The Toddler and the Telescreen


In a previous life, I worked as a content developer for an international telephone network. It was my role to source and publish education content for the company’s mobile internet portal. My remit was to nurture an emerging market in mobile education services. In one of our promotional videos for our services, we showed a young toddler sat, gurgling, in front of a large plasma screen showing our education content.

At the time, as I watched the completed video, I remembered thinking ‘What if he toddles away from the plasma screen (like a younger and more openly rebellious Winston Smith rejecting his telescreen) before his ‘education’ has been completed?’ In that moment, the tension between the individual and society (and its implications for schooling) was all too apparent to me. In many ways, the video I was watching was a parody of popularized educational progressivism. It would have been even more so had the toddler actually toddled away.

On March 23rd, 2013, Michael Gove argued passionately and rhetorically, for his plans to reform the UK education system. His stated aim was to ‘give all children the tools they need – mastery of English, fluency in arithmetic, the ability to reason scientifically, a knowledge of these islands and their history – to take their place as confident, modern citizens’ (Gove, in The Daily Mail, 23rd March, 2013).  In many ways, his argument was an echo of previous, and often partially successful attempts by Conservative governments to return to the traditionalist ‘basics’ of education (for example, John Major’s call for ‘grammar, spelling, tables, and the old ways of teaching them.’ (quoted in Wintour, P. and Bates, S. in The Guardian, 9th October, 1993).

What marked a departure in Gove’s rhetoric, and stands him apart from his predecessors, was his willingness to single out academics and ‘a tiny minority of teachers’ as ‘Enemies of Promise’ (referencing the book of the same title by Cyril Connolly). He goes on to lump those who would block his desired reforms into ‘The Blob’ – a derogatory term to signify an ideologically-driven resistance to knowledge and standards-based curricula based on ‘Sixties ideologies’ (Gove, 2013).

The former head of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead was more direct in his criticism of progressivism as the source of perceived educational ills: ‘My single biggest doubt about Ofsted stems from the fact that some inspectors are unwilling or unable to jettison their progressive educational views’ (Woodhead, 2002).

Elsewhere, in support of Gove’s aims, Toby Young (in his 2014 book, Prisoners of the Blob) defines the characteristics of such ‘Enemies of Promise’ in explicit terms, frequently referring to progressive educational philosophy:

‘They all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important that subject knowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to interest children in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote learning’ and ‘regurgitating facts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating the teacher as an authority figure.’ (Young, 2014, p.2)

He draws upon recent developments in cognitive theory in order to refute the belief that higher-order thinking skills can be taught as distinct from knowledge and he derides progressivism as rooted in idealism, calling members of The Blob ‘evangelists for a quasi-religious cause, soldiers in a secular crusade that dates back to the Romantic Movement’ (Ibid., p.3).

How could such a term as ‘progressivism’ have come to acquire such a derogatory flavour? What are the implications for an education system operating amidst such fierce rhetorical cross-fire? If progress is not the way forward, then what is?

The demonization of progressivism, as characterized by the rhetoric employed by Gove and Young calls for an urgent demarcation of the various forms of progressive education theory and practice. In this blog, as well as seeking to define progressivism and its impacts upon curriculum and our understandings of child development, I will argue that both the mischaracterization (for political purposes) and the well-intentioned misapplication of aspects of progressive theory are highly damaging to an academic endeavour in which the very idea of progress is hard-wired into the processes of knowledge formulation and verification explicit within the peer-review process.

Definitions of key concepts


Egan (2003, p.16) defines curriculum as ‘the study of any and all educational phenomena.’ He traces the etymology of the term from its Latin origins, meaning “a running,” “a race,” or “a course,” (Ibid., p.10) through to the present day. He identifies a shift from its use as a term to refer to ‘the container – the period of study’ (Ibid., p.11) prior to the 19th century – in which it referred primarily to the duration of study – to its use as a term to refer to the methodology of study. Essentially, curriculum has moved from considerations of what to teach and for how long, to considerations of how to teach or, more pertinently, how students learn.

Both Egan (2003) and Michael Young (2013) identify a crisis in current curriculum theory, mirroring anxieties both about the validity of various forms of knowledge and the changing context into which such knowledge could be applied (both of which I will discuss in more detail later). Egan argues that focusing curriculum around technical aspects of educational methodology rather than specifying knowledge is an ‘abnegation of responsibility and opportunity’ (2003, p.14). Young argues for a ‘re-contextualization’ of curriculum (2013, p.109) in which curriculum is informed by the academic disciplines into which the students are expected to graduate. He draws a distinction between curriculum and pedagogy, arguing that curriculum is concerned with content and pedagogy is concerned with methodology. The crisis in our understanding of curriculum could, in part, be due to a confusion of the two terms, perhaps stemming from a reluctance to specify knowledge and a desire on the part of education policy makers to leverage curriculum in order to specify how children should be taught.

Anxieties related to methodology, prompting methodology’s encroachment into the domain of curriculum, are perhaps also bound up with the notion of the hidden curriculum: ‘those unstated norms, values, and beliefs transmitted to students through the underlying structure of schooling’ (Giroux, 1978, p.148). Could we be at greater pains to specify methodology because we want to break up the ‘structural properties’ (Ibid.) of the hidden curriculum?

In attempting to reclaim a space for knowledge in the curriculum, Moore (2000) identifies three views of curriculum which inform the extent to which we value knowledge:

  • The technical-functionalist, who subordinates the learner to the needs of the economy;
  • The positivist, who advocates a knowledge-based curriculum;
  • The progressive, who ‘sees education as a ‘drawing-out’ rather than a putting-in of knowledge’ (Moore, 2000, p.20).

He summarizes quite neatly the perceived dichotomy that pits the positivist against the progressive: ‘Whereas the positivists, essentially, want to get society out of knowledge, the progressives, fundamentally, want to get society out of the child’ (Ibid., p.20).

Traditionalism and Progressivism

In seeking to define and demarcate traditionalist and progressive education theory, Carr (1998) highlights the key issue in seeking to establish the superiority of one over the other. He states that, given the divergent aims held for education by and within both positions, ‘one faces the difficulty of identifying some commonly accepted educational standard by which one approach might be judged superior to the other’ (1998, p.48). A traditionalist might bemoan a child-centred school’s mediocre exam results (if evident); whereas a progressive might bemoan the draconian, chalk-and-talk habits of a traditionalist educational establishment. Key differences of opinion, in terms of academic outcomes and the lived reality of school life, are played out in education policy and practice, resulting in the ‘mixed economy of teaching styles’ (Ibid., p.49) that many teachers would find familiar in their daily practice.

I begin with this discussion of the relative merits of the two positions because they exist as conceptual dichotomies, but could be said not to exist in any pure form in practice – or at least exist only in fundamentalist caricature – such as Summerhill (Neill, 1960) on the progressive side or Michaela Academy (Birbalsingh, 2016) on the traditionalist side. However, even within the afore-mentioned institutions, often held up as straw men in order to pillory the opposing ideological position, the day-to-day teaching methods utilised may actually be derived from the pedagogical toolbox of the opposing position. As Carr states of A.S. Neill (the founder of Summerhill), ‘Neill’s teaching methods were found wanting on the grounds of their exclusively formal and didactic nature’ (1998, p.49).

Indeed, close reading of Montessori and Dewey (1897) will reveal quite nuanced and sophisticated views on characteristically traditionalist pedagogical approaches, such as direct instruction. Montessori, for example, argues for brevity and simplicity in communication with children: ‘the carefully chosen words must be the most simple it is possible to find, and must refer to the truth’ (1912, p.108). This is neither a debunking of direct instruction, nor does it undermine external knowledge. Indeed, on the troublesome concept of truth, both Steiner (1966) and Montessori are united in their positivism: the truth is out there, one only needs to take extreme care in how one measures out its dawning to the growing child.

That said, whilst such ‘mixed economies’ may operate within institutions of one predominating ideology or another, that does not prevent us from identifying particular tendencies within each tradition. Extrapolating Bernstein’s three models for education (Bernstein, 2000, in Leaton Gray, 2004, p.337), Leaton Gray identifies four overlapping educational models operating concurrently ‘in areas of consensus and conflict’. Progressivism is differentiated from Neo-Conservative Traditionalism, Modernizers and the vocational Generic Mode, in that it regards knowledge as fluid. By contrast, Traditionalism deals in a fixed body of knowledge and eternal truths.

Here we return to the crisis in curriculum in relation to the question of knowledge. Kleinespel and Tillmann identified four recurring themes in progressive education theory (1998, in Blake et al, 2003, p.294):

  1. Human nature – as exemplified in Rousseau’s contention: ‘Let us lay it down as an incontrovertible rule that the first impulses of nature are always right; there is no original sin in the human heart…’(Rousseau, 1979, p.23);
  2. Criticism of traditional education;
  3. School community;
  4. The nature of knowledge.

Knowledge, in the ideology of educational traditionalism, can be characterized as external and sacred (Leaton Gray, 2004, p.338). Both traditionalism and progressivism promote enlightened scholarship, but a progressive (as exemplified in Rousseau’s statement above) would regard the creation of knowledge as an internal process. However, as I will go on to argue, whether knowledge is formed internally or externally (or a marriage of the two) need not erode the status of knowledge in a curriculum. Our reticence around knowledge may in fact stem from a misinterpretation: that the post-modern theory of competing truths (Foucault, 1988) places us onto a battleground upon which the only basis for the contestation of truth, is power.

Moore argues that a relativist philosophy in relation to competing forms of knowledge represents an ‘anti-epistemology’ (2000, p.29) and argues for a form of ‘falliblism’ which rejects both absolutism and relativism. He envisages a position in which ‘knowledge is provisional but also that demarcation criteria are possible whereby we can judge some kinds of accounts as qualitatively distinct from and better than others (though not constituting absolute truths)’ (Ibid.).

This call for provisional truth-seeking – inspired by Popper’s (1959) concept of falsification – is also present in Biesta’s (2014) use of pragmatism as an epistemological construct to allow progressivism to reclaim status for knowledge in curriculum. Using Dewey’s transactional theory of knowing (arguing that knowledge is socially constructed and exists in action and in relation between actors) allows Biesta to break ‘the age-old opposition of objectivism and relativism’ (2014, p.30). This allows us to conceive of an education experience in which knowledge is ‘transmitted’ and tested between participants. We need not shy away from coherent narratives of knowledge delivery, but we must also foreground the extent to which knowledge is in perpetual flux.

How progressivism shapes teaching and learning

Impacts on the school curriculum

In order to evidence the impact of progressivism upon curriculum, I am going to compare the 1999 Primary National Curriculum (written two years into the UK Labour government of the day) with the 2013 Primary National Curriculum in England (published three years into the Conservative/Liberal coalition government).

I have chosen to compare the two because progressivism (in its utopian, idealistic and egalitarian sense) has typically been associated with the Enlightenment instincts of the Labour left. Whereas, traditionalism has been the bastion of the conservative right (as opposed to the neo-liberal right, which embodies a more functional and futurist ideology).

In ‘My Pedagogic Creed’, Dewey situates the learner at the heart of the education process when he states that ‘The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education’ (1897, p.77). He regards schooling as ‘a process of living and not a preparation for future living’ (Ibid., p.79). Such explicit anti-functionalism is absent from both the Primary Curricula, but the 1999 Curriculum makes mention of well-being as a prerequisite for learning a total of 29 times. By contrast, the 2013 Curriculum mentions well-being only once and then only in relation to how Design and Technology contributes to the ‘wealth and well-being of the nation’ (2013, p.180).

The 1999 Curriculum arranges the programmes of study for History as a series of discrete topics, ensuring coverage of key periods in British history. In the introduction to the subject, it takes an explicitly functionalist, skill-based approach to history combined with a progressive privileging of the students’ concept formation:

‘In history, pupils find evidence, weigh it up and reach their own conclusions. To do this they need to be able to research, sift through evidence, and argue for their point of view – skills that are prized in adult life’ (1999, p.103).

The 1999 history curriculum appears to display the same ‘Cartesian Anxiety’ (Bernstein, 1983, p.18) that could be argued to be characteristic of progressive influence upon curriculum development. The 1999 curriculum is cognizant of the requirement for a history to contain knowledge, but resists the stipulation for such knowledge to be presented as a cohesive narrative. This is perhaps symptomatic of an earnest desire to avoid the formulation of conclusions about historical events on behalf of students.

In ‘Lecture IX – The Study of Man’, Rudolf Steiner similarly argues for great care when communicating concepts to children. He guards the teacher against hastening children to concept formation and, in typically florid prose, tells us that we will ‘ruin the soul of the child if you make him commit to memory ready-made conclusions’ (1966).

By contrast, in the 2013 Curriculum, whilst there is mention of the fostering of the skills of evidence evaluation and inquiry, the first aim of the History curriculum is as follows:

‘[to] know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the earliest times to the present day: how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world’ (2013, p.188).

Chronology, as a taught concept, is present in both History curricula, but it is only in the latter curriculum that the full ‘chronological narrative, from the earliest times to the present day’ is explicitly stipulated as a key curricular aim.

It is tempting to conclude that the former curriculum is progressivist because it explicitly foregrounds well-being and encourages students to draw their own conclusions from a broad palette of disparate topics; whereas the latter curriculum is traditionalist (or at the very least, flavoured with traditionalism) for its stipulation of a narrative-based chronology of British history and its bold intent for the curriculum as ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (2013, p.6).

However, I will argue that both curricula are informed by progressive educational theory. Indeed, one could argue that the latter curriculum is, in fact, informed by a more nuanced reading of the original progressive thinkers, combined with a pragmatic balancing of the need for a broad knowledge base against which to promote criticality and the fostering of a skill set that will put that knowledge to the service of the generation of new knowledge.

Progressivism impacts upon curriculum in the following ways:

  • It informs a reticence to specify knowledge in some subjects and at some phases;
  • It impacts upon assessment – often giving rise to more elaborate ways of demonstrating understanding. It invites the teacher to be skeptical of a student’s understanding and more demanding in terms of evidence of understanding;
  • It broadens the goals of the school curriculum to encompass not simply the academic development of the child.

That said, it must be emphasized that the above impacts represent a kind of applied progressivism. Such manifestations are not necessarily explicit within progressive educational philosophy. To what extent, for example, is a reluctance to specify knowledge (or to present knowledge with narrative coherence) symptomatic more of post-modern anxieties about competing forms of knowledge rather  than progressive calls for ‘child-centredness’ or the sanctity of concept formulation?

Links to ideas of child development

Progressivism encourages educators to consider more deeply how children form an understanding of the world around them. It asks us to consider how children form concepts and makes us wary of the repetition of given concepts as a means to gauge understanding.

Freire’s (1970) refutation of the ‘empty vessel’ concept; Vygotsky’s (2012) zone of proximal development – both give rise to an acknowledgement that teaching and learning is not a closed loop of call and response. This is reflected in curriculum where prior understanding is asked for before moving on to a scheme of work, or where the child’s prior concepts are capitalized upon in order to establish a connection between new knowledge and skills and what is already known.

In addition, progressive education strongly encourages differentiation in terms of phases of child development and progression in understanding. It seeks to preserve what is considered to be the child’s natural instinct to desire to learn about the world it inhabits. It also seeks to nurture this natural instinct through into adulthood in the guise of lifelong-learning.

Risks implicit within interpretations of progressivism

In their academic summary of educational progressivism, Darling and Nordenbo detail three recent movements in progressivism that they claim to be ‘early contemporary reactions to “postmodern” conditions in the late twentieth century’ (in Blake et al, 2003, p.289). The movements of ‘deschooling’, ‘children’s rights’ and ‘antieducation’ are seen to exemplify progressivism’s ‘intractable conflict between on the one hand the individuality of the child and on the other hand the organizational unity of the institutionalized school’ (Ibid., p.307). They go on to extrapolate progressivism’s logic to assert that it would ultimately result ‘in the repudiation of the educational enterprise itself’ (Ibid., pp.307-308).

Against this, one can argue that fallacious extrapolation can be applied to most philosophical standpoints. It is entirely implicit within traditionalist educational practice that the past occupies a privileged position in relation to the present and the future. The privileging of past knowledge and the reverence required of it, has great potential for strengthening institutions at the expense of the individual. Therefore, any argument that bases itself in extrapolation is prone to avoiding the application of the same logic to its preferred philosophical position.

Progressivism can give rise to an open-endedness and child-directed learning experience that is incompatible with the time-bound, performative nature of modern schooling. Bernstein (1975) argues that, whilst a more exploratory approach is beneficial if students are supported into professional disciplines; working class students, who do not enjoy access to networks of influence, are left floundering in a system that requires them to direct their efforts to ends of which they have no conception.

In addition, populist interpretations of progressivism don’t account for certain urgencies: for example, learning to read and write or carry out basic mathematical equations before reaching pivotal milestones in the education journey. Progressive practices are often popularly maligned for giving children aimless freedoms, resulting in them languishing in illiteracy or innumeracy. Research initiatives, such as Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole In The Wall’ Project (Mitra, 2005), tell us something about the individual’s desire to learn, but tell us very little about the intricacies of both knowledge and social formation. Indeed, such projects could be said to be less concerned with matters of curriculum, than with pedagogy: the how of teaching rather than the what.

Popular progressivism doesn’t seem to readily allow for widely-held functionalist aims of education: ‘Following the child’ can only continue for so long before the child needs to be evaluated for the purposes of demonstrating aptitude to a potential employer.

The shift from a progressive approach in the early phase of a child’s education (for example, play-based learning in the nursery or topic-based project work in the primary phase) to a more stratified and subject-as-discipline approach in secondary school could be interpreted as a shift from progressivism to a blend of Neo-Conservative Traditionalism and Bernstein’s Generic Mode (Leaton Gray, 2004, p.337).

However, if one accepts that progressive pedagogical theory governs primarily our appreciation of how children learn rather than the content of their learning and the measurement of success, it is possible to appreciate progressivism’s impact all along the learning journey. The act of determining standards and quantifying attainment need not compromise the child’s formation of concepts. Indeed, progressivism can aid us in establishing what kinds of evidence constitute successful acquisition of knowledge and skills. We now appreciate that parroting lists of facts does not necessarily evidence any kind of long-term understanding. But we should also appreciate that conducting exercises in critical inquiry without any prior knowledge in the field of inquiry is equally missing the point.


Progressive education theory provides an important counter-balance to both functionalist and traditionalist educational practice. It ensures that the education experience is as humanist as possible and that learning is as authentic as it can be in institutions that are bound by time and expectations of performance.

Without the corrective balance between progressivism and traditionalism, curricula would not take conceptual understanding into proper account: there would be no perceived value in group work, projects or student-initiated inquiry.

However, implicit within progressivism is a problematic endpoint: the idea that education should move inexorably closer to the individual (in its Romantic conception) and that the future is somehow a privileged and unknowable space (in progressivism’s functional/futurist incarnation). However, as I have argued earlier, competing educational philosophies are also vulnerable to the same problematizing extrapolation: an imagined society that places the economy, or the past, or the individual at its absolute core will always remain the stuff of dystopian or utopian fiction, depending upon one’s perspective.

I argue for a progressivism grounded in academic rather than popular culture. The great strides made, due to progressive educational theorists such as Steiner, Montessori, Dewey and Vygotsky were in deepening our understanding of the child’s formation of concepts. It is in this academic domain that progressivism most fruitfully informs curriculum development. Indeed, close reading of progressive theorists does reveal an appreciation of the foundational value of culture and history. Knowledge as an ingredient of thought and the fuel for synthesis in no way compromises the teaching of what is culturally valued. The teaching of knowledge and the promotion of criticality in appreciation of knowledge formation are neither incompatible nor mutually exclusive. In tandem, they allow for the dissemination of knowledge and the promotion of sincere falsification. Which, as we have learned from the progressives, happens anyway!

Progressivism, informed by research, need not be fixed at the point in time in which its founding philosophers first wrote their treatise. It need not surrender both knowledge to traditionalists and cognitive science to those who portray themselves as modernizers. It remains possible to move forwards in time, taking (and re-making) knowledge as we go.


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