Greg Ashman is a teacher, originally from England but now living and working in Ballarat, Australia. He was the deputy head of a London comprehensive and is currently head of maths and pursuing his interest in educational research.
I recently wrote a piece critical of inquiry learning. When I make this, and similar arguments, I think that people tend to associate my position with right-wing politics. The argument goes something like this: Inquiry learning represents change from traditional practice and ‘progressive’ politics must favour change.
I think that there is certainly a correlation between change and left-wing politics but this is too simplistic a view to be taken seriously.
The axiomatic position of the left is to prioritise social justice. For much of history, and for many issues, this implied change because the contemporary order was unjust. The chartists were right to call for change to extend the franchise. The Labour Party of 1945 was right to set-up the National Health Service; an organisation that extended quality healthcare to all regardless of means; an organisation that was therefore an instrument of social justice.
This is why the reactionary right has often defined itself as ‘conservative’ i.e. in opposition to change. However, this is less of a suitable moniker for today’s world. The new right tends to define itself more in terms of what it sees as individual freedom and responsibility and this is seen to imply a smaller state. It is the new right that is innovating; creating new models for delivering education, for instance.
On the other hand, the left now argues to conserve institutions such as the NHS. It is sceptical of policies that reduce the role of the state or that introduce pseudo-markets into the provision of government services. This is all perfectly consistent with trying to maximise social justice. It makes no sense if you think of the left as being a party of change.
So what does this mean for the classroom? The philosophy of progressive education goes back to the early 20th century and generally tends to favour romantic, naturalistic views of learning. Approaches such as inquiry learning fit well into this view. But it is also now quite an old philosophy with a tradition of its own. The extent to which these ideas have influenced mainstream education is open to debate. Some see progressivism everywhere whereas other see a set of institutions largely unchanged since the 19th century, save for the abolition of corporal punishment. It depends on your perspective.
It is also clearly open to debate as to whether progressivism increases or decreases social justice. There are those who see child-centred education as naturally more just because it breaks down hierarchies. However there is also an argument that it leaves some children, particularly the most vulnerable, without adequate skills and knowledge and that this is socially unjust. The debate will continue and is worth having.
Moreover, there is a current of modern progressive education that fits well within a market-driven education system. Think of students sat at tablet computers (which some company has provided) that are running proprietary software (that another company has provided) and who are working away at different, personalised tasks at their own pace.
What we have to acknowledge is that different people who all take social justice as their goal may sincerely disagree about which educational approaches are the best. Lefties can love inquiry learning or they can hate it. The fact of your politics does not mean that you can stop thinking.