Arguing the case for traditional education

I’ve been thinking a lot about the traditional-progressive divide in the last few days. In particular, I’ve been seeking a nice, concise definition of “constructivism”. No luck so far; it seems to mean what you want it to mean. Anyway, during my journey around the web, I came across the following description of traditional education. Here are my comments on what a progressive educator (obviously) thinks of traditional education.


Curriculum begins with the parts of the whole. Emphasizes basic skills.

This approach makes perfect sense. It has always been my experience that students prefer a specific-to-general approach rather than a general-to-specific approach. For example in my current Bioreaction Engineering lectures I cover batch reactors, fed-batch reactors and continuous reactors before I bring them all together in one single (elegant) framework where mathematical terms can be “knocked off” to recover the special cases. Students like the tangible (concrete examples), not so much the abstract.

As for basic skills, who could quibble with that? Rugby is a 15-a-side full contact sport but no one would seriously suggest that a youngster should just start playing rugby without some strength and conditioning, not to mention loads of practice at tackling, passing, kicking etc. Indeed, without an awareness of the basic skills require to operate in the various positions on the field, the novice rugby player will have no tactical awareness.

Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued.

I would debate the word “strict” in this context because it is well within the gift of teachers, and especially lecturers, to “depart from the script” as a means of engaging and motivating students. I regularly do this as in a recent lecture when I told the story of Francis Arnold, a chemical engineer, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 2018. She’s had a tragic but inspirational life.

The point about curriculum is an important one though. The trend in education theses days, especially in Ireland with its new Junior Cycle, is to take the view that actual content is unimportant and that the acquisition of knowledge is little more than a vehicle for developing skills and personality traits. The Irish Council for Curriculum and Assessment seems not to have any view on what 16 years olds should know. Perhaps this is because of Google and the “they can always look it up” argument or maybe it has to do with the times we live in and curriculum designers’ reluctance to proscribe what should be learnt out of fear of causing offense. Either way, the idea that students should (or should not) acquire specified knowledge is one of the main battlegrounds of modern education debate.

Materials are primarily textbooks and workbooks

This certainly used to be true and if memory serves me right, the use of standard textbooks is/was a key feature of the much-lauded Finnish education system. The argument against the use of textbooks is hard to fathom. Why, for example, would a novice science student use original papers (often poorly written) to learn complex scientific concepts when a textbook written by an expert in the field might be available. Surely it makes sense to be guided through a subject by an expert. The odd thing is that in many walks of life, from acting to singing to playing an musical instrument to playing a sport, it is taken as a given that having an expert coach or mentor is an efficient and effective way of learning a new skill or acquiring new knowledge. For some reason though, many progressive educators seem to be of the view that it is a bad thing to tell students too much – or even anything. They should construct knowledge for themselves. I’m imagining now a scenario of Roger Federer at a session with his coach and being constantly asked “what to you think we need to do with your backhand? Let’s work through this!”

Learning is based on repetition.

No it’s not. Learning is based on having ideas and concepts explained by a teacher followed by the student consolidating his or her knowledge through study and practice. At times, as in mathematics, some repetition might be required to embed key ideas and techniques, but generally the approach will be to assign students tasks of escalating difficulty. Again to use a sporting analogy, no one would argue with the idea that a golfer should just spend his/her time playing (badly) 18 holes of golf. No, they would be perfectly happy to accept that a novice golfer should go to a driving range and hit buckets of balls, preferably with a coach standing beside him/her giving advice on the mechanics of the gold swing.

Teachers disseminate information to students; students are recipients of knowledge

Yes, this is true. But teaching, at school or at university, is ideally highly interactive with lots of opportunities for students to ask questions. At what precisely is the problem with being a recipient of knowledge from an expert? The concept of a “master class” is a good example of people taking time to receive knowledge from an expert. If you’re a budding actor, surely you’d love to spend time with, say, Daniel Day Lewis and pick his brains (or maybe not!). Perhaps much of this dislike of students receiving knowledge from a teacher is once again related to the “whose knowledge” question, a question that seems to bedevil the humanities.

Teacher’s role is directive, rooted in authority.

There is some truth in this particularly in secondary school where behaviour is usually an issue. In universities, the relationship between the lecturer and students is much more like a partnership than many people might think. We want students to learn but it’s not our job to force them. They have made the hopefully mature decision to go to university so the responsibility for learning is theirs. We chart a course through the material, explain the hard stuff and it is the student’s ‘job’ to consolidate their knowledge through independent learning.

Assessment is through testing, correct answers

The idea that traditional educators are obsessed with “correct” answers is one of the biggest myths of modern education. Credit for ‘method’ as opposed to correctness is routinely given. Indeed many assessments require the student to make a coherent argument, not to present the ‘right’ one. Sometimes, creativity is rewarded instead of realism, something that I do in my Mass Transfer lectures. The idea that we are obsessed with correctness is utterly wrong.

Knowledge is seen as inert

Well this one is not even wrong.

Students work primarily alone

That’s probably true and so what? (Mind you, in the sciences, working in small groups and teams is not uncommon.) This is where one of the biggest fallacies in progressive education arises: it’s the idea that because the world of work is like X, then education should be like X. This is one of the “wrongest” ideas in modern education. Not only is it instrumentalist, it’s also totally at odds with what we know about how people prepare for all sorts of roles in life. But progressive educators might say “Collaboration is a key 21st century skill! The World Economic Forum says so!” Fine, but the ability to collaborate is probably more like a personality trait than a “skill”. And, anyway, who wants to collaborate with a wonderful team player who brings nothing to the table?

We would do well to listen to our students a bit more. They can be very wise. A few years ago I was chatting to my nephew, who is also an engineer, and he said: “the only way to learn engineering is to look yourself in your room and do tons of problems.” He was only in his early twenties at the time but he made a lot more sense than many progressive educators.

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