EEF Blog: The danger of oversimplifying the traditional vs progressive debate

In this blog, Robbie Coleman – a secondary school English teacher and a Senior Associate at the EEF looks at the age-old 'trads v progs' educational debate, and finds valuable nuance in the research of Barak Rosenshine.

Barak Rosenshine’s 1997 article, The Case for Explicit, Teacher-led, Cognitive Strategy Instruction, is only eight pages long, but it is an excellent companion to the long-standing educational debate around 'progressive' and 'traditional' approaches to teaching. If you read one thing about education before the new year, I would recommend it.

For a start, the paper underlines that this question is not new, providing a snapshot into a version of the argument that took place in the US at the end of the 20th century. Rosenshine bemoans the (then) fashionable idea of “learning by discovery” and the belief that skills are “better caught than taught” (Rosenshine, 1997: 5).

But Rosenshine is not a tribalist, and the paper helped me understand the debate between traditional and progressive ideas in a much more nuanced way than I previously had. He splits the question of whether to prioritise the teaching of knowledge or skills from the question of whether lessons should predominantly be teacher- or pupil- led. He focuses primarily on reading comprehension and surveys a range of studies conducted between the 1970s and 1990s, to recommend that the explicit instruction of reading comprehension strategies is a good idea.

For me, his paper illustrates the danger of oversimplifying the traditional vs. progressive debate. The distinctions between knowledge and skills, teacher-led and pupil-led approaches are real, but placing them together on a single dimension appears to me to be unhelpful.

For example, imagine three classes are studying poetry of the First World War:

  • In Class A, before beginning to read John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, the teacher shares definitions of several sophisticated words in the poem (“scarce”, “quarrel”) that she anticipates will be new to the class, and gives them some key contextual information about the author and the war.
  • In Class B, students are placed in groups, each of which is given a different poem. The teacher asks students to read and discuss their poem, before preparing a presentation for the rest of the class on the key ideas they feel it contains.
  • Before Class C read Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier,the teacher explains that it is very likely that the poem will appear confusing in the first read through. She then sets out one strategy to help, involving question prompts. After reading through the poem, the teacher writes, “Who? What? Where? When?” in the margin of the page and, speaking aloud, models the process of answering the questions.

There is a clear difference between Class A and Class B. The former emphasises a range of facts (contextual information and vocabulary) that the teacher believes will help the students understand and engage with the poem. The latter is pupil-led; the teacher will circulate the room and provide support, but more responsibility is placed on students to interpret the poems for themselves, and groups are a given choice about how to present their findings to the class.

Both Class A and Class C appear to be teacher-led. In Class A the teacher provides information relevant to the poems. In Class C, however, the content being taught is a strategy that the teacher believes will help her students to improve their comprehension. It is this type of explicit instruction that Rosenshine advocates in his paper, having reviewed 56 studies testing the impact of explicitly teaching thinking strategies. 

Figure 1. Traditional vs. progressive teaching: beyond a binary split

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Explicitly teaching skills does not mean that one must eschew teaching facts. Rosenshine’s paper does not denigrate the approach taken in Class A; indeed, in his other work, Rosenshine advocates the “daily practice of vocabulary” (Rosenshine, 2012: 13) and highlights the findings of cognitive psychologists who argue for the explicit instruction of both “the concepts and skills that students are required to learn” (Clark, Kirschner and Sweller, 2012: 6).

Instead, the paper demonstrates the value of a more precise set of distinctions between traditional and progressive teaching than I had previously encountered. Crucially, it is not the case that fans of explicit-instruction necessarily believe that facts are the only things that can be explicitly taught.

In addition, it provides several ideas that I will try to incorporate into my teaching next year. Rosenshine provides a useful typology of prompts and strategies, as well as advice on modelling these approaches for students.

In a future post, I’ll look at progress in the fields of cognitive and meta-cognitive strategy instruction since 1997. I’ll also dig a bit deeper into the link between directly teaching skills and promoting independence. For example, might there be a role for the Class B approach at a different point in a teaching sequence, after students have attained a particular level of knowledge and skill?

PS: Another reading suggestion... If you haven’t already, read Barak Rosenshine's outstanding 2012 paper Principles of Instruction, which provides an overview of findings from cognitive psychology and observational studies of highly-effective teachers, distilling an enormous amount of research into 10 pieces of practical advice.

* A version of this blog was first published by the Chartered College of Teaching here.