Education is not the same as training

Sir, – A regular feature of opinion pieces in Irish newspapers is the promotion of what might be termed “progressive education”. Progressive educators tend to view learning as “natural” and presume that if students are not engaged by their studies, then it must be due to the methods being used to teach them. It’s not uncommon for progressive educators to contrast the enthusiasm of toddlers with the apathy of older children and teenagers.

Progressives see teachers and lecturers as “guides on the side” rather than “sages on the stage”. Most will have been influenced by constructivism, a rather vague philosophy and ideology that has evolved from being a theory of how humans piece knowledge together in their brains, to a philosophy of how humans should be taught. So, the core idea that learners “construct their own knowledge” has morphed into a theory in which students are supposed to learn more effectively through inquiry, problem-based learning, project-based learning and group work. Traditional methods in which students are actually taught explicitly and incrementally tend to be dismissed as involving little more than “rote learning”, a loaded term for “remembering”. Indeed, there are many educators who actually believe that emphasising the teaching of knowledge is a form of oppression.

Ironically, progressive commentators often refer to progressive reforms currently taking place in Finland while neglecting the fact that Finland’s reputation is based on Pisa scores (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment) obtained when Finland’s system was largely traditional. Finland’s Pisa scores are currently in decline.

The progressive philosophy is often associated with being “left wing”, perhaps because it has co-opted phrases like “student-centred” or “meeting the individual needs” of students; implying in the process that traditional teacher-led education was designed for the teacher. Progressive education gives the impression of being more caring while many would argue that “caring” in this context is little more than the lowering of expectations.


On the other hand, those with a more traditional outlook, who believe that the curriculum is at the core of education and that novice learners need to be taught in a traditional way, are often characterised as “right wing”.

In truth it’s the other way around. The progressive education philosophy is a depressingly instrumentalist one where education is mistaken for training. It focuses on supposedly generic, 21st-century skills (like “real-world problem solving”), on the need for learning to be immediately relevant to the lives of individual learners (otherwise, apparently, they won’t “engage”), and on preparing students for “jobs that don’t exist”. It is a philosophy that is fixated on process. The Junior Cycle is a perfect example of this. Science learning becomes “how to do science”. History becomes “how to do history”: this, despite that fact that most young people who study science and history will not become scientists or historians. Yes, it is important to have some understanding of the methods of scientists and historians but, to navigate the modern world, everyone needs scientific and historical knowledge – in their heads. If you know nothing, you can’t think critically or even make a basic argument. And you won’t be much fun to be around.

Of course, lurking in the background throughout this rebirth of what are actually quite old progressive ideas, have been two factors: the turn of the millennium and the internet. The end of any era inevitably makes people reflect and look to the future. The urge to argue that change is required is a strong one at the best of times, especially when technology is advancing rapidly and the world seems to be getting more complicated. In that context, repeating the phrase “21st century” as a justification for change becomes no more than a habit

But the biggest contributing factor to the rebirth of progressive education is the internet, specifically search engines like Google. Why acquire any knowledge when you have Google? Surely we can just “look it up”. Surely what we need are skills, skills that will allow us to take advantage of the biggest store of knowledge imaginable. Rather than teach knowledge we should be teaching students how to learn! Of course, this implies that at some stage we will need to learn something so why not start now? We cannot learn to learn indefinitely.

If only it was as simple as just looking it up? The reality is that without relevant knowledge, students search badly and they interpret badly. Without knowledge, how can possibly spot fake news, fad diets and pseudoscience?

As the Irish education system, which is a good one by international standards, embarks on a period of change, we have to remember one key point: education is not an exact science so when we introduce change to the system, especially major change like the transformation of the Junior Cert into the Junior Cycle, we are conducting an experiment; a large-scale experiment on children and young adults during their formative years. Any changes we make must be accompanied by evidence; real rigorous evidence. Unfortunately, we’re increasingly opting for plausibility.

A key problem with education reform is that most educators suffer from the “curse of knowledge”. We’ve forgotten where we’ve come from and ideas like interdisciplinarity, the death of subjects and phenomenon-based learning are being promoted by progressive educators, not because there is any good evidence for them but because they seem plausible to adults who have had the benefit of many years of traditional, knowledge-focused education.

So let’s not repeat the mistakes made in Scotland where the “Curriculum for Excellence” has been a disaster. Let’s opt for incremental, evidence-informed change, not radical change informed by ideology. – Yours, etc,


Associate Professor,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.