The Principles of Progressive Education for the 21st Century

I have lived with the idea of child-centred education for so long now that I tend to take many of its basic assumptions for granted. So I am inclined to forget that there are people out there, people in education, for who the ideas are new or unknown. So what would I want to pick out as the most important principles of progressive education for people today.

In this centenary year of the start of World War I, the war to end all wars, it is good to remember that WEF was established as an international body in the wake of that war in the hope that international cooperation would make such war impossible. We may have a rather more sanguine view of the “war to end all wars” today, sadly.

On the other hand, progressive education had an important and major impact on education throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Many people will have come across the ideas of Montessori and Steiner in operation in schools without even knowing where the ideas originated. In some ways progressive, child-centred education became part of mainstream schooling, with a high water mark in the 1960s, from where it seems to have been declining ever since.

So what would I want to say to somebody who was now examining progressive education for the first time? I think that it’s impossible to decide by sitting on my own and thinking it over; that will not tell me what is important to other people. So I want to get into conversation about education, to try and work out what it is that I think I know that is really worth sharing.

As a start I have been reading two books lately, or at least one book and one pamphlet. The book is Beyond Human Nature: How culture and experience shape our lives, by Jesse Prinz. I didn’t know Prinz’s work, and I happened across this book in a bookshop. As the title says, it is an examination of the nature-nurture debate.

I am particularly pleased to find that, because I have been told, as I am sure you have, that the nature-nurture debate is dead. Everybody now agrees that educational attainment is partly fixed by genetics and partly influenced by the environment. Prinz agrees with that (who wouldn’t) but he goes on to assert that it actually makes an important difference where we place the emphasis, and Prinz, like me, thinks the emphasis should be firmly on the nurture, on the influence of the environment.

So, I am enjoying reading a scholarly work that weaves together things that I have felt went together – a belief that the environment shapes our personalities, a lack of belief in innate ideas, a scepticism of reduction to biological explanations and a distrust of evolutionary psychology – and see how another person thinks that these themes are related, despite their obvious differences.

I am still in the early pages at the moment, but I offer this extract, which sets out Prinz’s view of interdisciplinarity as it finds expression in the field of cognitive science (page 2) : “Anthropologists rarely incorporate discoveries about the way the mind works in their research, and those who study mental processes rarely apply their techniques to members of different cultural groups. Linguists ignore the languages of other cultures because they erroneously assume that language has no influence on thought. Psychologists do all their experiments on university students and assume that they can extrapolate from this select group to all other minds around the globe. Neuroscientists rarely attempt to study brain activity in members of different cultures; they assume that all brains function int he same way, despite overwhelming evidence that much of the brain is not pre-wired.”

The pamphlet I have been reading is Prisoners of the Blob, by Toby Young ( The premise of this pamphlet is that there is no such thing as a transferable skill, and that education should be mainly about the inculcation of knowledge content (mainly by rote learning). The reason that none of us has noticed this is because the educational establishment has been overtaken by “The Blob”, a version of groupthink that covers more or less everybody from Rousseau to Sir Ken Robinson.

I would have thought that, like the nature-nurture debate, more or less everybody now believed that education is a combination of learning intellectual skills and learning facts or content; a person needs both. But like the nature-nurture debate, it does matter where one puts the emphasis. Teaching and learning is not a system of transmission, with the teacher set to “broadcast” and the pupils set to “receive”. Learning involves an active process through which the learner recreates the knowledge for himself or herself, imbues the content of learning with emotional attachment and values, and in a real sense creates his or her own understanding that is unique and personal. That is what separates progressive educators from the gradgrinds who undoubtedly did exist before the 1960s, and may still lurk in some backwaters of the education system.

“Higher-order thinking skills are what cognitive scientists call ‘domain specific’. That is, they can only be developed in a particular subject once a student has acquired a sufficient amount of knowledge about that subject. It follows that they can’t be transferred from one subject to another”, Young argues (page 19). There is a terrible warning here that when an expert in one area strays from his or her area of expertise, he or she is almost bound to be talking rubbish. By way of illustration, Young, a journalist, forays into education with an attempt to rehabilitate the work of Gradgrind as “one of the best ways to switch on a child’s brain”, and claims Pestalozzi as a defender of traditional educational values.

He pins most of his faith on cognitive science, a field in which he seems to have more faith, and less knowledge, than Prinz.


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