The progressive bias in teacher training

A few weeks ago, I finished my first year of intensive teacher training and have since qualified. This blog aims to reflect on the past year, reviewing the progressive bias that I experienced whilst jumping through the hoops that would lead me to the world of QTS.

During my six week summer training, I was exposed to the “knowledge versus skills” debate in history education, which provoked much contestation among the trainees and tutors alike. However, I do not recall the words “progressive education” or “traditional education” used once and therefore I was left neglected and ignorant to this enthralling and topical side of my career. To say the least, this was a crying shame as this has been central to my first year of teaching and has guided much of my personal reading and research.

In reality, however, these two debates (progressive versus traditional and knowledge versus skills) are simply not the same and deserve equal treatment. The prior is about how we should teach, whether didactically (“chalk and talk”) or whether the teacher should take a more removed role in the classroom, facilitating knowledge in a collaborative learning environment. Rather, the latter is centred around what we should teaching and, perhaps more importantly, in what order.

Because most of the trainees and tutors favoured a cooperative style classroom that prioritised skills, there was not much information about effectively teaching substantive facts and building “finger-tip” knowledge as Christine Counsell would call it.

Indeed, we had some fantastic speakers such as Christine Counsell, Ian Dawson, Martin Spafford and Arthur Chapman (to name but a few); however, without having a deep understanding of the intellectual context within which these people were speaking, it was very hard (as a trainee) to effectively challenge their ideas about the best and most productive ways of teaching Secondary History. We were also taught extensively about teaching through enquiry – our two main essays were based around this – with little recognition of other ways.

This bias came to head during one of my lesson observations this year with a tutor of mine. I was quite firmly challenged during my feedback on a lesson that I thought went quite well because it didn’t align with the progressive ideology. For example, I didn’t use my interactive whiteboard, or any PPTs, I failed to include a colour-coded card-sort, because I didn’t overly differentiate, and because we simply read 800 words of History together and then students demonstrated their knowledge with answering the questions. Did all of my students engage? Arguably more than ever. Did my students understand the topic and reach the expected outcome? Absolutely.

Whilst this doesn’t sound particularly major, I have noticed that this bias has seeped its way into various annals of education. Luckily, I am in a school that is incredibly supportive of individual teacher autonomy. The main concern that I have with this is the effect on enthusiastic, clever and passionate trainee history teachers. I quickly felt inadequate, backward and wholly ineffective at teaching history because I was unable to explain the enormously complex causes of the Great War with role play and different hats, because I didn’t have the time to sit down and cut out a whole class worth of card-sorts or because I genuinely think reading and writing history is not only beautiful but much more valuable than a whole-class big human timeline.

Worryingly, I do not seem to be the only teacher who has experienced this:

This leads me nicely to the new “knowledge based” BPP teacher training programme. Quite like Robert Peal, I genuinely do believe that there is not only a space but a need in the teacher training market for an idea like this as it will fill the deepening “knowledge gap” that many teachers around the country aren’t satisfactorily exposed to in their training. I do hope, however, that a budding trainee in two or three years time doesn’t feel the need to blog about the traditionalist bias in their training either.