Progs and trads: is a synthesis possible?

Dialectical pairings like “radical traditionalism” or “revolutionary reformism” may seem paradoxical but instead of cancelling each other out, the contradictions they contain can make us think about each idea in relation to the other. This is not just an attempt to please everyone or imply that they’re really the same thing. The two ideas are in real tension and this makes us consider whether a synthesis is possible.

In education, the “progressive” versus “traditionalist” debate is a constant. Like the Mods and Rockers of the 1950’s, the Progs and Trads can get pretty entrenched and each side has its evidence base and theorists. But is it possible that “progressive traditionalism” or “traditional progressivisim” might be fruitful pairings?

We need to distinguish between discussions about aims, those about content and those about methods. People can find themselves on different sides depending on what is being discussed.

So if we were trying to work out a Prog / Trad synthesis what questions might we ask? Here is a very rough first attempt at identifying some possible common ground:


  • Can we agree that we want all our students to become autonomous, skilled learners and well informed, critical citizens, to develop their critical faculties and to become capable of challenging and questioning received knowledge?
  • Can we agree that we want all our students to be able to function confidently and effectively in society as it is, even if they may wish to change it?


  • Can we agree that we need to teach something and therefore to make some judgements about what all our students need to know?
  • Can we agree that those judgements are too important to be left entirely to teachers and that there needs to be some democratic process to establish the broad aims and content of educational programmes?
  • Can we agree on the importance of knowledge while recognising that there is a debate to be had about what knowledge matters and that the choice of what knowledge to teach is not neutral or value-free; it is shaped by the culture, values, history and power structures of our society?
  • Can we agree that we need to select “canons” from the culture while recognising their limitations and, having mastered them, our students need the skills to challenge them, contest them and reach beyond them.


  • Can we agree that teaching requires a transfer of knowledge and that students can’t “discover” what they don’t know without some external input?
  • Can we agree that students often learn best by following their own curiosity, by tackling problems and asking questions which seem important to them?
  • Can we agree that we need to justify what we do in our classrooms; that students need to understand why we do what we do even if it is not always immediately “fun”, “interesting” or “relevant”?
  • Can we agree that learning by doing works well and that rote-learning is not a very satisfactory way to learn most things?
  • Can we agree that we still have a lot to learn about how students acquire knowledge and skill?

Is it so difficult to answer “yes” to all these questions? Doing so offers the possibility of a real synthesis of our conservative and progressive impulses. It means wanting to pass on our inherited knowledge and traditions and apply the tests of truth, reason and good judgement to everything we study. It also means acknowledging that society is constantly changing and that we need to be open to different ways of seeing the world and to equip ourselves with the knowledge and skills to bring about change for the better without knowing in advance what that change might be.

Does this all feel too proggy? Or too traddy? Such a synthesis would be opposed as too proggy by anyone who believes that our society is pretty much the best it can be and that the knowledge and skills which are most valued today are undoubtedly the only ones worth acquiring and that education is mainly about preparing people to fit into the social structure as it is now, with all its current inequalities and hierarchies. It would also be opposed as too traddy by anyone who believes that there are no universal human values at all, that knowledge is far too provisional to be worth bothering about and that education should allow learners to roam freely with no direction or structure following some natural instinct which comes from within them.

In his brilliant short book “Experience and Education” written in 1938, John Dewey tackled the prog / trad debate of the day, reminding his readers that the “new” education had developed as a reaction to the excesses of traditional education; handing down a static body of knowledge, drilling students and valuing docility and obedience over questioning and participation. But he also warned of the dangers of rejecting all claims of authority or control and all the aims and methods of the “old”. Dewey then went on to develop a new philosophy of experience as a basis for education. “Experience and Education” offers us some very clear thinking which is as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1938.

There is much benefit in a prog / trad dialogue if it starts with agreement about values and if it is based on a rigorous analysis of all our assumptions about aims, content and methods. If we can engage in such a dialogue openly and constructively we might be able to move beyond some of the entrenched positions, faddishness and misunderstandings and make some real progress.

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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6 Responses to Progs and trads: is a synthesis possible?

  1. I think the consensus you seek may be harder to achieve than you expect because at the heart of the radical prog agenda is not the welfare of the student but their ideological commitment to equality. This explains their opposition to any belief in truth and measurement – because these discriminate between those who know and those who don’t know – and discrimination is a bad thing, right?

    Only in progressive charicatures do traditionalists advocate rote learning as the summative pedagogy. Activity-based learning? Critical thought? Who doesn’t believe in these things?

    So I don’t want to pour cold water on your attempt to act the peacemaker between the two camps – but I think your manifesto is a pretty straight down the line statement of the traditionalist position i.e it’s very common-sensible.


  2. Thanks for your response Crispin. I’m not sure it’s peace or consensus I’m after. A synthesis of these positions is not a mushy consensus and will necessarily contain tensions which are dynamic and creative. A commitment to social equality is absolutely compatible with a commitment to truth. Discriminating between truth and falsehood is essential and quite different from discrimination on grounds of race, gender or class for instance. I’ve yet to come across any educator who doesn’t believe in truth or measurement but I do think we need to acknowledge the legitimate debate about what knowledge matters and that the choices about what to measure and what knowledge to teach are not neutral or value-free; they are shaped by the culture, values, history and power structures of our society.


  3. This is a great post. I’ve tried to do something similar in my ‘pedagogy tree’ post – talking of a trad-prog symbiosis. The tension is there – but can be harnessed for good effect. Your response to Crispin is something I agree with completely. Thanks.


  4. pterodidactics says:

    Read this last night and have been mulling on a response until now – it’s certainly food for thought.

    This is a great attempt at finding areas of agreement between teachers. For what it’s worth, I can happily agree with it! The fact that Crispin seems to imply that this would be unpalatable to progs just goes to show the need for better cross-bench understanding. I think sometimes we focus so much on pigeon-holing one another that we end up having ‘prog’ vs ‘trad’ debates rather than talking about the things we really care about. I’d much rather, for example, discuss how we talk to children than whether knowledge or skills are more important (surely it’s obviously both?!).

    I realise what I’m about to say slightly contradicts the above, but I do wonder whether actually the heart of this issue might not be what Lucie said yesterday: different children and parents want (suit?) different types of education. Perhaps the best thing is to have a range of options available and let people choose. Some prog schools and some trad schools. Obviously this happens to a degree now, but the full range is not in my view represented within free education. So long as they are equally ‘good’ [takes can of worms from cupboard] then it maybe it doesn’t matter if there is a range of school choices available [opens can].

    The first couple of chapters of Experience and Education certainly are very pertinent now: I remember thinking that were it not for the slightly archaic language that it could have been written yesterday!


  5. pterodidactics says:

    P.S. I don’t mean to say that the other chapters aren’t! 🙂


  6. Pingback: What is powerful knowledge? | Eddie Playfair (and general links for the concept, developed by Michael Young and others) | Systems Community of Inquiry

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