Martin Robinson’s excellent blog post https://martinrobborobinson.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/tradition-vs-progress-a-true-dichotomy/ challenges teachers to consider the philosophical and idealogical underpinning of their approaches to education. My response is to reflect on the tension that exists in my own beliefs. The title of this blog is stolen from the title of a 2013 New York Times. I could equally have used John Habgood’s book title “Confessions of a Conservative Liberal”
Robinson is right in asking us to acknowledge the dichotomy between tradition and progression in teaching. His inclusion of the wider context of politics is appropriate. Any consideration of change at a level beyond the private individual is political and draws lines between those in favour of the new and those who seek to protect the status quo. That idealogical divide between the conservative and progressive appears in every sphere of society. A religious worldview, just as much as a political movement, can be ripped apart by the defenders of the Faith fighting those seeking accommodation with the world. For society to function, open acknowledgement of difference is the key step before policy and action.
In teaching, to nail one’s identity too firmly to a specific label is to risk being seen to claim that there is one and only one way to meet all pupils’ needs. That is not to argue for a mix and match approach but for the need to acknowledge the importance of teachers seeking to hold notions of tradition and progress in creative balance. At a primary level, this need for self awareness in relation to conflicting approaches is more obvious because however strong the teacher’s subject knowledge, unless pedagogy is rooted in relationship, learning faces an overwhelming barrier. For me, it is not about a continuum or a pick and mix approach but a breadth of pedagogy and a depth of subject knowledge that ensures teaching is accurate, passionate and accessible by as many pupils as possible.
It would be wrong to downplay the importance of subject knowledge which lies at the heart of traditional approaches to education. Unless we know what we are teaching, we cannot teach children the subject specific knowledge, understanding and skills that contribute to human development. Being creative is important but has to be rooted in the discipline of knowledge. Subject knowledge also provides passion which can engage and motivate children.
Without the progressive emphasis on an empathy for the experience of the child, subject knowledge can remain an indecipherable code possessed by a teacher and irrelevant to the lives of the class. Intrinsic motivation is lost without relationship and classrooms become places of shallow learning reinforced by frequent testing and bright stickers.
Last year’s LSE report on improvements in London education credited, amongst a range of factors, sustained improvement in primary education being built on by the capital’s secondary schools. In many parts of the UK, the primary secondary divide is where the dichotomy between tradition and progress most obviously impacts on children’s lives. If London has improved transition by acknowledging the dichotomy and creating space for teachers to understand the place of traditional and progressive methods in both primary and secondary age phases, policy makers should take note.