Reframing the debate: It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it (Demo)


For the past few years I’ve regularly railed against anyone who claims that either there is no debate about the best way to teach, or that said debate isn’t worth having because the vast majority of teachers either don’t know there’s a debate or don’t care about it. While this may or may not be true, some of the people I’ve interacted with in this time have, like me, come to change their mind about how best to teach, and some have become ever more deeply entrenched in opposing schools of thought.

Calling these schools of though ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ is probably unhelpful in that I’m not sure either label does justice to the position it’s trying to define, and, it’s probably also true that there’s a fair degree of slippage between the two camps. I’ve resisted the idea that it’s possible to ‘do a bit of both’ claiming instead that the difference between these positions is dichotomous, but I’ve been confounded in this endeavour by those who, correctly, point out that most teachers, regardless of their ideological stripe, do pretty much the same things in the classroom. This is undeniably true: most teachers do spend at least some of their time in lessons giving instructions and explaining concepts. Similarly, most will allow students some degree of autonomy and let them try to work out some concepts for themselves. So are we basically all the same?

Well, no. We can’t be. If we were we wouldn’t have arguments about whether it’s right for teachers to tell students off for misbehaving, or about whether to focus on teaching generic skills like creativity, or on imparting propositional subject knowledge. Maybe instead of a dichotomy there’s an ideological continuum?

I don’t think this works either. Whilst a teacher can certainly alternate between talking from the front of the classroom or having students work in groups, can they also alternate between believing dance is as important as maths and believing that certain subjects are more important than others? Of course a teacher can decide to spend one lesson trying to make children more creative and the next lesson teaching them facts, but can they decide skills are more important than knowledge on day and then change their minds to the opposite point of view the next day? I sup[pose they can, but this sort of vacillation would seem confused rather than a conscious decision to do a bit of both.

The point, as Old Andrew pointed out teachers are divided by their values, not just their methods; it’s not what we do, it’s why we make the choices we make that matters. Whatever we call ourselves, however we caricature those we see as different, we define ourselves as teachers by what we value.

This is more complicated than disputing the purpose of education. We might have different priorities but everybody wants children to go out into the world and flourish. We all want children to be happy, resilient, confident, creative and we all value a society which treats the less fortunate fairly. But although we want the same things, we disagree on how to get them. Those who would position themselves more to the right of my continuum tend, I think, to see themselves as practical whereas those who place themselves on the left are more romantically minded.

The practical, pragmatic approach to education favours expediency, efficiency and effectiveness. Its aims are primarily academic. Proponents take the view that if a school is orderly and calm, then children will better learn the knowledge that will enable them to learn the skills they need to thrive, and, as children are too immature to make appropriate choices, these must be made for them by adults. They believe that if children learn a curriculum based on a culturally agreed canon of the arts and sciences then they will be best prepared to meet the challenges they’ll face in an uncertain future.

The romantic view of education prioritises what’s more natural over what seems forced. Its aims are more therapeutic; emotional development and well-being as being are as, if not more, important than academic achievement. Those with a more romantic approach to education will tend to see children as essentially wise and good, and that, if given the right, nurturing environment, will make good choices without the imposition of adults. They are more likely to believe that children should have the opportunity to study what interests them and their creative impulses should take priority over learning listing of facts and rules, only then will they develop the skills needed to thrive in an ever-changing, unpredictable world.

Maybe this makes for a better continuum?

You can still argue that it’s possible to ‘do a bit of both’, but can you argue that you value bother equally? Is one set of values as good as any other?

Maybe not. Although you really can be a bit pragmatic and a bit romantic, maybe this doesn’t really get to the heart of the distinction either. For instance, does knowing that Dewey was a pragmatist help anyone or heal any wounds? Probably not. I think probably the most useful distinction is that between academic and therapeutic aims identified by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes in their book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. In it they see therapeutic education as being predicated on the concept of a ‘diminished self’ and the idea that we’re all damaged, vulnerable, emotionally fragile and suffering from low self-esteem. Therapy is all around us. What was once seen as a treatment for those who were disturbed or mentally ill is now embraced as nurturing for everybody. We are all damaged by our toxic childhoods and we all need to talk about the underlying causes for everything all the time.

Does this continuum work any better?

What you choose to do in the classroom will, inevitably, depend on your immediate concerns. No matter how much you value raising children’s self-esteem, in the run up to exams you’ll probably place more emphasis on learning the abstract concepts needed to be successful. Likewise, regardless of how fixated you are on academic ends, if a child has suffered a personal loss or is in emotional turmoil, you’ll probably adapt your approach in light of their feelings, at least to some degree. This is not in question. What you value informs much more than your decision on how best to deal with Year 8 on Monday morning, it informs why you do it. Of course you can value more than one thing at a time, but, by definition, you can’t have more than one priority.