Progressive pedagogy: lessons from the Eight Year Study

One of the most promising aspects of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence is, in my view, the potential it offers for teachers to develop progressive pedagogy – pedagogy designed to develop students capacity to think critically and creatively, to work effectively with others, and to operate as successful, active and engaged citizens in a modern democracy. Such pedagogy has a long tradition, having been comprehensively developed and theorised in, and subsequent to the work of John Dewey. That CfE seems to at least tacitly support such approaches is good news. And yet, I am sceptical as to whether such approaches will truly become embedded in Scotland’s schools. One problem lies in the continuing pervasiveness of high stakes testing, and heavy duty accountability systems (for an engaging piece on this see Another is widespread scepticism about whether such methods actually work – Scotland’s schools are largely driven by transmissionist rather than constructivist approaches to learning and teaching. Progressive methods have largely remained on the fringes of schooling here, as well as elsewhere, and many parents and teachers are right to be sceptical in what they see as a lack of empirical evidence for progressivism.

There is, however, at least one compelling empirical study that supports a more progressive and democratic approach to education. This is the Eight Year Study, conducted in The USA and completed in 1942. This study focused on 30 schools that had adopted a range of progressive approaches. These included teacher/pupil planning of the curriculum – genuine consultation and student participation, but where final decisions were ultimately made by professional educators – as well as widespread use of experiential pedagogies, collaborative learning, integrated subject matter, and a tying of academic content to student concerns and interests. Evaluations were largely positive. Students from these schools achieved higher grades in exams, both at school and subsequent higher study. Gains were not massive, but significantly, students from the most experimental schools in the sample achieved highest of all.

So an obvious question is, in the face of such apparently powerful evidence, ‘why did such methods not become more widespread?’. An article by American Education Joseph Kahne* offers a number of reasons:

  • The study was published at the outbreak of the war, and became lost in the general confusion that followed. By the time people came to evaluate in detail, many of the schools had reverted to more traditional approaches.
  • Progressive education is demanding on teachers – it requires a great deal of thought and time-consuming planning.
  • It also often requires a shift in teacher beliefs – there is a fundamentally different relationship here to that in the more familiar teacher-as-authoritarian stance. The general population also do not generally understand radically different forms of schooling to those they themselves experienced. It is an oft-cited truism that everyone is an expert on education, having been to school themselves.
  • The educational goals of progressive education are often difficult to measure, particularly by traditional assessment methods. It is easier to value what we can measure, rather than measuring what we value.
  • Progressive methods sit uneasily with the outcomes-based, predefined goals of education that have become so pervasive. There is a fundamental tension here between an education that is divergent and open-ended, and one that is tightly specified. Linked to this, progressive education must rely on trust in teachers, something sadly lacking in most modern states.

I am convinced that many of the above issues will strike a chord with teachers currently working hard to develop innovative pedagogy for CfE. The big question here is ‘how do these teachers ensure that their work to develop a more progressive education bears fruit in the face of such tensions and pressures?’. The answer for me lies in teacher activism and collaboration. Teachers need a voice, and they need to work together to develop their vision and make it loud and clear. Organisations like Pedagoo, and Scotland’s emerging teacher learning communities offer some possibilities here, but they also risk becoming forums for merely swapping tips for teaching. Such communities require outside input, and a reference to relevant research if they are to become effective; and they need to be driven by clear appreciation of educational purpose and values (see my previous posts on this issue, plus the posting at

*Kahne, J. (1995). Revisiting the Eight-Year Study and Rethinking the Focus of Educational Policy Analysis. Educational Policy, 9: 4-23

What makes teacher learning communities work?

One of the nice things about being on research leave is that you get time to read. I have been looking at some more of Cynthia Coburn’s research on teacher networks – a paper about a two year project to develop progressive mathematics teaching amongst primary teachers, based around a teacher learning communities model (see below). This paper seems especially relevant to current debates in Scotland about the development of TLCs or Learning Rounds, as Coburn identifies several features that help sustain the innovation as the funding falls away for the network in question. These are expertise within the network, strong ties and high depth of interaction. It is worth saying a little more about each of these.

  • Expertise within the network. In Coburn’s research, this expertise was initially provided in most cases by ‘coaches’ – expert teachers brought into to raise capacity within each network. At the end of the two years, this resource disappeared; TLCs that continued to be successful were those that had built their own expertise within the network. Such expertise is based on pedagogical and subject knowledge, as well as expertise about processes (professional enquiry, for example). This research suggests strongly that such expertise is most useful in sustaining innovation when it resides within close knit groups of peers – so the external impetus is useful to get things moving, but networks must develop their own expertise if they are to function effectively.
  • Strong ties. This relates to things like frequency of interaction. Coburn considered a group to have strong ties if it met very frequently – presumably such interactions can be virtual as well as physical, and can be facilitated by social networking applications such as Twitter and blogs. The key to developing and sustaining strong ties thus lies in group members making an effort to interact on a regular basis. This raises the questions of whether many Scottish TLCs are in fact communities – this is debatable if they only meet a couple of times per year.
  • Depth of interaction. Groups can meet regularly but fail to sustain innovation. Depth of interaction refers to whether the interactions are substantive or superficial. Low depth occurs when discussions focus on ‘surface structures or procedures, such as sharing materials, classroom organisation, pacing or how to use the curriculum’ (Coburn et al., p19). Deep interaction occurs when discussions address underlying pedagogical principles. This finding relates well to recent discussion on Pedagoo about the role of this new network (see It suggests that deeper interactions are essential for deep engagement with educational practice.

The research suggests that all three dimensions are needed in order to sustain innovation, especially when funding dries up – as it so often does. I conclude with a further quotation from the paper:

“The bottom line is that schools never stand still. Thus, sustaining new instructional approaches is not simply about continuing to do the same thing. It requires that teachers and others make continual adjustments to new conditions and needs at the same time that they maintain the underlying pedagogical approach.” (Coburn et al., p43)

Teacher learning communities play an important role in enabling this to happen – but Coburn’s research tells us that we need to pay attention to process and substance.

[Coburn, C., et al. (under review – American Journal of Education) Supporting sustainability: Teachers’ advice networks and ambitious instructional reform. Sustainability_033012.pdf]

Relationships matter

I have recently commented on the importance of relationships – social networks – in helping teachers to achieve agency in their work. With the current emphasis in Scotland on teachers being agents of change in the development of Curriculum for Excellence, relationships are as important as ever. Our research (the Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change project – see suggests that the nature of relationships experienced by teachers in their day-to-day work is a vital factor in determining whether they achieve agency. It is a key issue that can mean the difference between ‘floundering in the dark’ – to quote one teacher participating in our recent Highland research – or enacting the new curriculum with confidence. The big question here, then, is ‘what sorts of relationships matter?’.

Our research suggests that there are a number of dimensions of relationships that need careful attention in schools, and that there is a significant role for leaders in shaping the environment where certain types of professional relationships flourish. Leaders have a clear role – to mitigate risk, to protect teachers who are innovating, to articulate a vision, and to establish processes and structures within which relationships (and innovation) can thrive. This is facilitative, rather than authoritarian leadership – leadership where power is put to good use, and where trust and reciprocity are part of the deal.

A key dimension is the orientation of relationships. Vertical relationships – all too common in Scottish schools – have their place. They are vital for disseminating information, for example. However, they rarely provide opportunities for professional dialogue – one teacher on our project described their school meetings as being ‘like school assemblies’. They are a necessary, but insufficient condition for running a good school. Horizontal relationships are more suited to the development of a collegial culture, but there are a number of caveats here.

First, entirely formal relationships of this type (for example working parties) can be limited, in that they frequently have a narrow, problem-solving agenda. Second, horizontal relationships in school can be inward looking, focusing on existing practice. Teacher learning communities and learning rounds thus need outside input – for injecting new ideas, and providing access to external expertise. Otherwise, as one cynic recently suggested to me, learning rounds may be spaces where learning goes round and round! Such external impetus is generally required to create dissonance, and to interrupt habitual practice – the grain of sand in the oyster shell that stimulates the development of the pearl.

Above all, relationships need to be substantive. They need to be about sense-making and the development of shared understandings when complex, new ideas come along in the form of policy. Our research suggests that informal relationships are great for this – providing mutual support and access to new ideas. In turn these contribute to enhanced teacher agency and the development of collegial and collaborative cultures – in short the sorts of conditions in schools where CfE will develop effectively. Of course such relationships do not develop in a vacuum. They need to be fostered, and they need space to grow. And finally they need support, encouragement and resourcing from school leaders.

Innovation and the attainment agenda

I participated in an interesting event in Dingwall yesterday – a meeting of Highland secondary head teachers and other senior management. The focus was Curriculum for Excellence, with two presentations from Education Scotland in the morning, and my input (on our recent CfE research) after lunch. The event was well attended, with representation from the large majority of Highland’s 30 secondary schools. Diversity was evident – from large urban schools to small rural schools with fewer than 20 teachers.

Despite this diversity, some common themes emerged. Unsurprisingly, secondary schools are preoccupied at present with the arrangements for the new national qualifications. Some were concerned at the lack of innovation, and pointed to barriers including assessment issues. Assessment is a major theme that concerns all schools, including at the Broad General Education level (secondary years 1-3). Mary Hoey (Education Scotland) gave a cogent and clear presentation on this issue. She stressed the need for assessment to be both ‘ongoing and periodic’. By the former, she meant that assessment activities should permeate classroom learning, being both formal and informal. The latter refers to regularly utilising more formal methods to gather evidence of learning, including those based up classroom activities and tests. She stressed the need for assessment activities to be valid and reliable – both best achieved by teachers coming together to discuss and moderate. She also emphasised that assessment should be ‘proportionate’. She warned against the dangers of creating a ‘monster’ – an over-sized assessment tail that wags the educational dog.

This warning chimes with the concerns of many teachers and head teachers, who see the workload issues associated with assessing the Experiences and Outcomes of the new curriculum and a continued over-emphasis on attainment as being major barriers to innovation, and the successful development of the new curriculum. These are genuine concerns – and indeed are well-documented in the research literature (see for example A continued emphasis on attainment encourages a culture of performativity, where innovation is seen as risky, and where teachers play safe. In many cases, the worldwide research documents evidence of playing the game to raise attainment, and even cheating.

An over-emphasis on attainment is clearly damaging to the development of good education. Curriculum for Excellence runs the risk of heading down this well-trodden track, and we need to change direction before it is too late.

Is assessment fit for purpose?

In 2002 academics in Scotland’s Schools of Education were invited to join the pilot programme of Assessment is for Learning. The programme sought to design a holistic assessment system for Scotland. In doing so, it drew heavily on the groundbreaking work of Black and Wiliam’s ‘Black Box’ assessment for learning research and development project. I opted to join project one, dealing with formative assessment, for a number of reasons: 1] I had worked in the early 90s in a school where my HoD had a passion for assessment, and he had enthused the rest of us with the potential of formative assessment; 2] while working in New Zealand in 1998, a colleague had dismissed the Black Box work (describing it as a passing fad!); 3] I was intrigued as to how the Black Box work – primarily a set of pedagogical strategies developed by teachers – had captured the political imagination (I would argue that the use of the term ‘assessment’ helped drive this); and 4] I was attracted to the AifL professional development model that engaged teachers with first principles to develop methods for their practice.

Involvement with AifL proved to be rewarding. It has, however, been sad to see its innovative approach to curriculum development fade as AifL has become mainstream. AifL has subsequently become a set of techniques to implement, rather than a methodology for developing good education. In the process, something fundamental has been lost. The tendency to see initiatives like AifL as ‘yet another thing that hard-pressed teachers have to add onto their already busy routines’ lies, I think, at the heart of the implementation issues currently afflicting CfE. And the move to framing AifL as a set of techniques that all teachers must use has led to a disconnection of purpose and method, as such techniques are often used without much consideration of what they might be for.

A particular difficulty lies in the commonplace understanding that formative and summative assessment are two different and even incompatible types of assessment. This is a false dichotomy in my view – one that Paul Black has written about recently (see It is instead helpful to see assessment in the following terms:
1.    Assessment is a means, rather than an end – to provide information about where students are at any given point in their education.
2.    Different methods of assessment should be devised that achieve this at various stages. Thus assessment should be both ongoing and embedded in classroom activities as well as coming at the end of a particular stage.
3.    Assessment methods can have multiple purposes – formative, diagnostic, summative, evaluative (i.e. to judge teachers’ work).
4.    A corollary of this it that assessment methods and associated activities should be designed to be fit for purpose – and particular methods may have multiple purpose (e.g. a class test being used formatively and summatively). So when using AifL techniques, teachers should consider carefully how they fit with the above purposes of assessment; if there is no clear link, then perhaps they should be thinking again about what they do and why. A further point to consider in this respect is whether activities used in class are in line with the four principles set out in Highland Council’s excellent framework for learning – see Is the activity (e.g. sharing learning intentions, traffic lighting) promoting participation, engagement, dialogue and thinking.

Assessment is challenging – but much more straightforward when addressed with clarity of purpose – and when methods are fit for purpose.

Can teachers be agents of change?

On Friday 4th May, we bring together a collection of interested people – teachers, local authority managers, national agency people (SQA, EdScot) and academics for a one day work shop on teacher agency. This workshop is part of our current Teacher Agency and Curriculum Change research project (ESRC RES-000-22-4208). The project was conceived in the light of new curriculum policy that positions teachers as agents of change. We are interested in what this means, and primarily in the question of how teachers can achieve agency in their work. Is this for example about simply raising teacher capacity through CPD? Or is it also about changing the material and social conditions within which teachers work?

For a start, what is agency?  This is a complex issue, and I cannot do justice to it in this short blog post (see for a fuller treatment of the issue). Our starting point is that agency is not, as is widely claimed, something that resides in individuals to be exercised according to rational choice. Instead, it is something to be achieved by people in particular situations, drawing upon their own capacities and working within their environment (utilising available resources). Seen in such a light, agency is thus dependent upon the past (for example skills, knowledge and values that people bring to bear on everyday problems). These feed into forming aspirations for the future – and clearly if people’s experience is limited, then this will impact upon the types of aspirations that they form. Finally, prior experience and aspirations will shape the responses that people formulate in the face of practical/evaluative constraints and opportunities in their present daily lives, and the ways in which they are able to draw upon resources available to them. Clearly, the nature of the environment within which people work is important. Powerful people with strong aspirations may be unable to achieve agency due to the constraints of their environment. For example, excellent and experienced teachers may be unable to implement CfE properly because of demands created by accountability systems (see for a book chapter covering this issue).

In our workshop (see we will be addressing some issues that are relevant to schools implementing CfE. Professor Gert Biesta will provide an overview of the concept of teacher agency. Dr Sarah Robinson will explore how strong teacher beliefs translate into powerful aspirations, and how these enable teachers to become agents – to choose from a large repertoire of actions when faced with difficult dilemmas in their work. I shall explore how particular configurations of professional relationships in schools facilitate or inhibit agency – see

The project aims to build understanding of the issues that inhibit and enable teacher agency. This has a serious practical value – it is about discovering how teachers can be come agents of change, fully able to develop the curriculum in their schools. Therefore, while raising teacher capacity through CPD is desirable and necessary, it is not sufficient on its own to increase teacher agency. We must also address the cultural and structural conditions which shape teachers’ work. There is more about the project at, including access to electronic versions of all of the project publications to date.

I will be writing updates on these issues in future blogs, and would welcome dialogue with educators from all backgrounds in the meantime.