What is progressive? What is traditional?

“Perhaps it shouldn’t matter that they don’t know who Churchill is. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter that they know nothing at all. But when other children know, when other children understand the world in which they live and mine do not, I have to wonder how fair that is”

Taken from “To Miss with Love” by Katharine Birbalsingh

To me, the above quotation explains what drives many of us who would put ourselves towards the traditional end of the progressive/traditional spectrum. We want our pupils to know stuff, because we realise that knowledge is power. Not just power to get a decent job, though that is part of it, but power to give informed opinions. Power to make informed choices. Power to be able to talk about a range of topics and interests. Consequent power to be able to relate to a wide range of people, including some who may well be experts in particular fields.

I would say that attitudes towards knowledge distinguish progressive teachers from traditional ones. At this point, someone usually says “I have never met a teacher who doesn’t believe in facts and knowledge.” Well I certainly have. I was shocked when I first heard it from someone who was quite high up in the profession. But fair enough, you could argue that this is rare and most teachers do believe in knowledge. Where traditionalists sometimes get it wrong is when progressive teachers are accused of being anti knowledge. It is not that progressive teachers are anti knowledge, it is that they do not see it as having much, if any, value. The view seems to be “If people pick up knowledge, fair enough, but we shouldn’t be teaching it directly.”

Knowledge doesn’t matter. Hmm. How many traditional teachers would say that? My guess is none. What I think amazes many traditionalists is how blasé the progressive wing is about the huge gaps in knowledge that exist (until it comes to the EU referendum, when I was shocked at the contempt shown to those who voted Leave by supposedly progressive teachers- incidentally, I voted Remain). It is traditional teachers who truly believe in equality, because we do not see why children from modest backgrounds should not have the same opportunities as their richer counterparts. We do not accept a situation where only children who are in the fortunate position of being able to “pick up” knowledge easily, thanks to a wealthy or privileged background, should hold the levers of power.

Now it is probably true that most teachers are towards the middle of the spectrum and adopt some progressive ideas while still teaching knowledge. Even though I would describe myself as broadly traditional, I occasionally do group work or more “child centred” tasks. Yet I would never, ever, dismiss the value of knowledge.

Being dismissive of the value of knowledge helps embed inequality. That’s what progressives don’t get. And that’s why we shouldn’t put the debate to bed, when there are still high up people in education who believe knowledge doesn’t matter, even if they are not “anti knowledge” as such.



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