This book is not the kind to present two sides of an argument for and against progressive learning.
...we are undeniably and incurably biased and want you to be convinced of its value. (p. 2)
Donna Brandes and Paul Ginnes draw substance and inspiration from a two year TVEI project in Birmingham (pp. 262-9). For good measure, in a book that promotes the faith, Ginnes is the convert, having become disillusioned with his former didactic teaching life.
So Paul, although he has experienced moments of doubt, has, in the few short months since the project began, witnessed remarkable changes in himself and his students (p. 3).
Yet they shy away from creating a new orthodoxy. So, although they provide a progressives' blueprint, they do not want it taken up as given (1).
The book is also a resource, so that after it has directed its arguments and reflected on experience it provides the means by which teachers can use the methods they advocate.
As the authors admit, their approach is not original, either in theory or practice (although the reflection on the Birmingham project offers personal responses and insights). They draw their terminology principally from Carl Rogers, who coined the term student centred learning. Here educational practice overlaps with psychotherapy, but in fact, as references and other terminologies indicate, there is a whole range of sources for such student centred learning.
It is optimistic. One potential source not mentioned is Paulo Freire. He promoted an implicit optimistic theology of "ontological destination" of full humanness found in our ability to enquire, reflect and create culture. The authors themselves say:
We believe that every human being has the right to achieve his or her full potential - 100%, and that a student-centred approach to learning makes this possible. (p. 3)
Freire's approach is in terms of changing circles of silence into circles of culture. One can imagine this in the classroom, from where the teacher does all the talking to where s/he facilitates active group learning. The authors might have mentioned cognitive style systems in which learners demonstrate their own particular capacities for understanding and learning.
The central message of this book, as in similar literature, is that students are not empty mugs to be filled by an expert jug; rather, the teacher draws on the students' existing talents. They acquire ownership (responsibility) for their creative work and appraise themselves. They even gain self confidence.
Much is unoriginal but it is well presented and the book offers real learning strategies. Yet, although the authors tackle some of the criticisms of the learning style they advocate (pp. 17-24) broader criticisms can be made.
Whilst didactic teaching styles have from the earliest days played a manipulative social role in relationship to the state, ideology and social upbringing, the authors' claim that they avoid manipulation cannot be sustained. If anything, what they offer is more covert and manipulative. In didactic teaching, what you see is what you get: control and direction; with progressive methods, teaching involves a use of strategies which have intended results not immediately obvious from what actually happens.
The authors speak of a transition time of moving over from safe traditional methods to progressive methods. Even then the authors do not spell out clearly enough that active or experiential learning, however fulfilling, is slow. Schools have limited time. Teachers will be rightly concerned to speed up learning by transmission telling rather than students losing precious time when they all exhibit the same work problems.
This relates to the curriculum. The National Curriculum (produced after this book was written) sets standards and time targets. The GCSE demands the same. Serialist methods can work the best through its transmission of knowledge and its reproduction. Whilst student centred methods can enhance such teaching, they cannot always deliver in time what is required. They can be over personalised, subjective and not necessarily sufficiently based on the tradition of learning that has taken place within the subject area.
Progressive methods also beg the question of discipline and motivation. The book expects teachers to use various patient waiting strategies for students to see for themselves the importance of participation. Students are even free to reject.
You start by telling the class that you are not going to fight to get their attention, and that you will wait as long as it takes for everyone to settle down. They should be able to recognise the times you are playing it [the Waiting Game] because you will be sitting quietly doing nothing. Your demeanour during this time is important; it would be inappropriate to scowl, tap your foot, or appear impatient or resigned... (p. 38)
Is this serious? Students do not attend school by choice. They might just stay idle and if not they may prefer to discuss television than some necessary topic! Some children are negatively motivated to do the opposite of what is required (2).
Of course progressive methods broaden the variety within any lesson plan. They serve moral and spiritual education offering self and group reflection (see pp. 171-5). Certainly they can broaden any subject area and are useful in areas relevant to reflection (art and drama).
Brandes and Ginnes promote student centred learning as relevant to any age group. In fact much of it is better for adult education. It is adults who voluntarily learn (3), who use education as a social or leisure activity and who have the time for self examination as well as (or instead of) subject proficieny. Adults do not need disciplining, they have good motivation and they are not held back by the constraints of a set curriculum.
The book is idealistic but is not to be dismissed. It offers resources for learning, and any good teacher will use the material available for input into a lesson plan. Yet the realities of schooling mean that their idealistic position is not attainable.
(1) This reminds me of religious substitutes within the sociology of religion. Groups not formally religious but with a campaigning message can acquire such chracteristics.
(2) Teachers talking to me at the middle school in Assignment 1A referred to lack of motivation, discipline and allowing skiving as principal objections to forthright progressive methods. Its jargon was criticised too.
(3) These unique conditions of adult education were central to the module of Adult Learning and Methods of Teaching in the Diploma in the Advanced Study of Adult Education at the University of Manchester.
Brandes, D., Ginnes, P. (1986), A Guide to Student Centred Learning, Basil Blackwell.
Freire, P. (1972), The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin.
Rogers, J. (1971), Adults Learning, Penguin.