A Critical Truce in the War between Traditionalists and Progressives

Harry Webb has launched A War of Words: “The war is between traditionalists and progressives and it is an old war.”

Yes, this is an old war, and what is most frustrating about this battle for me is that, once again, critical perspectives are left out entirely. So let me offer here a brief critical truce to this war between traditionalists and progressives.

First, Webb’s post highlights some of the essential problems with the war itself.

Since the mid-1900s, progressive educators and progressive pedagogy have been demonized (and usually misrepresented) as key sources of educational failures, but traditional practices have historically dominated and currently dominate what happens in real classrooms daily.

We have ample anecdotal (I have been in education for 31 years) and research-based evidence that even though, as Webb notes, colleges of education and education professors disproportionately claim to be progressive, that once teachers enter the classroom, they tend to shut the door and practice relatively traditional pedagogy—often teaching as they have been taught or defaulting to traditional practices since they are more efficient and more easily managed in the challenging environments of mixed-ability and overcrowded classrooms.

I invite everyone to read Alfie Kohn’s examination of this in Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find. Kohn offers not only a solid discussion of how rare progressive practices are, but also details how progressive practices are misrepresented along with what he considers to be genuine progressive pedagogy.

Another problem I have with this war, however, is that I am not a progressive and am not offering here an apology for progressivism.

I am noting that when I wear my history of education hat (I am the Council Historian for NCTE and wrote a biography for my doctoral work), I recognize a demonizing and marginalizing of progressives that is misleading. As a critical educator, I must add, I believe that progressives have failed and do fail in many ways similar to the failures I associate with traditional practices.

I will confess that it is likely we have failed progressivism, but that point is pretty academic.

Along with Kohn’s discussion of progressivism, I also invite you to examine what I believe is an accurate model of what progressivism is by exploring the work of Lou LaBrant, the focus of my educational biography. Her work disproves the stereotypes of progressives as “touchy-feely” educators who have no grounding in empirical evidence. LaBrant practiced classroom-based research and considered herself a scientific teacher throughout her career from 1906 to 1971. She also fiercely defended the progressivism of John Dewey (something, again, that almost no one represents accurately and then almost no one practices—even those education professors who claim to be progressives).

Another problem with the war is that once traditionalists have mischaracterized progressives in order to attack those mischaracterizations and progressives have mischaracterized the traditionalists in order to attack those mischaracterizations, little value comes from the war, and as is typical of wars, we have only collateral damage.

So let me pause on one comment from Webb: “Yet, their argument is weak and not supported by evidence,” he claims about progressives.

I must call a foul here. Education has a century of research, a research base that has been ignored by policymakers and often discredited by those with narrow definitions of what counts a research (action research by teachers doesn’t count, they say, effectively silencing teachers and indirectly the voices of women in their own profession). Thus when Webb proclaims, “There is an imbalance of power here,” there is an unintended irony since that imbalance is exactly what I am highlighting.

Just as one example, Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde have offered for many years an examination of just what the body of evidence shows regarding effective pedagogy. This work calls into question two claims by Webb: first, it shows there is a robust research base, and second, the practices that are likely most effective are fairly characterized as progressive (the sorts of practices that reflect an accurate use of the term).

However, what is most important to note about Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde’s work is that what we know about best practice includes that no pedagogy is rejected and no pedagogy is demanded; in other words, best practice is implementing the instructional practices that best meet the needs of the students and match the learning goals.

For example, the evidence on teaching writing since at least the 1930s and 1940s has shown that isolated grammar instruction does not transfer to original student compositions; in the mid-1990s, George Hillocks showed that isolated grammar instruction actually inhibits writing quality. So the most effective way to teach students to write, including the most effective way for students to learn standard grammar, is through actual writing—something most people would call a progressive perspective.

However, that same research base shows that evidence-based (the evidence being found in actual writing samples from students) direct instruction (what many would call a traditional practice) is vital, and that some students (although a minority) can benefit from targeted isolated grammar instruction.

In other words, the research base emphasizes both the effectiveness of pedagogy most would call progressive, but it certainly doesn’t discount that ultimately what works best is what each student needs. As Webb noted, lecturing can be highly effective, and it can be abysmal—but that has more to do with its delivery and appropriateness than to some default judgment on the practice itself.

When traditionalists say that all students must learn standard English, they likely have a point, but their goal often falls apart when they insist on instructional practices that the evidence has shown are ineffective. “I shall prove my pedagogy is king!” is a shallow thing against seeking ways to teach each student effectively and with  compassion and patience.

When progressives say that student must be engaged in authentic activities, they also have a point (although as Webb notes, and I agree, the jargon of education offers no proof that what is claimed is what is taking place), but that goal often falls apart when they fail to recognize that having students participating in a workshop demands a teacher who also provides a great deal of structure and manages purposeful direct instruction as student work reveals the need.

In my experience, traditionalists and progressives tend to become trapped in their pedagogy and fail to see their students or the evidence of their own ineffectiveness.

If you demand all children read The Scarlet Letter, lecture on it brilliantly for two weeks, prepare a detailed study guide, and then have a class score wonderfully on the test at the end of the unit, what have you gained if most of those students never actually read the book and the entire experience taught them to hate reading?

If you invite your students to participate in writing workshop, offer no structure, fail to provide expert feedback, have no process for students to revise and improve their essays, and then bundle a portfolio of all that work with a nice decorated folder cover, what have you gained if that workshop involved more time meandering and decorating, resulting in students writing no better at the end than the beginning? (See LaBrant’s brilliant critique of failed efforts at the project method in ELA classes, a sharp unmasking of failed progressive claims.)

So, where’s the truce? Because a reasonable person could read this so far and say that I have embedded in the discussion a sneaky endorsement of progressivism (do I associate more with progressives than traditionalists? Sure. But I find they fail just as often as traditionalists, and thus, my disappointment with progressives is much more intense).

Here’s my truce.

I bet that someone as thoughtful and purposeful as Harry Webb appears in his blogs is a stellar and effective teacher, despite our differences about pedagogy.

I have seen brilliant traditionalists teachers and lousy self-proclaimed progressives. More than anything, I have seen too many teachers bound to their practices, ignoring their students and the evidence of their ineffectiveness.

Thus, my truce is that the key (the olive branch?) to this war is whether or not a teacher has a critical lens.

Let me end with a couple invitations:

I have posted before a chart that I use to introduce students to the traditionalist v. progressive divide juxtaposed with the often ignored critical alternative; please see it here.

Also consider a longer post in which I explore this dynamic in detail, Education Done To, For, or With Students?

Maybe, as Webb suggests, there is no hope for ending this war, but I would prefer a different approach, one that requires that we all step away from our commitments (as Webb critiques well, our words, labels, and jargon), take an honest assessment of the impact our commitments have on students (because the only real things that matters are if students learn and that we never sacrifice their dignity and humanity in the process), and then begin again, determined to do better the next time.


4 thoughts on “A Critical Truce in the War between Traditionalists and Progressives”

  1. I have just been reading Clay Shirky on the end of the Golden Era of higher education, and coincidentally a review of Thomas Piketty’s new book Capitalism…They chart a lot of the same territory, essentially the rise and fall of the middle class in western civilization (?) during the 20th c. and the inexorable growth of corporate capitalism, which has been responsible for much of the damage to public and higher education.
    But, public education spawned vocational education in the 20th c. and thereby gave the work of the hands a second-order existence. The model for developing stamina and dexterity became athletics, not craft. There is a place in education (Montessori, Steiner, Ruskin) for learning WITH the hands; not setting aside the mind, but involving the body as well as the mind in the learning process.
    Your critical alternative looks a lot like Plato’s Republic to me, but I’m not a professional educator.

  2. Michael,
    I think countries can learn from Finland’s approach to vocational training. It is high-powered and not a dead-end when it comes to learning. The chances of being employed are higher than those of university graduates and the learning is a lot of learning by doing which is more relevant to kids than the usual academic stuff.

  3. Pingback: rnbn

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