- I have trawled through the century finding constant repetitions of these same beliefs about learning. I can’t see that I need to drag you through this echo chamber. What is slightly odd is that the constant re-echoes of these ideas tend to be presented as the novel, radical, insights of the echoers. [Kieran Egan, 2002, p. 49]
‘These same beliefs’ are the beliefs covered by the label of progressivism, many of them recognizably present in the Dutch Platform Education 2032 Advisory Report. Progressivism is an educational ideology, rooted in the 19th century, that proved to be immune to even the science of psychology of the end of the 19th century (William James, Edward L. Thorndike), let alone that of the beginning of the 21st century (John Anderson, Stellan Ohlsson, Michelene Chi, John Sweller, to name but a few). Everybody, even a Platform member, is free to choose ideology rather than science to guide one’s thinking. The Platform, however, should make it abundantly clear where it borrows its ideas from: science, or ideology. In the quest for scientific underpinnings of the Platform’s report, it is fitting to identify any claims that probably are rooted in progressivist ideology. This blog will do so only by quoting some examples that deserve critical attention, if only because the Platform refrains from indicating its sources.
The kernel of progressivism is the idea that all learning should come naturally, like the learning of one’s mother tongue. Mere exposure to the world, to relevant experiences, should suffice. Therefore the project method in progressivist education. Therefore also the bashing of everything rote or algorithmic in education. These ideas sound attractive, romantic also (sure, some of its roots lie with Jean Jacques Rousseau). Empirical psychology, however, shows these ideas to be huge mistakes (see also at the end of this blog the distinction between primary and secundary biological abilities). To get a feeling of the magnitude of the progressivist misconception, read the important book by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2016) on the lessons from decennia of research on expertise, in sports as well as in academia.
A clear example of progressivist ideology is to be found in this explicit statement, a key principle in the Platform’s advisory report:
- Based on its activities to date, the Platform identifies the defining features of the education of the future as follows.
1. Knowledge and skills based on creativity and curiosity
Education must cultivate and encourage students’ curiosity; their innate inquisitiveness. They learn to ask relevant questions and to develop strategies which will arrive at answers. By so doing, they will develop knowledge which will enable them to establish connections and form further insights. [Advisory report p. 21]
Progressivism has its main roots, not in works on education by John Dewey, but in that of Herbert Spencer, in his influence on education the ‘Sir Ken Robinson’ of the 19th century, writing about 1860. According to Herbert Spencer, in the words of Kieran Egan:
- . . . the teacher must be ever aware that the child’s instinctive tastes are the ultimate determiners of what is appropriate food for them; it is childrens’ questions, their interests, and their constructive, inquiring intelligence, that are the sole adequate engine of educational progress. [Egan p. 20]
The Platform does not indicate any specific sources for the claim quoted. No indication at all is given that this vision of education for the future probably is a copy of that of Herbert Spencer, a century and a half in the past.
What about that progressivism, why would progressivism be at all relevant to the Ducht debate on education sparked by this Platform report? Look, no hands!
- The answer Spencer proposed [to failures of schooling, b.w.] was to devise methods of instruction, learning environments, and a curriculum that did conform with the underlying laws of children’s learning and development. Once methods and curricula more hospitable to children’s natural modes of learning were in place, their desire for knowledge would be released, and a revolution in learning would occur.
The progressive movement in particular, but many others too, have been convinced of this idea, and in the twentieth century immense amounts of time, energy, ingenuity, and money were expended on trying to make learning in schools match children’s spontaneous learning in household, street, and field. The holy grail of progressivism—to let the metaphors run free—has been to discover methods of school instruction derived from and modeled on children’s effortless learning and so bring about the revolution promised by Spencer and by progressivists throughout the twentieth century. In spite of all this ingenuity, effort, and money, the revolution hasn’t shown much sign of occurring. [Egan blz. 38 (text ch 2, part 1)]
How to single out statements in the Platform report that reflect progressivist thinking? Being versed in John Dewey’s educational writings helps, of course. For the psychologist it is a piece of cake: the above qoute ‘Knowledge and skills based on creativity and curiosity’ is psychological gibberish, therefore it might be ideology. Because it is a key statement in the report, if it is not supported by science while it should be, it must be ideology. Does that ideology have a name? Yes, it is well documented, and it is called progressivism. Other names are used also, such as constructivism, situationism, and Stone’s developmentalism. Stone (1996) summarizes the progressivist take on education as follows.
- Developmentalism assumes that the developmental directions issuing from the child’s native tendencies and characteristics are optimal because they are a part of “nature.” Although their concepts of development differed, Rousseau, Dewey, Piaget, and all other developmentalists share this premise. For Rousseau, nature was God’s work untainted by human influence. In his view, the optimal developmental progression was simply the emergence of native tendencies and characteristics unfettered and unspoiled by society. By contrast, Dewey and Piaget considered the child’s tendencies and characteristics to be the product of Darwinian evolution. Native tendencies and characteristics were desirable because they had survived the process of natural selection. Unlike Rousseau, Dewey and Piaget held that the optimal progression depended not only on successful maturation but on a natural process of interaction wherein the native characteristics selected-for by evolution were enhanced by the naturally occurring experiences to which they were fitted (Kohlberg & Mayer, 1972). Thus originated Dewey’s emphasis on authentic educational experience. Evolution equipped humans to learn by solving problems, therefore learning in the context of problem solving was optimal. Although Rousseau’s development was more exclusively a matter of maturation, he too treated social and educational influences as having the ability to either facilitate and nurture, or to corrupt and misdirect the optimal progression to which nature was postulated to tend. [Interesting detail: Stone attributes to Dewey what Dewey took from Spencer, without acknowledging his intellectual debt: “(…) because the words contained in books can be rightly interpreted into ideas, only in proportion to the antecedent experience of things. Observe next, that this formal instruction, far too soon commenced, is carried on with but little reference to the laws of mental development. Intellectual progress is of necessity from the concrete to the abstract.” Spencer, 1860] ”
Of course, progressivism is a container concept. Not every progressivist position will exhibit all its elements or aspects. The advisory report of the Platform, even while staying away from pedagogy and concentrating mainly on curricular matters, furnishes many examples of progressivist thinking, never or almost never identified as such in the report. I should do a small inventory on them. Let’s look at the advisory report’s summary, and mark the phrases that might have been taken from the scriptures of Spencer or Dewey. (Remember, they’re philosophers; what they tell us does not rest on anything remotely resembling controlled psychological experiment.) If the Platform’s summary is not a progressivist program, I’ll eat my hat.
- This mandatory ‘core curriculum’ will be restricted in scope and content, whereupon schools and teachers will have more time and opportunity to address the individual needs, ambitions and personal talents of their students by means of a discretionary or ‘elective’ curriculum, to be designed at the local level. [“That up to the present time the weakest point in progressive schools is in the matter of selection and organization of intellectual subject-matter is, I think, inevitable under the circumstances. It is as inevitable as it is right and proper that they should break loose from the cut and dried material which formed the staple of the old education.” Dewey 1938]
- Students must also acquire the knowledge they need to understand the world around them and make a contribution. [key concept in situationism. “Spencer also argued for an increase in mathematics, focused on what students would need in their everyday lives.” Egan, p 122; ‘realistic math education’ (RME) avant la lettre]
- To ensure that students appreciate the significance and future relevance of their education . . . [“There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying. But the meaning of purposes and ends is not self-evident and self-explanatory. The more their educational importance is emphasized, the more important it is to understand what a purpose is; how it arises and how it functions in experience.” Dewey 1938]
- Students will acquire in-depth knowledge of selected topics within each domain.[The ‘project curriculum’ started off with research fraud by William Heard Kilpatrick’s student Ellsworth Collings]
- They will also learn to interconnect knowledge in different disciplines as they examine various social or societal issues from different perspectives.[“Almost everyone has had occasion to look back upon his school days and wonder what has become of the knowledge he was supposed to have amassed during his years of schooling, and why it is that the technical skills he acquired have to be learned over again in changed form in order to stand him in good stead. (… ) These questions cannot be disposed of by saying that the subjects were not actually learned for they were learned at least sufficiently to enable a pupil to pass examinations in them. One trouble is that the subject-matter in question was learned in isolation; it was put, as it were, in a water-tight compartment. (…) But it was segregated when it was acquired and hence is so disconnected from the rest of experience that it is not available under the actual conditions of life. It is contrary to the laws of experience that learning of this kind, no matter how thoroughly engrained at the time, should give genuine preparation.” Dewey 1938]
- schools must also instil [sic] the general ‘interdisciplinary’ skills which are required across the board: learning skills, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and cooperation.[“While the rule-taught youth is at sea when beyond his rules, the youth instructed in principles solves a new case as readily as an old one. Between a mind of rules and a mind of principles, there exists a difference such as that between a confused heap of materials, and the same materials organised into a complete whole, with all its parts bound together. Of which types this last has not only the advantage that its constituent parts are better retained, but the much greater advantage that it forms an efficient agent for inquiry, for independent thought, for discovery—ends for which the first is useless.” Spencer, 1860] [“ Examinations being once passed, books are laid aside; the greater part of what has been acquired, being unorganised, soon drops out of recollection; what remains is mostly inert–the art of applying knowledge not having been cultivated; and there is but little power either of accurate observation or independent thinking. To all which add, that while much of the information gained is of relatively small value, an immense mass of information of transcendent value is entirely passed over.” Spencer, 1860]
- challenging and relevant curriculum in keeping with the specific characteristics of their students[“There is a spreading opinion that the rise of an appetite for any kind of information implies that the unfolding mind has become fit to assimilate it, and needs it for purposes of growth; and that, on the other hand, the disgust felt towards such information is a sign either that it is prematurely presented, or that it is presented in an indigestible form. Hence the efforts to make early education amusing, and all education interesting.” Spencer, 1860]
- Dutch education consistently achieves high rankings in various international comparisons. Nevertheless, various social developments now compel us to reconsider what students should be expected to learn at school[An old song. This is the kind of politics that endangers those high rankings: Finland (Sahlberg blog), China (Yong Zhao 2014), Quebec (Haeck, Lefebvre & Merrigan 2011), The Netherlands (competence-directed education)].
- Current education policy and the resultant curriculum place a strong emphasis on cognitive performance.[“What avail is it to win pre scribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?” Dewey 1938]
I am really surprised to see so clear a line of progressivist thinking in the report’s summary. Shocked describes it better, I am afraid. The Platform will have some explaining to do: how is it possible that it has produced an advisory report sporting important characteristics of an educational ideology that has its back turned on science? Without even once mentioning the fact. On the contrary, the Platform claims priority of its educational ideology: “A new direction for education demands a new and modern approach to teacher education.” (p. 56) This position of the Platform is scientifically controversial, to say the least (see Chall, 2000), and the Platform should have informed the public of it.
A strong conviction with progressivists is that all learning should come as natural as learning one’s mother tongue. Everything that is not that natural, like phonics, or learning the tables, is suspect and had better be removed from the curriculum. And replaced with problem based, project, discovery or self-directed learning. Yet that conviction is mumble jumble, a fallacy, and where it is clad in scientific clothes it is pseudo-science. Experimental research shows it so, next to the psychological literature mentioned earlier see Stone 1996, Geary 1995 (on biologically primary and secondary abilities), Sweller & Tricot 2014 (on Geary’s work). Read this blog back, knowing that distinction between what is biologically primary and secondary, and the whole progressive program will be crystal clear to you. You will know that the progressive program can do great damage to education, and to equity.
references & additional literature
John Anderson (2007). How Can the Human Mind Occur in the Physical Universe? Oxford University Press. info
Jeanne S. Chall (2000). The Academic Achievement Challenge. What Really Works in the Classroom? The Guilford Press. info
- A book-length treatment of the effectiveness of traditional versus progressivist education; what educational research has to tell us.
Michelene T. H. Chi website. For example: (2013). Two kinds and four sub-types of misconcieved knowledge, ways to change it, and the learning outcomes. In S. Vosniadou: International handbook of research on conceptual change (2nd ed., pp. 49-70). pdf
Jack Crittenden & Peter Levine (2013). Civic education. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. webpage
Patrick Deneen (February 2, 2016). How a generation lost its common culture. essay
- John Dewey is a great philosopher and prolific writer. His political philosophy of education is also called progressivist; that surely is not the progressivism of Herbert Spencer, the social Darwinist. Dewey’s ideas on learning etcetera owe much to Spencer’s thinking, yet Dewey does not give Spencer his due. See Kieran Egan on the complex relationship between Spencerian and Deweyan educational ideas.
John Dewey (July 9, 1930). How Much Freedom in New Schools? New Republic, 204-206. here
John Dewey (1938). Experience and education. here
Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool (2016). Peak. Secrets from the new science of expertise. info
- Ericsson & Pool interviewed here
Kieran Egan (2002). Getting it wrong from the beginning. Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. Yale University Press. previews
- Kieran Egan (not dated). Getting it wrong from the beginning. The mismatch between school and children’s minds. paper
David C. Geary (1995). Reflections of evolution and culture in children’s cognition. Implications for mathematical development and instruction. American Psychologist, 50, 24-36. pdf
Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre & Philip Merrigan (2011). All students left behind: An ambitious provincial school reform in Canada, but poor math achievements from grade 2 to 10. Leuven: Center for Economic Studies discussion paper. pdf.
E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (2016). Why knowledge matters. Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press. isbn 9781612509525 prologue pdf
- The book was published only on September 20, 2016. I was surprised to read how Dewey’s progressivism is related to the emphasis on skills in progressivist writing. Yes, indeed, 21st century skills in the early years of the 20th century. Another big, big surprise: the ‘natural experiment’ in France, the sudden nation-wide replacement of traditional education (a common curriculum for all) with progressivist education, US-bred (individualistic, pupil-centered, skills-oriented, every school its own specific profile). The empirical data are in, here showing dramatic declines in achievement over a twenty year period. Declines for low SES students being much sharper than those for elite children.
William James (1890) The principles of psychology. archive.org
Adrianus de Kock, Peter Sleegers & Marinus J. M. Voeten (2004). New learning and the classification of learning environments in secondary education. Review of Educational Research, 74, 141-170. researchgate.net
- Dutch secondary education faces large-scale changes aimed at the creation of learning environments intended to stimulate new forms of learning, based on the idea that learning is a social-interactive, contextual, constructive, self-regulated, and reflective process (Simons, 2000). The stimulation of these new forms of learning can be seen as a demand of modern society, and they are propagated for a variety of reasons (Bolhuis, 2003). First, there is an economic argument: The capacity for self-directed learning is needed because knowledge creation has become very important in Dutch society, in which knowledge productivity is at the core of economic development. A second argument is that Dutch society is part of a global village in which there is continually a “confrontation with other truths” (p. 328); individuals are called upon to deal with such confrontations. A third argument stresses that the stimulation of self-directed learning supports the development of a democratic society, in which all citizens have equal possibilities to function well. And fourth, there is an important internal educational argument, which stresses that students in Dutch secondary education have to be better prepared to function in higher education, which requires the development of competencies for self-directed learning. These four arguments form the main motor for the large-scale educational changes that are faced by Dutch secondary education. [p. 141]
Lawrence Kohlberg & Rochelle Mayer (1972). Development as the aim of education. Harvard Educational Review, 42, 449- 496. pdf
Philip Lieberman (2016). The evolution of language and thought. Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 94. pdf
Stellan Ohlsson (2011). Deep Learning: How the Mind Overrides Experience. Cambridge University Press. info
- Follows up on Allen Newell’s (1990). Unified theories of cognition. info as a 3rd generation information based cognitive psychology. Especially on ‘non-monotonic learning’: problem solving, creativity, belief change.
D. C. Phillips & Harvey Siegel (2013). Philosophy of Education. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. webpage
Jean Piaget (1964). Development and learning. In R. E. Ripple & V. N. Rockcastle Readings on the development of children. (7-20). pdf
Platform Onderwijs 2032 Advisory Report
Robert Peal (2014). Progressively worse. The burden of bad ideas in British schools. Civitas. info
Robert-Jan Simons, Jos van der Linden & Tom Duffy (Eds.) (2000). New Learning. Springer. chapter previews
- Amazing list of contributors to this volume!
- The book you are now reading aims to bring together research and theory on “new learning, “which is the term used to refer to the new learning outcomes, new kinds of learning processes, and new instructional methods both wanted by society and currently stressed in psychological and educational theory.
Herbert Spencer (1960). Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects. Everyman’s Library. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects by Herbert Spencer. webpage
- What knowledge is of most worth? 1-44
Intellectual education, 45-83
Moral education 84-115
Physical education 116-152
Progress: Its law and cause 153-197
J. E. Stone (1996). Developmentalism: An Obscure but Pervasive Restriction on Educational Improvement. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 4, Number 8 April 21. free access
John Sweller (February 10, 2016). Story of a research program. Education Review webpage
Edward L. Thorndike (1903). Educational Psychology. webpage.
Yong Zhao (2014). Who’s afraid of the big bad dragon? Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world. info
blogs in the traditionalism – progressivism debate
It is helpful to see the controversy traditionalism – progressivism spelled out in social media or the blogosphere. These are the issues the Dutch Platform should have explicitly dealt with, but didn’t. Instead, the Platform’s advisory report presents examples of schools already implementing measures the Platform proposes: measures that are progressivist in character.
Greg Ashman (December 7, 2016). What does PISA tell us about inquiry learning in science? blog
- An ‘unexpected result’ of PISA 2015: inquiry learning correlates negatively with PISA results, in a rather spectacular way. In the cognitive psychology community such a result is not ‘unexpected’ at all, of course 😉
Greg Ashman (December 31, 2015). Can a false choice be an object of research? Filling the pail blog
Greg Ashman (January 2, 2016). I refute it thus. Filling the pail blog
Greg Ashman (Feb. 7, 2016). Six signs that you’re a progressive educator. Filling the pail blog
Paul W. Bennett (August 1, 2015). Flipping the System: Where Should Ground Up Education Reform Start? blog
- One of the studies unearthed by Ashman is an October 2011 research report, “All students fall behind,” providing a critical independent assessment of the Quebec Ministry of Education progressive reform, Project-Based Learning initiative from 2000 to 2009. The Reform was implemented top-down and right across the board in all grade levels with little or no input from classroom teachers. Comparing Quebec student performance in Mathematics from Grades 1 to 11, before and after the “constructivist” Reform initiative, Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre, and Philip Merrigan document a steady decline in scores, compromising that province’s status as the leader in Mathematics performance. “We find,” they concluded,” strong evidence of negative effects of the reform on the development of students’ mathematical abilities.” [quote]
Heather Fearn (December 18, 2016). Herbert Simon and evidence-based education. blog
Michael Fordham (2016). Guided bibliography for the traditional teacher. pdf
Barry Garelick (December 5, 2016). How attempts to force equity in math classes can protect kids from learning. blog
- I currently teach math at a middle school. I teach in the manner that I learned: a traditional form that has served many people well over the years. The traditional mode of teaching has been under fire for two to three decades as having “failed thousands of students.” Certain practices such as tracking students—particularly minorities—are considered part and parcel to traditional modes of teaching.
Tracking typically means placing students into classes at their ability level, rather than their grade or age level. This has come under criticism and is often derided for “reinforcing inequality.” While such practices are no longer implemented as they once were, they exist in other forms as unintended consequences of those who seek to protect students from the ravages of the much derided traditional modes of teaching.
Over the past several decades students have been so “protected” with the goal of eliminating the so-called “achievement gap.” The result is that the achievement gap is being eliminated by eliminating achievement.
- This quote is only the beginning of this informative blog. See also the numerous comments on it.
Horatio Speaks (January 1, 2016). blog
Jane Robbins (June 17, 2016). Seven Deadly Progressive Education Myths. blog
- Daisy Christodoulou wrote Seven Myths About Education after teaching for several years in a British secondary school (British schools, like American, are controlled by the Hive). As a teacher she wrestled daily with “astonishing evidence of the pupils’ low levels of basic skills and knowledge” and began researching why the dominant pedagogy wasn’t working.
Audrey Watters (December 19, 2016). Facebook’s Plans to “Personalize” Education. [blog series ‘Technology and the Ideology of Personalization’] blog
Joanna Williams (January, 2015). Teaching is about what you know. William Kitchen vs education’s child-centred, anti-knowledge orthodoxy. Spiked Review of Books blog
- ‘Platform Education 2032’ is a committee installed by Dutch education minister Sander Dekker. The Committee, chair Paul Schnabel, reported to the minister on the kind of curriculum that would prepare students well for the year 2032 (and further).
first series of blogs in reverse chronological order
- Hirsch: Waarom kennis ertoe doet [in Dutch]
- (21st century) skills: 1. roots and sources
- (21st century) skills: 1. roots and sources
- draagvlak voor 2032 [local issues, Dutch]
- discussie met staatssecrataris Dekker [local issue, Dutch]
- O2032 reform inspired by progressivism
- personal development / non-cognitive skills
- 21st century skills
- Platform O2032 over belang van kennis [Dutch]
- hoe is wetenschappelijke onderbouwing te peilen? [Dutch]
- Is het advies O2032 wetenschappeljk onderbouwd? [starter blog, Dutch]