What can we learn in a progressive and traditional classroom?
Schools need to put more effort into evaluating what makes effective teaching. (Sutton Trust)
In my observations around school, observing and coaching colleagues, walking around the school site ‘on-duty’ and in conversations with teaching staff and students, here are some of my thoughts on ‘what observations can be made from progressive and traditional teaching?’ when leading whole-school teaching and learning.
Firstly, both teaching styles are evident in schools where I have worked.
These are some generic assumptions that can be made:
- The teacher leads from the front, whether at the start or end, or throughout the entire lesson.
- This includes the teacher using either a technical device and/or a text-book.
- Or, the teacher facilitates students in groups, or supports students with (for example) 1-2-1 coursework
- All lessons, no matter what style have a focal point and an end-goal.
- Teacher clarity/instruction is evident, but the quality of it matters more than anything, regardless of approach.
- Mastery of knowledge is paramount.
Rather obvious and unhelpful conclusions.
It would not be my place to say what model works best in any classroom other than my own. We all teach in a style that suits [the teacher and] the students. Where my responsibility lies as lead for teaching and learning, is to support all teachers to ‘teach as best they can’ in a focused and structured environment.
In this post, I share what observations I gather across a school and post several questions for the reader.
It is surprisingly difficult for anyone watching a teacher to judge how effectively students are learning. We all think we can do it, but the research evidence shows that we can’t. Anyone who wants to judge the quality of teaching needs to be very cautious.” (Professor Robert Coe)
However, it would be very interesting to consider some of the following for progressive and traditional styles of teaching?
- If a teaching style dominates, do these students achieve better results in a class than any other?
- If a more dominant style is observed, are these teachers new to the profession, or more experienced?
- How does a chosen style link to outcomes of performance appraisal?
- How is behaviour managed?
- Is reward or sanction more of a feature of any dominant style?
- Does the teaching style match the teacher’s own experience of schooling?
- Is a subject more likely to teach in the ‘traditional/progressive sense’?
- Does the classroom infrastructure have any influence? e.g. facilities, layout.
- Does the teaching style match the stereotype(s) of that subject and how it is typically delivered?
- Most of all, does it matter?
… teachers with a command of their subject, allied with high-quality instruction techniques such as effective questioning and assessment, are the most likely to impart the best learning to their pupils. (Sutton Trust)
I think we are a some way off knowing what teaching style works better than the other. In the meantime, we should keep focused on ensuring we support all of our teachers in their classrooms regardless of preferences, so that we can get the best out of our students.
A philosophical difference?
Steve Watson, Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge says:
“… progressive or traditional is a false dichotomy. It hides the real issue. It has become an expression of confusion and anger relating to the complex wider picture. And this is why I am reluctant to engage in it, because there is a much bigger fight to be had. That’s with the people who perpetuate the myth, policy makers pursuing ideological privatisation of our education system and with those who have vested interests and something to gain out of the current policy direction. It is time to see through the myth.” (Source)
I wrote this at the beginning of 2016:
It is my belief, that one [progressive or traditional] cannot exist without the other, and one is no more important than the other. (Source, no.8)
“There is a philosophical difference ensconced in the whole trad/prog debate which exists within individual teachers even if they are not aware of it. The debate can help to make individuals aware of their own biases, and might explain their or others reactions to things.”
Little research has been published and made available to school leaders to help move the debate forward. More importantly, improve teaching and learning. In the worst example, I was accused of shutting down the debate.
In conclusion, regardless of what we think works, or even what we currently (prefer or) know to be valid, I have decided to re-consider the research paper from the Sutton Trust – What makes great teaching? – and share the highlights here. It may serve as a reminder to all.
In the report, three key questions are asked:
- What makes great teaching?
- What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture great teaching?
- How could this promote better learning?
The highlights are below.
Great teaching is defined as that which leads to improved student progress.”
- (Pedagogical) content knowledge (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)
- Quality of instruction (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)
- Classroom climate (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)
- Classroom management (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)
- Teacher beliefs (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)
- Professional behaviours (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)
What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture great teaching?
Assessing teacher quality through multiple measures
- classroom observations by peers, principals or external evaluators
- ‘value-added’ models (assessing gains in student achievement)
- student ratings
- principal (or headteacher) judgement
- teacher self-reports
- analysis of classroom artefacts and teacher portfolios
How could this promote better learning?
A feedback loop for teachers’ learning, could be associated with and have a sizeable impact on student outcomes. The six principles of teacher feedback states that sustained professional learning is most likely to result when:
- the focus is kept clearly on improving student outcomes;
- feedback is related to clear, specific and challenging goals for the recipient;
- attention is on the learning rather than to the person or to comparisons with others;
- teachers are encouraged to be continual independent learners;
- feedback is mediated by a mentor in an environment of trust and support;
- an environment of professional learning and support is promoted by the school’s leadership.
You can read the full report here.
What I’d be interested to know, is ‘if a teaching style dominates, do these students achieve better results in that class than others?’ And, does it really matter?
Before I published this post, someone shared the following which is worth sharing:
“At a national level, I have become more aware that [progressive and (or versus) traditional] is not about debate or discussion: it’s about power and control. Key, political players forwarding a particular argument, sponsored by the … government and … think tanks. They have a strongly political agenda, but present themselves as the voice of teachers. I really object to their attempt to manipulate the views of teachers and particular schools. It is utterly selfish and irresponsible.”
As a school leader, what is important, is that our teachers – colleagues in mine and your school – can teach freely without political interference, with all schools offering a curriculum in which our students can learn without (external) bias and influence.
How we [teachers] teach in the classroom, doesn’t really matter to anyone else other than the child who is sitting in front of the teacher. It’s our teachers who hold the knowledge: they know what makes effective teaching more than anyone else.