Daisy, Daisy… is she both Right and wrong?


One of traditional far Right-wing teachers’ current favourite party games appears to be identifying what they describe as the myths of progressive teaching and learning. They then tweet to each other in utter disbelief and with great smugness when they encounter someone who has not been persuaded by their dogma – their self-assuredness and unwillingness to even consider views other than their own is frightening. Meanwhile the national press picks up on their sensationalist claims which it publishes with delight, giving the general public the mistaken impression that our schools are full of free-thinking, do whatever you like, so-called progressive Marxist teachers. And, as All Change Please! has already observed in RU a trendy teacher?, in reality, teachers of the type they seek to exterminate just don’t exist – they are just too busy in the classroom getting on with the job to even consider the matter.

In the video clip above, Daisy Christodoulo, current doyenne of the Right and author of ‘Seven Myths About Education‘, makes a very reasonable assertion, that knowledge is essential to learning – but then, as her colleagues do, she goes on to perpetuate a myth herself – that progressive teaching involves no knowledge transfer whatsoever. And of course what she doesn’t mention is that from the 1950s – when traditional rote learning was very much the order of the day – to the mid 1990s, standards of literacy apparently remained pretty much the same. Furthermore The Literacy Trust suggests that rates have risen substantially since the late 1990s. Of course the figures do rather depend on what is defined by the term ‘ poor literacy’.  Literacy figures simply a right-wing fantasy

And this pattern is repeated through the rest of the traditionalists’ so-called myths – indeed what they succeed most in doing is revealing their own lack of understanding about what contemporary approaches to education actually involve, and what is currently happening in a positive way in the majority of our schools. Most worryingly, the far Right are succeeding in demonising attempts to find and develop the new ways of learning that are needed to meet the requirements of the 21st Century.

All Change Please! feels that it’s about time some of the Right’s more outrageous statements were challenged, and so here’s All Change Please!’s myth-busting guide to the myths behind the traditionalists’ myths of progressive, child-centred teaching and learning. If the Right want to present a caricature of the Left, then it works the other way round too.

1. There’s no need to learn any facts
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that teaching children facts prevents understanding and that they don’t need to have any prior knowledge in order to be able to adequately debate issues or solve problems. This is of course utter, utter nonsense as the vast majority of teachers readily agree that children need to acquire knowledge. However, they also realise that if children are only taught facts that their understanding of them will be limited, and that it is sometimes useful to set up learning activities in which children identify for themselves what knowledge they are likely to need and then set about acquiring it for themselves.

2. Just Google it!
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that because the future is difficult to predict then there’s no point in teaching children anything, and that all knowledge can be easily found on the internet anyway. This is another gross misconception. Teachers accept that, while often very helpful, there are limitations to what can be learnt on-line. They also understand that while certain areas of basic knowledge remain essential, other areas of traditionally taught knowledge are likely to be redundant in the future, and so we need a proper reappraisal of exactly what facts should and do not need to be taught in school.

At the same time, what has become increasingly essential is that children learn how to learn for themselves so that they will be able to easily acquire and the knowledge they eventually do discover they need to have when the future actually arrives. And effectively learning things via the internet is in itself a demanding skill that we should be putting more emphasis on teaching in school, because at present it’s not something we do terribly well.

3. Teacher-led lessons are boring
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that teacher-led instruction is by definition passive. Of course it’s not, or at least it needn’t be. Everyone knows that teacher-led lessons can be extremely effective and essential, especially when balanced with some practical work, and opportunities for learners to contribute their own ideas. Unfortunately though, there are still some traditional teachers who do little more than stand at the front of the class giving what is essentially a lecture, with pupils copying notes from the board.

4. It’s all about transferable skills
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that only generic skills should be taught. But so-called progressive teachers realise that   there are indeed a wide range of skills that are directly transferable and could be better taught more effectively if properly managed across the curriculum. But they also accept that there are still certain skills that are unique to each particular subject discipline. In contrast, traditional teachers don’t like the idea that their specialist subject domains might not be quite as specialist as they might think and refuse to make any connections with other subjects. They like to place themselves in a walled garden, whereas in reality the world is rather more open-plan and inter-disciplinary with generic skills being applied alongside recognisable bodies of knowledge.

5. Projects are the only way to learn
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that project and activity-based learning is the best way to learn. Actually they are probably correct about this one, especially if it is well-managed, guided independent learning that is being developed. However so-called ‘trendy’ teachers still acknowledge that practical work does need to be balanced with traditional knowledge-based learning, although perhaps more on an individual ’need to know’ rather than ‘just in case’ basis. The problem is that traditionalists generally won’t have anything to do with project work. In the first instance they’ve never tried it because they know it doesn’t work. And in any case they’ve never taught that way, and they know they would probably make a complete mess of it.

6. Every child is different
Traditionalists believe that progressives believe that each child learns best in its own particular way and that teaching methods need to reflect this. Again, they are probably right to think this about more modern approaches. Most successful teachers have realised through their own observation and experience that some children learn more effectively if they are presented with knowledge in a visual format or have done something active rather than just being told about it or have read it, i.e. verbally.

Traditionalists have read about a small-scale US academic research experiment that demonstrated that including visual or practical content made no difference to verbally-based knowledge-based test scores, thus apparently proving once and all that they are fully justified in maintaining their ‘sit-still, keep quiet and listen’ single style of teaching that fits a supposedly common style of learning. Of course in practice it’s impossible for more progressive teachers to prepare a different method of delivery for each child in the class (although computer-aided learning metrics claims it can and will), but nonetheless the vast majority of teachers will tell you that lessons that involve visual and practical work are generally likely to be more successful than those that don’t.


So having de-mythologised progressive teaching and learning, by this point All Change Please! is of course quite unable to resist the temptation to present its own highly controversial, completely biased – and entirely unsubstantiated by questionable small-sample research data – myths about extreme Right-wing traditionalists.

Progressive teachers believe that the most traditional right-wing teachers tend to like things to be black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, and they get anxious about things that are ambiguous or could be interpreted in more than one way. They enjoy asserting their authority over others and the feeling of being in control over them. They rather like the sound of their own voices and derive satisfaction from the idea that they are filling children’s otherwise empty minds with unquestionable facts and figures.

Traditionalists find teacher-led lessons easier to deliver, because child-centred lessons are much more demanding to manage and might mean they are not entirely in control of the classroom situation. They fear that the class might detect a gap in their knowledge and as a result develop a lack of respect. Assessment is a great deal easier too, because pupils either know the answer or they don’t.

Traditional teachers tend to deny that substantial change is happening in the world and that things will be different in the future, or to put it another way, they express a deep fear of change. While progressive teachers are generally happy to accept that a lot of what traditionalists claim is true, traditionalists feel the need to denounce progressive approaches, and to quote flimsy evidence as proof of the existence of Gove.

But, in conclusion, and echoing Alan Jones’ recent statement that:

“..the truth is that education is about both knowledge and skills, about what’s out there and what’s inside the child. It’s the intelligent blending of the two things that makes for good education, not the exclusive adherence to one or the other.”

what actually exists in the majority of our schools is a generally healthy mix of traditional and progressive teaching and learning, and there should not be any need for either side to feel the need to make unhelpful and highly contentious and misleading statements about the other. And while All Change Please! now feels a whole lot better for having at least launched a few retaliatory missiles, it knows that what’s really needed are some diplomatic peace talks in which the far Left and far Right can come to a negotiated settlement that ensures that today’s children are fully and appropriately prepared for whatever the future brings them.

In every other aspect of life people have evolved and adapted to changing conditions through progress – but All Change Please!‘s concern is that if the educational far Right has its way, we will soon be all extinct.

12 comments on “Daisy, Daisy… is she both Right and wrong?

  1. Reader Janie Prune writes:

    We have been listening to the likes of Daisy for forty years, criticising things (that people like Chris Woodhead proselytised before his conversion) that we all ‘took the good from and threw out the rest’ in the 80s and 90s. The argument is only dragged up by opportunists trying to get out of the classroom. Unfortunately, the media is run by ex-public school boys/girls who have never set foot in a non fee-paying school in their lives and whom are so threatened by the rise in quality of state education (particularly in its ability to access university places, thus endangering the privileged position of their children and grandchildren) that it is only too keen to latch on to any familiar-sounding argument to denigrate the system. The ‘progressive education’ one is hauled out every five years when all else fails. It’s still sickening though – as is Daisy..

    • @Peter

      Thanks for your response. I have to say in turn that I find the arguments put forward by traditionalists unconvincing. However I find reading their posts well worthwhile as it gives me greater insight into where they are coming from and what the issues are.

      The two main messages from my post were first that I have not been convinced that the type of ‘progressive’ teacher portrayed by the right actually exists, or at least if they do, in so small a number to make them inconsequential. Secondly I proposed that instead of the right always dismissing what I believe to be more of the ‘centre’ than the left, we should all be working together to provide the best possible educational experience for children. I would be interested to know why you feel these are ‘incredibly poor’ arguments?

      • @James Thanks for asking an interesting question. I guess there is a difference between the political left-wing and the educational right-wing, and it was the latter I was referring to in the post. The main differences I drew out were more between educational ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’.

  2. I thought this was rather good. Thanks.

    I am heartened that one or two of the Tradstremists may be softening their extreme stance. Less “impossible” and more “more difficult”, less “none” and more “few”, less “definitely” and more “often”.

    However there are others who are moving away from “weak arguments” and more “shite”.

  3. Re. the video of Daisy at the top – where’s the equivalent of ‘All Change Please!’ sitting in the middle of an art studio with a group of exuberant kids, displaying the statement that “A fifth of pupils leave school with poor levels of visual literacy, empathy and creativity, and lacking in the ability to collaborate”?!

  4. It’s remarkable that you see Christodoulou’s work in purely political terms. This is absent from her book. I have read it and cannot tell where she stands on the political spectrum. However some of the statements therein definitely lean toward the left by anyone’s measure, for what it matters to this discussion (In my view, it is irrelevant). So your post is entirely irrelevant.

    Her book is flush with citations from the literature and direct quotations from within the educational establishment to prove her point. You leave all her actual evidence untouched. Furthermore, you appear to gravely misunderstand her case at its most basic level: Christodoulou establishes that these myths are prevalent in the EDUCATIONAL ESTABLISHMENT — the training schools, the “experts” and inservice trainers, the Ofsteds and others within that realm who put great pressure on teachers to conform to their educational dogma. What she does NOT argue is that teachers have uniformly bent to this pressure and consequently conform faithfully to that dogma. She DOES make a strong case that the prevalance of these myths within the establishment, however, has malign consequences in the culture of schools and classrooms around the nation. You may produce examples of teachers who dissent from it until blue in the face and you will not have touched her argument, for you will only be illustrating that you don’t know what her argument was.

    • @R.Craigen Thanks for your response. As I replied to James it was not intended as necessarily a reference to a political left and right wing. Although I drew heavily on Daisy’s ‘Seven Myths’ I was not directly reviewing her book as such, but more to the stereotypical images of ‘progressive’ teachers and teaching methods that have emerged (often through the popular press) as a result.

      However, from my own experience (over the past 40 years) I would not agree with you that these so-called myths are prevalent in the ‘Educational Establishment’, and, having visited many schools I have seen very little that might justify the proposition that there have been ‘malign consequences in the culture of schools and classrooms around the nation’. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a myth that teachers have been put under ‘great pressure…to conform to their educational dogma’.

  5. Tony

    Do you not appreciate that you have simply reinforced one of the messages that come from the post. You have presented an extreme position that the poster went to great lengths to explain was not their position.

    Why do you pick an art studio, this just seems to show your bigotry. Why do you describe them as “exuberant” as if “exuberant” kids would be expected in an art studio.

    It is quite possible they would enjoy themselves, but I feel that you use the term “exuberant” in a negative way, as if they were in a maths class they would be obedient and under control.

    This is the sort of caricature approach that leads many teachers to feel offended by Daisy C’s myths, when in fact there are grains of truth in most of the myths which are unfortunately lost as a result of taking an extreme view.

    However, I guess a “grain of truth” approach doesn’t sell books or attract followers.

  6. Dear bt0558

    I am sorry you think it is an extreme position to be devastated that so many young people leave school with such an impoverished experience and that the only thing we measure, value and report is their ability to pass dis-functional memory based maths and literacy tests.

    I am also sorry if you feel choosing an art studio and participating pupils to contrast with the empty Victorian classroom Daisy chose is biggoted. And yes I would feel very disappointed if children did not feel at least a bit exuberent when they came to my art studio.

    I had the pleasure of working briefly with Jo Baoler (http://joboaler.com/) some 25 years ago and I know the children she worked with were often exhuberent about the way they learnt maths with her. Sadly her inclusive and progressive apporach is just the thing the current ‘anti-blob’ campaign seems determined to squeeze out.

    I would love there to be ‘a healthy balance between progressive and traditional approaches’ but sadly the ‘fact’ based learning camp (like the streamers and selecters) have always held all the cards. As the facts that are taught and tested become more and more restrictive and centralised it seems ironic that the so called progressives get the blame for the apparent falling standards.

    I really don’t care if you are red or blue so long as we work together to understand the significant challenges young people face and have an open mind to how we might provide more equitable and appropriate support and opportunities for everyone. In truth I don’t think it’s a tweak we need it has to be a revolution (but definitely not a Marxist one)

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