Axl Rose and Progressive Education

Reading this article in Guardian about the worrying decline in the performance of the Scottish Education system, I couldn’t help but think about the words of that great philosopher, Axl Rose. Actually they’re not really his words – they’re from the movie Cool Hand Luke but he says them at the start of the song, Civil War, from the album Use Your Illusion II.

The famous words are the following: “Some men you just can’t reach”. And when it comes to education, I suspect we will never reach those who believe in progressive education, and ‘believe’ is the appropriate word. What is progressive education? Well, it’s a sort of mish-mash of a number of ideas but the following are some of beliefs of the progressive educator:

  • A tendency to claim that the progressive or constructivist approach is more ‘student-centred’ than more traditional, teacher-led education
  • A tendency to emphasise and assume the superiority of all forms of active learning especially methods than could be classified as inquiry-based or discovery-based
  • A tendency to characterise memorisation as little more than ‘rote learning’
  • A tendency to characterise teacher-led education as conforming to a 19th century ‘factory model’ that is unsuitable (in some unspecified way) for the 21st century
  • A tendency to believe that advances in digital technology have changed everything and that the consequence of these advance is to make the world much more complex, requiring new ways of thinking
  • A strong tendency to view education in very utilitarian terms as evidenced by the repeated use of phrases like “authentic real world problems” and “relevant to learners’ lives”
  • A strong preference for the word ‘learner’ rather than ‘student’ or ‘pupil’
  • A tendency to believe that ‘understanding’ is more important than an ability to ‘do’ and a tendency to see ‘understanding’ and ‘remembering’ as fundamentally different cognitive processes
  • A belief that the way we learn should mimic how we live and work in the ‘real world’ – a bit like saying that rugby teams should prepare only by playing 15-a-side, full-contact practice matches.
  • A tendency to equate ‘engaging’ with learning and a tendency to use the word ‘engage’ a lot
  • A tendency to believe that supposedly generic skills like problem-solving and creativity can be taught in one domain and that these ‘skills’ will automatically transfer to other domains
  • An almost obsessive belief that learning should be a collaborative process
  • A tendency to believe that teaching within the framework of well-defined disciplines is inferior to more interdisciplinary, topic-based forms of teaching – especially given the ‘complexities’ of the 21st

Ideas and beliefs like those listed above are proving very hard to shift despite the fact that both PISA 2012 (maths) and PISA 2015 (science) cast very serious doubts on them, and despite the fact that countries that have embraced these ideas (Scotland, some Canadian states, Australia) are going backwards in the PISA rankings. We should also mention the fact that here in Ireland, the Project Maths initiative is associated with a decline in basic mathematical skills in higher education (Treacy, Faulkner, Prendergast; Irish Educ. Studies, 35, 381-401, 2016.)

The usual counter-arguments from progressive educators (who, by the way, need not buy in to the full list of beliefs above) are the following: PISA and standardised tests generally are very limited in scope and there is more to education than tests, especially in the 21st century (that word again!); or it takes time to bed-in new ideas and we need to be patient; or teachers aren’t implementing these ‘new’ ideas  properly and need further training etc. etc.

It is interesting to watch someone like Andreas Schleicher, head of OECD Education, who is clearly a ‘progressive’, respond when his own research (PISA) doesn’t support the progressive philosophy. When PISA showed that use of computers in the classroom correlated negatively with computer literacy, or when PISA showed that inquiry based methods were inferior to teacher-led methods in both maths and science, his cognitive dissonance was palpable. Now he seems to be really digging in his heels and simply repeating the same old slogans as if his hands were placed tightly over his ears. (See this wonderful debate between Schleicher and Daisy Christodoulou and Nick Gibb*. There was also an Argentinian guy who didn’t say much.)

So, getting back to Axl Rose and his quote, I think we have a fundamental problem in that education is not really an academic discipline – yet. (Did I say that out loud?) It’s too riddled with deeply-held ideologies and beliefs and no matter how many graphs that people like me churn out, others will hold on tight to their beliefs and plough on regardless. Our thoughts about education are very much intertwined with our ideas about motivation, fairness, equity, child-rearing and compassion, and also very much influenced by our own personal experiences of education.

But it’s not hopeless and some real debate can be started when we elect politicians who have a good grasp of the issues, like Nick Gibb in the UK who whatever faults he might have in other areas, is at least aware of the tradition versus progressive debate. This is in contrast to Irish politicians who, despite the fact that so many of them are ex-teachers, seem to have a very unquestioning mindset when it comes to education policy.




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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