I was speaking to a very dear friend of mine yesterday who (admittedly had had a few!) and stated that he felt that some of the views I was expressing were positively right-wing! It did make me wonder and examine where that comment came from and I can only feel that it would have been from the more traditional stance I have taken on education matters.
So is it correct (or even fair) to state that progressive education is what the left-wing in education now stands for and that traditional education is what the right-wing stands for? Of course it is not that simple – most teachers are somewhere on the spectrum of letting the children run wild and wishing the cane were back. However, it does seem to me bizarre that I am accused of being right-wing as I feel that tried and trusted methods should not simply be walked away from without good reasons or without well-thought out alternatives, based on research validated with evidence from both teachers and pupils.
So how have we got here that those who dominate progressive education seem to see themselves as belonging to the left while anyone who thinks that all should have a basic academic education regardless of where they end up is right-wing? It’s a very interesting question.
I can only purport to speak from personal experience here while I undertake study and research into this area so these are preliminary ideas and not a thorough review – a starting point not the end outcome. In terms of my views, they stem both from my schooling and my teaching practice which has consisted of teaching in inner city schools, with the exception of one while on supply a few years back.
After an amazing NQT year which mirrored so much of what I thought teaching was about, I then ended up in one denizen after another where progressive attitudes and ideals were embedded. Having been a really well-behaved child at school, I found that my teacher self was a bit of rebel!! Who would have thought. Why was I rebelling? I didn’t see that the attitudes and beliefs that were being impressed on me had anything to do with equality or equity. It’s not SATs and accountability that was producing these issues – it was the fundamental principles of progressive education and its impact on the most deprived children that caused me to buck against the system.
Why don’t I think the current progressive ideas of teaching are left-wing? Well here’s a few reasons why:
a) Individualism is promoted above the collective – examples include: personalised learning (which is impossible for classes of 30 if you wish to say eat or sleep on a daily basis) and the active promotion of the needs of the challenging pupil over those of the class. The latter strikes at me particularly having listened to more than my fair share of leaders, consultants and behaviour advisors who treat the rest of the class as some sort of anonymous blob who can take care of themselves while your true vocation as a teacher ought to be providing one to one for the child who swears at you the most. The focus on personal emotions and self-esteem above the development of empathy, moral and spiritual wellbeing (neither of these belong to the right or the left – they are essentially human) is the height of individualism. I don’t think educating children to exist in a ‘me first’ universe and indulging selfish notions of justice and fairness are exactly Marxist. Thatcherite maybe but not thinking of the left.
b) Class Prejudice – I keep asking about social mobility and not one member of the progressive crew wants to discuss it or make a comment as to why their methods have failed utterly on this front. Ah but that is the beauty of the progressive approach. By deciding that academic learning is secondary to meeting the emotional needs of a child, giving them a childhood and building their self-esteem, children from deprived backgrounds have been slyly robbed of one of their fundamental rights in the Children’s Act. Now I am not one to hand down excessive rights to children who can not exercise them wisely, but I think it is fair that they are free in their formative years of prejudice based on their socio-economic background, gender, etc. How close are we to this when the pseudo-scientific, poorly thought out views of the progressives have become so ingrained in primary schools in the greatest areas of need. The assumption that poor parents don’t care, that ‘these’ children don’t need or want an academic education, or indeed could ever be interested in anything other than their immediate wants or environment is based on prejudice. The whole concept of ‘relevance’ is another idiocy dreamt up by those who do indeed wear rose-tinted glasses. You can’t know what you do or do not like without at least some range of experience. Therefore a 5 year old telling you that they love Spongebob Squarepants does not mean you should be teaching about it, it just means that at that particular point in time that is what they know and spend time watching. It will change and most certainly it will change based on the education you give them. My understanding of Gramsci was that cultural capital was real and needed to be taken into account when teaching – not reinforced by providing different learning experiences to middle and working class children which would only serve to reinforce existing divisions. Bridging the gap would lead to more equality not widening it.
c ) Anti-academic, anti- intellectual beliefs and demonisation of intelligence – I am not talking about IQ – I don’t believe in fixed intelligence. Learning takes place all the time and your ability to learn and even unlearn is unbound. However, while multiple intelligences may be a nonsense, intelligence itself is not. It is complex and wonderful. Sometimes it develops into intellectual and academic learning at university and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not for me to decide the path that an individual takes. However for me progressive education is so caught up with denouncing academic ability that it doesn’t seem to know what it is for. It seems like quite expensive childcare to me where learning just sort of happens and isn’t the be all and end all anyway as long as children are having fun and enjoying their childhood. I appreciate from the child’s perspective thinking about the future and ones adult self is difficult and problematic but we as adults don’t have this problem at all. What we have ended up with here is not an improvement in vocational education just a denigration of an academic one, and this has affected those in deprived schools the most. If people want to improve the life chances of the poorest children then open up all the possibilities and whatever path they take it should lead to a good outcome for them as adults. It does not mean rubbish academic education and stand on the sides moaning about the lack of vocational education while letting children pass through the education system without the ability to read, write, do basic numeracy and have an understanding of the world based on what we know at this point in time. Also the fact that the progressives seem to have such a strangehold on inner city schools troubles me as it is self-perpetuating. Nothing short of a radical overhaul of teachers and leaders in these schools will enable us to get the most deprived children back onto anything like an more equal chance of being educated as well as the richest. There is nothing inherent about being poor that makes you less intelligent, less academic or less willing to learn challenging aspects of any subject.
Ultimately the poorest have less money not less intellectual capacity. I can not for the life of me understand how children from deprived socio-economic backgrounds can be grouped in the manner they are and treated the way they are. The vast majority of children are well-behaved, smart and want to know about the world. The vast majority of parents from whatever background want the best for their children regardless of the choices they have made.
My parents were no different and they trusted teachers and the school. They did not send me to ‘inquiry learn’ my way back to the stone age. I was sent to learn and develop. They wanted me to do as well as possible, not be ‘nurtured’ instead of educated. They wanted me to get good results so that I didn’t have to work in a factory like them and have greater chances in life.
The progressives attitude smacks of good old right-wing middle class prejudice. The hint of hippy libertarianism shouldn’t fool anyone. Left-wing it isn’t. Lets not let the wolves masquerading as sheep continue their assault on the life chances of the poorest. Keep the academic, actually work on making the vocational better and teach the broadest and balanced curriculum possible for all.