Mix and match

Is it possible to mix and match traditional and progressive teaching philosophies? Some schools are doing it, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. A longer school day helps provide time for both. But some true believers think it’s impossible. On the progressive side, “deep thinking” is contrasted with “memorizing lists of facts.” The other side speaks of “rich content.”

In the sidebar quoting education authors Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier and Tom Loveless, I was impressed by Loveless of the Brookings Institution, who mixed and matched as a sixth-grade teacher.

But the progressive-traditionalist argument is not simply about pedagogy. If it were, I think most teachers would do as I did . . . pick the best from column A and the best from column B, and we’d all live happily ever after. The real progressive-traditionalist fight is over outcomes. I selected instructional approaches that succeeded in teaching kids knowledge and skills — real knowledge and skills, stuff that they knew at the end of each day that they didn’t know upon arriving in the morning. If a technique didn’t measure up — even if it were traditional — it was jettisoned. Here’s the problem. Many progressive educators place too much value in the experience of learning itself — believing that learning in groups, creative projects and discussion of concepts are intrinsically good. Unfortunately, whether these activities promote substantive knowledge is seen as irrelevant.”

At Downtown College Prep, the subject of my book, the founders started out with progressive ideas but paid attention to what teaching strategies were achieving the goal of preparing students for college success. Like the YES charter that Mathews writes about, DCP had to teach basic skills and knowledge in order for students to have something to think deeply about.

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  1. Your last clause says it all–and is the biggest fault I find with so-called progressive pedagogy.

  2. “why blend an educational model that features deep thinking with one that’s focused on memorizing a list of facts?” asked Alfie Kohn…because if you don’t know any facts, you don’t have anything to think *about*. The idea that “progressive” educators know how to teach thinking skills which are independent of any content domain–kind of like a computer program which hasn’t yet been given any data–is unjustified. See my post thinking and memorizing for more on this subject.

  3. Sounds like nothing more then extending the “blended” reading approach to the practice of teaching in its entirety, i.e. phony reasonableness in preference to total capitulation.

    I guess it must be getting increasingly tough to sell the progressivist teaching recipe.

  4. Anthony says:

    Several of my friends who are in college now complain bitterly about group projects, because there’s usually one or two people doing the work for the whole group, and the rest are riding on their coat-tails. The usual excuse is that group assignments are “like the real world”, though my friends who have worked in the real world say that they’re nothing like that – school assignments are not coordinated the way real-world group work assignemnts are.

  5. Indigo Warrior says:

    Each child has different needs; and the artificial barrier between “traditional” and “progressive” (just like the one between the political left and right) is not there to help children, or anyone else for that matter. Good parents and good teachers pick the most suitable elements with no heed to which bin they came from.

  6. SuperSub says:

    Anyone who blindly teaches without considering the results should not be a teacher, no matter how much they say that one method or the other is better. Teachers need to respond to student feedback… if the students aren’t properly responding, something needs to change.

  7. JuggleBoy says:

    One solution to the “one group member doing all the work” is to include student evaluations in the grading scheme… If your partner thinks you didn’t do your fair share, then you get a lower grade…

  8. Andy Freeman says:

    > If your partner thinks you didn’t do your fair share, then you get a lower grade…

    That’s my nominee for worst idea of the month.

  9. Ah, but there is a difference, and not an artificial one, between progressive and traditional education. Progressive education is aimed at the adults who make the buying decision not the kids who have to suffer the choice.

    That’s why progressive education is always couched in terms that are attractive to the decision-makers by elevating them above such mundane considerations as teaching kids to read or add. The decision-maker who chooses an exciting, cutting-edge educational concept is obviously insightful, compassionate, sensitive to the latest incomprehensible – to those willing to admit their lack of comprehension – education development.

    Traditional education, by contrast, allows for precious little in the way of opportunities to use hip catch-phrases. It’s drearily the same, year in, year out. The kids learn to read, the kids learn to add, the kids learn the difference between a continent and a cantaloupe. Dull as dishwater and without any opportunity to participate in exciting, new developments. Who needs it?

  10. Allen…really good point. There are people in all professions, of course, who want to do whatever is hip at the moment rather than whatever adds actual value…in sofware, for instance, there are always people who care more about getting experience using the latest, coolest tool (for resume purposes and general cool factor) than about doing what their employer needs done…but in most organizaions, there are enough counterforces to keep this phenomenon from running totally out of control. In public school education, the counterforces don’t seem to exist.

  11. “The usual excuse is that group assignments are “like the real world”, though my friends who have worked in the real world say that they’re nothing like that – school assignments are not coordinated the way real-world group work assignemnts are.”

    Absolutely correct. Most successful real-world group projects have a designated group leader, who has both the responsibility to deliver results to his superiors and some form of effective authority over the rest of the group. School group projects are nothing like that.

  12. Indigo Warrior says:


    I think you misunderstand. “Progressive” and “traditional” are simply labels stuck on related concepts bundled together. Of course there is a difference between the two! It may well be that progessive education is marketed towards adults, especially the older ones who might have been dissatisfied with boredom and regimentation. And there’s the factor that some people are more guided by “hip” and “cool” rather than effective.

    And progressive education may indeed work better for smart, mature, self-directed little tykes; while traditional works best for those of normal intelligence or less. The problem is that the adults who decide for the kids are not always the best judges. Sometimes they think that plopping a slower kid into a more enriched but unsuitable environment will magically boost his brainpower. (Or vice versa, put a smarter kid in a dumber environment to make him conform.)

    There are also certain eductional practices that are difficult to place in these two categories. Homeschooling, for example, is it progressive or traditional?

    My real point was that both P and T camps are package deals allowing little freedom to choose elements from the outside. Not everyone is a clone. The T camp is more knowledge-based and personalistic, but strongly regimented. The P camp is mired in leftoid politics, tribalism, and fads at the expense of content.

  13. Indigo Warrior says:

    Just slightly off topic, I will point out the state of education in much of the pre-modern world (esp. pre-Reformation Europe). Teachers were experts in the subject area rather than experts in “education”. Both class size and school size were microscopic by modern standards. Student-teacher rations were 1:1 or close. There was no formal curriculum, drill, or rote; teachers personalized all instruction to the student. (Later, the Church put pressure on teachers to remove the Socratic and holistic methods in favor of rote instruction.) Examinations were by the audition method.

    Some of this was good, some bad, but it was all geared for the rich, and impractical for the modern world anyway. The question is, would pre-modern education be considered “traditional” or “progressive”, and why?

  14. I’ve got a different take on the two.

    What we’re referring too as “traditional” is simply education with the goal of educating high among its priorities. Progressive education places education lower on the list of priorities in favor of the cultivation of the conceit of its supporters and those who are being wooed to buy into progressive education.

    That’s why supporters of progressive education are so fierce in their defense. You’re not questioning the efficacy of an educational policy, you’re questioning the motivations of its proponents. It certainly isn’t because of the efficacy of the approach; I’ve yet to hear of some edu-fad claimed to be progressive which has resulted in excellent educational outcomes. They inevitably result in the need for remediation or a better class of student or parent or more time or more money but there’s never anything to criticize in [insert progressive education policy of choice here]. When they become sufficiently discreditted, like Douglas MacArthur’s “old soldier” they don’t die, they just fade away.

    The shortcoming of traditional education is that it mirrors the most common characteristic of any government program: inflexibility.

    Every government program is based, somewhere, on a piece of enabling legislation. Whatever programs spring from that legislation are limited by the legislation. There are inevitably some things you can’t do that you should and other things that you should but can’t. Being ponderous, the legislative process doesn’t do well when faced with the need to make adjustments. Where that bears on public education is the considerable difficulty the public education system has in dealing with any kid other then Mr. and Miss Average.

    Since you can’t take into account all possible contingencies, legislation has to concentrate on the obvious and the majority. Put simply, if you’re at either end of any of a number of bell curves, you’re probably screwed and neither approach, traditional or progressive, is going to unscrew you.