Why does progressive education not work?


So that you can decide to stop reading this, probably, short piece I am going to tell you that this will not be supportive of progressive education methods. I am also only going to define progressive education very loosely, as one that does not place the limitations of working memory as the prime driver in how learning should be organised for children. So thanks for looking and bye if you have your coat on and are leaving now.


If you have stayed then thanks to you.


A reminder about working memory. I have a longer piece here if you have never come across the concept before.


Essentially the theory says that humans can only store in working memory 4 to 9 items. Items are chunks of stuff to be learned, or chunks of stuff already learned and in long term memory. But some of that very limited space is needed to manipulate the chunks; to link them to other, already known stuff etc.


There items in working memory will only remain there for a minute, or so. We can refresh the items by repeating them. For example, if someone tells you a telephone number you can keep repeating it until you find a pencil and paper to record it. If you don’t do the repeating then you will, most likely, forget the number or only partly remember it.


As far as we know, learning can only happen through working memory. Physical learning, not what the progressives mean by kinesthetic learning, muscle memory as it is sometimes called, an incorrect term as muscles do not have memory, may use a different route to the brain but that kind of learning is only useful to remember and habituate physical actions.


Working memory has two input streams. One is visual and the other is auditory. And, please remember, the space for the new stuff is strictly limited.


Another effect that matters is that of distraction. Imagine that you are repeating the telephone number until you find some place to record it.Imagine someone asks you to calculate 17 times 8. If you try to do this you will most certainly not be able to retain the telephone number in working memory. Distractions, if we pay attention to them, cause us to replace the items in working memory with those items we attend to from the distraction. We might not want to attend to the distraction but distractions are distractions because they gain our attention.


So why does progressive education not work?


Some features of progressive education are:


Discovery learning: The child will work out what is going on and learn by exploring a system. Picture a science experiment where a child is asked to see what they can observe. Boiling a beaker of water. They will see stuff. But what will they see? A scientist who knows what is to be expected will see lots. And what the scientist sees will be important things to see within the realm of science. Children without the knowledge base a scientist has will not know which things to attend to. They will be distracted by some things that matter and some things that don’t matter as much. Yes, there will be a tiny chance that they discover some radical new thing about boiling water in a beaker that is new to science but – well if you believe that then there is no hope. It just does not happen like that! At all! The child cannot keep all the new things they see in working memory and will not have the working memory capacity to process what they see, unless, of course, they already have a great deal of prior knowledge.


They might well enjoy the process. But enjoyment is not learning and it is not a proxy for learning. What happens, usually, is in the above example the children observe and the teacher prompts and will then collate and make sense of the observations. Pointing out what matters and getting rid of the observations that are not relevant. In this way the teacher guides the discovery. This is a very inefficient way of learning. Lots of distractions. Lots of opportunities for mislearning. Lots of fun, perhaps. Children ‘active’ and doing experiments. But a much more effective way is for the teacher to do the last bit first. To explain to the children what happens and why and then let them do the experiment. In that way the teacher controls the amount and quality of the information that goes into working memory. Minimises the effect of so much distracting information. And children approach the observation process with a knowledge set which means that can truly ‘see’ what there is to be seen.


Group work: Seems like a good idea. Get children into groups to discuss. Teacher has to only visit four or five places rather than work with a large number of individuals. Children explain to each other in language that they get rather than the more formal teacher language. But there will be a great deal of distraction in such groups. Are all children paying attention to that which matters or are they negotiating the social norms of groups? What about the time spent discussing a silly idea from one of the group members? How many f a group of four are actually working? The evidence suggests that in any group only 15% of the time spent working s productive learning. The rest is, well, not productive learning. You can argue all you like for the positive effects of group working but you cannot argue it as a beneficial process for learning the content you are delivering as a teacher.

So if the above stops learning being effective why do teachers continue with these methods? Well, because to some extent they do work. It’s just that they work poorly. Teachers, like our progressive science teacher will eventually tell children what they need to know. Bright children are bright, almost certainly, because they have larger working memories that less bright children. They know more at any stage and can retain more, are less impacted on by distractions. Possibly they are taught in classroom with less distraction. They will catch more correct ideas. They might be tutored outside school where they will be told rather than left to discover. But these children will learn less through progressive methods. Less bright children will fall farther behind because they are more susceptible to any disruption or lack of clarity.

So teaching that does not work within the constraints of working memory does not fail totally. Rather these methods do provide the conditions for optimal learning. So we could do better. We could close the gap. We could do a lot more. We could make learning so much more enjoyable as children would be so much more successful. And that success means they would know more and so would learn even more effectively.

This has got too long already. Any other matters you would like me to explore using the lens of working memory theory? Be pleased to.

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