Rethinking progressive education again

“That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories. Some say that our schools by themselves are powerless to change the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. I do not agree. They can break the cycle, but only if they themselves break fundamentally with some of the theories and practices that education professors and school administrators have followed over the past fifty years.” E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Cultural Literacy (1988)

 In the late 1980’s E.D. Hirsch Jr’s poignant observations about the general decline of “cultural literacy” became part of an ongoing debate about the quality, methods and purposes of schools. Hirsch’s controversial book on the subject underscored the fact that generations of contending educational reformers have either looked backward to sounder practices from “the good old days” or forward to what many believed to be liberation from the “dead hand of tradition.”

Most of us who have spent time in the education business, have to acknowledge that so-called “new discoveries” by “best practitioners” in education have beaten back the defenders of form and content in the traditional classroom. For some time, almost every purveyor of one form of “social justice” after another have found willing allies among progressive school teachers. Today, the fragmented curriculum, referred to by Hirsch in the nineteen eighties, remains a collection of disconnected subjects and technocratic skill sets. Unfortunately, people tend to applaud a familiar tune and a persistent culture of approval among unquestioning stakeholders has been supporting educational practices whose value has long since passed. If Canadians are to have any chance of reestablishing schools as serious centers of teaching and learning parents and citizens must first endeavor to understand how schools came to be the way they are.

Classical teaching vs progressive education
People have considerable range to believe what they please about the methods of teachers. In fact, over the years, the merits of one teaching practice over another has been difficult to measure in absolute terms. For over 100 years, however, the most active front in our classroom culture wars has been the clash between “classical teachers” and “progressive educators.”

For readers unfamiliar with the lexicon of pedagogy, classicists and progressives differ considerably over the importance of “what” and “how” in the classroom. Classical teachers like to think about what should be taught at given stages in a child¹s development and teach it directly to their students. Progressive educators are more concerned with the question of how students learn and focus primarily on the organization of classroom activity as opposed to more formal instruction in defined subject areas.

Classical teaching has a long history. From ancient Greece to the modern university, scholarly authorities have passed on knowledge and ideas to uninitiated students. The methodology of classical teaching is straightforward. Through a judicious combination of classroom presentations, Socratic discourse and a variety of complementary assignments or activities, classical teachers try to graduate students with significant levels of content and understanding. Each teacher seeks to prepare the groundwork for their students to make more original contributions to particular disciplines at subsequent levels or to make good use of their acquired knowledge in the adult world.

Classical teaching methods have always been disarmingly simple, but they depend on finding educated men and women who communicate effectively with young people and possess deep reserves of patience. In the traditional classroom, it is the substance of a well-taught lesson and the energy of a perceptive teacher that engages the student and contributes to the thinking process. Student success is usually measured by tests, examinations and/or performance on subject-related intellectual tasks.

Teach the child, not the subject
The progressive movement is primarily a modern phenomenon in the history of education. Its roots can be traced back to John Amos Comenius¹ unfavorable reactions to the practices of his Jesuit teachers in the mid-seventeenth century, but it began, in earnest, at the turn of the twentieth century, inspired by the thinking of the American philosopher, John Dewey.

The progressive movement¹s preoccupation with the question of how students should learn influenced all parts of the western world, but, at the turn of the twentieth century, its modern epicenter shifted to the United States and Canada. Here, the dynamics of the new world ground against the customs of the old, and American intellectuals, like Dewey, led a furious assault on the philosophy and practices of classical teachers.

Dewey¹s theories led to an increasing concern with the introduction of more “active” and presumably, “pragmatic” methods of learning. Among many assertions supporting his beliefs was Dewey’s notion that we should teach the child and not the subject. His enthusiasm for ongoing, active, student participation in a “learning” as opposed to “teaching” process made progressive methodology seem increasingly dynamic and socially redeeming. Consequently, John Dewey and legions of his disciples succeeded in developing a kind of pedagogical revolution which diverted North America¹s public education from its traditional concentration on knowledge, ideas and the transfer of human culture.

Conventional wisdom of educational establishment
Progressivism gained ground steadily through the first half of the last century, but during the revolutionary sixties it rapidly became the conventional wisdom of the educational establishment. In the celebrated “child centered” school, a concentration on experience, activism and, above all, participation, came to replace the functions of classical teaching and learning. By the nineteen-seventies, classical educational leadership had been driven almost entirely from our public school systems and pockets of resistance in more traditional independent schools were fighting a rear-guard action.

Over time, progressivism developed an elaborate body of literature and a virtually unchallengeable mystique. Credential granting faculties of education produced scores of “experts” who dismissed classical educators as outdated, simplistic and uninformed. Among progressives, there was always much talk of change and originality which ultimately served as an acceptable substitute for both. The affirmation of the new conventional wisdom within professional educational circles across North America became tantamount to reading Scripture in a religious congregation.

So little for the mind
Despite its overpowering popularity, the progressive model did not go entirely unchallenged.

Over the course of the 20th century, a handful of classical academics risked popular disapproval to warn about what they perceived to be inherent flaws in the progressive paradigm. In 1953, Dr. Hilda Neatby, Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan, published an aggressive denunciation of the progressive movement entitled So Little for the Mind. Her book examined material from various journals of education and provincial programs of study. Neatby concluded that the modern progressive curriculum was so muddled that few leading educators could describe it in terms that would be comprehensible to the educated layman.

Educators, she contended, were dreaming the same philosophic dreams of the 18th century: that men are naturally intelligent, reasonable and moral, needing only to be set free to fully develop their faculties. This fallacy, she argued, had given us schools that were denying their responsibility to teach the content of academic disciplines in favor of a broad, but unmanageable, role. The venerable Canadian historian, Arthur Lower, who supported Neatby, dismissed as “the product of second rate minds” such sentimentalisms as the progressive slogan: “Teach the child and not the subject.” Neatby’s book inspired a nationwide debate on the quality of our schools and, in a few cases, citizens were inspired to take action. Former independent school headmaster and historian, Paul Bennett, has pointed out that the founders of the venerable old “Grammar School” in Halifax, Nova Scotia were directly inspired by Neatby’s vision for educational reform.

A.H. Humble, author of a 1968 study entitled, The Crisis in Canadian Education, also summed up all of the early apprehensions about John Dewey’s progressive pragmatism in the following broadside: “The pragmatist,” he said, “assumes not only that all men possess the power of reasoning, but reasoning of a very high order. To achieve the objectives of pragmatic learning in our society we are forced to predicate a high level of mental activity in both teacher and student. While the former objective might be achieved by stricter selective standards and greater monetary rewards, the latter is far more difficult to realize. Many absurdities were introduced by inexpert teachers and administrators dutifully attempting to adopt the theory of pragmatism to every situation. Mutual ignorance of teacher and pupil does not commend itself as a sound basis for educational progress.”

Orthodox activism
Despite such warnings, the nineteen sixties and seventies witnessed a fierce, progressive crusade push aside traditional opponents like Neatby, Lower and Humble. By the end of those decades, the long-respected icon of the classroom teacher as an academic authority, efficient instructor and moral agent had been replaced by the modern image of the teacher as “master of ceremonies” and “facilitator” of learning. Derivative post-modern concepts like “student-centeredness, cooperative learning” and “values clarification” became mantras among the growing ranks of progressive educators and cultural activists.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and continuing apace into the 21st, a kind of orthodox activism came to dominate the thinking of our educational establishment. A majority of teachers, parents and public leaders either became enthusiastic joiners or quietly fell in line. Today, educational policy-makers are virtually compelled to adopt progressive methodologies as the centerpiece of their educational strategies. Progressivism has become the new orthodoxy in education.

Alarm bells from scholarly critics, dissident educators and skeptical citizens did little to slow the advance of the progressive model over the last half century. As Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, once pointed out, the real challenge to an entrenched orthodoxy is seldom from competing ideas. It is more often from the march of time and events. Today, time and usage have rendered the value of progressive methods to be far less certain. Despite the popular appeal of Dewey’s theories, the progressive educational reforms of the last century seem to have produced very disappointing results. In fact, the accelerated growth of the progressive approach to learning has been paralleled by a measured decline in North American educational standards. After several decades of progressive reforms more people than ever are doubtful about the quality and effectiveness of the nation’s schools.

The operation was a success but the patient died
A growing body of quantitative research and policy analysis has gradually exposed serious deficiencies in the progressive model. Some educators, parents and schools authorities have come to believe that “process” has superseded “knowledge” to the point that the progressive operation was a success, but the patient died.

A turn-of-the-century book by Hoover Institute scholar Thomas Sowell entitled; Inside American Education, the Decline, the Deception and the Dogmas, pointed out that SAT scores were lower in the 1990’s than they were 30 years before, and that the vocabulary of an average American student contained half as many words as it did in 1945. Sowell contended that an era of declining academic performance had, oddly enough, coincided with the popular idea that learning must be practical and self-evidently relevant. He pointed out that: at face value, the progressive approach sounds admirable, but modern students are graduating from high schools and universities with little more in their intellectual arsenals than a loose collection of politically correct convictions.

Sowell’s view was supported by a mounting body of hard evidence pointing to serious limitations in the twentieth century’s progressive curricula. A comprehensive and influential U.S. study of the issues surrounding education entitled A Nation at Risk, published in 1983 by the U.S. Commission on Excellence in Education for the U.S. Department of Education, found that student achievement had deteriorated at an alarming rate since the 1960s. This study also discovered that the emphasis in teacher development and training had shifted from acquiring knowledge of subject-matter to acquiring skills in progressive educational methods. This fundamental shift in focus, from the content of the lesson, to the so-called process of learning, continues to be closely connected with a measured decline in educational standards.

Here in Canada, progressively schooled students were in the same predicament as their US counterparts. In 1992, the Economic Council of Canada tabled a study indicating that international test results for science and mathematics showed Canadian students being outperformed by students in many other countries. A study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, also published in the early 1990s, revealed that, among ten developed and industrialized countries, Canada and the U.S. scored the lowest on a standardized test in chemistry and physics. According to a 1997 study conducted by Canadian researchers, Neil Guppy and Scott Davies, educational researchers and public opinion pollsters on this side of the border agreed that the academic skills of our students were much lower than they were in the prior generation. Furthermore, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) reported in 1998 thatthirty-three percent of Canadian high school graduates were functionally illiterate.

As recently as 2014, an educational policy review conducted by the Province of Nova Scotia found that student performance in core subjects like reading, science and mathematics were not up to world standards. From the late 1960’s through to the present day, the volume of attention that educational policies have received from governments and private stakeholders dramatically indicates that their remains serious public concern about the performance of North American schools.

An unhealthy disdain for academic life
To this day, many college and university professors complain about students who arrive in their classes with weak academic skills and minimal levels of common knowledge. But, in most elementary and high schools, neither intuitive skepticism from the academic community, nor hard evidence taken from educational research, has led to a serious reexamination of the progressive model.

In Liberal Arts faculties across North America, professors continue to encounter high school graduates with little historical knowledge and no real comprehension of the political, economic and social institutions that have been central to the development of modern democratic societies. For the most part, students lack a broad, classical-liberal knowledge-base and have developed very little intellectual curiosity. As a consequence, they are inevitably frustrated by the demands of post-secondary studies and develop an unhealthy disdain for academic life. When some of these same students go on to graduate from teacher-training programs, they perpetuate these sentiments and repeat the cycle in elementary and high school classrooms.

In a society that places a high value on effective education, our present situation poses an unresolved dilemma. A long-established leadership whose careers have been intricately connected with the development of progressive educational strategies governs our schools. In general, this leadership is comprised of well-intentioned, dedicated, hardworking people who care deeply about their work and the welfare of students. The problem is that their unshakeable dedication to failed progressive theories has become a train wreck for Canadian education.

Critical thinking?
From one decade to another progressive theorists have developed a series of deceptive reifications like: “child-centeredness,” values clarification,” “cooperative learning,” “multiple intelligences” and “critical thinking.” Such high minded, but essentially empty, platitudes have lent an undeserved legitimacy to the progressive position. Leaders in education have employed a succession of such bromides to conceal failure and defend the progressive conventional wisdom. Take, for example, the progressive mission to develop “critical thinking” among students in the humanities. We hear a great deal about our schools’ mission to develop higher critical thinking skills and, taken literally, it would appear to be valuable goal. In fact, it would be difficult to find a contemporary educator who believes that young people should be expected to think “uncritically” about anything?

Our post-modern intellectual agenda encourages students to develop a questioning, skeptical, disposition toward all outdated and confining customs, institutions or authorities; especially those that have formed the basis of western culture and civilization. Progressive schools encourage an uncritical commitment to the revolutionary God of critical reason. But, in reality, young people are unlikely to have the life experiences, academic resources and tools of analysis to think critically about the political, economic and cultural forces that are shaping their lives. Yet, in the pragmatic, activity-based classroom, they are encouraged to become masters of suspicion; quick to adopt a critical stance and eager to avoid being taken in by an out-of-step teacher or literary authority. In short, the greatest goal in life becomes “avoiding error” by believing nothing; rather than remaining open to the “discovery of truth” in the rich annals of past human experience.

Remaining open to the discovery of truth through exposure to a broad classical-liberal education puts young people in a more a contemplative state of mind. Students are invited to actively integrate and analyze challenging ideas. Through reflection on a well-organized lesson students can acquire an appreciation for ideas, rather than an infatuation for activity. As students become accustomed to dealing with ideas, their dependence on the teacher is diminished and genuine independence of mind is advanced. For many students, contemplative learning is not fully achieved until they experience university, but the elementary and high school years are an ideal time to begin laying the groundwork for genuine independent thought.

Proposals for reform
Over several generations, declining results in our schools have prompted several proposals for reform. At the turn of the last century, an Alberta study, “International Comparisons in Education,” isolated a significant variable in the composition of an effective model for learning.

ICE researchers found that countries relying on traditional, presumably outdated teaching methods actually outperformed countries like the U.S. and Canada that ascribe to more progressive methods of instruction. The Alberta findings were supported by a 1999 study, entitled “An Educator’s Guide to School-wide Reform,” prepared by the American Institute for Research. This study described and evaluated twenty-four different approaches to school-wide reform under-way in the final years of the last century. All of these reforms were motivated by a pressing desire to improve student learning and make fundamental changes in existing approaches to learning. The reform movements in this study tended to fall into two camps. The majority remained loyal to the progressive movement and generally advocated revised versions of the status-quo. Some, however, called for a return to more teacher-directed, classical methods once identified with traditional approaches to curriculum development and teaching.

The Educator¹s Guide put forward some interesting, observations. When the various school-wide reform movements were rank ordered from most effective to least effective, those most strongly attached to the progressive camp ranked closer to the bottom. Actually, only three of the twenty-four school-wide reforms movements described in the study showed strong evidence of positive effects on student achievement. One of these was a movement known as “Direct Instruction,” an apparent philosophical anathema to the active, child-centered approach that has dominated the agenda of progressive educators.

The Direct Instruction Movement
In the United States the Direct Instruction Movement grew from work on teacher directed instruction begun by Siegfried Engelmann at the University of Illinois and continued at the University of Oregon. Ironically, Engelmann¹s work began in the late nineteen-sixties but was overshadowed by the popularity of progressivism throughout the remainder of the last century.

Although the original focus was on reading, language and math, Direct Instruction programs were expanded to include social and physical science. The primary goal of the Direct Instruction Movement has been to increase student achievement through carefully focused lessons in core subjects. In this approach, instruction involves identifying knowledge that is worth acquiring and demonstrating how it can be applied in increasingly complex situations. The direct instruction model aims to develop efficient lessons that will allow all children, even the lowest performing, to master academic skills. Direct instruction provides a teaching model that emphasizes the use of carefully planned presentations designed around a highly specific knowledge base and a well-defined set of skills for each subject. A central element of the theory underlying direct instruction is that clear instruction mitigates distractions and can greatly improve and accelerate learning.

The idea of learning through direct instruction enjoyed a significant renaissance in the United States. By the early years of the 21st century the direct instruction model grew to serve students in kindergarten through sixth grade in 150 US schools and several thousand individual classrooms. It has been widely used among low performing schools in high poverty areas, but was marketed as a school-wide reform option to all schools. In short, the Direct Instruction Movement amounted to a resurrection of the classical teaching paradigm.

Evidence supports effectiveness of direct instruction
There is considerable research evidence supporting the effectiveness of direct instruction and the classical educational model. Project Follow Through, the largest educational study ever completed by the U.S. Department of Education, initiated in 1968 and completed in 1995, involved over 75,000 students. It assessed a wide range of pedagogical theories and strategies to determine how to improve educational practices. Direct instruction was found to be extremely effective. Other programs, such as holistic learning, student-centered learning, learning-to-learn, active learning and cooperative learning, showed considerably less promising results. Tests revealed that students of direct instructors outperformed all other students in reading, writing and mathematics.

Direct instruction fared better not only in the cognitive domain, but in the affective domain as well. Students who performed better in the cognitive domain displayed higher order thinking skills, more confidence and, in turn, improved self-esteem. Longitudinal studies by Gersten and Keating entitled: Long-Term Benefits of Direct Instruction (1987) and The Continued Impact of the Direct Instruction Model (1988) have shown that students of direct instructors are more likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Educational researchers, Gary Adams and Siegfried Engelmann, in their book entitled Research on Direct Instruction (1996), point out that students can only achieve if educators start with the basics and develop strong foundations with carefully selected materials and coherent teaching strategies. Such straight forward teaching methods seem to allow students to remain focused on the task of learning and understanding.

Despite the evidence in its favor, however, the Direct Instruction Movement remains the whipping boy of contemporary progressive pedagogues. The American educational critic and founder of the progressive Peadia Movement, Mortimer Adler, once caricatured traditional classroom teaching as “the transfer of information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the audience without that information passing through the minds of either.” This cynical and counter-productive assumption; that young people cannot learn by listening to a knowledgeable teacher and reflecting upon what is being taught, continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to the advancement of learning in modern schools.

Moving forward with authentic reform
The last century proved to be a turning point in education. In the early decades, direct instruction was the norm and education progressed. Soon after, progressive instructional strategies became the convention and education regressed.

Many stakeholders agree that schools have lost their compass and need greater clarity of purpose. This can only be achieved through careful consideration about what should be taught in the various stages of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Every perceived need, issue, interest or concern cannot be resolved within the confines of a K through 12 education system. As schools compete for the student’s interest and attention with cable TV, movies, the Internet, personal cell phones, online games, Facebook and other social media those who run them must come to know what schools alone can offer.

Over the past century schools renounced their status as centers of “teaching” to achieve popular recognition as centers of “learning.” As a result, the central role of the well-qualified teacher has been eclipsed by so-called “student centered learning.” Progressive teachers have come to think of themselves as facilitators and therapists whose job it is to guide the members of a class toward individual “discovery learning” and “self -realization.”

Today, the “fractured curriculum” referred to by E. D. Hirsch Jr. in the nineteen eighties, is more fractured than ever. A school curriculum should never be allowed to become an outdated cannon that students must acquired by rote. Neither, however, should it be reduced to lists of basic skills and competencies or a loosely connected collection of popular topics for discussion or a checklist to cover the latest configuration of identity politics. It should instead refer to the systematic study of reading, writing and numeracy, relevant first and second languages, literature, the arts, history, geography, economics, politics, culture, science and mathematics. Such studies, commonly known as a “liberal education” convey important knowledge and skills, cultivate the imagination and teach students to reflect seriously about the world in which they live. Children today are lost in a forest of popular culture, electronic media and commercial advertising. Like too many of their teachers they are mesmerized by trivial pursuits, Utopian movements, celebrities and sensationalism.

A first step toward meaningful educational reform will require the will to conduct a thorough review of the existing curriculum and an honest assessment of how well it measures up to the standards of a comprehensive liberal education. If we are to return to effective teaching as a central component to a sound education, universities and faculties of education will need to graduate more teachers who love their subjects and take real pleasure in sharing them with young people. For several generations progressives have asserted that their most important purpose is to teach children “how to learn.” But it is also important to think carefully about “what children learn.”

Progressive educators contend that “active learning” is more effective than “passive learning” and, more often than not, such assertions have been uncritically endorsed by parent organizations and civic stakeholders. But, to support the case for progressive methods, educators generally rely on a straw man argument. The classical stand-and-deliver instructor is regularly caricatured as a boring, pedantic, creature who resorts to “drill and fill” or unsophisticated “information transfer.” Progressive teachers, on the other hand, are said to create opportunities for students to learn from one another and form authentic ideas. If this is really the case, one might wonder why student-generated positions on political, social and economic issues are so consistently lined up with those of the liberal-progressive culture that dominates our education systems. Many serious students and teachers intuitively understand that a classical, “stand and deliver” style lesson, when effectively offered and willingly received, is mentally exhausting for all parties. Therefore, contrary to Adler¹s contention, something must be passing through the minds of both.

As Aristotle once said, learning is demanding and hard work. Like most worthwhile endeavors, the process is sour but the result is sweet. To have students believe otherwise will inevitably disappoint them later in life. This may explain why so many high school and university graduates seem to have negative memories of their classroom experience. Despite all the active discussions, many claim that their teachers did little to engage them or prepare them for the realities of advanced scholarship.

Over the coming years liberal-democratic societies should think carefully about what schools can do and what they cannot. The first step toward authentic reform in an institution is to acknowledge the existence of a problem. As we move forward with ideas for educational reform, it may be time to question our twentieth century infatuation with progressivism and reconsider the model of the classical school. If we are to prepare students for knowledge based economies in free and well-ordered societies; responsible educators, parents and citizens will need to re-examine the priorities and practices of our schools.

If the USA and Canada’s advantage in the contemporary world is to depend on the development of a knowledgeable and well-trained citizenry, we will need to graduate students who can listen, learn, reflect and apply themselves toward leading purposeful, productive and happy lives. Early Direct instruction in things that matter, can help produce creative and thoughtful young men and women. Such people will be best placed to serve the individual and communal interests of our changing society.

We are in the second decade of the new millennium and are already faced with a troubling list of critical issues. Let us not include the further decline of education on that list. As the late Professor, Hilda Neatby, pointed out; there is simply too much at stake for the mind.