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On progressives and traditionalists

I was reading a blog post by Greg Ashman in which he listed six ways to know whether you are a progressive teacher. Among them was this:

"You believe that learning should be natural.

This is probably the fundamental tenet of progressivism and it leads to some of the others. Have you ever noticed how children effortlessly learn to speak or walk? Have you noticed how they figure out how to play with a new toy? Do you think that education should be like that; joyful and natural?

If so, you will be suspicious of activities that look forced and unnatural such as drill and practice. You will be skeptical of phonics instruction in reading, not because you think children shouldn’t learn letter-sound relationships but because you don’t think they should be drilled in them. They should instead pick this up by reading real, authentic books; a more natural method."

This, of course, will ring a bell if you are interested in debates about language teaching approaches. Supporters of natural, pure comprehensible input methods à la Krashen and TPRS often say how easy and painless the approach is for pupils. If you get interesting input nature takes its course and language learning ceases to be hard work. That sounds progressive.

I must confess I had never looked at this particularly from the perspective of the progressive-traditionalist argument, but it did get me thinking. Yes, learning grammar explicitly, doing drill practice, translating, doing form-focused teacher-led question-answer - all of these have a more traditional feel to them than telling stories and doing purely meaning based tasks. But this just shows that what is progressive can change over time.

When I started out in teaching, grammar-translation was traditional and audiolingual and teacher-led adapted direct method ("death by question-answer") was considered progressive. I was quite "progressive" then. By the 1980s, as communicative teaching was imported from TEFL, teacher-led QA, even when largely in TL, was getting a bit fusty. Functions, notions, information gaps and pair work became the name of the game. Meaning was beginning to trump form.

By 2016, in some quarters, CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) is now a bit old hat and only natural approaches would be considered progressive. When you read second language acquisition research you can see where this trend stems from - many theorists and researchers value input more highly than explicit grammar teaching and practice.

It goes to show that the idea of progressiveness, at least in terms of language teaching, is a moving feast. It may also go to explain why language teachers are a little reluctant to get into the whole progressive-traditionalist debate. Most language teachers are not at all dogmatic about methods. They use a mixture of approaches and techniques, more or less successfully, influenced largely by the way they were taught themselves and with some influence from the current zeitgeist. It's a minority of evangelists who these days argue for a "best method".

Successful teachers deliver their eclectic mix efficiently, with some idea of why they doing what they do. Other less successful ones may not have thought through the reasons for their approach, may not put in the effort, spend too much time having fun or doing unproductive activities, maybe follow fashion too much or may just not relate that well to their classes.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Great post Steve and very balanced. I am one language teacher who just wants to be more effective and being polarised in one camp or the other just seems to be a missed opportunity as there positives and negatives with both depending on the multitude of needs of students in my class. The wise teacher knows how to select from the whole range depending on the objective, student and situation. Thank you for another very thoughtful and honest post. Barri


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