Home > Curriculum Design, Educational Reform, Technology > Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Traditional vs. Progressive Education

Below is a draft of my curriculum rationale. At the beginning of the semester I had an idea to design a “do it yourself” textbook for students: a virtual textbook that blends the features of EndNote, Facebook, Blackboard, Wiki, Digg, and other applications for the students to find, manage, create, and share their own resources/understanding. There are many researchers out there working on computer supported collaborative learning environments, but I do not think that the tool is as important as the vision and the educational theory behind it. My intent in this blog is to work on my emerging understanding of the history and philosophy of educational reform that have led me to this point. Also, by involving classmates and other contributors, I am attempting to model the process of open collaboration and knowledge building with my own project. Whether you agree with what I have written or not, I am sure that you can agree that working together is better than working alone. If you have any ideas, videos or links, to contribute please post them as comments. Questions, constructive criticism, destructive criticism are welcomed as well. I am much more interested in the process of this project rather than the final result.

When education is viewed solely as preparation for a higher degree or a future career it becomes the means to an end. Subsequently, the experiences that occur before the end result, lose their value because the focus remains on the end goal rather than the process. Such a view also implies that without acquiring the right kind of knowledge during the prescribed period of preparation, one cannot become educated and will end up underachieving in work and school. “Traditional education” operates on this kind of knowledge deficit model: fix the deficits so that students are prepared for the rest of their lives.

Alternatively, if education is truly seen as one’s life (as Dewey and others have proposed) the means, or the educational processes, have more value. An individual’s experiences and interests form the backdrop against which investigations are carried out, questions are asked, observations are made, conclusions are drawn, and knowledge is generated. Over time, this “continuity of experiences” adds up to be both one’s life and education (Dewey, from Experience and Education). Knowledge generation and improvement are more in line with what is called “progressive” education. Instead of focusing on deficits the educational process is centered around improving understanding and supporting the collective knowledge building of students.

Unfortunately, the model of education that we have today is still very traditional despite more than a century of educational reform. It assumes that the role of school is to prepare students for their futures both inside and outside of the classroom by filling the deficits of knowledge in each student via the transmission of a standardized and fixed curriculum. The latest effort in educational reform, the Common Core State Standards claims to contain a body of knowledge and skills that, if learned and practiced by students, will better prepare them for college and careers than previous standards of knowledge and skills. Again, we see the end goal idealized, with little consideration given to how the process is carried out.

This sounds eerily similar to the Committee of Ten Report from 1893. Charles W. Eliot, the President of Harvard, and his colleagues drafted a report that contained a hierarchy of subject matter deemed necessary in preparing students for college. The report also stated that whatever preparation was appropriate for college was also appropriate for life. As a result, secondary education was centered around the study of subject matter required for college admission. In this case, it was the Classics: Greek, Latin, Grammar, and such. Today, the subject matter has changed but the overall philosophy has not. Four years of mathematics, science, English, and history are required for college admissions. The same is expected for students who are not applying to college because it is assumed that knowledge of this subject matter will best prepare them for any future vocation and civic participation as voters.

The method of learning the predetermined material has also not varied much in the last century. Textbooks (often written by college professors and subject matter experts) contain all of the material a student needs to know about a subject while teachers deliver the content to students who are asked to follow along. The knowledge is static, predetermined and itemized in a body of standards to which students must conform or they will not graduate. The students’ degrees are proof they have learned the “right” content and without the degree college admissions and certain professions are unattainable. The process of learning the material was not examined or re-evaluated because the end result, graduation, was achieved.

In the late 19th and early 20th century this method made sense. Distribution of knowledge was not as equitable as it is today because access to printed material or knowledgeable persons was limited. The level of access determined how much formal education one could receive. In today’s internet based society there is no restricted access to knowledge. It is not necessary or practical to wait for information to trickle down from above when it is literally at your fingertips. To use Piaget’s terms, a disequilibrium exists between the representations of knowledge in the traditional classroom and real life created by the new media of the 21st century.

I firmly believe that this disequilibrium is so “structurally disturbing” that an “intellectual restructuring” of our educational philosophies must occur (Piaget’s theories as cited in Doll pg. 83). In fact, I believe it is beginning to do so already.

Dr. Wesch is a cultural anthropologist who studies new media’s effects on society. The contrasts of life in the classroom versus life online are striking.

Sir Ken Robinson and the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts collaborate on this animated video to communicate the need for a new educational paradigm.

While it is easy to abandon the traditional model of education in favor of a new, “transformative” curriculum, it is not helpful to embrace a new theory without giving any though as to how it will be practiced.  The utility of an idea can limit or promote its value in society. What good is a new educational philosophy if it is not practical in its real time application? Was this the case with Dewey?  Too much theory and not enough practicality? I don’t believe so. Dewey’s laboratory school demonstrated how to practice his educational philosophy. However, in the broader context of the contemporary sociocultural climate, his beliefs did not have enough currency to change educational practices. The ingrained practices and subsequent value of knowledge transmission versus collective knowledge building presented a hostile environment compared to today’s drastically different sociocultural landscape.

What does such a curriculum look like?

When should we start infusing a technology driven curriculum? Is five years old too young?

I would add, however, using digital tools in place of the older, traditional ones to fix the “deficits” of knowledge in students is not the answer. We need a curriculum that is intentional and purposeful in creating educational experiences that begin with students’ prior knowledge and extend understanding by involving them in solving real world problems with real tools. Thank goodness I have just the curriculum in mind!

Eventual link to my curriculum here.

  1. Nattie
    April 23, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Talk about passion, Finnish National Education Objective #1. To develop respect of life, human rights, and diversity of nature and cultures.

    Students attend for only 9 years, start at 7 and then go either to real-life vocational schools or to academic high schools. Students are not assessed against one another, and assessment does not focus on “rote learning.” Both the acedemic and the vocational routes can lead to university studies, since “prior learning” in the vocation or workplace is recognized and valued.

    Finnish education system http://www.ammatillinenkoulutus.com/main.php?sivu_id=56

    This should be required reading for all ed students!
    Finnish Ministry of Education Key Competences for Lifelong Learning http://www.minedu.fi/export/sites/default/OPM/Koulutus/Liitteet/Education_2010._Interim_report_2009._Finland.pdf

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