Progressive and Traditional Teachers: What Works?


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the ‘most followed teacher on social media in the UK’. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the ‘500 Most Influential People in Britain’ by The Sunday…
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Does a particular teaching philosophy lead to better outcomes?

“…so far as practical affairs of the school are concerned [teaching] tends to take the form of a contrast between traditional and progressive education” (Dewey, 1938).

This week, Dr Sam Sims and Prof John Jerrim published a 51-page working paper: Traditional and progressive orientations to teaching: new empirical evidence on an old debate – using questionnaire data on teachers’ overall traditional or progressive orientations across a set of issues.

Where is the evidence?

TRADITIONAL AND PROGRESSIVE ORIENTATIONS TO TEACHING “For centuries, educationalists have debated the relative merits of the traditional and progressive approaches to teaching.” Since the birth of Twitter, teachers across England have been discussing progressive and traditional teaching methods, with politicians sometimes jumping in on the debate to win over their constituents.

Sometimes, this debate has become more public for teachers; more connected, bitter, and divisive. However, the evidence to show that one style works better than the other, or if particular methods used in one school help produce a wider range of outcomes – not just examination grades – is hard to find!

The last time anything notable pricked the ears of teachers across Twitter was when Steve Watson published ‘New Right 2.0: Teacher populism on social media in England’ (2020).

For a decade, I’ve been part of this debate too, searching for ANY evidence, unpicking organisations, Twitter, and its influence on education politics.

Why does it matter?

… the shortcoming of existing literature is that it tends to focus solely on test score outcomes. These studies are silent on other outcomes … despite the long running and often vociferous nature of this debate, very few empirical studies have addressed it directly.

Questions I have asked…

  1. If a teaching style dominates, do these students achieve better results in one class than others?
  2. Is rewards or sanctions more of a feature of any dominant style?
  3. Does the teaching style match the teacher’s own experience of schooling? New or experienced?
  4. Is a subject more likely to teach in the ‘traditional/progressive sense’? Primary or secondary?
  5. Does the classroom infrastructure have any influence? eg facilities, layout.

Finally, we have something to consider in this new paper, and I would strongly recommend you read it. For me, rather than produce a summary of the paper, I’ve highlighted some key ideas, claims, and contributions I believe are worth pursuing.


As with all research, it is critical to know how findings are published. In this study, Sims and Jerrim measure “teachers’ traditional and progressive orientations using questionnaire data and then using this to model teachers’ influence on their pupils’ learning and development… ”

… but with a warning.

On pages 14 onwards, the paper outlines how the data was gathered.

“Our novel approach also requires us to make certain assumptions. We do not directly observe teachers’ classroom practice in our dataset. Instead, we rely on the plausible assumption that teachers with a more traditionalist or more progressive orientation will in practice adopt different approaches to teaching.”

On page 25, the research outlines the limitations of the study.

… our data relates to a single country – Germany. As with all data collected within a single country, caution is called for when drawing implications for other countries.

Whilst I welcome this research, we must be cautious. On my travels to schools, I see primary and secondary teachers using traditional and progressive methods in the same school. Traditional primary teachers and progressive secondary teachers and vice versa. Research must not pigeonhole teachers by assumption.

Research questions

  1. Do pupils make faster progress in academic subjects when they are exposed to teachers with a more traditionalist orientation?
  2. Do different pupils make more equal progress in academic subjects when they are exposed to more traditionalists teaching?
  3. Do pupils display greater interest in learning when they are exposed to more progressive teaching or more traditionalist teaching?
  4. Do pupils make faster progress in developing domain-general metacognitive skills when they are exposed to more progressive teaching?

My key takeaways

  1. … traditionalists argue that teachers should carefully select and sequence the best knowledge from their subject areas and then deliver it directly to the whole class.
  2. … progressives argue that teachers should aim to nurture the natural curiosity and interests of each child.
  3. Since this future is inherently uncertain, progressives argue that teachers should focus on the development of domain general critical capacities, metacognitive skills, and experimental attitudes, that will equip them to deal with whichever novel challenges they might go on to face.

Key conclusions from the study

  1. The data suggests that carefully sequenced teacher-led instruction may actually help to nurture pupils’ interest in a subject.
  2. This paper serves as a reminder that educators should be speculating about broad-brush explanatory accounts such as those offered by the traditionalist and progressive schools of thought.
  3. The research finds quite limited support for the claims made by either side – teachers should discuss teaching ideas, not approaches.
  4. Progressive arguments that traditionalists risk undermining pupil interest in learning appear to be misplaced.
  5. A traditionalist approach in which teachers carefully sequence the best content appears to better support pupils’ interest in learning. Besides this, however, the arguments made by both traditionalists and progressives appear to have little support in our data, suggesting the debate has been somewhat misleading for the field.

Questions I now want to ask…

With reference to the above:

  1. Do progressive teachers carefully sequence the best knowledge, then carefully deliver it to the whole class?
  2. Do traditional teachers nurture curiosity and the interests of each child?
  3. Do traditional teachers not teach students metacognitive strategies?

This is a welcomed contribution to a century (or two) old debate.

… we might be concerned that teachers’ self-proclaimed teaching orientation does not feed through into their classroom practice in a way that is faithful to the underlying theory.

Download the paper and join the discussion!

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