I have been meaning to commit some thoughts to paper on the theme of progress for some time. In part because of time and in part, I think, because of the nature of the theme, that post has not come until now. It has also come with the realisation that it will probably be a series of posts reflecting my ongoing reading and reflection on progress. I approach the topic of progress with an awareness of a number of perspectives, definitions and uses of the word. I will look at those uses first in this post as a starting point for what I hope will be a series of useful posts in finding my own way around the idea of progress.

To take uses of progress first, I think there are three of which I am reasonably aware: progress in the sense of progressive politics, progress in the wider definition of societal development and then the narrow usage of the word in the context of educational attainment. As a result of my work as a teacher and my involvement in politics, I would argue that education should focus on progress in terms of wider societal development rather than the current bastardisation of the word progress that we allow ourselves to be hamstrung by in schools.

Now please don’t mistake be, educational attainment is important of course because education is, in its loosest sense, a journey. Whatever the aims, curriculum or experience, it is essential that a person should finish their education having in some meaningful way changed from how they began. I don’t think our current notion of progress in education is actually helping people make progress in the wider sense of self-improvement or socialisation. In a sense, these two usages of progress are actually at odds with each other.

I would argue that the progress we currently associate with educational attainment is closely associated with criticisms around the reductivist approach to education whereby we obsess with pupils exam performance so much that we forget more fundamental questions about what we are teaching and why. Somehow educators have become quite happy to allow somebody else to make these decisions for them. We allow ourselves as teachers, and therefore allow the pupils in our care, to be participants in a system not of our own design and therefore is it any wonder why we see so many problems in education?

Whilst some could, with some fairness, argue that levels and grades bare some correlation to how good a scientist, mathematician or geographer you are, I think they would find it difficult to argue that those levels and grades are entirely representative of what it means to be an educated person, either in a specific subject or as a whole. Indeed in the case of the latter, the educated whole, I think that there are range of reasons why there is a dangerous lack of holistic thinking in education.

If we were to start with the whole person and to think about what we want them to be able to do by the end of their (formal) education, we need to think about what we teach and those decisions should all be deeply justified. You might argue that this already happens; for instance in the design of the National Curriculum. Now if for a moment we ignore who designs the National Curriculum, we need to question the justification for the decisions involved with the National Curriculum, or any other curriculum for that matter.

Perhaps the curriculum is justified on the grounds of economic competitiveness. Perhaps it is justified on some notion of what is traditionally held to be an educated person. But perhaps it is designed purely to fit other aspects of the educational system. Do we retain a subject-based approach simply because that is how the system currently works? Why do we divide our curriculum into key stages and exam syallabi? Do we, by retaining some of these aspects of the system, lose site of the full range of possibilities for our education system?

Similarly I came across an interesting ideas from Debra Kidd who questions one of the key principles of our current system whereby pupils are expected to progress in a linear fashion and at a similar pace to everybody else. As a result, whilst there is much rhetoric about raising standards or ‘narrowing the gap’, we implicitly accept that not everybody will gain the same education. Now this is not arguing against specialisation, it is challenging how and when pupils specialise. It is also, more importantly, questioning whether we are teaching the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons and, most importantly, ensuring that everybody enjoys the same educational ‘core’.

I would argue that the way we slavishly focus on how many pupils make a certain amount of progress gets in the way of thinking about educating people in a progressive way so that they can contribute to humanity’s progress (which is so much more than economic growth). Howard Gardner’s most recent work includes a plea for education to refocus on truth, beauty and goodness. This puts as much of an emphasis on self-discovery as on discovery of the world around you. Importantly, whilst building knowledge, it also gives learners a sense of what knowledge is, how it is made and how we must challenge it. To this extent, there is some common territory with Michael Young’s work on powerful knowledge. In both cases the definition of an educated person is firmly in mind at the start, rather than starting with the current system and seeing what we can tweak.

So education as an end in itself, with an acknowledgement that such an education should contribute to social progress. Of course, meaningful work (which isn’t necessarily the same as financially rewarding work) is an important aspect of a good life and a strong economy should work in synergy with a good society. With this in mind, there is little surprise that Howard Gardner’s other major research is around the topic of ‘good work’. A progressive education should also foster a sense of community, a desire to contribute to society, an appreciation of creativity, culture, science and identity and also an awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship. If we believe that these things are important for all people, then we also need to think again about whether our educational system can lead to everybody fully benefitting from such an education.

As I said at the start, these thoughts are in a formative phase and I hope to read and reflect further.

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