Christmas Selection Box – Traditional Fudge or Progressive Soft Centre?

Over Christmas, there was a selection box full of blog posts highlighted on Twitter which I wanted to respond to. I had schemes of learning to write and some other school work to take care of. Aside from this though, there was no way I wanted to be distracted from enjoying Christmas with my family. Hence, I read the blogs but focused on having festive fun.

Cadbury's Selection

However, it’s now the evening of the last Sunday of the Christmas holidays so I’m going to dip into the selection box and pull out a response to three posts, all of which invited one. I’ll come onto this Ross Mcgill post,  which some have seen as being a bit flakey, and these crunchy ripostes from James Theobald and Phil Stock, but I want to begin with Michael Tidd’s caramel smooth post about three teachers who inspired him.

In his post, Tidd describes a teacher who he emulates, a teacher who changed him and a teacher who made him want to teach. He suggests in his post that, “maybe others will be minded to do the same.” I’m not sure if it’s a bit tragic, but I find these kinds of ‘reflection on teachers who inspired you’ questions a real challenge. I’ve been asked to do similar activities on training and even at interview and, embarrassingly, I have to confess that I make it up. I don’t do this because I only had terrible teachers at school. In fact, in some ways it’s the opposite. There wasn’t one single blinding light figure who illuminated my childhood with their cult of personality or the wisdom of platitudes. Instead, along the way there were a number of teachers who taught me really well. There were also some really poor teachers.

So, when I’m asked about an inspiring teacher, what I do is amalgamate the various attributes which these consistently effective teachers possessed. They were all exceptionally knowledgeable, able to talk at length, with eloquence and enthusiasm about their subject; they explained complex issues, concepts and processes with clarity; they modeled excellent communication and provided me with opportunities outside of the classroom curriculum; they knew how to teach whole classes of students  to achieve at the highest levels; they didn’t only use text books, but killed the school Xerox by providing us with reams of photocopied chapters from academic journals and texts they asked tough questions and pushed their students to do so with their high expectations of work and behaviour. Theirs were the classrooms where I became more knowledgeable.


Which brings me onto a second and third confession by way of a curly wurly (sorry) return to the aforementioned blog post by Ross McGill. In this post, Ross lists eight teaching ideas to “bin” in 2016. The “idea” which Ross calls “the number one item I’d like to see the back of” is “Progressive vs Traditional.”  Ross argues, “In reality, teachers at the chalkface actually don’t care what it’s called, they just get on with teaching, using whatever methods suit them and their students. And because of their workload, most have little time to be concerned.” I know that these teachers exist, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think that there are also a lot of teachers who aren’t even aware of the dichotomy which Horatio Speaks defines here:

“The essentially romantic progressive philosophy aims to improve society by creating individuals who are caring, co-operative, empathetic, concerned with justice, open to new ideas, and tolerant. It seeks to do so by promoting autonomy, authenticity, co-operation and diversity in the classroom. Knowledge is secondary to attitudes – indeed, in recent years knowledge has become irrelevant to some educators. In this philosophy, society will be improved by making the classroom a microcosm of what we would like the world outside to become.

What is generally labeled traditional education in the current debate is not, fortunately, very traditional. If we look back at our educational past, there are practices that very few of us would want to see return: violent punishment, ignoring safeguarding, tolerance of absenteeism, poor co-operation with external agencies. But there are also traditions worth conserving, because they will benefit our students: community, discipline, work, and knowledge. In this philosophy, while attitudes are important, they are secondary to knowledge. Knowledge is prized because it not only carries forward the accumulated learning of previous generations, but because it also equips students to succeed in the world as it exists beyond the classroom.”

I strongly suspect this is the case because my second confession is that I shamefully managed to reach the level of Assistant Principal in a school without being able to define what progressive and traditional meant. “How can this happen?” you may ask. “What kind of incompetent fool is this?”

Well, My PGCE training year at Warwick was built, in large part, around National Strategies materials. We learnt about some other things, but essentially we learnt how to teach using other people’s materials and methods. During my NQT year and second year of teaching, the department I was a part of worked closely with National Strategy advisers and at the school I moved to, in order to become Head of English, we continued to use National Strategy consultants and support materials. In 2009, I stepped out of teaching to become Local Authority, National Strategies consultant for literacy in Swindon. When I got the job as consultant, it was as if my whole teaching career had led me to the unquestioning pedalling of other people’s materials.

National Strategies

In my consultancy work, I was guilty of advising others to use more group work, more discovery learning, less teacher talk, heavy scaffolding, short extracts of texts rather than full novels, plays or non-fiction texts, the monstrous behemoth of the Assessing Pupil Progress materials and hundreds of different objectives and progress grids. My one saving grace is that I never promoted brain gym. I’d go into other teachers’ classrooms to teach one off lessons to ‘demonstrate’ how to do this. In Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, the speaker mocks those with pretentions of grandeur and longevity whose power and influence fail to survive the battering of the winds of time. All that is left is a shattered visage, a pedestal and a colossal wreck. As a consultant, I was the equivalent of a slave to Ozymandias.

It wasn’t until the final year of my time as a consultant that I began to genuinely explore alternative approaches to curriculum design and delivery in the classroom. The voices I began to listen to on Twitter and in blogs and in books on education were like the traveler from an antique land, come to tell me that the past ideas I’d drawn upon were infinitely more fragile than I’d thought – far more susceptible to decay. What mattered was the teaching of knowledge.

At a similar time, I managed to get a job back in a school, with students like the three I’d like to tell you about now. Their experiences illuminate a lot of the thinking behind the journey which I and the school have been on over the past three years. We’ll call them Sam, Ellie and Will.


The first of these students, Ellie, made masses of progress during her two years in our sixth form. The transformation in the quality of her essay writing was a delight to observe. At the start of Year 12 she didn’t have a full grasp of what an essay was. She had been able to produce coursework across a range of subjects at GCSE level, but she had all manner of confused notions about literary terminology and wouldn’t have believed for one second that she’d be able to quote Shakespeare to you. Despite being pleased that Ellie came out of her closed book exam buzzing because she’d written twelve pages and carried out some excellent analysis of the quotations she’d committed to memory, I couldn’t help but think she’d have been even better off if she’d arrived at the start of Year 12 being able to do much of this already – having had an education which had exposed her to “the best that has been thought and known.”

Sam, like a number of our Year 11 students, had lived through some exceedingly tragic events at home – both before and during his GCSE years. Though I believe his subsequent low attendance impacted on his progress during Key Stage 3, Sam had also learnt a whole myriad of work avoidance strategies – he was the king of the oblique question. He’d find ways to disconnect from Ozymandias to ask about an episode of Breaking Bad or ice-hockey or your favourite biscuits. At various points in his education, he had been allowed to opt out. By allowing him to develop these strategies, we accepted that Sam was less likely to get a cluster of C grades in his envelope in the summer he completed his GCSEs. Sam did get his “five Cs”, but could have achieved B’s and A’s.

Will arrived in Year 7 having been fairly successful in his Year 6 SATS, though not as successful as some of his peers. However, he was driven and motivated. He was a vociferous reader of both fiction and non-fiction across a wide range of subject areas, he thought deeply without the need for much prompting and provoked thought in others. He left sixth form with a clutch of top grades. However, he had been denied a place at Cambridge, in part as a result of the more limited range of wider opportunities which he’d been offered or taken up which focused on his course choice.

In order to avoid students like Sam developing poor learning habits and students like Ellie arriving in Year 12 without the academic foundations to fly from the outset and to ensure students like Will have access to the best opportunity to secure places on top courses, we began to move increasingly towards a model of curriculum design, planning and teaching which are both principled and informed by our reading and research – informed, in part by the progressive vs traditional debate. We’d begun to read the work of Willingham. We’d started to implement what we’ve describe as a mastery curriculum, having been inspired by the work of Bruno Reddy and others at King Solomon Academy. We drew on the teaching model developed by Shaun Allison at Durrington High School in Sussex. We began to implement a number of the principles found in Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov.

My third confession therefore is that, in being ignorant, I betrayed all of those consistently effective teachers I mentioned earlier in whose classes I became more knowledgeable. Worse still, I now wonder whether, if I’d become aware of the debate sooner, I’d have taught differently sooner. Taught like I do now. Taught better.

What concerns me the most is that, if we “bin” what can be a repetitive argument about progressive and traditional education, then it will prevent others from going on this journey. Ending or binning the debate could limit horizons.