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 http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6134006). 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 http://www.pedagoo.org/2012/05/whats-the-purpose-what-are-our-values).

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

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2 thoughts on “Progressive pedagogy: lessons from the Eight Year Study

  1. I think the main shift actually happens in the values-beliefs axis of teachers when they decide to buy into the progressive pedagogy, because it clearly implies learning being more important than teaching, which of course is a bit challenging thought for us as teachers. However, when the importance of individual learning becomes clear, it is fairly easy to see the benefits of the divergent and open-ended education.

    My questions are: how to get the policy makers understand the same thing and value the quality of divergent education? And how to educate the general public (parents, neighbours, grandparents etc) about the importance of individual learning?

  2. Thanks for your response Nina. I think you have raised some interesting issues here. Perhaps one problem with current thinking is that we readily (in both society at learge and more specifically within education) construct a dichotomy between learning and teaching. Actually I think both are important, and that the dichotomy is unhelpful.

    Learning is a process (although it is more often constructed as a product). Much policy discourse, by talking of learning as an end rather than as a means, is unhelpful because it decontextualises learning. It means that we can ignore questions of why we learning and what we learn, and the whole thing can be reduced to technical issues of how we learn. Of course these are important, but they should not be seen in isolation.

    Teaching is also a process. And the role of the teacher extends beyond simply standing in front of classes and talking. One problem lies in the fact that teaching is also reduced in much educational discourse – to a very narrow conception of didactic instrcution. A large part of teaching, for me, is being able to structure leaningful experiences through which students learn. Another important role is to stimulate classroom dialogue. So the role of the teacher is multifarious, and I would suggest that learning cannot take place in a structured way without teaching – so both are important.

    I think the way to improve things is to engage more effectively with educational purposes and values – in other words, what does it mean for a person to be educated, what is education for? To paraphrase John Dewey, the end of education is more educatio! However, too often, educational purposes are reduced to very narrow and instrumental goals – for example the developent of narrow competences – or such issues are ignored altogether and learning becomes an end in its own right. All educational practice is impoverished as a result.

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