Educate Together and the march of progressive education

My son’s primary school recently had a visit from the Educate Together* group, best known for their primary schools but who now are beginning to move into the second level sector. The Educate Together movement is laudable, a welcome antidote to the domination of our school system by the Christian religions, mainly Catholicism.

Unfortunately, what Educate Together laid out for us in their visit was a charter for full-on ‘progressive’ education, complete with all of the usual ‘beliefs’  like group-work, active learning, collaboration, project-based learning, a supposed emphasis on higher order thinking, creativity etc. The only thing that was missing was ‘learning styles’.

To kick off, their documentation states that “learning takes place through active collaboration and cross-curricular projects. The emphasis is on higher order learning and thinking as we move away from the traditional rote learning model, concentrating on the process as much as on the content. In doing this we move away from subject-based learning and focus on metacognitive skills, problem-solving and the development of the whole person.”

This idea that you can teach skills (or ‘process’) by putting less emphasis on acquiring knowledge is an old one and it is an argument that has been completely demolished by numerous eminent educators and cognitive scientists. This well-known paper by Daniel Willingham is an excellent analysis of why the very concept of knowledge-independent skills is problematic to say the least. This article by Carl Hendrick makes the same points in a more reader-friendly way.

In their own words, Educate Together’s teaching will be “less about activity prescribed by the teacher during whole class instruction and more about activity determined by the learners themselves working in small groups.”

This is the old ‘relevance’ argument in which we should try to tap into the current interests of the students and (presumably) use those interests as a mechanism for developing all of those cognitive skills that we would like them to have. It strikes me that this is the perfect way to suppress curiosity because it encourages the students to focus on what they’re already interested in rather than expanding their minds by exposing them to new facts, ideas and phenomena which might well turn out to be their lifelong passion. This blog by Michael Fordham says it far more eloquently than I ever could.

Educate Together go on to say that “the teacher as a facilitator and mentor emerges and the students engage in peer learning and support [and] this learning is mediated through technology with the focus being on learning with technology rather than about it.” They go on to say that “within our learning spaces, teachers become guides and facilitators, learning alongside the student.”

This is the old ‘guide-on-the-side’ rather than ‘sage-on-the-stage’ argument and while it is an idea that has some validity at third level, the evidence for this approach at primary and secondary levels is not very good at all. In PISA** 2012, for example, it was shown, unequivocally, that students’ learning of mathematics is best when the teacher takes the lead. Student-led approaches like enquiry-based learning are inferior. Likewise it was shown in PISA 2015 that even students’ learning of science is best when the learning is teacher-led.

In the Educate Together school, there will be a large emphasis on technology and all students will have Microsoft Surface devices. No textbooks will be used. This is despite the fact that a 2015 PISA study showed that the use of technology in schools is problematic to put it mildly. Very often technology is used badly and there is no evidence that learning is improved. In fact the opposite is the case.

The Educate Together School will “enable a structured, project-based approach to learning”. Furthermore, “learning is approached in a cross-curricular fashion with links highlighted between different subjects.”

The project-based approach is essentially a form of enquiry-based learning and as PISA 2012 and 2015 have shown, it is likely to lead to less learning. As for the cross-curricular approach, all I can say is that having taught on a multidisciplinary program for many years, my conclusion is that even third-level students struggle when confronted by problems that require a multi- or inter-disciplinary approach. The problem is that by studying on a multidisciplinary programme, they can sometimes lack the critical mass of knowledge (and skills) in one or more disciplines, ultimately pursuing a career in their preferred discipline. (I’ve written about this in my  paper  Reflections on interdisciplinarity and teaching chemical engineering on an interdisciplinary degree programme in biotechnology.)

Finally, Educate Together say that throughout the year there will be “phenomenon-based learning weeks where we abandon the traditional timetable to focus on a phenomenon”.

The idea of phenomenon-based learning is currently being adopted in Finland and it tends to be presumed that because Finland is doing it, so should we. But the thing about Finland it this: its performance in PISA has been declining since 2006 and even if you harbour doubts about the value of PISA, that decline should be setting off alarm bells. My own experience convinces me that phenomenon-based learning will fail for the same reason that many progressive methods fail: students might engage enthusiastically (and engagement is not the same as learning) but they won’t learn very much because learning builds on prior learning and if students spend a large amount of time on active and enquiry learning, there will be a huge opportunity cost and they will lack the basic knowledge and skills to be able to solve discipline-based problems, never mind complex phenomenon-based ones.

Finally, one of the ideas that run through a lot of progressive thinking is the whole idea of working in groups. As someone who is essentially an introvert who likes to solve problems on my own, I find the idea that students should be corralled into groups because this will somehow make them learn better, completely abhorrent, and I suspect many people are like me. We are increasingly trying to impose an extrovert culture on a diverse population of children, many of whom are likely to work better on their own. We would be wise to heed the words of Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and the tech genius of the Jobs-Wozniak partnership:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”


*I don’t mean to pick a fight with Educate Together here – it’s more a case of picking a fight with a philosophy of education that I am convinced is fundamentally misguided and ultimately damaging to children.

** The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In 2015 over half a million students, representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries and economies, took the internationally agreed two-hour test. Students were assessed in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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