Progressive position. But why? An “English point of view”

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The school needs reform. But not this reform. It needs young teachers with ideas, idealism, energy, passion and ability to change and initiate change. At the moment maturity not youth is valued in the teaching profession. The older you are, the more secure you are and the more influence you have. But the new educational environment needs youthful qualities as only these can adapt to and initiate the fast changes needed. Bring in the young, and they would reform from the inside. The school also needs to open its doors to technology. It needs to help students become part of the knowledge revolution. Of course it needs experience and tradition. But the emphasis should be on youthful characteristics driving the school forwards into the future. These changes cost money. To bring in a new generation of teachers is expensive. To keep up with technology is expensive.

Presently the government reforms are market fundamentalism and attempts to save money. Market forces release self interest, not idealism. We need people working in the education system that want to create a better world, not thinking how to sell a course or climb a career ladder. Market forces will give the students and parents greater power. But there are better ways of doing this. Give the students a veto on decisions which, frankly, are sometimes based on old friendships and go against the interests of the students. Let the students have real power and influence. Consider their proposals seriously. Autonomy is good, but not to become a business unit. Competing with other business units. We’ve seen the limits to this philosophy in the financial market. Market forces are just not appropriate for the development of our young people. They need a real sense of community based on other values.

We need a cultural reform from the inside, driven by youth, which moves the school towards progressive ideas. But what is progressive teaching? I will now elaborate on this.

The first thing to say about progressive teaching is that it is not only acquisitive. It is also productive. Traditional teaching focused far too heavily on the acquisition of knowledge. This difference is demonstrated in the different approaches to teaching Philosophy. In England Philosophy is applied to solve problems. In Italy the emphasis is more on the history of Philosophy, where one learns more what other great Philosophers think and doesn’t develop the student’s capacity to apply a philosophical method to real problems. The danger with traditional teaching is that you build a theoretical world which is difficult to apply to a modern one. The modern world is always more complex and dynamic. Theoretical models are having a shorter life and competences are becoming more important than knowledge. This is why it is so important that the students have the competence to research and articulate a solution in a personalised way. The learning of theory is essential, as these are the fundamentals on which we base our modern lives, but a greater emphasis on competences and productive learning will deepen and connect the learning to a modern context.

The second difference is that progressive teaching is more personalised. Every student has the capacity to think in a totally personal way, to approach a task in a personal way, to have a personal opinion. Learning is a personal journey of discovery. But, also, the teaching strategy must be personalised to fit each student, who all have different weaknesses and strengths. This requires a student centred lesson, where the students have control of their learning and not the teacher. Teacher centred learning (frontal lessons) have their place. But in progressive teaching the teacher becomes more of a “facilitator” and gives up control. In a world where there are so many sources of knowledge and academic authority is so diffused, to be rigid and in total control of the learning process is not the way forward.

Another difference is the value put on the emotions. In progressive teaching the emotions are a powerful tool to be used. Humour, shock, pictures, films, experiences which make the adrenalin run can keep students learning on a deep level. They can turn on a switch which helps the students absorb knowledge. Sitting with a book, trying to concentrate can be useful. But, if you lose concentration too much, it’s less useful.

There is also an emphasis on motivation and self esteem in progressive teaching. These are the fundamentals to learning. They are normally the obstacles which set students on a path to failure. If the motivation and self belief of a world class athlete can be released, nothing is too difficult for any of the students who attend our school. The real potential of a student is achieved through releasing these, and not necessarily in any inherent ability in the student. In England we give special emphasis on protecting motivation and self esteem. Praise (and high marks) is distributed more liberally. Correcting every detail is avoided. Students are encouraged to expand and not fear mistakes. The fear of mistakes can inhibit creativity and block the student’s confidence. It’s always better to see what the students can do rather than point out what he can’t, or what he’s done wrong. For example, in English, mistakes often diminish over time with immersion and through using the language rather than through repetitive correction, which can inhibit communication. But, like I have said before, traditional teaching has its place here too.

Progressive teaching also emphasises self awareness of the individual’s learning. It tries to enable the student to participate in the development of the learning strategy. This may be in just asking the students for suggestions, or by getting the students to reflect on how they learn best.

Finally, the progressive methods emphasise group work. This is especially important in a modern world. No longer do we have a single inventor or genius like Einstein. Instead groups such as that which mapped our genes are driving developments. We live in a more connected world where we must work in groups, and where we can learn more horizontally from multiple sources rather than vertically, from a single source. In fact, in progressive teaching the relationship between teacher and student is more horizontal and less authoritative.

Over the years progressive has taken on a new meaning. With globalisation the introduction of cultural diversity into the classroom has become progressive. Our ability to be creative is partly our ability to step outside our cultural limits. But, also, living as a global community, economically and culturally, means we must break barriers in our education system. We must learn with different approaches and from different perspectives. This also means breaking barriers between subjects, so students approach a project from a geographical, historic, philosophical and economic point of view. Progressive has also taken on the meaning of the introduction of technology into the classroom. In fact, technological development has gone so fast the schools cannot adapt to these new tools, fast enough.

There is so much more to say about the direction of teaching. The modern world is changing so quickly in terms of knowledge and tools to communicate that knowledge. Obviously, teaching needs to change too. This does not mean that traditional methods have no use. It means that modern ideas must be incorporated into a strategy which is more adapted to the youth of today, within the reality of today.

Prof. Justin Demazia