Which is better: traditional or progressive teaching?

Which is the best style of schooling: “traditional” or “progressive”? Schools Minister Nick Gibb fights on the side of the former.

He can hardly make a speech without blasting progressive methods. He hopes the controversy will be settled once and for all and only government-approved methods will be allowed in English state schools.

But controversy over pedagogy isn’t new. It precedes Plowden, Dewey, Rousseau. It goes right back to the 5th century BC when Aristophanes mocked teaching methods in his satirical play, The Clouds.

The play’s main character, Strepsiades, tries to avoid paying debts accumulated by his horse-loving son. He’s heard of a school where pupils are taught to argue in such a way they will always win. He hopes to be able to prove he owes his creditors nothing. To master the art of “logic-chopping and hair-splitting”, he enrols himself into The Thinkery, the academy run by Socrates.

The Thinkery is inhabited by the ancient Greek equivalent of wishy-washy progressives: philosophers. These “stuck-up white-faced characters” indulge in activities that today would be described as “enquiry-based learning”. They devise experiments to measure the length of a flea’s jump. It involves putting flea’s feet into melted wax. They spend time crouching with their heads touching the earth to investigate “phenomena underground”.

A student tells Strepsiades that when Socrates was gazing upwards to study the moon’s orbit, a “lizard on the roof shitted right in his face!”

In case anyone is in doubt about what Aristophanes thinks of Socrates, the Chorus (the clouds of the title) greet him thus:

“Hail, grey-headed hunter of phrases artistic!

“Hail, Socrates, master of twaddle!”

Using a blizzard of double-entendres and scatological humour, Aristophanes ridicules Socrates, his methods and the art of rhetoric (“good debating points which don’t actually mean anything”).

But it would be wrong to think Aristophanes is firmly against the progressives. He introduces an argument between two characters, Right and Wrong, who debate education theory. The Chorus introduce the discussion:

“As you battle in words and in thoughts of the mind,

“Let us see which is better and which lags behind;

“We’re concerned in this contest for Socrates’ sake;

“For the future of Learning, no less, is at stake.”

First up is Right, the upholder of tradition. He extols zero-tolerance. He describes a Golden Age when boys were sober and good-mannered, tough and hardy. They learnt old songs by heart. They were chaste. At the mention of chastity, however, Right is revealed as a pervert. He gets carried away with descriptions of thighs being pressed together and penises “like peaches, all velvety and dewy”.

Wrong dismisses Right’s opinions as archaic and quaint, “fit for history’s dustbin”. But Right reminds him that it was such methods that bred “the men who fought at Marathon”.

So, “traditional” v “progressive”? Which won in the end? It would appear to have been “traditional”. Socrates was eventually convicted of corrupting Athenian youth and sentenced to death.

Neither won in the long term. The argument continues today. As Dr Mary Beard said at the Education Committee Conference in September last year:

“These debates are never going to end. There is no right answer. We’re never going to be able to sit back, and say, ‘OK – education’s sorted now’ . . . the priority is to try to ensure that the debates we have are as productive as possible.”

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