Progressively Getting Dumber

Grouped tables in classroom

It’s not often that Classically Educated pulls something out of the media to discuss – but this article in The Telegraph had us nodding in agreement

Essentially, The Telegraph’s article tells how countries which use text books to help structure learning of the sciences and mathematics are consistently outscoring British children in test scores.  It also describes how the progressive elements within  Ofsted, the UK agency charged with, among other things, evaluating teachers, have been setting standards that, wittingly or unwittingly, have been leading to the eradication of textbook teaching from British public (public, in this case being used in the global sense, as schools run by the government – not in the traditional British sense of non-home-schooling institutions) schools.

This isn’t as silly as it sounds.  Some of the basic tenets of progressive education include the push to have students be more creative, which means that having a less-structured and more participative approach in the classroom would, on the surface seem to be a good thing.  When one combines this with the value placed on non-traditional strengths such as emotional as opposed to “traditional” intelligence, the classroom becomes a much more free and inclusive environment.  In theory, it sounds like a winner.

Pink Floyd's Conveyor Belt

The origins of this attitude can be traced back nearly fifty years to the Plowden report*, which advised on the state of the British public school system, and is pointed to as the basis of modern British progressive education, and certainly raises many points that have been addressed effectively.

However, the report encouraged abandoning the old structured teaching method of a teacher standing in front of the class and imparting knowledge at a board, in favor of a much more participative model… which, in turn means that teachers have since been evaluated in this light, and textbook teaching has fallen way out of favor.

Like many ideas that sounded great on paper, however, this has become a huge mess, and British public schools have dropped out of the top tier in all the sciences, which isn’t surprising.  Structure is important in teaching certain subjects and, like it or not, maths and sciences are usually the subjects that make people easily employable and make nations powerful, and all the latest reports have been arguing that while the progressive model might be good for some things, it is very bad at teaching students.

Teachers begging for help

This, of course, makes us sound like a stereotypical old man (“Back in my day, children had to learn, daggamit!  And we knew Latin!  Not like today’s young ruffians!  Now get off my lawn!”), and it’s true that people have been complaining about the decline in education for the past two hundred years**.  But the fact that people are inviting children to essentially teach themselves science, and then are surprised when said children are embarrassed by youngsters from South Korea in all the tests is mind boggling.  It’s obvious that a more structured approach is going to yield better results.

Of course, this system, which was designed to help improve the education of children who couldn’t get access to private education is only harming the very people it set out to help.  Private schools are still using the best methods available, and are more agile in their ability to switch from one to another as new information comes along – which means that they are mostly exempt from these pitfalls (although not entirely).  I seriously doubt that Eton will be bowing to progressive thinking if they fint that their academic prestige is going down.  They’ll simply revise until they find a balance that works better than everyone else’s to retake their place at the top of the list.

Even Ofsted seems to be revising its position, albeit quietly (progressives can be surprisingly aggressive and activist when their sacred cows are challenged by the real world and, horror of horrors, actual data), but it might already be too late for an entire generation.

After all, learning that competition and structure are bad and knowing that everyone is intelligent in some way or another is not exactly conducive to getting a high-paying job in a globalized economy which includes highly motivated people from countries where they are taught to compete and hone their knowledge and “traditional” intelligence from a young age.  Under that model, countries who’ve surrendered to the progressive utopia seem destined to become the new third world, as countries who are working to get ahead – particularly countries in Asia – take the leading role.

Or they might not.  The west may actually react in time.  But either way, it should be interesting to watch.

* With an honorable mention to the members of Pink Floyd, of course.

**If you have any doubts about what our view is of this, just take another look at the title of this blog and think about it for a few minutes.  We’re sure you’ll figure it out!

Which Classics?

British Flag Flying

Today, we’re going to do something that we normally don’t, which is discuss current events, specifically, something going on in the UK, which has global implications (well, global except for the US), and which we believe also opens us to a wider discussion which can be 100% global.  I am referring to the recent decision to include more British-literature (as in literature created in Britain) on the GCSE examinations.  There has been a public outcry (details here) because, in essence, this will mean removing many 20th, century American books from the syllabus.

The global implications arise because the GCSE guidelines are the basis for most of the important international examinations for anyone who is studying English abroad (yes, there are American examinations, but in secondary education, at least, worldwide the British model still rules the roost).  Everything from IGCSEs on are based on this model.

So, do we agree with the critics?  Well yes and no*.

It seems pretty clear that the focus on British literature will leave out many, many worthy books, especially from the 20th century.  Without thinking too hard, The Great Gatsby comes immediately to mind as one of the best pieces of literature ever written in the English language – if I had to rank the 20th century, that one would be at the top of the list.  The Mosquito Coast was on there once, and it will probably get taken off.  Hemingway will also get ignored, which is just silly, and there are many, many more omissions which we are probably not thinking of, but are important.

Of mice and men

Where we disagree is on the books that are causing the outrage: Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  The central criticism from this front seems to be that the Literature portion of the GCSE is there to teach kids morality, humanism and how to be a better person.  That if we leave off books that improve us socially, we are doomed to… well, The Guardian isn’t particularly clear on that point, but we are doomed to something!

This is an admirable feeling, as far as it goes, but misguided.  You see, we feel that social studies is a perfectly good place for that kind of thing, and that Literature GCSEs should be about literature, not pushing agendas.  Both Mice and Mockingbird are strongly political books, which is fine, and both strongly humanist and leftist, which is also fine, especially in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a seriously moving book that everyone should read.

musty tomes

But, as literature, they are not the best of the best.  Yes the Steinbeck is more easily defensible in that regard that the Lee, but there are other, much better books and authors that could have been pointed at to justify the anger without being too obvious about the underlying agendas.  If you read the article to the end, there’s even a mention of the Diary of Anne Frank – a must for everyone, but as literature?  Nope.

Anyhow, the discussion is worth having, but there needs to be a little more focus on literary merit, and a little less on the politics behind the decision (and there are a LOT of politics in this, on both sides).  Should other cultures and voices be represented?  Yes, but only when the writing merits it – you have social studies to teach us how a modern human should think, whether you are defending Ayn Rand or Steinbeck!

All thoughts appreciated, especially well-argued disagreement (there are some grays here, convince us!)!

And, as always, don’t forget that you’ll never miss an update if you like our Facebook Page!


*Being called “Classically Educated” should have given you a hint that we weren’t exactly going to fall over ourselves agreeing with The Guardian