The Progressive Traditionalism of Special Education

Since engaging with Twitter and the world of educational blogging I have read with interest the debates between those espousing a Traditionalist or Progressive view of education. What has struck me is that this position often seems to be characterised as being about the teacher as a singular professional, taking a distinct pedagogical approach within a wider professional community. This raises the question of how those with differing philosophical approaches coexist within a single organisational structure and to what extent competing approaches enhance or compromise the collective provision of a school.

In Special education one of the key characteristics which drives successful provision is a very clear, consistently delivered pedagogical approach. This is not to say teachers need to deliver uniformity, but it is advantageous to operate within a consistent philosophical framework. Part of the reason for this is to maintain the continuity between classes from one year to the next. This supports the management of challenging behaviour and helps maintain developmental momentum. The nature of the learning needs of many of our pupils would mean that too significant a shift in the style of teaching from day to day or even year to year, could have a negative impact on progress. As such our mode of delivery, of a curriculum which is tailored to meet the highly individual need of our pupils, is a matter of agreed consensus within the teaching team.

I am aware that the very nature of what is Traditional or Progressive is part of the debate. So for arguments sake I have borrowed definitions and comparative statements from Tom Sherrington’s excellent blog “The Progressive-Traditional Pedagogy Tree”.

Traditional: Leaning towards an emphasis on content, structures, ordered systems, formal learning, measurable outcomes

Progressive: Leaning towards an emphasis on processes, experiences,organic systems, informal learning, intangible outcomes” – Tom Sherrington (2014)

So what characterises the approach we take, what are the key elements of our style and how do they interrelate with one another?

In reflecting on this, there are two key areas of consideration. The first is the curricular structure of the school and how this adjusts from one age phase to another. The second is the way we approach the acquisition, consolidation, generalisation and application of knowledge.

As a school we have two distinct curricula, one for pupils up to the age of sixteen and one which is for pupils within the post-16 department. These are broadly focussed on two different educational purposes and reflect the only point in the school where there is a distinct shift in approach, a conscious decision to reflect the transition into adulthood and life beyond the school.

In the main part of the school the curriculum is essentially a concept base structure within which the focus is on the developmentally progressive acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills. Once pupils arrive in Post-16 the focus becomes directed on the successful application of existing knowledge within functional community based contexts. This is not to say that the pre-sixteen curriculum doesn’t allow for application or that once a child reaches sixteen we abandon new knowledge, but rather that the emphasis is on a movement from acquisition towards application. This can be summarised in the diagram below:

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 22.50.43
As can be seen from the diagram there is a movement within the school which can be defined as being from a broadly progressive approach through one which is characterised by more traditional methodologies and which is concluded with a return to progressive modes of delivery.

The curricula we have written can be found here:

However the methodologies used within those parts of the school are not definitively traditional or progressive, but rather a synthesis of the two.

In the Early Years we are working with children as young as two, all of whom have some form of complex developmental need. The nature of these needs is not always clear and as such one of the key roles of the staff in that part of the school is the formal assessment of existing skills, in order to establish which areas of cognitive development are developmental priorities. This is delivered in a traditional method making use of direct instruction, expert knowledge and repeated testing in order to establish understanding. Yet we are not just looking at the nature of intellectual development, but also the sense of development of self. To what extent are the children aware of others, can interact effectively, are able to operate within social structures and understand how to behave in a way which won’t leave them isolated. This requires the teacher to act as facilitator and interpreter, with learning being flexible and self directed. What we are trying to develop, is an understanding of the wider socio-emotional development of the child and that is best served by a less directed structure. But at the same time we are establishing behavioural guidelines and this is based on a causal relationship between behaviour and consequences which has traditional elements.

As the children move into full time education we move towards a model which is more rooted in traditional pedagogies. Having established the developmental needs of the child and begun to address them in within EYFS, the focus becomes more directly on acquisition of new knowledge and skills. The main aim being to address gaps in development and improve attainment. This is highly instructional and reliant on teacher expertise both in the identification of the developmental priorities and in the specifics of delivery. There is a significant amount of 1:1 teaching with the process of learning being very tightly defined and highly structured. However this is not the only methodology used, more of which later.

Once the pupils get to year 12 and move into the Post-16 part of the school then the organisational structure has far more in common with progressive approaches, as does the way in which the staff work. There is no age based grouping with all three year groups working collectively. Lessons do not always have a defined length, but instead can be process based, for example the tasks necessary to decide upon what to eat, buy, prepare and consume the food. However the assessment of this is very clearly structured with tightly defined learning objectives for every young person, covering context specific learning and more generic personalised progress. There is a high level of co-construction, choice and group based work, as we begin to deconstruct the structures around learning in order to better reflect the contextual reality of applying those skills learned within the wider world.

So for us the curricular models we have developed reflect a movement between progressive models and traditional ones, making use of elements of both to best suit the needs of the pupils at any particular time and also meet the needs of what is being taught.

It is also important to consider the pattern of learning from the point of view of the introduction of new concepts and skills. This would be initiated through detailed assessment of developmental need on a highly individualised basis. Then individual targets would be taught directly to the child using a highly structured 1:1 approach. Once the agreed criteria for success have been reached then we would be looking to have these generalised through less structured group work sessions, using varied resources and contexts in order to avoid conceptual understanding being tied to particular tools or activities. This would then be taken further through extension based work where the pupils work with minimal adult intervention on skills which are known to have been generalised. In many ways our approach to teaching starts with the traditional and becomes more progressive as the pupils demonstrate competency, a journey from traditional acquisition through to progressive application, within curricula structures which start off broadly progressive, become traditional before returning to the progressive. A fluidity which allows us to maximise the potential of the exceptionally complex children that we work with.

So considering this, admittedly brief, summary of our approaches, where do we sit within the context of the traditional or progressive debate. My view is that we are neither, but at the same time both. We are Progressively Traditional, or possibly Traditionally Progressive?


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