Progressive and Traditional Teaching

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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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.

What works?

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 was a very interesting comment left by @ChemistryPoet on this post:

“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:

  1. What makes great teaching?
  2. What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture great teaching?
  3. How could this promote better learning?

The highlights are below.

shutterstock_145327873 Kindergarten Preschool Classroom Interior school parents evening chairs

Image: Shutterstock

Great teaching is defined as that which leads to improved student progress.”

  1. (Pedagogical) content knowledge (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  2. Quality of instruction (Strong evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  3. Classroom climate (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  4. Classroom management (Moderate evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  5. Teacher beliefs (Some evidence of impact on student outcomes)
  6. 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

  1. classroom observations by peers, principals or external evaluators
  2. ‘value-added’ models (assessing gains in student achievement)
  3. student ratings
  4. principal (or headteacher) judgement
  5. teacher self-reports
  6. 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:

  1. the focus is kept clearly on improving student outcomes;
  2. feedback is related to clear, specific and challenging goals for the recipient;
  3. attention is on the learning rather than to the person or to comparisons with others;
  4. teachers are encouraged to be continual independent learners;
  5. feedback is mediated by a mentor in an environment of trust and support;
  6. an environment of professional learning and support is promoted by the school’s leadership.

You can read the full report here.

What next?

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.


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9 thoughts on “Progressive and Traditional Teaching

  1. I really liked this post. Hugely informative and enjoyable. I also agree that effective teaching is very difficult to quantify. I think the outcomes are hugely important but I also think in education the journey is often as important as the destination. So many times do we see students that leave school with good outcomes but regret some of the processes used to get them there. For me, effective teaching is about getting the outcomes by making the journey an event in itself. If the journey is enjoyable, the outcomes are often successful and also worth celebrating. From experience, its often here where the problem lies because making the journey enjoyable is more about connecting with the students in ways that get them not just buying into your subject, but buying into you as a teacher. A level of trust is established that allows the students to take risks, ask questions and feel comfortable making mistakes. All too often I’ve seen teachers strive so hard for a measurable outcome, that they’ve missed this part. The Sutton Trust paper makes some really good points about this and I just wonder how much of this “personal investment” side of things is emphasised in teacher training. I suspect not enough. Great post… thank you…

  2. I think we do know which method works best. If we pay attention to evidence then we do know. And the evidence hasn’t just come out of political think tanks either. Direct/explicit teacher-led is better than child-centred practices. As for it just being a matter between teacher & student, I disagree. I think parents have been shut out of this debate for far to long. Our voices need to be heard in the decision making process.

      1. @sarita: there is no conclusive proof that direct-explicit instruction works ‘best’. I could point you to chains of schools in the US (Expeditionary Learning for example) that achieve outstanding results (almost 100% of their students getting into university) through project-based learning. But they also teach in a variety of styles. But, even if we did have conclusive proof, we’d have to ask if the question was right in the first place. Is clearing the next hurdle (getting good primary/elementary results; getting national standardised test scores above average) the yardstick by which teaching methods should be judged? We are not just educating kids to become expert test-takers, and employers (and universities) are increasingly dissatisfied at the lack of ‘C’-skills that students who have been schooled to only pass tests are leaving with. So, the trad/prog debate is kind of futile in two respects: a) a good teacher uses the full spectrum of approaches in a desire to personalise learning; b) we can never agree on the best teaching approach, until we agree on universal outcome (and don’t hold your breath on that one!) This is why I train schools in Improvement Science methods, because improving schooling can only be driven by the teachers/leaders in that school, not some externally imposed exhortation.

        @Ross: the point you make about parents is really interesting. I’m currently in Canberra where tonight I’ll be running a workshop for parents – which I do regularly in Australia. I don’t do it in England because there’s no apparent demand. Why? Because school leaders (wrongly in my view) assume there’s no interest from parents in teaching approaches, philosophy of education, and the future of work. The level of engagement at these sessions gives a lie to that myth, and anyone could do the sessions I do – it’s simple: talk to parents about learning and they’ll become more interested in the learning and less on the end result. (Incidentally when I show them a video of direct explicit instruction their reaction is usually one of horror: “I don’t care if it achieves good test scores, I’m not having my kid being talked to as if she’s an automaton”!) You’re absolutely right, we need to involve parents in the business of learning – and they want to be involved. We just need the will.

      2. Thanks for comment. Many interesting point an. Notably re. parents. I’d be happy to share a blog on your behalf. I’m hoping to offer more blogs ‘for parents’ to help their child at school.

        Hope session goes well. Please feedback.

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