The progressive teaching tyranny myth

5 min read

The argument goes that between 2004 and 2010 or thereabouts, there was a period of oppression in which teachers could not express their views. Or, if they wanted to pursue more traditional teaching approaches, there was a conspiracy by the educational establishment. An establishment consisting of university schools and faculties of education and local authorities backed up by the National Strategies.

Thanks to Michael Gove and a small army of teacher bloggers this tyranny has been driven back and exposed as spurious expertise. Now we live in a world in which teachers are free, they have a voice. Education research has been exposed for what it is: unscientific, biased and amounting to quackery. Now the only research of any value should be scientific. Based on hard fact. Evidence-based.

Like many stories of passion and daring emancipation, what I describe in the previous paragraph is a myth. What is more, it has been fostered by those ideologically pursuing freemarket state education supported by those with a vested interest in privatising schools. And perpetuated by teacher bloggers seeking a narrative for their protests.

The problem is that the myth does not reflect the fact that in schools teaching has remained, through this time, resolutely traditional and teacher-centred, with perhaps some sprinkling of progressive features. Pupils working in groups, for example. But for the most part teaching is characterised by a teacher demonstration, explanation, instruction; followed by pupils working predominantly independently on a well-defined task with the aim of developing fluency and factual recall. Finally the teacher reviews and assesses the work. Now this pattern of practice has not changed in Europe for decades and even centuries. It’s just the way schools happen to work reasonably smoothly.

As educational research has emerged in the last 30 to 40 years, it has drawn on multiple disciplines and a range of methodologies in order to address research questions about the nature of learning. The sum of that research would naturally lead to questions about the effectiveness of practice in schools. Can it be done differently and more effectively ways? These questions are reasonable.

Educational researchers have bumbled around doing some outstanding work with meagre resources and working in a fledging field of research. And sure they have issued challenges to policymakers and to the teaching profession. And sure they have been interested in a progressing education so that the outcomes for pupils mean that they are better equipped to improve their own circumstances, the circumstance of their communities and society as a whole.

One thing to be sure is that progressive reforms have been an abject failure and that they have had negligible impact on practice. That’s not say that research has not developed a sophisticated body of knowledge though.

Meanwhile, in England, there has been an increasing politicisation of state education. Increasing public spending, for which politicians have felt a need to justify to the electorate. In addition there has been, since the late 1970s, a freemarket mentality which has become something of a political consensus and political orthodoxy. This is based on assumptions that the private sector is lean, efficient and innovative and that the public sector is fat and lazy. What this overlooks is that the private sector seeks a financial return, while the public sector is concerned with societal returns. Or returns in terms of social and community capital.

The combination of freemarket thinking and the need to justify spending has led to the development of the accountability system that we currently have. With the central scrutiny of schools’ examination results, the Ofsted attack dog, what has been unleashed is a highly punitive system that mimics an idealised competitive market. Public education is on its way to being outsourced to edubusinesses and multi academy chains.

The complement to this privatisation is a curriculum delivery model of teaching. Teachers delivering preprepared curricula tested through large-scale trials and delivered using traditional approaches. This is combined with profitable frequent pupil testing. Effectively education and teaching becomes commodified.

These pressures, however, have been mistakenly attributed to the reforms emerging from research. The anxieties and pressures teachers experience as a result of this hard punitive accountability regime have been directed toward those in academia who have been seeking reform for the improvement of educational outcomes. Academics have at times, I concede, clashed with teachers’ reluctance to move away from orthodoxy. However the bitterness and anger is wholly misdirected.

The sometimes furious debates on twitter over which is best, progressive or traditional is a false dichotomy. It hides the real issue. It has become an expression of confusion and anger relating to the complex wider picture. And this is why I am reluctant to engage in it, because there is a much bigger fight to be had. That’s with the people who perpetuate the myth, policy makers pursuing ideological privatisation of our education system and with those who have vested interests and something to gain out of the current policy direction.

It is time to see through the myth.

Update 14 April 2016

I had not realised how that the Observational and Classroom Learning Evaluation (Oracle) Project that my colleague Maurice Galton was involved in, in the 1970s, shows the limitation of so-called progressive reforms, like for example the Plowden Report (1967). The ORACLE report revealed limited impact of the progressive ideals put forward by Plowden.




  1. The implication here seems to be that traditionalist views are correlated with rightist politics (and the same for prog and the left). I’d be interested to know if there is evidence for that – do teachers (or people involved in education more broadly) who favour traditional methods also, on average, vote Tory?

    1. It is not clear cut. In fact most teachers whatever politics find themselves teaching in fairly traditional ways. It might be true that those with more left leaning sympathies might want a more progressive approach and those from the right might favour the traditional. However, the fundamental issue is that the way we teach is a cultural and historical practice rather than something we construct independently. Though we do individualise what we do.

  2. While I would agree that there is still a lot of teaching which could broadly be described as “traditional”, with most teachers using a mixture of “traditional” and “progressive” methods, would you not agree that for many years a “progressive” model has been promoted as “best practice”? And that the debate in the blogosphere is simply a reaction against that?

    1. Yes I agree with you.

      I think what might be observed as progressive teaching is generally traditional with some progressive features – I will write some more about the idea of ‘teacher-centred progressivism’ to illustrate in a future blog. Yes, I think certainly over zealous reformers have held up progressive practices as ‘best practice’. This was because there was little undertanding of how practice and pedagogy are formed and sustained. See my blog post on

      So the issue for me is how do we develop teaching and learning. My research is about looking at existing practice and developing and evaluating ways in which mathematical thinking might be developed further. This approach is not intended to clash with existing practice but to be more incremental and responsive to existing approaches.

      Given this, the debate, in my view, offers little in developing teaching. Its time to move on and look at the real issues at a micro and macroscopic levels i.e. classroom level and the education system.

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