Take your pick of above quotes (or choose both) and you have the kernel of the story of progressive reformers actively trying to alter traditional teaching and school practices over the past century.
Well, at least part of the story since binary choices, the either/or dichotomy of success or failure omit the creation of hybrids, mixes of progressive and traditional classroom practices that have occurred over the past century in the U.S. and internationally.
Parts 1 and 2 of this series describe many attempts of progressive reformers to get rid of the “grammar of schooling” or reduce its effects on teaching and learning. These efforts, at best, have created hybrids (see here and here) and,at worst, have signally failed (see here and here).
Part 3 looks beyond the U.S. experience to see what has occurred internationally since the ideas of John Dewey and his acolytes about teaching and learning have entered many nations outside of North America.
In Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame (Springer, 2011), Australian academic and consultant Gerard Guthrie has synthesized many research studies and evaluations on the influence of progressivism in developing nations and largely found few traces of these reforms altering traditional ways of teaching and learning. That is, “formalism” in teaching and learning–Guthrie’s phrase for teacher-centered instruction–remained intact after determined efforts were made in African, Asian, and Oceania nations to introduce progressive education. Guthrie focuses on the risks connected to the error-filled assumption–what he calls the “progressive education fallacy”–that inquiry-based classroom practices are necessary to promote academic learning among non-western school children. He also lays out the strengths of traditional and didactic teaching. He concludes that the primary reason for continuity in traditional ways of teaching and learning in these nations spanning continents is the abiding cultural context of these nations favorable to teacher-centered instruction.
In his study, Guthrie has chapters on the Confucian tradition in education in China and efforts to introduce progressive classroom practices in African nations such as Botswana, South Africa, Namibia,and Tanzania. The bulk of the evidence he provides (research studies and evaluations) to support his case of traditional teacher-centered instruction overcoming top-down mandates to shift classroom practices to student-centered ones is found in Papua New Guinea, where he has had extensive first-hand experience.
One excerpt illustrates Guthrie’s summary of studies on teachers in Papua New Guinea responding to progressive-driven reforms amply funded and mandated by ministry of education officials.
The teachers were not necessarily averse to change as such. Although they
ignored many of the precepts, some had developed their own contextually
appropriate approaches for promoting student learning. Often these reflected
cultural tradition in assuming that teachers should centrally control teaching and
learning, and were contrary to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new curriculum
Teachers expertly used a variety of strategies to transmit skills and
knowledge, including showing respect towards their students, an essential approach
in a shame-based society. Strategies also included speaking in short simple sentences,
providing examples relevant to students’ own experiences, providing concise
definitions, using visual aids, and scrutinising facial expressions for understanding.
[Researchers]found that non-implementation could be partly attributed to
the gap between the technical demands of the progressive curriculum and the
capacity of the teachers to meet those demands. Significantly, [one researcher] added, non-implementation could also be attributed to culturally embedded teacher resistance
to the facilitative roles expected in the classroom and to teachers’ scepticism about
constructivist learning theories.
In essence, these independent findings showed that the progressive ideas inherent in the new curriculum were little used, with improvements in teaching being predominantly within a formalistic rather than a progressive approach. The implication was that ‘policymakers should work with rather than against educational realities’….
One caveat about the evidence Guthrie provides. Classroom studies where researchers observe, interview, and document both stability and change in teaching practices are few and far between. The above excerpt, however, includes such direct classroom research.
Now what does any of this have to do with the “progressive arc’ of reform in U.S. schools that I laid out in Parts 1 and 2?
I see similarities and omissions.
First, the pattern that Guthrie found in developing nations of top-down curricular and instructional mandates to shift classroom practice from teacher-centered to student-centered has occurred in the U.S. on at least two occasions. Between the 1920s-1940s, and the 1960s-1970s, determined efforts to introduce new progressive curricula and teaching practices happened across the U.S. in big city, suburban, and rural schools. A few researchers using historical sources such as photos, teacher and student diaries, lesson plans, and journalist descriptions have documented the minimal changes that occurred across classrooms (see here and here).
Second, Guthrie documents the failure of progressive methods to transform traditional teaching practices and recommends that existing traditional practices be improved rather than dismantled.
Among U.S. reformer ranks this suggestion has been made many times, particularly since the 1960s when nearly 90 percent of all students attended public schools. Divisions do exist among reformers some of whom wish to dump the existing system and erect new ones. Most reformers, however, seek improvements in the present system including building the capacities of teachers and supporting their professional growth to carry out incremental changes in schools and classrooms.
Researcher Guthrie omits other possible explanations for “failure” of “progressive” reforms. His argument is clear: cultural context determines the fate of “progressive” reforms especially for those instructional policies out of sync with historical and cultural setting in which the reforms appear.
The first omission is flawed implementation of these top-down reforms. Researchers have pointed out (see here and here) the complexity of putting policies aimed at classroom instruction into practice. Moreover, that complexity often leads to some policies being inadequately and partially implemented. When that occurs the validity of the innovation or new program can not be assessed as worthwhile or worthless. Yes, in summarizing the studies and evaluations of other researchers, the idea of errors made in implementing the policy is mentioned, but the center of gravity in Guthrie’s argument rests on his claim that failed “progressive” reforms occurred because they were incompatible with the culture of the developing nation.
The second omission is instances of teachers creating mixes of old and new ideas and practices. Hybrids of traditional and “progressive” practices have happened among U.S. teachers over the past century (e.g., spread of small group activities in teacher-centered classrooms). At various places, Guthrie notes such occurrences but largely ignores the common practice of teachers throughout the world maintaining their dominant ways of teaching yet incrementally changing daily practices by incorporating ideas they believe will work with their students.
Guthrie’s study of the “arc of progressivism” and the strong influence of a “grammar of schooling” in developing nations gives the often parochial study of U.S reform-driven policies aimed at classroom practices a global perspective. And for Guthrie’s focus on the importance of context in shaping teachers’ responses to top-down mandates, classroom researchers owe him a thank you.