Tradition or snobbery? Part 1

Going away for a while (both literally and in the blogging and Twitter sense) has given me the chance to consider an element in the educational debate that I hadn’t thought about before.

When I returned, I found that I had a lot of catching up to do, particularly in reading posts by bloggers for whom I have a great respect – even if I don’t completely agree with them. As I read, I was struck by the background information some of the bloggers had provided, and how, it appeared to me, this had influenced their opinions. It is, I have to stress, very much a personal interpretation, and perhaps I may be completely incorrect, having jumped to the wrong conclusions. Either way, I haven’t asked any bloggers if this is the case, but I do welcome any thoughts on the matter.

One of the strongest polarizing debates is that of ‘Traditional’ vs ‘Progressive’ education. There are many interpretations of those words, so for the purpose of this blog, by ‘Traditional’, I mean a formal, structured ‘chalk and talk’ approach, focusing on knowledge; by ‘Progressive’, I mean group work and independent learning, focusing on skills.

Catching up on my reading, I noticed that a few bloggers who favour the traditional approach to teaching had been educated privately. Their own experience of education had followed the traditional model, one that many private schools continue to use. It also included an expectation of good behaviour, coupled with the knowledge that refusal to adhere to this would result in sanctions being imposed – and expulsion was not beyond possibility. For some, the first time they had entered a state school may have been when they started their teacher training.

Although the blogs focus on the realities of poor behaviour and bizarre interpretations of educational theory, these privately educated bloggers are still working in the state system. They haven’t decided that they can’t stand the pressures of teaching in a state school, before quickly transferring back to the independent sector. Instead, they persevere in sometimes, some very challenging circumstances. There are many questions that could be asked about this, including just why they do it when there are far less stressful options available, but looking beyond the obvious questions, I began to wonder if their belief in a particular educational approach had anything to do with their own experiences as a pupil. In many ways this would make sense, familiarity with a system can often go hand-in-hand with fondness for it.

But then, I thought some more, and decided that this probably wasn’t the (whole) answer.

I was once overheard by my headteacher correcting a primary pupil’s use of the word ‘can’. I had been asked the usual question “Can I go to the toilet?”, and I pointed out that ‘can’ means ‘am I able to?’, whereas ‘may’ means ‘am I allowed to?’ and this should have been the word the pupil used. I was asked to see the head in her office, whereupon I was on the receiving end of a lecture which included the words ‘elitist’, ‘posh’, ‘unnecessary’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘boring’ and ‘public school’. It concluded with the statement “Our kids are normal ones, don’t try and make them do the same stuff or speak the same way as the posh kids – you won’t fit in here if you do.” This head had made it very clear in staff meetings that she thought private schooling was inherently bad and morally reprehensible. She dismissed any idea or proposed activity if it had even the slightest look of something that might occur in an independent school. The individual merits of anything were never considered; appearance was all.

Clearly, the majority of teachers working today must have attended a state school. The independent sector is far smaller than the state, it is therefore very unlikely that it has produced a large percentage of current teachers, and the number of those who were educated privately but now work in the state sector must be small indeed. And yet there are a considerable number of teachers who support a traditional teaching style – they can’t all have gone to private schools, can they? Even including Grammar Schools in the traditional camp, doesn’t account for this.

Unable to draw any real conclusions to satisfy myself, I started to look at the issue from the opposite direction. If supporters of traditional teaching models came from backgrounds where this had been the model for their own schooling, could those who advocate progressive teaching methods have experienced this at school? I am aware that this idea does not explain the rise in progressive teaching at the start of its popularity, but as it has been around for so long, the majority of teachers currently working would have been educated in this environment.

Of course, that doesn’t sit with my conclusion that a large number of teachers who support traditional methods would not have been educated in that style themselves. So clearly, there must be something else…



Part 2 tomorrow.


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2 Responses to Tradition or snobbery? Part 1

  1. I am a state school educated supporter of traditional education. However, I experienced a mix of teaching styles at school and, no doubt, this has influenced my opinion of what worked. Probably more of a connection between educational achievement and preferred style, than type of school.

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