My daughter beat me at wrestling – progressive or traditional teaching?

I really should stop spending so much time on twitter. It gives me nightmares. The one last night was a wrestling match against my daughter, who, in the dream, beat me because my hips were hurting. The incongruity of her beating me matches the tension I felt while listening to a podcast by my favourite, challenging educational researcher, John Hattie. He was talking at a conference about some of the issues he would unpick in more detail in his new publication, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, which is due out in September /October 2013.

As always he uses the massive database of, now, over 300 million students, and meta analysis of loads of studies to extract the essence of what works for learning. Along the way he throws in some minor hand grenades – such as he wants children to work in pairs and talk about learning even though they sometimes get it wrong! Even more explosive than that is that he does not want the teacher to intervene at that stage. Not to correct the student(s) who are in error. But to listen so that the teacher can evaluate his teaching and to plan to deliver the next learning on the basis of what students understand or do not understand. How many of us could hold ourselves back if we heard the errors being discussed?


But, although that is enough to disturb me and almost certainly accounts for my daughter being able to beat me in the somnambulistic fighting match that is not what I want to focus on. I should say need to focus on as I get a kind of itchy tension and writing relieves me of the feeling. What I want to explore is the tension between the traditional teaching club and the progressives. As you will know, if you have read some of my other stuff, I think both are correct. That is not just me being sift and wanting to please everybody but there seems sense in what each camp says. Hattie also seems to say this. At least, that is what I hear when I listen to him when he recounts what works.


He is very clear, as the traditionalists are, that knowledge comes first. Enough knowledge, delivered clearly while the teacher checks for understanding and makes the learning visible to the student and to the teacher. Worked examples exemplify what success looks like to the student. Give them the answer so they can focus on the process. After this it is practice. Practice to make the process become automatic as much as possible. The automaticity, a word I have just learned so I will use so it becomes an automatic part of my vocabulary. Learn it and then practice it. Because I am a reasonably good learner I can self monitor  check I have spelled it correctly and am using it in an appropriate manner. For example I can break the word into two parts – ‘automatic’ which I know and the ending ‘ity’ which I know from my knowledge of other words.


The last part of that paragraph is not just me being self indulgent. I think that the self correcting processes are key to the clash between traditional and progressive. When we think about the teacher delivering knowledge the image is of passive children who just have to put up with the teacher ‘droning’ on. The progressives see this as negative and potentially damaging. The traditionalists see this as vital for learning. Both are right, or have some degree of rightness. We do have to deliver what Hattie calls surface knowledge to students. They have to have a lot of it before they are able to begin to understand what they are learning and approach any degree of mastery. But we must ensure that the students are confident in their ability to continue working at the difficult stuff and that needs an input from the teacher. The progressives call this engagement but Hattie does not seem to like that, preferring to see student confidence as coming first.


The traditionalist see the knowledge delivery as potentially corrupted by the progressives attempts to engage students. The additional material that engages puts an additional cognitive load on students and they are not able to cope with the new knowledge.

I think the issue might be a little more than that. The issue for the progressives is the potentially passive nature of students whom they envisage sitting in rows, silently listening to material being presented which they do not understand and cannot yet relate to. They see this phase as unthinking. And it could be. But let me hypothesis to the progressives that if we could be sure that students were, indeed, thinking during the knowledge input stage that their fears would melt away. Students will be taking an active, thinking, part in the learning process at this time. What students have to have is access to ways of processing as I gave above in my early learning of the word automaticity. if you remember I know the word as two parts ‘automatic’ and ‘ity’. 

To make sure students do think while they are being given the surface knowledge we need to have taught them ways to think about what they are learning. They need to be actively processing, trying to make sense of and trying to work out how to remember what we are teaching them. 

The really critical bit, the part I had to think about hard while I was listening to the Hattie podcast was how we could get children to be active learners while they were engaged in the early knowledge input phase of learning. When he said that word, ‘automatic’ ‘ity’ – automaticity, the penny dropped. It is that we have to have children in our classes who are not, as Hattie puts it, simply the audience but are taking an active part in the learning. Progressives – is that what you need to be a little more secure with the traditionalists’ approach to learning? Traditionalists, do you see what the progressives want is the same as you want, essentially?


I’d love to hear from both camps so I can be made to think more deeply about this issue.


My daughter only manages to beat me up in dreams. I real life, it is a different outcome.

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