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Should education be traditional or progressive?

By Mark Richards, 

Trying to over-simplify education or attempting to use one size fits all approaches are not sensible ways of doing things. In many ways, education cannot be reduced to binary choices about the right or wrong way to educate children.

However, something we are particularly guilty of doing with education in this country is to introduce new initiatives and pedagogies from time to time, and throw everything and the kitchen sink at them. There is a long list: literacy across the curriculum, starters/plenaries, multiple intelligence learning, assessment for learning, to name but a few. These ideas are sold to schools as the ‘next big thing’ and schools fall for them hook, line and sinker. 
The problem is that many of the initiatives and ideas tend to become all-encompassing. The buzzwords take over and they become almost the be all and end all for a period of time. But then the next ‘next big thing’ comes along and becomes the new focus of attention.

There is no right way or wrong way of doing things in education. Dilemmas such as whether a class should sit in rows or in groups, whether you should use direct instruction or inquiry, or whether restorative or punitive justice should be used, will always spark debate. Occasionally, a particular approach becomes flavour of the month but the crucial thing with everything to do with education is that the context of the school is the most important thing. What works in an inner city school may not be the most sensible option for a leafy suburban school. Choosing the right approaches and adapting them to suit the needs of your school is really at the core of effective school improvement.

 

The traditional versus progressive debate

Over the last couple of years, many schools have swung back to favour more traditional methods of teaching. This has come about mainly because of the new GCSEs and A levels that have been introduced. Schools have realised that one of the biggest challenges of the new specifications is simply the amount of content that needs to be covered. All of a sudden, memorising and knowing a lot of ‘stuff’ has become really important for students if they are to succeed in the new exams. Traditional and ‘old school’ teaching methods have come back into favour to a certain extent.

Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic has forced teachers to go back to traditional methods too. In fact, the likes of paired work, group work, and pretty much any type of child-centred learning have had to be cut to ensure that classrooms are Covid-secure.

Of course, by and large, most students are just happy and grateful to be back in school, but the ‘new normal’ that schools have had to contend with since reopening in September is far from ideal. The lack of sports fixtures, drama and music productions, and field trips have had to be replaced by very traditional ‘stand at the front of the class’ teaching – and the occasional Zoom meeting thrown in for good measure.

The teaching profession has always required a lot of critical reflection from all practitioners. Teachers naturally review and reflect on the lessons they teach every single day. At a whole-school level, leadership needs to be strategic but reflective too. Education is a mass of contradictions and can be highly unpredictable. What works in one school won’t necessarily work in another. In fact, an approach or strategy that worked one year in a school won’t necessarily be as successful the next year.

With the relentless focus in schools being on teacher performance, pupil attainment and school accountability, there is always pressure on teachers to find methods and approaches that work and deliver results. Sadly, because exam results are seen as the main measure of success, schools sometimes opt for short cuts and quick fixes. A healthy dose of pragmatism is always required.

 

Education needs to focus on engagement and enrichment again

The current Covid climate has forced schools to adopt traditional methods of doing things and to forego many of the approaches and activities that engage and enrich students the most. It’s necessary right now but it is important that schools soon return to the focus on engagement and enrichment. Schools need to be creative and inspirational places to be.

Coronavirus is a threat primarily to health, but it has had a corrosive and insidious effect on schools. Its impact has reached every single classroom in the country and forced changes both to the way that teachers teach and the way that pupils learn.

Teachers are having to teach differently now and for many that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Instinct, intuition and spontaneity has momentarily disappeared from classrooms.

We have to make sure that all that has been lost from education – the inventiveness and risk-taking – is brought back as soon as possible. The rich and varied landscape that was thriving pre-Covid, must return. Current circumstances dictate that schools. Must be very ordered and restrictive right now. However, as soon as the pandemic has passed, schools must become the energetic and vibrant places they were before.

 

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