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The Progressive Education Fallacy

By Gerard Guthrie

The failure of curriculum reforms in Papua New Guinea prove that formal teaching practices are best for developing nations.

The primary and secondary schools of developing countries are littered with the remnants of attempts to change formalistic teaching. Half a century of conventional educational wisdom has generated progressive teacher education and curriculum reforms that are wrong in principle and widespread failures in practice. Professional educators, especially in aid projects, frequently attempt to introduce inappropriate discovery-oriented teaching styles despite widespread warnings from previous failures.

Confused attempts at curriculum reform often lack professional rigour because they are based on the untested assumption that progressive teaching will accelerate higher-level cognitive learning. These efforts are based on what I call the Progressive Education Fallacy – that developing the enquiring mind needs enquiry-based teaching methods – and confuse the process (enquiry teaching methods) with the product (the enquiring mind).

Governments and aid donors in developing countries often waste considerable efforts to change teaching styles on the unverified assumption that student learning will improve. Yet, progressive assumptions about teaching methods have rarely been debated or tested experimentally in non-Western and especially non-Anglophone cultures. The field of school effectiveness research does focus on student achievement, but has not examined adequately classroom processes and their cultural contexts.

Premature optimism from pilot studies provides a major trap. Often the case studies and surveys that do occur implicitly have teaching style rather than student achievement as the dependent variable. When formative research relies on indirect techniques such as questionnaires, interviews and focus groups, it can misrepresent what is actually occurring in the classroom.

Many pieces of research claim that reforms are being implemented successfully on the basis of superficial questionnaire studies rather than direct observation. Often, the longer-term failure to sustain the predicted change in teaching style is not attributed to inappropriate reforms but to inadequate technical inputs and conservative educational forces.

The blame is cast commonly on formalistic school inspections, the prevalence of a formalistic mentality from previous syllabuses, and teacher training as intervening variables that limit reform. Rarely is deep consideration given to cultural context as a key background variable that provides a subtle but powerful influence – to the extent that it is really a prior condition for classroom change.

Progressive education stems from Eurocentric (especially English-speaking) cultures based on scientific epistemology that holds that knowledge is there to be created and that student-centred progressive education should focus on helping students learn how to discover such knowledge. In contrast, the revelatory cultures that prevail in many parts of the world focus on given truths, which pedagogic teachers should pass on to their students.

Failed curriculum reforms in Papua New Guinea, the high academic achievement found in Confucian-tradition countries, and widespread evidence from Africa and Asia show that progressive education is unlikely to succeed or is unnecessary in countries with pedagogic paradigms founded in revelatory epistemologies.

Papua New Guinea is a prime example. Seven major curriculum reforms over the past 50 years have all failed or lack evidence to support any claims of success. There is little evidence to suggest that a round of education reform persevered with since the early 1990s has succeeded in generating classroom change, despite many inputs from the Australian aid program. Formalistic teaching persists, fundamentally because it is culturally appropriate.

Old-fashioned though formalism may be in some Western countries, classroom change in the developing world does not necessarily require progressive methods, but can focus on upgrading formalism.

Formalistic teaching is not an intermediary step in educational development, but is likely to remain central to many school systems because it’s compatible with traditional and on-going cultural practices and is appropriate for lower-level cognitive learning. Formalism in many countries is a symptom of age-old cultural preferences, not an obstruction to modernisation.

It should not be regarded as a classroom problem readily fixed, but as a deep-rooted cultural behaviour capable of playing an important role long into the future by laying foundations for advanced learning.

Gerard Guthrie was Foundation Professor of Education at the University of Goroka, a Director in AusAID, and a consultant to the World Bank. He is the author of The Progressive Education Fallacy in Developing Countries: In Favour of Formalism.