The progressive education fallacy in developing countries, by Gerard Guthrie: a review

Written by Robert Cannon

The fictional character, Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird instructs his daughter that you never really understand a person until you climb inside their skin and walk around in it. This lesson is implicit in Guthrie’s book on education in developing countries.

Improving the quality of education is a development priority among donors. Australia has made a strong commitment to support education and further declared that: “Australia will base its investments in education on what works, is effective aid and achieves results”. Similarly, USAID’s education investments are to be “… grounded in the most current evidence based analysis of educational effectiveness and aimed at maximizing the impact and sustainability of development results.”

But where is the evidence for ‘what works’ in education interventions? The evidence commonly comes from the ‘grey literature’; from education project reports and special studies commissioned by donors as part of a development activity. This literature has important advantages of recency and specificity. However, unlike peer-reviewed, published research undertaken by universities and research organisations, many of these studies are done at very short notice, by teams of professionals unknown to one another and drawn from different countries, implemented within tight completion deadlines and subject to donor review before release. Such circumstances raise reasonable questions about the quality and independence of these studies.

What is less common is substantial, independent, research by experienced educationists. An outstanding exception is Gerard Guthrie’s book, The Progressive Education Fallacy in Developing Countries, In Favour of Formalism, (Springer, 2011). This book is primarily about Papua New Guinea (PNG) but also includes a chapter specifically on Chinese education in support of the author’s main thesis. The book focuses on the merits of formalism, also described as teacher-centred, traditional and didactic teaching, and the risks associated with the false premise that progressive, enquiry-based methods are necessary to promote intellectual enquiry skills among non-western school children. This premise he labels the “progressive education fallacy”.

Guthrie has a substantial academic and professional background from which to present his claims in this book. He was an academic and a prolific contributor to the research literature on education in PNG and subsequently became the Foundation Professor of Education at the University of Goroka, a Director in AusAID, and then a consultant to the World Bank.

Many practitioners will be alarmed (or perhaps have their views confirmed) to learn that their best endeavours to assist in the development of education may have been in vain. Guthrie argues that the curriculum reforms in PNG over the past 50 years have either failed, or lack evidence, to support any significant claims of successful outcomes. Furthermore, there is little evidence, he suggests, that the more recent education reforms there since the early 1990’s have succeeded in classroom change, despite the many inputs from the Australian aid program. In support of his conclusion, Guthrie presents a full chapter cataloguing failed local reforms, development programmes, and attempts at south-south transfer. He observes, rather sombrely, that: “Whether the lessons have been learned about the failure of progressivism in Papua New Guinea is highly dubious (p.145)”. Formalistic teaching persists in PNG because it is culturally appropriate. Furthermore, the high academic achievement often found in Confucian-tradition countries such as China, and evidence from elsewhere in Asia and Africa, shows that progressive education is unlikely to succeed in countries with pedagogies founded on different approaches to knowing and understanding.

Progressive education, which includes student-centred learning, active learning and learner-centred education, stems from European cultures based on a scientific epistemology that knowledge is there to be created and that student-centred progressive education should focus on helping students learn how to discover such knowledge. In contrast, the ‘revelatory cultures’ that prevail in many parts of the developing world focus on given truths that teachers are expected to pass on to their students. This revelatory function of teachers is wonderfully illustrated in The Pesantren Tradition; The Role of The Kyai in the Maintenance of Traditional Islam in Java by Zamakhsyari Dhofier (a former Australian Development Assistance Bureau scholar and doctoral student at ANU), published by the Program for Southeast Asian Studies at Arizona State University in 1999. The Javanese pesantren system is a large and complex religious and educational network and was the primary educational system in Java prior to 1900. It continues to play an important role in Indonesian education.

Guthrie provides evidence that classroom change in the developing world does not necessarily require progressive methods but can focus on upgrading more traditional and formal approaches to teaching and learning. This approach, he suggests, is likely to remain central to many school systems because it is compatible with their cultural practices. Improvements in primary and secondary schools will come more rapidly from working with existing teaching styles rather than trying to work against them or change them, he asserts. The way forward will come from approaches that build on what exists and not through constant borrowing from outside. Evidence suggests that incremental improvements to formalism are possible and can be successful when they accommodate local contexts.

National governments and donors often expend considerable energy to change classroom teaching on the assumption that student learning will improve. Yet, assumptions about teaching methods or culture are rarely discussed or debated let alone tested in developing countries. Although the field of school effectiveness and school improvement research does focus on student achievement, it has generally neglected classroom processes in their specific cultural contexts. This omission is one of my main disappointments with another new and important book by Bert Creemers and Leonidas Kyriakides, Improving Quality in Education: Dynamic Approaches to School Improvement, (Routledge, 2012). Context, in the Creemers and Kyriakides book, is defined in terms of national education policies, evaluation mechanisms, and stakeholder support and expectations. These matters are unquestionably important, but there is much more to a school’s context, especially local culture, than these factors suggest and as Guthrie clearly demonstrates. Having cited a Western text here, it is necessary to quote from Guthrie: “… so irrelevant to developing countries do I consider research on education in Western countries that this book contains almost no examples of it (p. xxvi).”

Despite the density and complexity of ideas that demand reader concentration, the book is very clearly written. It is devoid of the impenetrable jargon and convoluted prose that infects too much writing about education today and that, consequently, effectively locks out many educators particularly those from countries where English is not the first language. The Progressive Education Fallacy is a most interesting book and will become an important reference for those engaged in school education reform whether as practitioners, policy-makers or as researchers.

If reading this book does little more than lead us to pause, to ‘climb into the skin’ of others, reflect, and to discuss the cultural appropriateness of what we espouse with our development partners, it will have achieved its purpose. The book’s depth of discussion alerts us to the risks of adopting simplistic, common sense solutions to complex challenges. And, as Guthrie notes, perhaps the book will also provoke further research that may raise the possibility that progressive education is as much a fallacy in developed countries as in developing ones.

Robert Cannon is an Associate of the Development Policy Centre and is presently working as an evaluation specialist with the USAID funded Palestine Faculty Development Program and the new USAID PRIORITAS Project in Indonesian education.

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Robert Cannon

Robert Cannon is a Visiting Fellow with the Development Policy Centre and the Research and Education Advisor at INOVASI – Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children, an Australia-Indonesia Government Partnership, which employs the problem-driven adaptation approach to the challenge of improving educational quality.


  • This discussion is getting really interesting!

    Dan, your comment draws attention to what I think is a major issue, which is the alarming trend towards the “homogenization” of education systems around the world. Countries like the US and Australia, among others, seem to be headed down a path of unrelenting attention to matters such as structural knowledge and technical skills reflected in demands for more standardized testing of literacy, numeracy and science, more control through setting minimum “standards”, rankings, and more accountability. Others, including Finland, are not going down that path but have adopted a more balanced approach reflecting emphases on creativity, values, morality, and culture. (Have a look at books by Ken Robinson on this or his talks here)

    From what you write, Indonesia seems to be going down this more balanced path. Personally, provided there is good balance in the curriculum, I think this is terrific! Why do developing countries have to blindly follow what is too often thought to be so great about western education? When I was working for 3 years at Universitas Indonesia, it was plain to me that the worst influence on universities then was in striving to be like an American or European university but without the resources, shared values, and with totally different needs. Why shouldn’t Indonesia educate according to its own values and culture?

    As to PAKEM, I believe this is no more or less compatible with the second curriculum approach, provided that teachers, as always, are fully equipped with a sound repertoire of skills to choose the most appropriate methods and classroom arrangements for helping children achieve particular learning goals.

    Even the military in liberal democracies, an organisation that may be fairly described as indoctrinating its members, uses a wide range of student-centred learning methods that encourage critical thinking, and, in fact, did substantial work in pioneering many of them for their training needs. HumRRO in the US has done a lot of work in this area for the US military from at least the 1960’s.

  • The constructive and thoughtful comments here tend to reflect a number of key matters that seem important to me. They all highlight the great importance of considering culture and context whether it is Uzbekistan or Indonesia. In the case of Indonesia, Sopantini reminds us of the need to be more local in our thinking, such as considering culture in Flores, rather than the broader concept of Indonesian culture, and Mark draws attention to different concepts of knowledge and learning that have implications for teaching.

    Dan asks if there is research on methods used by different countries that link to success in PISA tests. Yes, there is a literature on this of which the “Mathematics Teaching and Learning Strategies in PISA” by the OECD, 2010, is one example. In relation to your comment, Dan, these general conclusions are pertinent: “Teaching and learning strategies are complex processes that interact with one another, suggesting that in-depth, context-specific analyses are necessary to fully understand each strategy’s role in enhancing student performance. With a few interesting exceptions, most teaching and learning strategies do not have a direct, robust and consistent relationship with student performance across countries. The relationship between the strategies and performance tends to be moderated by other factors such as student attitudes and background, suggesting that these issues cannot be analysed separately (page 9).” (Both this study and the one below are discoverable by Googling the titles.)

    To emphasise the importance of culture and society in these tests, have a look at this publication by the Finnish National Board of Education, “Main factors behind the good PISA reading results in Finland”. This publication points out the importance of reading in Finland – “one of the best library systems in the world, the library is the most beloved cultural institution” and “the number of books borrowed annually from public libraries and number of new books for children and young people is high”. Other indicators of reading are cited. Compare these values and habits with Indonesia!

    The above points also relate to the comments made by Chimi Thonden. Chimi’s comments about “incremental change” are raised in the discussion of the book Poor Economics here. It is a pity that there are so few examples of continuing support from national governments or donors to continue with incremental changes over time. The new USAID PRIORITAS project in Indonesia is one welcome exception to this, however. The other pity, and this is implied in Dan’s comments, is that there is very little quality research upon which to base policies and practices in relation to teaching in Indonesia. Even the data we do have from shorter commissioned studies and from routine monitoring and evaluation is not always well used in drawing lessons for practice and policy development.

    Like others, I have often wondered whether formal or progressive approaches are best. But while we await better evidence to help make our decisions for specific contexts, I think I will still be guided by conclusions reached by R.B. Spence in the 1928 edition of the Journal of Educational Psychology, 84 years ago: “The real problem is not “Is method A better than method B or method C?”, but rather “Under what conditions does each method produce the most effective results?” And in relation to the selection and use of one approach to teaching, in this case in universities, he observed: “The decrying of the wholesale use of lectures is probably justified. The wholesale decrying of the use of lecturing is just as certainly not justified.”

    • Bob: Many thanks for keeping this dialogue going. I will send email contacts of a few other friends–I don’t know how to link them to this.

      The issue I think will be very pertinent to the new curriculum if it is eventually formalized as being discussed in the papers now. It seems the focus on religion and citizenship, etc. is a way to address radicalism, “primordialism” (whatever term they use to mean ethic group focused vs. nationalism focused) and even bullying and fights among students. I guess this is a worthy goal but perhaps brings the system back to nation building and pancasila educational goals in the early Suharto years, as Mark writes, and a turn from the currently expressed goal of preparing youth to compete in the global economy. (Heavy investments in international standard schools follows from this policy.) It will be interesting to see if they will continue to state the latter as the over arching goal of education while changing the underpinings that mitiagate (remove sciene and English with more religion and (Indonesian) citizedship. I don’t know which is better and that is up to Indonesian leaders. Only stakeholders should at least be cognizant of inherent contridictions.

      So if they go through with this curriculum change what is the future of instructional methods such as Pakem which is supposed to engender critical thining and self expression? Would this be an inherent contridiction? I have no answers but would welcome opinions

  • Bob, thanks for providing such an excellent synopsis of this important book and also for generating thoughtful and insightful comments by those who have responded with opinions.

    One of Indonesia’s education goals is to make its citizens more competative in a global economy. A useful measure of progress in meeting the goal is PISA results, where Indonesia performs poorly. It might be an interesting study, if not already done, to investigate the methods used among the top performers on a continum ranging from “formalism” to “progressive”. S. Korea and Finland were tops in 2009–two countries globally competative but, I assume, with very different cultural traditions.

    At the same time it might be interesting for an on-going education project to look at PISA results among Indonesian schools. perhaps some correlations between performance and instructional models might emerge. [Puspendik has the data.]

  • Thank you, Bob, for this very interesting and thought-provoking review. While I have not had the opportunity to read the book yet, it is very true that culture is too often ignored by donors and outsiders. To adopt wholesale progressive approaches in the most challenging of contexts (such as Papua New Guinea) would most probably fail.

    However, I would not undersell the importance of “incremental” change if and when supporting more culturally accepted teacher-dominated approaches. In the case of Papua, Indonesia, whose circumstances are similar culturally though not politically, basic issues like classroom management and low teacher capacity often preclude adopting more “progressive” methodologies at the outset. But over time, with regular and consistent support to teachers and school leadership and provision of appropriate learning resources, I’ve seen some more “active” teaching and learning approaches begin to take root and do quite well. More importantly, the students were more interested in school, coming to school, and continuing their education. Unfortunately, these changes were far from the norm and were more easily achieved within the pockets of highly dedicated, faith-based private schools. Influencing the larger education system is still another matter in these most challenging contexts.

    I don’t believe we can have a discussion on the place of progressive education approaches without knowing more about the goals for student achievement and learning – as defined by the local and national context. Whether those goals are being met through formalistic teacher-dominated approaches is the real question. How well do formalistic approaches promote critical and analytical thinking, creativity, and life skills? And are these even the goals for the country in question? That should be the starting point for determining how to best provide support.

    Chimi Thonden

  • Bob/Mark/Sopantini

    Note your comments with interest – having just returned to Jakarta from a Project Completion Report Review Mission in Uzbekistan for ADB. In this ICT Education project, consultants were fielded almost
    three years after Project became effective and computers delivered to 860 “cluster” schools in Year 3
    and Year 4. Teacher ownership and use of the new technology, and focus on teacher-generated materials for classroom use, were unexpected outcomes – even though internet access to central
    teaching resources was part of the Project design. Centralized materials risk being e-textbooks
    while teacher-developed (and shared) materials have greater potential as learning-centered and
    student-focused. Perhaps Uzbeks are fortunate that they did not have PAKEM!

    Will read Guthrie with interest!

  • Thank you for sharing this excellent review of Guthrie.

    I am familiar with the book. Guthrie’s basic argument does confirm some of my own thinking, based on 20 years of working in education in Indonesia. That is, that most efforts to implement change in teaching practice (i.e. implement the approach to active learning known here as ‘PAKEM’) fail – beyond achieving formalistic or cosmetic change. And that the reason for this is mainly cultural rather than to do with capacity, politics, economics or other oft cited reasons.

    The cultural reality is that most Indonesians see knowledge as a commodity – something possessed by experts – and the process of education as a handing over of knowledge from the teacher to the student. Of course, this didactic view of education was also the dominant view in the west until very recently. Essentially, the knowledge is sold. If you pay more for education you get more knowledge. In the traditional world of pesantren and most Indonesian villages, the knowledge is held by religious elders who hand it out in oral sermons or lessons. The starting point for scholarship is learning to recite the Qur’an.

    Within this cultural reality, PAKEM really doesn’t make much sense. Why would you encourage children to be active or joyful when the aim is to transfer knowledge to them in discrete packages so they can repeat it accurately in an exam or in the mosque? Having kids work in small teams, running around outdoors, writing creatively and so on makes little sense if this is how education is viewed.

    So our work as development consultants is about changing cultures, changing basic perceptions about the nature of knowledge, teaching and learning. Cultures are not static, nor are they inviolable. But employing foreign experts to change local cultures is a fraught endeavor! It can be done, and perhaps should be done, but it must be tackled with great sensitivity and realistic expectations. Cultural change takes time and may have unexpected consequences. It is worth remembering the story about how the CBSA project (Active Learning through Professional Support) was abandoned in the late eighties, reportedly after President Suharto was challenged by one his grandchildren. Apparently, or so the story goes, the old man was offended at the child’s effrontery and immediately called a halt to the education reforms which he took to be responsible for the rudeness.

    So there is another element: A good Indonesian citizen – and a good Indonesian school child – is one who is quiet, respectful, follows the rules. He/she is a member of a group and behaves according to the group norms. The aim of education, other than to impart knowledge, is to create good citizens, good Muslims (or Christians or whatever). And the process of learning is conceived primarily as a large group process not an individual one.

    Interesting issues to ponder as we charge ahead with the next project.

  • The reply piece I wrote below highlights a prevalence in the thinking of so called education reformers in Indonesian schools many of which are self proclaimed ones. By reformers I refer to individuals all across the board; from teachers, principals, local education administrators, district and national bureaucrats and foreign consultants included. Model berpikir ‘meniru dan mengekor’ alias ‘copy and paste’ . This seems to be rather prevalence among these reformers.

    Some illustration I made below in Indonesian language – my mother tongue may help those with high competence in Indonesian language.

    Agenda reformasi pendidikan (di Indonesia) terlalu sesak dipenuhi dengan ‘copy and paste’.
    Program dari tempat/negara lain di ‘copy’ lalu di-‘paste’ ke sekolah sekolah di Indonesia. Boleh-boleh saja karena ‘copy’ and ‘paste’ terjadi dimana-mana termasuk di Amerika, Australia, Inggris dsb.

    Sayang disayang, kalau sudah di Indonesia, yang meng ‘copy’ tidak selalu sadar dan tahu bahwa, ‘copy’ tidak boleh sembarang ‘copy’. Tidak boleh juga sembarang ‘paste’
    Kalau sudah di Indonesia, ‘copy dan paste’ dianggap seperti sudah biasa dan wajar – semua merasa tidak ada masalah. Biasa-biasa, seperti penjual jamu: ‘Ini jamu paling manjur menyembuhkan semua penyakit’. Yang menerima ‘paste’ juga langsung percaya bahwa jamu yang didapat pasti manjur. Dua-duanya merasa bergembira karena merasa sudah ada dan dapat jamu yang manjur. Apakah nantinya penyakitnya akan sembuh? Keduanya percaya ya, akan sembuh.

    Memang semua sistem pernah melakukan ‘copy and paste’ tetapi sistem yang baik adalah sistem yang punya pikiran.
    Sistem yang bisa belajar dan yang bisa: (1) menjawab mengapa dan untuk tujuan apa harus ‘copy’, (2) menelaah dan memilah bagian mana yang harus di ‘copy’, (3) mencari cara yang baik untuk mem ‘paste’
    Sayang disayang, sistem yang ada sudah kehilangan kemampuan belajarnya. Hanya beberapa saja yang masih ada daya dan upaya untuk tetap mau belajar. Sayangnya mereka kelompok yang terpinggirkan.

    One thing to add to here – is that, compounding the problem is what I see as the ‘complicit’ role of majority of foreign experts who have been engaged in the development of education in Indonesia. I don’t know all of them but I do know few of them.

    It is no surprise to learn that in project reports after reports albeit in Indonesia, the message repeats that ‘the innovation indeed works. The questions worth asking are who wrote the reports and what agenda do they serve? While not dismissing the fact that some innovations may indeed work, to date there has not been any independent research which focus on investigating whether active learning -a child of constructivist instruction as a pedagogical innovation to change didactic teaching practices does work, and if it does in what way, and if it does not – what explanation there are.

    In my earlier project involvement introducing Active learning in eastern Indonesia, I have some experience to share and I would like to share my intimate knowledge as teachers adviser in the project. It is important to note that I was working in the project for over one year – a sort time to make a permanent conclusion about the whole project.

    Did Active learning or locally known as PAKEM work then, especially during my tenure? For me, within the short-lived involvement in the project, my comment on hindsight is as follows:

    In the earlier years, it did work. It worked to answer one of the so many learning issues as experienced by both teachers and students in Flores. One issue that have long posed as a psychological barrier in children learning in these schools is the ‘fear’ factor or known as takut dengan guru.

    On reflection, the way PAKEM was introduced to teachers then was decidedly gradual – from concrete to abstract. From what we, consultants could show and demonstrate to our then constraint teachers – to an introduction of discussion of abstract concepts including all the dilemmas faced by teachers when implementing a constructivist instruction from which PAKEM is a child. These dilemmas as elaborated by Windschtil ( 2002) include conceptual, pedagogical, cultural and political

    For what we, advisers in the project knew, few of then our consultants shared an understanding of the messages as contained in the article written by Mark Windschtil ( 2002) which emphasize that even in developed nations schools, teachers find various dilemma when implementing this innovation.

    The questions that I had no knowledge to answer then due to my discontinued engagement in the project include – did these Indonesian teachers get adequate help to be aware of the dilemmas they faced or even whether the dilemmas they faced were similar or different, were they able to build a good understanding of these dilemmas, were they trained to acquire good strategies to overcome the dilemma they face. All these questions are technical in nature and must at least be familiar in the ear of teacher trainers. I did not know the answer of many of these questions.

    What I did know then was, back to my early years in NTTPEP, without doubt, almost all of these early grades-teachers soon became expert in running PAKEM in their classes, in the sense that in their teaching:

    they incorporated song – harus ada lagu-lagu
    they use local teaching aid self-made – media belajar sendiri
    they incorporated games – permainan
    they incorporated dance – tari-tarian

    But PAKEM let alone constructivist pedagogy is a lot more than the above strategies of course. However, having mentioned these strategies as employed by many teachers in the project, I do not dismiss that they are not good strategies. They are indeed, at least good for these children in the rural area of Flores where intake of nutrients in children is a common health issue. These activities, apart from relaxing the normally constricted atmosphere of instruction typical of traditional teaching and learning in many Indonesian schools, are successful in getting these children engaged. Engagement is a prerequisite for any learning to take place, PAKEM is no exception. As I said though, PAKEM is a lot more than just these strategies.


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