Does progressive education exist?

Yong Zhao goes back to the future


Professor Yong Zhao is an influential educationalist with one foot in the U.S. and the other in Melbourne, Australia. For a while, he has been formulating a theory of side-effects in education. This theory rather conveniently suggests that teaching methods of proven effectiveness, that are nevertheless disliked by educational academics, may have unintended negative side-effects.

This past weekend, Zhao has been promoting an article co-authored with Daniel Yiorgios Rigney that proposes a taxonomy of these side-effects. Under the category of ‘long-term non-cognitive’, we learn that, ‘Direct instruction was found to inhibit creativity and curiosity in preschool children (Buchsbauma et al. 2011).’

Buchsbauma et al. is an example of a type of study that has drawn a great deal of attention in recent years, not least through the proselytising work of Alison Gopnik, one of the study authors. In these studies, preschoolers are introduced to a toy. Usually, this introduction takes two alternative forms. The first group of children are shown how to use the toy by a confident teacher who seems to demonstrate exactly how it works. The second group is shown the toy by a teacher who doesn’t seem particularly sure how the toy works but nevertheless demonstrates the same key features as the first teacher. Typically, preschoolers in the second group spend more time exploring other possible functions of the toy than in the first group.

This is not a particularly surprising result. The children reasonably surmise that the first teacher showed them all the functions whereas the second teacher did not. The weird part is the inference we are supposed to draw - that direct instruction damages children’s curiosity.

This is a long bow to draw. Firstly, both teachers demonstrate features of the toy, so both groups have received different form of direct instruction. Secondly, we are talking toys here - something children are intrinsically motivated to play with. It is far from clear that this result would translate to anything educationally relevant such as reading or mathematics.

Just pause and imagine, for a moment, that I made a claim about the effectiveness of explicit teaching based upon evidence as tenuous? I wonder how that would be received.

But perhaps Rigney and Zhao are not drawing wide-ranging conclusions. Perhaps they are only pointing out the possibility of a negative impact. I don’t think so.

While I was on Zhao’s blog site, I noticed a paper published earlier this year by Zhao and Jim Watterston on the changes we need to make to education following COVID-19. Again, the toy studies are referenced. This time, they are unequivocally deployed in making a wider point. Direct instruction should be ‘cast away’:

“Pedagogy should change as well. Direct instruction should be cast away for its “unproductive successes” or short-term successes but long term damages (Bonawitza et al. 2011; Buchsbauma et al. 2011; Kapur 2014, 2016; Zhao 2018d).”

Bonawitza et al. is another study about preschoolers and toys, alongside the Buchsbauma paper we have already met. So, what other studies demonstrate that direct instruction must be ‘cast away’? One is a paper by Zhao and the other two are by Manu Kapur who is known for his work in researching something called, ‘productive failure’.

I know a little about this, having researched productive failure for my PhD. The basic idea is that a little open-ended problem-solving prior to explicit teaching is superior to explicit teaching alone. However, it is a hard hypothesis to test and I am not convinced by the way many of the studies that seemingly demonstrate this effect are designed. For those who are interested, my co-authors and I discuss Kapur 2014 in my published paper.

When I attempted to test productive failure using a design I felt was robust, I found that for a relatively complex task for novices to master, explicit teaching from the outset led to better outcomes than productive failure, including on transfer questions that I maintain are the best assessment of conceptual understanding.

So, I think it is too early to call for the abandonment of direct instruction.

Or perhaps, it’s a little too late.

The striking feature of Zhao & Watterston is the similarity of the arguments to early 20th century educational progressivism. I recently wrote about the guiding principles of the U.S. Progressive Education Association that were published in the 1920s and that include statements such as, ‘freedom to develop naturally’, ‘interest the motive of all work’, ‘The Teacher a Guide, Not a Task-Master,’ and ‘Greater Attention to All That Affects the Child’s Physical Development.’ This approach includes:

“Progressive teachers will encourage the use of all the senses, training the pupils in both observation and judgement; and instead of hearing recitations only, will spend most of the time teaching how to use various sources of information, including life activities as well as books… Teachers will inspire a desire for knowledge, and will serve as guides in the investigations undertaken, rather than as task-masters…”

Compare this to Zhao and Watterston:

“Moreover, with ubiquitous access to online resources and experts, students do not necessarily need teachers to continually and directly teach them. When students are enabled to own their learning and have access to resources and experts, the role of the teacher changes (Zhao 2018a). Teachers no longer need to serve as the instructor, the sole commander of information to teach the students content and skills. Instead, the teacher serves other more important roles such as organizer of learning, curator of learning resources, counselor to students, community organizer, motivator and project managers of students’ learning. The teacher’s primary responsibility is no longer simply just instruction, which requires teacher education to change as well. Teacher education needs to focus more on preparing teachers to be human educators who care more about the individual students and serve as consultants and resource curators instead of teaching machines (Zhao 2018a).”

There is a clear through line from the Progressive Education Association of the 1920s and Zhao and Watterston today. There is nothing new here. And I could go on quoting similarities between the two.

There are those who like to accuse me of tilting at windmills. They argue that I manufacture differences between educators as part of some nefarious plot to raise my profile. I have been told that everyone is in favour of teaching knowledge, that everyone sees a place for some direct instruction. Reality, I am advised, is far more complicated and nuanced that I allow. I have been told that progressive education does not exist.

You can make up your own mind.