The Unexamined Life

One of the statements on this post about educational ideas to bin in 2015 piqued my interest.* The comments relate to the apparent tedium of on-going debates on social media about the merits of progressive and traditional philosophies of teaching. According to this post, debating teaching philosophies on social media is dull and along with lesson grading (yes, I agree) and textbooks (no, I don’t agree) should be consigned to the past.

This excellent piece by Horatio Speaks does a great job in challenging some of the issues with shutting down debates about the virtues of different teaching beliefs. My interest, however, is more in keeping with the content of this post by James Theobald. I am concerned about the detrimental consequences of closing off teachers’ understanding of the forces that shape their professional lives and, in turn, their ability to make informed pedagogical choices about how they teach.

Before I joined Twitter and started reading lots of blogs and lots of books, I had no real idea there were two very distinct philosophies of teaching. Obviously, I could see some teachers taught and managed their classrooms differently, but I put this down to different skill sets and personal preferences born out of experience. There was, however, a notable uniformity of approach amongst more recently qualified teachers, which looking back I would say reflected a more progressive ethos. I never knew then about the underlying philosophies that underpinned my ‘beliefs’ about teaching or that these were even in contention.

To be honest, like most new teachers, I just assumed there was a broad consensus about the best ways for teachers to teach and for students to learn. Why on earth would the national inspectorate evaluate schools on the quality of their teaching and learning if there wasn’t a clear understanding amongst those in the know about how teachers should be teaching – what we should aspire to do in our classrooms and across our schools? It turns that those in the know, knew very little and – as the likes of Daisy Christodoulou have so eloquently shown – in many cases were advocating activities and methods that reflected a more progressive teaching philosophy.

And so it was for the first 6 or 7 years of my teaching that many of the approaches and emphasises commonly associated with progressive ideals, such as group work, active learning, creativity, relevance and the discrete development of skills, were what was promoted and expected as the norm. Conversely, more traditional leanings, such as the centrality of the teacher, individual work and the acquisition of knowledge were discouraged. This may not have been everyone’s experience, but it was certainly mine.

It has only been in recent years – and social media has played a massive role in this – that many of the values and pedagogical practices that I was trained in and led to believe were the most effective means of teaching children have been called into question. It might be hard for recently qualified teachers to appreciate, but these implicit, often progressive, beliefs about teaching were widely held and little questioned. From the content of my ITT course, the design and application of my schools’ lesson and observation proformas, the focus of our INSET sessions and, of course, the Ofsted rubrics and exam criteria that drove school behaviours, all promoted similar messages about how teachers should teach and how young people should be educated.

Now, I am not seeking to promote one teaching philosophy over another. This is not really about that, and you can probably tell where my own biases lie anyway. What I am trying to argue for is the importance of keeping this debate alive and recognising how much good has come from the resultant disagreements in recent years. Not only has it helped me (and I suspect a great many others too) to understand my own teaching trajectory, but also to make sense of the wider educational landscape.

Like James, my teaching has improved considerably in recent years – partly because of the activities and approaches that I chosen, but mostly because I understand why I have chosen them and that I now make sure they are consistent with my pedagogical beliefs. In short, I have a teaching philosophy and I think my students benefit from a consistent and coherent approach built upon principles. This would not have been possible if I did not understand the wider terms of the debate or had been exposed to different voices representing those standpoints, who either introduced me to new ideas or forced me to challenge my existing assumptions.

In the post I am responding to, the writer explains that ‘both methods exist in my school and in individual classrooms.’ I’ve also seen other people make similar comments on Twitter along the lines ‘of one day I am traditionalist and another I am progressive’. Aside from the confusion between methods and philosophies pointed out by Horatio Speaks, I think these arguments miss a couple of points. Firstly, as I have tried to illustrate, busy teachers are not necessarily as discerning as you might think. Their agency is often shaped by the dominant ideology of the institution, which I have suggested can, in turn, be influenced by wider forces, such as Ofsted.

Such a mix and match approach to teaching also misunderstands the idea of a philosophy. If you have a philosophy, which is obviously helped by understanding its name, its history and its influential figures, then you are more likely to make choices and decisions that reflect it. I know that in my teaching I am increasingly making more congruent pedagogical decisions that reflect my philosophy. Take the example of teaching my students to analyse texts. I used to encourage students to make their own inferences far too early on before they had acquired sufficient knowledge and understanding. I have now adapted my sequencing and choice of activity to reflect my belief that a certain amount of foundational knowledge is needed before meaningful insight can occur.

Perhaps, though, the most damaging consequence of shutting down the debate between progressive and traditional philosophies is that it runs the risk of missing out on the insights that can emerge from holding two opposing ideas in tension. This, to me, is very much the point of Martin Robinson’s brilliant book Trivium. The creative insight and energy that springs from the conflict between two ideologies can help us towards new levels of understanding and improve the quality of all our teaching. This should help teachers to be make much more informed decisions in their classrooms and leaders much more informed decisions across their schools. As hard as it can be sometimes to adjust to change, as this rather good recent post attests, I would much rather that teachers acted from a position of knowledge and insight, rather than relying on the implicit values prescribed by others, whatever side of the divide they fall.

Ignorance is not necessariliy bliss.

* In many respects this post is a little too late. James Theobald has already expressed what I wanted to say, and as you would probably expect from him, he has done so in a typically stylish and entertaining manner. At the risk of producing a poor man’s imitation, I have decided to post anyway.

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9 thoughts on “The Unexamined Life

  1. I think you’re spot on with how schools shape teachers thinking… I think that similarly to how Martin uses the analogy of the caves for students, our teachers can be in the same position. There are all sorts of reasons for this: motivation, inclination, circumstance etc. That’s why it’s our duty as school leaders to show them another way. Next year’s ITT course programme introduces all the stuff I wish I’d known from day 1 because I’m determined that the teachers who train with us our free-thinking, informed and do what’s best for the students in their professional judgement right from the start. Experience will teach them things we can’t but hopefully setting them off on the right paths will save a lot of effort further down the line!

    • I agree. That’s exactly what I’m doing with our ITT. You’re right – not a panecea, but will make trainees much more informed. I felt badly let down with my training. Thanks for commenting.

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  3. Such a well-argued post Phil. I think I look forward to the discussion going into new ground; it seems the same points keep being recycled & there is a lack of fresh perspective. That’s where an element of tedium with the discussion occurs. I’d find it of far more value to hear examples from those who teach from the different perspectives, justifying their lesson-planning, describing the activities & evaluating where they take it next as a result of student performance in their classroom. I know you and a few others do this – and would encourage it to be a more widespread ‘philosophy-into-practice’ evolution of the discussion.

    • Thanks for the comment, Andy. That’s a fair point you make and something I try and go sand will continue with in the future. I’m more interested in application, as you alluded to. Thanks for taking the trouble to comment. Happy new year. Phil.

  4. Thanks for this post Phil. (And cool snow effect! How do you do that?). I’ve recently commented on James’ post – and on this one from Danny Brown http://www.squeaktime.com/blog/for-me-traditional-teaching-is. Clearly the debate is alive and kicking. I’ve been guilty of calling it tedious in the past – mainly because it hasn’t moved or helped me teach better. However, with Martin’s help via Trivium, I can see now that I’m not resolving the tension between prog/trad philosophies in seeking to harness elements of both. I think that I’m more fundamentally a trad teacher and I increasingly see value in celebrating the value of direct knowledge transmission/instruction. I suspect that a lot of teachers are much more trad than they like to think. Where I’ve been comfortable with using/celebrating prog ‘strategies’, it’s been with students with strong prior knowledge, with genuine ability to direct their learning and to collaborate for mutual benefit. I still maintain that these experiences are valuable and exciting. The prog-trad pedagogy tree analogy I tried to build in a previous post was an attempt to capture the sequence. Learning through play/exploration is an early learning experience that is probably an important precursor to formal trad, structured learning, and later, with strong core learning embedded, it’s possible to return to that in different sophisticated ways. Anyway… sorry to go on. Thanks for this post.

    • Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a comment, Tom. I agree with you about the foundational importance of more traditional approaches, which can lead to more collaborative and autonomous learning later on. The trouble is that in the past the narrative has been to rush to these forms first, leading to superficial learning and lots of students with the foundational knowledge they need later on. I’ll check out your other comments, so thanks for the link. At some point, I would also greatly appreciate a closer look at your work with Martin, as I think it is an interesting and exciting approach. I would love to embed his trivium at the heart of our school’s curriculum offer. Anyway, thanks again for sharing your thoughts and happy new year!

      • Presumably ‘without the foundational knowledge’? Agree. I did all kinds if things at KEGS because they were possible – but at HGS only a subset of students would be ready for them. Worst teaching exp. of my career was administering SMILE maths; a prog horror of individualised learning. And thanks for the info re snow effect!

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