The “Fad Trap” of Progressive Education

Chris McNutt
December 2, 2018
Because these ideas are surface-level, wastefully rolled out, and so commonly a marketing tool rather than for actual teaching, they fall short, kids suffer, the school loses money, and teachers double down on traditional practice.

When presenting data on the increased motivation, curiosity, and creativity of young learners as a result of progressive practices (see here), I am often met with the opposite pendulum of those decrying the need for content knowledge. However, this isn’t a call for understanding the world around us (I believe we all have those intentions), but a push for doubling down on standards, ensuring success through test data, and teachers maintaining total control of their classrooms. Through social media, a common share by this group are quotes such as by author James Tucker:

The education world overspills with thrilling sounding initiatives — from ‘flipped classrooms’ to one-on-one tablets; from forest learning to discovery-based learning. Each new innovation is jumped upon eagerly by hoards of school leaders and education consultants keen to try on the emperor’s new clothes. Yet one of the most powerful influences on learning is so simple and unfashionable that it is often overlooked: a teacher’s capacity to explain things clearly.

In my view, this explains the issue with fads in education more than it makes a solid argument toward rejecting the principles of progressive education (after all, explaining things clearly is not beholden to a traditional mindset.) However, the serious problem of corporate- and capitalist-driven initiatives in the education sphere is a constant threat which deems to undermine any progression toward transformation practice.

At the Deeper Learning Conference 2016, the featured concept was avoiding the plight of an extinguished or lightly kindled flame of prog. ed. — instead we must ignite and brightly burn our fire. And one of the greatest threats to incorporating PBL, growth mindset, critical pedagogy, and ed-tech are the companies who invest so highly in the surface-level widespread proliferation of these concepts, being sold at outrageous prices to unsuspecting schools.

Perhaps the most populated field is PBL — although it is reinvented by many names (a small “twist”) to resell and market. Perhaps it’s:

There’s actually many more of these, but this is enough to show the dangers of a fad. I recall attending an event a few years ago and being pitched “challenge-based learning” as the quintessential way to teach a classroom, starting with about an hour of solid pedagogical framework, followed by an absurdly priced site-wide curriculum guide. Almost every veteran teacher in the room rolled their eyes and took to their phones, but new teachers were honed in — keen on embracing the latest and greatest concepts for their students. Years later I’m sure they will have moved on: they have heard and been promised the same concept again and again. Instead of building upon progressive practice, we’re just customers in the machine.

Of course, each idea above is usually attributed to John Dewey and experiential education, a theory from 1938 which says the same exact stuff. Sometimes the new practice introduces a new, slightly helpful idea (e.g. the design process for helping to organize a project), and others simply replicate older works and claim it as their own (Kolb’s Experiential Learning.) This wouldn’t be a problem if the intention of each program was to help students learn.

It’s unlikely that each creator of a “learning process” was profit-driven, but there’s no denying that their ideas were soon devoted to making money. A quick search for any of these concepts will land you with pop-ups for new books, consulting, frameworks, curriculum, posters, plans, and more. Each promises a radical transformation that only their product can offer. Each tends to use one “famous” educator to sponsor them (an “edu-guru”) or misconstrues research to support their cause.

Although there’s nothing implicitly wrong with wanting to make money, these fads play off the ignorance of school leaders who want the best for their students but don’t have the pedagogical knowledge to “fix” what they deem wrong. Teachers are usually forced to attend the latest fad at a conference, sometimes multiple times a year, and then implement those ideas to the classroom. Because these ideas are surface-level, wastefully rolled out, and so commonly a marketing tool rather than for actual teaching, they fall short, kids suffer, the school loses money, and teachers double down on traditional practice.

This lessens the seriousness of how progressive education should be viewed — because any skeptic can point to these problems and have a convincing argument that prog. ed. isn’t rooted in reality. Quotes like James Tucker’s are almost true, and educators will band together to reject any perceived as “new” ideas. Hence why prog. ed. can be associated with “hippie-style” educators who aren’t grounded in substantial research or “real” practice.

So then the question becomes: what can we do? Outside of convincing school leaders that it is almost never worth it to invest in a standardized curriculum (after all, experiential learning doesn’t have a standardized curriculum — like most progressive practice it’s a mindset, not a step-by-step), we must promote free, open-source, and reputable voices that are willing to speak for the betterment of schools. It’s fine if people want to promote their work, but when we’re impacting the lives of human beings it becomes incredibly difficult to rationalize keeping the “secrets of education” behind a paywall.

In the same vein, we must be diligent in agreeing with traditional educators when they share their disdain for fads in education. We must ensure they know we’re with them that inventing new acronyms isn’t helping anyone — except we offer that progressive education is rooted in research, theory, and history. This may not change anyone’s mind, but it will at least frame the argument around solid pedagogy rather than defend a problem we both take issue with.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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