How Do We Define ‘Progress’ In Education?


I’m currently reading Keri Facer’s stimulating book ‘Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change’. I confess I bought it primarily because of the eponymic nature of the book with the project I lead. But I’m glad I did, as the book poses some really important questions about how (and where) learning will take place in the future. It also challenges many notions of those predicted futures which are starting to become orthodoxies in themselves.

One of the most interesting of these appears in the introduction when she de-bunks the myth of education failing to keep up with present and future progress, notoriously symbolised through the oft-quoted image of Papert’s 19th century time travelling surgeon and teacher . The former, it is claimed, would be completely bewildered by the modern operating theatre, while the latter would feel relatively at-home in today’s school environment.

Among the reasons for challenging this myth, Facer argues that it present a ‘profoundly anti-progressive account of education history, one which does little justice to the dynamism of educators, educational activists and their capacity to act as a force for change in the world’. To support her argument, she reminds us of the progress made in securing equal rights and access to education for women, people of colour, people with disabilities and protecting the child from many forms of abuse.

Personally, I don’t think educators can claim much credit for these undoubted advances. Aren’t they a result of a wider insistence upon emancipation and civil rights?

But it got me thinking about what would represent progress in education reform, and how we might measure it. John Taylor Gatto once claimed that literacy rates were higher in the state of Massachusetts 150 years ago, before the advent of compulsory schooling, than they were at the end of the 20th century. I’ve no way of knowing if this is true, but, if it were, then I suppose one could question the value of umpteen reading initiatives over the last century.

I’d share Keri’s desire to avoid ‘teacher bashing’ – for me the fault lies in the politicisation of education. Medical research tends to be free from the kind interference we see in schooling, every time there’s a change of government. So, instead of the steady march of progress that we see in treating patients (barring the odd hiccup), there’s more of a pendulum effect in educating students. Each party seems hell-bent on reversing the direction that the previous administration steered – and we know how easy it is to cherry-pick evidence to support the demand for ‘radical change’: our current UK Education Secretary has turned it into a dark art.

This US public information film demonstrates the pendulum effect far better than anything I could write (and also has a rare glimpse of John Dewey speaking). There have been at least two swings of the pendulum since the 1940s, when the film was made, on the benefits of active, practical, project-based learning.

So, are we perpetually bound by the forces of the pendulum, or are there any educational innovations that can be universally seen as genuinely ‘progressive’?

Because Facer is particularly interested in technology, she makes a powerful case for innovative, socially inclusive uses of it in education. My interest is in understanding how we learn – especially how we create innovative learning environments. For example,we are seeing rapid progress in research in neurosciences, but it’s not always easy to see how this is reflected in pedagogic change – Spaced Learning would be a notable exception. I’d also suggest that ‘flipping’ the traditional relationship between lectures and homework through(which I blogged about a while back) also has the potential to be a real breakthrough in teaching. But in both cases, I suspect there are as many detractors as there are advocates. We tend to associate any technological innovation with progress, only to later find it hasn’t significantly transformed what happens in the classroom – witness the false dawn that the interactive whiteboard heralded.

Some might argue that raising the school-leaving age to 16 in the UK (and soon to be raised to 18 – if one considers training to be a form of education) constitutes unarguable progress. But there have been some who fear that keeping students in school against their will is punitive and detrimental to their ability to learn.

So, help me out here: tell me about an educational development that you think has significantly improved students’ learning. One that the 19th century time travelling educator would find mind-blowing. It could be a learning method, or a technological innovation – but it should be one that is widely accepted by the profession, and leads to further developments. 


2 Responses to How Do We Define ‘Progress’ In Education?

  1. Jaya Gibson says:

    Hi,I’m the Technology editor at Before It’s News. Our site is a ‘people powered’ news platform with over 1,000,000 visits a month and growing fast.We would be honored if we could republish your blog RSS feed in our Technology category. Our readers need to read what your blog has to say.Syndicating to Before It’s News is a terrific way spread the word and grow your audience. Many other organizations are using Before It’s News to do just that. We can have your feed up and running in 24 hours. I just need you to reply with your permission to do so. Please include the full name and email of the person who will be assigned to the account, and let me know the name you want on the account (most people have their name or their blog name).You can also have any text and/or links you wish added to the end or to the beginning of each of your posts on Before It’s News. Just email me the text and links that you want at the beginning and/or ending of each post. If you know html you can send me that. If not, just send me the text and a link to your site. It should be around 200 characters or less (not including links).You can, if you like, create a custom feed for Before It’s News that includes multiple links back to your blog or web site. We only require that RSS feeds include full stories, not partial stories. We don’t censor or edit work.Thank youJaya– Jaya GibsonEditor, Before It’s

  2. David Price says:

    Take this as permission. But you need to pm me (pricedavatgmaildotcom) with the RSS procedures.David Price, OBEMob: 0771 328 6954Follow me on Twitter: @davidpriceobeBlog: Health Blog:

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