Traditional, Progressive or a Bit of Both?

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Three authors of books on education share their views on whether it is a good idea to combine the frequently warring philosophies of traditional vs. progressive education :


"A little of this and a little of that has an irresistible appeal to it; the apparent reasonableness of its proponents seems to contrast favorably with extremists who want only their own approach to prevail. But everything depends on what 'this' and 'that' turn out to be -- and on what our long-term goals are. If we want kids to be deep thinkers, then why blend an educational model that features deep thinking with one that's focused on memorizing a list of facts? If we want kids to be responsible people, why dilute an approach that consists of working with kids to solve problems collaboratively by combining it with an approach in which adults do things to kids to coerce them into compliance? In fact, diverse strands of evidence converge to support the proposition that traditional sorts of instruction and assessment actually undermine the beneficial effects of a more thoughtful, respectful approach to education when the two are combined."


"Imagine if we handed out driver's licenses on the basis of only paper-and-pencil tests -- no road test. How would I feel then about a driver's ed school that taught kids about driving without ever taking them out on the road? Not too good.

Imagine another driver's ed school that just spent the time on the road with novice drivers -- no prepping for the test. The first would have a far better pass rate on the test, but the latter would more likely have good drivers. What to do? Under such circumstances, I guess I'd be pleased if a new school arose that used a combination of teaching to the paper-and-pencil test and also taught its students to drive -- even if it wasn't tested. I'd be happy to see the former adding driving, and a little sad to see the latter waste time on the paper-and-pencil test. I'd regret that we didn't spend more of our money finding ways to simulate real road conditions so novices could experience stopping on icy roads instead of inventing ever longer, more "rigorous" and more frequent paper-and-pencil tests. But I'd understand, regretfully, the tendency to "compromise."


"When I taught sixth grade, my basic philosophy was traditionalist. And yet, the kids sat clustered in groups with desks facing each other to facilitate cooperative learning. I often assigned projects as culminating exercises rather than tests. Math lessons nearly always included extended discussions of why particular procedures worked, so that students gained a conceptual understanding of mathematics. Those approaches seemed to work well -- kids learned and were motivated -- so I was happy to use them. But the progressive-traditionalist argument is not simply about pedagogy. If it were, I think most teachers would do as I did . . . pick the best from column A and the best from column B, and we'd all live happily ever after. The real progressive-traditionalist fight is over outcomes. I selected instructional approaches that succeeded in teaching kids knowledge and skills -- real knowledge and skills, stuff that they knew at the end of each day that they didn't know upon arriving in the morning. If a technique didn't measure up -- even if it were traditional -- it was jettisoned. Here's the problem. Many progressive educators place too much value in the experience of learning itself -- believing that learning in groups, creative projects and discussion of concepts are intrinsically good. Unfortunately, whether these activities promote substantive knowledge is seen as irrelevant."

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