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This morning, as I walked down St James Street reflecting on an excellent breakfast belatedly to mark the launch of the Times science supplement ‘Eureka’, who should I bump into but Michael Gove. Although he was engrossed in a phone conversation he put his interlocutor on hold, ‘Ah, Matthew’ said the chief intellectual architect of Cameron Conservativism ‘you are most definitely number two in my priority list’.

In this, I assume Michael was referring to the list of questions I publicly posed him after his lecture here last June. ‘Number two’ does sound hopeful as long as this list is both stable and fast moving. I fear however there have been many other top priorities over these last few months and yet more may still emerge.     

Indeed it has taken so long for him to reply that I find the ground shifting under my feet. Although my questions were based on Michael’s forthright speech here, I did fall into the trap of assuming that one’s opinions on education line up neatly under two headings: traditional or progressive.

Traditionalists emphasise the importance of core knowledge, the authority of teachers, the need for schools not to be distracted from the task of academic pedagogy, the dangers of mixed ability teaching. They also tend to be sceptical of claimed improvements in standards, alleging widespread dumbing down. Progressives put more focus on the wider development of the child, they think children need to acquire competencies as well as knowledge, they see learning more as a partnership between teacher and learner, they encourage schools to engage with other agencies concerned about children and the wider community. They are more likely to argue that mixed ability teaching can be just as successful in terms of results and is better in terms of children’s self esteem and sociability. 

But there are several problems with the dichotomous view:

Close up, the differences tend to become more elusive. For example, supporters of competence based curricula are not anti-knowledge; they think theirs is the best way for pupils to acquire knowledge. Traditionalists recognise the wider development of the child is important but they put more store by things like schools sport and clubs as the way to do this

Arguments about how best to teach cut across other arguments, particularly about how much of what schools do should be centrally prescribed. Is it better for progressives to have a centralising government that broadly supports their approach or a decentralising one which doesn’t?

And, of course, the killer problem with resolving this argument; good traditionalist teaching is better than bad progressive teaching and vice versa.

Almost every review of these arguments attaches the same caveat to its conclusions. Here for example is the last sentence of an article by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Review about books by arch traditionalist E.D. Hirsch (who is often quoted by Gove) and ultra progressive Mike Rose:

Whatever the merits of this or that testing regime or this or that curriculum, the only way to break up the impasse would be for governments and philanthropies to put in place real incentives and rewards for tenanted, well-educated, passionately committed teachers – on whom, as everyone knows, everything finally depends’.

If Michael does ever come back to me I hope his response will provide the basis not for a heated disagreement but to start to unpack a traditionalist-progressive dichotomy which, perhaps, both he and I have been guilty of exaggerating.

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