Same Coin, Two Sides: Why neither “progressive” nor “traditional” should be dirty words

The title of this post is taken (partially) from a post on Colin Welch’s blog – a post which this is intended as an at least partial response to. I don’t know how I started following Colin on Twitter – a retweet from somebody caught my eye – but I’m glad I am. We have engaged in a few very civilized… debates? disagreements? questioning sessions? on twitter that have really helped me clarify some aspects of my educational philosophy. I appreciate that.

I like Colin. I think I would like to be a student in his class. I bet I would learn some great stuff.

His post linked above is beautiful – seriously, go read it if you didn’t click it the first time. If you refuse, well: it is, in its essence, a defense of traditionalist teaching strategies – specifically teacher-centered content delivery and Socratic discussion – as a means to the ideals of a liberal arts education.

But inside that beautiful defense, he seems to be making assumptions that I know are not true of me, and that I do not think to be true of the vast majority of “progressive” educators who are moving to more active, student-centered classrooms – at least in mathematics and science, the subjects I know the best.

Colin starts by saying some things the progressive camp believes:

modern public schools are “factories” where young people are dehumanized and forced into categories that betray each young person’s unique character….A central villain is the lack of choice; each student is compelled to learn what other people are learning, regardless of whether he or she finds it interesting or relevant. And teachers reinforce factory discipline by lecturing from the front, demanding that students listen and regurgitate.

I personally do believe that many schools, public and private, are dehumanizing factories, but certainly not all of them or even most of them. I do think that No Child Left Behind and other similar accountability systems encourage the dehumanization of students, but most individual educators and schools do everything in their power to fight that. I suppose I do think that our obsession with breadth of content, especially when tested on overly shallow, memorization-focused standardized tests and exams, encourages a lecture-oriented content delivery classroom, but I’m not sure I would make the connection as strongly as he does. And I definitely don’t think lack of choice is a major villain in education – I agree with Colin that students needs to be exposed to a broad range of subjects and content that they might not choose on their own.

A little later in the post, Colin writes this

Unlike the progressive demand to teach what’s “relevant”, the liberal arts ideal asks, “If they’ve never tried it, how do they know they won’t like it?” I remember hating Technology 8 at the beginning of the year, but by the end I found woodworking and drafting to be wonderfully creative activities. My preconceptions would never have allowed me to find these passions without being “compelled”. In the early years of my Bachelor of Arts degree, I discovered a passion for political science and the philosophy of science; my preferred choice, history, became a secondary interest. And I was grateful that I took algebra right to Grade 12; otherwise, my university economics courses would have been much more difficult. (When I was a teenager, I was sure that math was irrelevant. I was wrong.) So, I am grateful for the need to take a wider range of courses beyond my initial preferences.

I DEFINITELY don’t demand that we teach what’s relevant. I teach Euclidean Geometry, for God’s sake, and wouldn’t give it up for ANYTHING. Everything else in this paragraph is very preach-to-the-choir for me. Make ’em try everything! Yeah! Also, he got to do woodworking and drafting in school? I so wish that was part of ANY curriculum these days.

Colin next argues that content is important and the basis of critical thought:

Content isn’t “factoids” or “information”, as the progressives like to (mis)characterize it; content is the very essence of what we use to think comparatively, critically and creatively. [Thus, if we have to look it up in Google, the thought has probably passed us by.] The distinction between skill and content, as I’ve argued before (here and here), is simply unsustainable.

First of all, I definitely think there is more to well-defined educational content than a series of isolated factoids, but moving on. If you follow those links, you get posts that demonize the phrase “don’t focus on content, focus on skills!” as meaningless or even malevolent. I have said this phrase, and I do not think I mean what he thinks I mean when I say it. Of course I don’t mean to teach skills in a vacuum. And I certainly don’t mean that every single fact should be ignored. What I mean is that we need to stop teaching content devoid of skills. Memorizing the first 95 elements of the period table, in order, is not really a useful skill. Hell, you only use about 20 of them with any regularity, and the giant table is on the wall. Do enough actual chemistry and you’ll memorize the important ones by accident. Memorizing every possible area formula for a test this week is ALSO not a useful skill. You will forget them. Everybody forgets them. I FORGET THEM. Figuring out, alone or in a group, where the area formula for a regular polygon comes from? That is useful. Of course you will also learn content doing that. And, in fact, you’re way less likely to forget it. Similarly, I don’t think a US History teacher needs to have students memorize all of the Presidents, in order, for a single quiz. This is content devoid of skill, and only knowing that Van Buren came after Jackson does me no good if I have no idea what either of them did. I think a much better idea would be ask students to research two different presidents from different centuries and compare and contrast them in a paper. Which, of course, most US history teachers do! I truly believe that almost all good teachers completely understand that the skill improves the content – where we run into issues is when we start thinking the content is more important than the skill, and we start to rush past the skill just to get to more content. I am guilty of this – the exam is three weeks away and we still have two chapters to cover! Memorize!!! – and the push to accelerate, accelerate, accelerate has pushed many of us so far in this direction that we’ve started to forget that the purpose of all of that content is to think about it. We start to think “but of course they need to know…” about almost everything, even inane things, and in the end they graduate having memorized all of the presidents but without ever thinking about them. So yes, we need to focus on the skills, not the content, because the skills bring content with them but content doesn’t necessarily bring skills.

And finally Colin gets to the crux of the matter with this paragraph:

Finally, the liberal arts ideal views the teacher as an active leader at the center of the class discussion. It’s probably close to the “sage from the stage” approach that the progressives so dislike.  Ideally, the teacher engages in a Socratic dialogue with his/her students. Through continual questioning and discussion, students learn to explain and understand their beliefs and knowledge, and potentially change their mind in the face of other points of view. It’s not a comfortable practice, to be honest. Nobody likes to hear ideas that contradict their own. But it does make young people engage in conversations that they might otherwise not participate in.

Yes! I agree!

Wait, I do?

Yes! Well, except for the “stage” part.

I have never met an educator, progressive or otherwise, that didn’t think the teacher was supposed to be the active leader at the center of the class discussion. Of course I am! That’s my whole job; to be an expert at the content and the skills who can help students acquire both and keep them on the right path to learn them. But leading doesn’t mean talking all the time; most leaders delegate. And a class discussion doesn’t need to be all 20 people in the room engaging at the same time – too easy for students to tune out, miss out, hide. I will admit, it often is for me – though a subscriber to progressive ideals, I’m still not always great at them. But even on my most progressive days, I am absolutely the active leader of my classroom. I provide the topic of conversation for the day (a series of math problems to investigate, generally). I provide the scaffolding necessary to make connections (some of it written, some of it through individual or small-group check-ins, some of it through brief whole-group discussions). I both provide the conflict and aid in finding the resolution. I lead the heck out of my class, and I make sure the students hear plenty of ideas that contradict their own. I just have them do it in smaller groups than my whole class. This, of course, necessitates that much of their discussion is with each other instead of me, but how does that change the basic idea? They are still doing all of the things that Colin loves – and, in fact, most of them are doing more of it than they would be in a whole-class discussion.

Why am I moving in a progressive direction, really?

I am working to reduce my lecturing because if I’m lecturing, I’m not trying to help a student think; I’m too busy. I am working to reduce my lecturing because I’m not a very good lecturer – and I think I’m probably in the top 10%. I am working to reduce my lecturing because if I’m working a problem, they’re not. I am working to reduce my focus on memorization because if they are doing area formula flash cards, they’re not trying to figure out what area means (how many square inches are in a square foot?). I am working to reduce my obsession with “covering the content” because how many special cases of similar triangles do they really need to have memorized, really?

But I am also not demonizing those who lecture well, who get success from their whole class from whole class discussions. If you can rock it, rock it! But – maybe try both? I stand on the progressive side of whatever conflict we have not because I believe it is the end all be all, or because my goals are different from Colin’s, but because I think it works better for me and for my students after having tried both ways.

But I don’t think a traditional teacher is doing anything wrong if they have the needs of their student at heart and are really looking out for them. If they have evaluated their methods and decided it works best for them, I trust that evaluation.

And I hope that I can avoid being demonized for going the other way. We are two sides of the same coin.

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