It’s good to talk

6 min read

This I wrote earlier this year in response to furious ‘debates’ on twitter about pedagogy. I decided to post it on my blog in response to this tweet. This is not the only piece of research that establishes that evidence alone does not change people’s views.

The debate over the relative merits of traditional or progressive teaching has become boring. This suggestion has caused outrage in some corners of education social media. While it has prompted a shrugging indifference by others. Since there are strongly held views about the right to have this debate, I thought I would re-examine it. I also examine the nature and value of debate in resolving this issue.

The main objection to subduing this debate is, first of all, simply, that it closes it down. But more importantly – and with some allusion to a sinister plot to undermine open discussion – it removes the right of teachers to express their views and have a voice. Moreover, that it is an attack on teachers’ professionalism. I use little hyperbole in conveying the strong feelings that were prompted by the suggestion that the trad/prog debate was over.

There is more.

There have been arguments that it goes against fundamental democratic principles by not allowing debate on this issues. Appealing to the precedence of academic and philosophical discursive engagement as established practice.  There have been claims too, this debate is central to improving education. Indicating a view that debate would be the means by which one or the other, traditional or progressive, could be proven the most effective.

On the other side of this debate about a debate. Teachers have argued, from a practical perspective, that I do both anyway; I have some rote learning and learning of facts, but I have some groupwork and project work. Others, have argued that the debate cannot really help improve things. Traditional and progressive are abstractions of what really happens in classrooms: they do not reflect what goes on in schools.

A further issue is that there are differences in the extent to which the two approaches can be defined. Traditional can be more clearly defined as a teacher-led transmission approach to learning, featuring teacher explanations, demonstration and instruction, followed by student practice or exercise, followed by review or assessment. Progressive approaches are less easy to define, yes you can say student-centred, you might refer to inquiry- or discovery-based learning, and you might refer to dialogic teaching, student collaboration or groupwork. But the variants are vast and approaches diverse. It is easier to define progressive forms as the things that are not traditional. The debate becomes traditional (T) vs not-traditional (not T). This makes debating the issue almost impossible, for reasons that I will attempt to make apparent.

What is a debate?

The purpose of academic debate is to explore different positions and viewpoints. It involves people communicating their views and presenting an argument and evidence in support. There is opportunity to question each other’s positions and examine the arguments. This presents each with an opportunity to reconsider and explore their thinking. It allows the quality of argument to develop. It is a meeting place of ideas, some of which might be in opposition. So it is a forum to formulate new understanding based on the ideas put forward. It might be opportunity for synthesis; for participants to formulate new positions or perspectives with which they collaborate and contribute to a shared and inclusive position. The character of debate is one of collegiality, which does not mean accepting without question what participants have to offer, but it does require that views are respected.

Suppose the debate begins and ends with opposition, that there is no ultimate agreement and that parties cannot find any shared ground. The debate is characterised by some strongly held entrenched positions with opponents unwilling to give any ground. Beliefs and views become fiercely contested. On social media this is where debates can end up.

The debate is no longer a debate it is a dispute.

How do you proceed once in dispute? I have observed people try to examine the logic of their opponent’s argument and to impress on them the sheer weight of scientific evidence supporting their position. With what aim? Presumably the aim would be to change the opponent’s beliefs. Yet changing someone’s beliefs in a dispute situation is unlikely.

In the traditional versus progressive debate, whichever side you take – assuming you do take a position – the evidence is equivocal. There is always going to be an argument, one way or the other. The implication is that the views on either side of the debate are based on beliefs rather than certain truths.

As an opponent in a dispute, what are the options? Agree to disagree? Or, pursue further argument and attempt to disarm the opposition with overwhelming evidence and by exposing the holes in their arguments?

If you pursue the latter course what is the likelihood of changing their view? The answer is close to nil. To change peoples’ views, it necessary to engage with their ideas over a period of time, to understand their perspective and the basis for that perspective. You collaborate. In return they do the same. In the end you learn about yourself and others. They learn about you.

Debate will get you so far with this, but only so far, because you don’t have opportunity for shared experience of practice (that’s where collaborative action research is a valuable activity).

What is destructive is the point at which the debate becomes a dispute. It becomes intractable and irresolvable: views even become more entrenched. Of course you might resolve a dispute in a civil court of law, but even after a judgement has been made, it is not going to change people’s beliefs.

Debate is valuable, but if it ends up in dispute, continuing the trad/ prog debate is so much worse than boring.


  1. An interesting perspective on an interesting issue. I believe the following quoite from the post is key to the trad vs prog debate.

    “The implication is that the views on either side of the debate are based on beliefs rather than certain truths.”

    A number of loud bloggers seem to be of the view that there are certain truths which will inform practice ensuring efficiency and effectiveness. Notwithstanding the issue that people interpret and apply these truths in ways that make perfect sense to them, anyone who questions even the interpretations and application of these truths are described as heretics, apologists and poor thinkers.

    My experience is that the vast majority of teachers in the UK are completely unaware of the debate, they simply use the best strategy/method for the learning task at hand be that traditional or progressive. Those that do engage find the thing has become boring, largely for the reasons you describe above and simply go on with their teaching in the same fashion as the “unawares”. This because the dispute is pointless.

    The use of ICT in the classroom is another, albeit poorly understood, issue. I saw yesterday a post in which a blogger faced with another who would not change their mind, refer said blogger to a textbook they had written explaining why people are reluctant to change their opinions. Elsewhere the textbook author explained that of the lots of points put forward by others, none had caused them to change their mind.

    1. Thanks Brian. I like the idea of ‘loud’ bloggers. And it’s true, the trad/ prog debate could be translated to a number of different issues. For example, you raise one, particularly, the use of technology. But it could be phonics, behaviour etc. I like the way you exemplify a Twitter dispute. I have observed and been involved in these. One in which I asked that we agree to disagree, yet my opposer wanted to continue to prove to me that I was wrong. I said that I thought this was turning into harassment. Which caused some consternation with my opposer’s Twitter supporters.

  2. Thanks for this Steve. I got quite a bit of grief for saying that I was bored with this debate. But I am bored with it, because as you have shown here, it is going nowhere. This is not because I want to stop other people debating – they are very welcome to – but I don’t plan to join in anymore. Interestingly, it is pretty hard to hold a ‘debate’ with only one set of opinions being expressed.

    What I much prefer is to hear examples of what people do in their settings, in practice, so that I can examine whether or not I want to do the same. Of course, some people might find hearing examples boring and they would be perfectly entitled to say as much, but at least it gets past the problem of the same old same old over and over again.

  3. I wrote this after your comment about being bored with the debate at Christmas. Then Ross McGill publicised this viewpoint further. Then I saw Carl Hendrick tweeting a link to research on pursuasion. I entirely agree it is examples (case studies) and collaborations that are important in improving teaching and learning.

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