen and question and argue and persuade and create. They also need to play, experiment and develop their capacities for engaging thoughtfully, reflectively and critically with texts, ideas and … people.

Classrooms are more than effect sizes. They involve a combination of knowing and doing and feeling and being and learning and listening and thinking and wondering and working. Trust and vulnerability and relationships and identity formation. Let’s not reduce all that to a dichotomy of good vs. evil in education.

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17 thoughts on “Traditional Progressivity or Progressive Traditionalism: Ditch the dichotomy

  1. Apart from not knowing what the Bloomgard matrix is I concur with everything you have written here. I could easily replace your pedagogy to T&L English and Literature to Mathematics; the domain in which I work.

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      • Well I notice you refer to choreography of dance – and in mathematics we can do the ‘Dance of the divisors of (Say) 12″ where children form different group sizes such as 12 one’s, 1 twelve, 6 two’s, 2 sixes, 3 fours and 4 three’s and create a dance showing how they shift from one group size to another, to another and so on; they might do some symmetry dancing or they might do some rotational type moves, lots of Ceilidh type moves are possible… and if some of the children make and play music to fit in with the dance then the world, as ‘they’ say is their oyster! Mathematics is fundamentally and epistemologically a creative discipline, so anything within Bloom or Gardner’s work can be aligned to the learning of mathematics – in the words of Bowies: “Let’s Dance”

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  2. Deb, as always a poignant synopsis. I’ve been drawn to these discussions on Twitter as I’m struggling to understand why there is the need to choose a side. I’m really interested in the perspectives of both sides but I think that better judgement is clouded by putting walls up. I prefer like you to have to use my judgement and my relationships with the students to guide the way. Great post.

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