In this essay, British education theorist Peter Newsam describes two contrasting approaches to education. The traditional approach assumes there is a predetermined body of knowledge that the teacher should pass on to the student. This approach uses testing and competition to evaluate and motivate students. In the progressive approach, the child, rather than a set body of knowledge, is the frame of reference. The teacher’s role is to be conscious of the development stage and the capacity of each child. The progressive method stresses cooperation rather than competition. Newsam suggests that an effective teaching system can incorporate elements of each approach.
Teaching and Learning
By Peter Newsam
The relationship between teaching and learning, what and how teachers teach, and how and what learners learn has long been a subject of controversy. The two, sometimes extreme, positions adopted by those who engage in it can be loosely described as, on the one hand, “traditional” and, on the other, “progressive.”
The traditional position starts from the assumption, taken to be so obvious as not to be open to question, that the purpose of teaching is to ensure that those taught acquire a prescribed body of knowledge and set of values. Both knowledge and values are taken to reflect a society’s selection of what it most wants to transmit to its future citizens and requires its future workforce to be able to do.
An important characteristic of this traditional view is that it seeks to convey what is already known and, at some level, approved. The relationship between teacher and learner is determined thereby. The learner is seen as the person who does not yet have the required knowledge or values and the teacher as the person who has both and whose function it is to convey them to the learner.
From the nature of this relationship, a number of things follow: the systematic transmission of knowledge and values from teacher to learner needs to proceed smoothly. That requires well-behaved learners and a disciplined environment, if necessary externally imposed with sanctions for failures in compliance. Teaching and learning also benefit from carefully designed syllabuses and prescribed curriculum content. Furthermore, as what has to be learned can be set out in full, stage by stage, from the start of the educational process to its conclusion, it follows that what is taught can be regularly tested and that each stage of teaching and learning can best be seen as a preparation for the next. It also follows that, as individual learners learn at different speeds and are capable of reaching different levels of achievement, it seems sensible to arrange learners in groups of similar abilities, either at different schools or in graduated classes within schools. Finally, so far as human motivation is concerned, competition is seen to be the predominant way to encourage learners or institutions to strive to improve their performance in relation to that of others.
The opposed view, broadly described as “progressive” or “child-centered,” starts from the learner rather than from any predetermined body of knowledge. On this view, the function of the teacher, from parent in the earliest years right through the years of school attendance, is to be aware of each child’s capacity and stage of development. The primary importance of children’s learning, which in turn is taken to depend on that stage of development, requires each of those stages to be seen as important in its own right rather than as a preparation for some later stage. An eight-year-old child, for example, is seen as an eight year old to be developed to his or her full potential as an eight year old, rather than as a future nine or fifteen year old. The curriculum itself tends to be seen, in the words of the Report of the Consultative Committee on the Primary School as open-ended and inquiry-based: “the curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored.”
So far as values are concerned, the progressive approach tends to see attempts to teach or improve these directly as less effective than creating schools which exemplify values of greatest relevance to the young. Hence the importance placed on the way individuals, adults and learners alike, are encouraged to behave towards each other. A disciplined environment, rather than being externally imposed, is a direct consequence of that process. Social values, cooperation rather than competition and equal value given to the efforts of the least as well as the most able, are emphasized. Finally, as a point of principle, it is assumed all can succeed at some level in some aspects of learning. As one 19th-century educator insisted: “All can walk part of the way with genius.” Sharply differentiated forms of education, with children attending schools or classes confined to those with particular levels of aptitude, however assessed, are thought to conflict with this principle. By inducing a sense of failure in children allocated to what are seen, by others and themselves, as schools or classes with lower standards than others, general levels of achievement are thought to be depressed and an unmotivated and under-achieving group of children unnecessarily created.
The opposed concepts implicit in “traditional” and “progressive” attitudes to teaching and learning reflect approaches regarded by those holding one or other of them as self-evident: that it must be right to start from what needs to be taught or, conversely, that it must be right to start from the learner whose success in learning it is the purpose of teaching to ensure.
The virtual impossibility of reconciling these two diverse approaches, at least in their extreme forms, has led to each being caricatured, often in metaphorical terms. Traditional education’s perception of children, in an extreme form, was described by Charles Dickens in Hard Times as seeing them as: “little vessels arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.” In short, like a kettle that has to be filled from a tap, the traditional learner is taken to be a passive recipient of whatever is being taught. Further, because the traditional approach to education requires a degree of memorization, the ability to recall with precision what has been taught in the terms in which it has to be reproduced by the learner, this feature is disparagingly described as “learning by rote.” The implication is that the learner’s mind has not been required to be engaged in the process. Finally, the assumption that, to the traditionalist, knowledge is something that already exists, causes this approach to be seen as backward-looking at a time when new knowledge is being created and reshaped at a bewildering rate.
Criticisms of progressive education, particularly in its extreme forms, have concentrated on the folly, as this is perceived, of allowing children to decide when and how they are to learn anything. Lack of externally imposed discipline has led to some schools where, as one inspector of schools described it, “it is like a wet play-time all day.” The emphasis on growth and development, with analogies to the way plants move naturally through their lives without constantly being told what to become, has been particularly criticized. The simple notion of growth carries with it no implication as to the direction that growth is taking. Growth, progressives are thought to ignore, may as easily be in an unwholesome direction as a healthy one. This leads to values being seen to be relative, with no one set of values inherently to be preferred to any others. Yet what ought to be, values of any kind, cannot be derived from what is; and it is a naturalistic fallacy to suppose otherwise. Finally, because the teacher is not seen as at the center of the educational process, he or she is reduced to becoming a “facilitator” of children’s learning; in extreme cases unprepared even to answer simple questions or directly to teach anything at all, on the assumption that the only things a learner really learns are those things which he or she has “discovered for himself.”
Between the two extreme positions, reconciliation has proved difficult. Historically, the traditional approach has been dominant and continues to be held particularly firmly by those who themselves were able, well-motivated learners and as such required little more of their teachers than specific instruction. Progressive approaches have tended to be favored by teachers or theoreticians whose concern has been with the education of all children, including the able and the well-motivated but with particular attention to the needs of those with little interest in or apparent aptitude for learning and little confidence in its relevance to their own lives.
In practice, neither of the two extreme approaches to teaching and learning has proved generally satisfactory. In its starkest form, traditional education has often served able pupils well but has been less successful with others. On the other hand, progressive education has tended to work well enough in the early years of schooling, in the hands of able and committed teachers, but has had less success when attempted in other circumstances.
The need to develop systems which incorporate the best of traditional and progressive approaches to teaching and learning has long been evident. Fortunately, what good schools and good teachers actually do has suggested ways forward. Increasingly, the approach adopted places the teacher in authority, as traditionally has been the position, but the absolute necessity of engaging learners in their own learning, as progressive educators have argued, is seen as equally important. Teaching, on this view, requires skillful questioning of pupils by the teacher, rather than undue reliance on direct instruction. The purpose of that questioning is to encourage the minds of the learners to understand, to arrange, and to act on the material with which they are required to engage. In this sense, learning is active; indeed it is interactive, with the teacher responsible for ensuring the direction that this learning takes but with the learner consistently being challenged to shape it to his or her needs. Education of this kind has increasingly become a feature of effective schools and school systems worldwide. In the process, the long-standing conflict between traditional and progressive approaches to teaching and learning, with the time-consuming controversies to which this gives rise, has a real prospect of being resolved.
About the author: Sir Peter Newsam is an educationalist and former director of the Institute of Education, University of London.
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