H. Vernon Watson (1886–1952), was a popular English variety artist. He toured the music halls before World War I. However, he remained relatively obscure until the 1920s, when he became increasingly popular, despite his terrible routines, often misogynistic jokes and the fact he blacked up, taking to the stage with the name Nosmo King.
We had it all along. Smoke.
Until recently, I assumed Nosmo King was a relatively innocent (non-blacked up) character who my dad often referred to when we were on a fun-packed family holiday back in the mid eighties. A typical Wells reference to Nosmo King began with an hour long hunt around a drizzly Cornish tin mining town or a Welsh coal mining village for a pub which:
- Was willing to allow children in
- Served food for lunch
- Had a tiny area of about three tables with little plastic signs declaring it a “No Smoking” zone
“Oh look, it’s Nosmo King,” Dad would hilariously declare on spotting the signs. We would all reluctantly mumble a laugh, before ordering a round of crinkly cheese sandwiches with cress and blue Panda Pop garnish. This relief would be short lived, however, as the smoke mysteriously drifted across from the surrounding areas of the pub and Dad began the ritual complaining of the worst kind of anti-smoker: the ex-smoker.
Rockin’ the Suburbs
It would be difficult, these days, to find a pub that didn’t do at least two of the three things on that list. Numbers one and two now make fairly sound business sense, whilst number three could end up in a legal case. It would also be rare for a performer to take the decision to black up on stage or screen as the practice is widely held to be racist; it is mainly associated with derogatory portrayals of racial stereotypes.
Go ahead you can laugh all you want, but I’ve got my philosophy.
These two examples demonstrate that, as individuals, groups and societies, our attitudes and our resulting actions can change over time – we’d hope for the better, though quite often this is not the case. In this old post, I outlined how my philosophy relating to education has changed over the past few years; I am an ex-progressive. I thought that post would get things off my chest. However, I feel the need to speak out again as the yellowing smoke of those denying the need for debate has come creeping once more towards my now traditionally No Smoking zone of traditional education. It’s even making a muddled mess of my metaphors.
I’m missing the war (ba ba ba ba)
The first example of this occurred in a conversation on Twitter in which a headteacher claimed that the teachers in their school weren’t interested in the debate. This headteacher went on to say that they wouldn’t be wasting their time trying to explain the debate to their teachers as taking an interest in the debate might encourage teachers to take sides and prevent them from being reflective and open minded.
Fighting the battle of who could care less
The second, similar point of view came from the #Nobestwayoverall thread on Twitter. The argument is that there is no single way of teaching that has been proven to be the best methodology in all contexts. In this line of argument, traditionalism is a set of teaching strategies which can sit alongside any other. It is a pragmatic view as it means teachers should be free to select the best way of teaching for their context.
I don’t want to take on this view in its entirety here, but rather focus on a more specific claim from the same thread – that acceptance of the #nobestwayoverall viewpoint would end the ‘trad’ and ‘everyone else’ Twitter war for good.
I don’t get many things right the first time. In fact, I am told that a lot.
The issue I have with these two stances is that they seem to imply that the debate between traditionalists and progressives is primarily about the processes of education rather than its priorities. This is, perhaps, because many of the, admittedly very useful, books and blogs which have been written about the debate (some of which can be found at the end of this post) have set out the differences in a manner which pits the processes one by one, head to head.
If you switch this and focus on the differences in the priorities of the two ideologies rather than the processes, I think you can make more sense of the longevity of the debate. Apologies if any of the following seems caricatured. If you feel there are inaccuracies, then please let me know, but keep in mind that it is very difficult to capture the contrasts in two sets of beliefs that various people have defined in different ways over the years.
In essence, traditionalists see the purpose of education as being the passing on of a body of factual and procedural knowledge (a tradition). The priority is the tradition because retaining it and passing it on are seen as being beneficial to society and individual children now and, therefore, society and adults in the future. Authority lies with the tradition and the individuals and institutions who pass it on – teachers and schools. Children are expected to behave in a way which is respectful towards the tradition as well as these individuals and institutions.
The progressive school of thought pits itself against this sequence of priorities. It is harder to define as it is, I think, a broader “church.” The educational priority of progressives is the development of the child. For some this means the development of the child as an individual. For others it relates to the development of the child as a part of society. For most, it is about preparing children for their lives after school. As a result of the child coming first the curriculum and pedagogy are built around the children who are being taught. In many ways, this results in a symbiotic relationship between the curriculum and the pedagogy as the process being used to learn can be as important as, or more important than, the material or knowledge which is being manipulated in the process.
To examplify this (and again I risk caricature here) a progressive teacher might want their students to improve their critical thinking. They will spend time selecting materials to use, but likely more time on the methods they will use (the activity/ies) as it is the practice of critical thinking which they want the students to have and develop more than the retention of the content in the materials. Students will learn about the topic of the materials though this will be as a by product of them learning how to be critical thinkers. In contrast, a traditional teacher will carefully select the knowledge which they wish students to learn and retain. Becoming a critical thinker will likely be, in their minds, a by product of learning the knowledge – the more knowledge their students retain, the more critical they can be when they encounter others’ viewpoints relating to that topic in the future. Thus, progressives are not unconcerned with knowledge and traditionalists are not uncaring toward children. It is just that, in terms of education, their priorities are different.
From this dichotomous set of priorities and purposes stem a set of associated methodologies rather than the other way round.
Come pick me up. I’ve landed.
So, where does this leave us with the views highlighted earlier on.
In the case of #Nobestwayoverall it is difficult to see that the hashtag will bring an end to the debate as it is primarily about what “best” means rather than the ways we teach – though some people have tried to make it about this. If we can’t agree on a definition for the purposes and priorities of education, then the empirical evidence offered by science in its different forms, used by one side or the other, is not going to help us to agree as to the methods we should use.
In terms of the other line of argument, it seems to me that it is easier to achieve the purpose a leader has in mind for their school if that sense of purpose is shared as broadly as possible by the people who are working within the school. If the purpose is changeable or the priorities are debatable, then perhaps a pragmatic approach is required. Perhaps the fixedness of the curriculum and teaching methodology matters less in these circumstances, though I doubt it. If there is a clarity and steadfastness to the purpose, then a more fixed set of methods is likely to be shared too and, one would think, the purpose is more likely to be achieved.
It seems to me that a shared sense of purpose, curriculum and methodology is most likely the best way. But then I’m an ex-progressive: the worst kind of teacher.
- Why Progressivism Matters by Greg Ashman
- Denying the debate between progressive and traditional education (Part 1), (Part 2), (Part 3) and (Part 4) by Andrew Old
- Our knowledge is different to theirs by Progressive Teacher
- Traditionalists’ knowledge deficit by Progressive Teacher
- Why I continue to take part in and promote The Debate by Quirky Teacher
- The Problems with Traditional Education by Martin Robinson
- The Progressive-Traditional Pedagogy Tree by Tom Sherrington
- The Traditional and Progressive Philosophies of Education by the Campaign for Real Education