Traditional Is the New Progressive

Paul A. Kirschner

I just read Robert Peal‘s book Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools. In the book he describes the rise of progressive education[1] in the UK and its effects on educational quality, student performance and student behaviour. All I can say is that since the introduction of ‘progressive education’ in the 1960s, the UK hasn’t improved on any of these three fronts.

When it comes to progressive education, it’s usually John Dewey’s school and his books from 1899 (The School and Society) and 1902 (The Child and the Curriculum) that are cited (along with the likes of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Fröebel). Peal describes Dewey’s child-centred view of the learning process:

In these, he outlined a broadly child-centred view of ‘the learning process’. He claimed that a child’s learning ‘must be assimilated, not as items of information, but as organic parts of his present needs and aims’, and opposed the didactic teacher[2], adding: ‘In the last analysis, all the educator can do is modify stimuli.’ His experimental schools aimed to teach literacy and numeracy indirectly, through engaging young pupils in activities such as cookery or carpentry. Later in life, Dewey renounced many of these earlier beliefs in Education and Experience (1938), and admitted that he had underestimated the need for direct teacher instruction

Peal goes on to quote William Bagley, a professor of education at Columbia University Teachers College, who in a 1934 lecture beautifully described the emotional appeal of progressivism:

If you wish to be applauded at an educational convention, vociferate sentimental platitudes about the sacred rights of the child, specifying particularly his right to happiness gained though freedom. You are likely to get an extra ‘hand’ if you shed a few verbal tears over the cruelty of examinations and homework, while if with eloquent condemnation you deftly bring into every other sentence one of the favourite stereotypes of abuse, such as Latin, mathematics (geometry, especially), grammar, the traditional curriculum, compartmentalization, “chunks of the subject matter” to be memorised, discipline, formal discipline, and the like, you may be fairly certain of an ovation.

Peal then describes – in detail – how progressivism became increasingly firmly anchored from 1960 onwards in education policy, schools, teachers, teacher training courses, education trade unions, politics (and legislation), the educational science faculties of the universities, and it even became a part of the education press (e.g., TES: Times Educational Supplement) in the UK[3].

In other words, progressive education slowly but surely becomes the norm with ‘new’ progressive education innovations stacked on top of older ones. And what was the result? A continuous deterioration in pupil performance (i.e., learning) accompanied by an increase in order problems in the classroom (with excesses such as verbal and physical violence between pupils and against teachers). Interestingly, teachers were blamed for these failures. It was the teacher who didn’t properly implement progressive education. It was the teacher who didn’t motivate the children properly. Another often used scapegoat was the environment because “what could you expect from children of low socioeconomic classes? [4]“. This last aspect is what Peal calls “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but spotting similarities between what has happened in the UK and what has happened in the Netherlands and other developed countries like the United States and Australia. In the Netherlands we’ve also seen a series of educational innovations since the second half of the last century, primarily based on a progressive, child-centred, knowledge-disavowal, anti-authoritarian line. These innovations can be found in:

  • teaching methods (e.g., realistic math, holistic reading);
  • curricula (aimed at acquiring social attitudes and vague 21st century skills instead of acquiring knowledge followed by skills);
  • role, function, and tasks of the teacher. The trend has moved from a teacher with deep knowledge and skills who teaches children to a guide, motivator, stimulator, facilitator, and so on;
  • teacher training courses and teacher training colleges where educational myths and philosophies are taught instead of research-informed strategies and techniques about how children learn and how education can be targeted; and finally
  • the transfer of power, tasks and money to what Peal calls ‘quangos’; organisations that perform public services or legal tasks, (partly) financed with public funds, but that don’t come (directly) under the government and enjoy a certain degree of independence. In the UK, examples are Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) or thew National College for School Leadership, in the Netherlands, think of SLO and Kennisnet.

Just like in the UK, the educational performance of pupils in the Netherlands has deteriorated as well. Mind you, the icing on the cake was the report last spring showing that about a quarter of 14-15 year olds in the Netherlands are functionally illiterate (e.g., cannot understand the subtitles on television screens and films, the written instructions for taking medicine, or the content of letters from the municipality or their school; low literate) and half of them have severe numeracy deficiencies. And no, this is not about children who were truant or dropped out prematurely, this is about children who have finished their school properly, as required by the laws governing compulsory education.

Again, like in the UK, in the Netherlands a lot of money was and is spent on constantly new educational reforms. The most recent example of this is multiple tens of millions of euros that has been spent on Onderwijs 2032 and (two initiatives meant to revise the curriculum to bring it more into the 21st century!), not to mention the enormous amount spent on a completely failed[5] revamping of secondary schools at the end of the previous / beginning of this century.

While reading all of this, I had an epiphany that if something like ‘progressive education’ took hold in the 1960s and thus has dominated educational thinking and doing for 60 years, then it’s time to actually call this phenomenon traditional.

So if progressive education is actually traditional now, then we can conclude that education that’s

  • first aimed at acquiring knowledge, after which that knowledge is used for the acquisition of skills and attitudes,
  • where teaching is based on scientific evidence-informed basis,
  • where teacher training courses and teacher training colleges are given the time to as teachers teach how children learn and which learning strategies can and should best be used for this,
  • where the teacher is a teacher again and not a guide,
  • where children from the ‘lesser’ backgrounds are challenged instead of tolerated, and so on…

… is actually very innovative and progressive.

Good traditional evidence-informed education is actually the new progressive!



Bagley, W. (1935). Is subject-matter obsolete? Educational Administration & Supervision, 21, 401-412.

Dewey, J. (1899). The School and Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1902). The child and the curriculum. (No.5). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. Toronto, Canada: Collier-MacMillan Canada Ltd.

Peal, R. (2014). Progressively worse: The burden of bad ideas in British schools. London, VK: Civitas. You can download it for free here!

[1] Progressive education is a pedagogical movement that began in the late nineteenth century; it has persisted in various forms to the present. The term progressive was engaged to distinguish this education from the traditional Euro-American curricula of the 19th century, which was rooted in classical preparation for the university and strongly differentiated by social class. By contrast, progressive education finds its roots in modern experience (Wikipedia).

[2] Just to be sure, for our global audience, in English ‘didactic teaching’ has a pejorative meaning in the sense that it purely means ‘one-directional lecture’ or ‘chalk and talk’.

[3] He also outlines how it was noticed that education was going downhill and that students’ behaviour could no longer be maintained. He describes how all the aforementioned forums attributed this trend to how the teachers were unable to motivate the children or whether more money had to be spent or that all failures had to be attributed to external influences such as the environment, the social economic status of the family, and so on.

[4] This is called the sociological view on education: Underachievement of students is an unfortunate but predictable / natural result of their socially determined life course. The idea that “if you are born for a dime, you will never become a quarter.” This reflects the belief that someone who is low on the social ladder will never rise; quite a pessimistic and defeatist view of what someone can do!

[5] There was a parliamentary investigation on how this ‘innovation’ went so completely wrong! On 13 February 2008 the investigating committee presented its final report on the three large-scale educational reforms in the nineteen nineties. The final report concluded, among other things, that the government had seriously neglected its core task of ensuring the quality of education. The government interfered with the didactics, sometimes even in the classroom, while at the same time leaving the realisation of the educational objectives to a large extent to others and neglecting to sufficiently monitor educational results.


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