The progressive education paradigm in development: ‘a delusional intellectual straightjacket’

Good formalistic teaching is well-supported by student activity and a variety of teaching aids and resources (Credit: Robert Cannon)
Good formalistic teaching is well-supported by student activity and a variety of teaching aids and resources (Credit: Robert Cannon)

Classroom change in developing countries: from progressive cage to formalistic frame by Gerard Guthrie is unusual in bridging the worlds of education and development, as did his earlier book The progressive education fallacy in developing countries: in favour of formalism, which I reviewed in an earlier blog almost six years ago.

The earlier book argued that progressive educational reforms in developing countries were wrong in principle and widespread failures in practice. Classroom change continues the demonstration of progressive failures and is structured around the entrenched resistance to paradigm change in the literature, despite extensive and updated evidence, and returns the focus to teachers and their so-called resistance to change.

Both books reflect Guthrie’s former experience as an AusAID Director and as Foundation Professor of Education at the University of Goroka in Papua New Guinea.

The word ‘cage’ used in the book’s title communicates restriction and limitation. Commonly presented as a system of bars that prohibit a creature’s freedom, cages can be intellectual, as well as physical. Guthrie’s forceful arguments in his latest book illustrate one such intellectual cage where classroom reform in developing countries has been caged by Western culture-bound value judgments that project a progressive worldview. This worldview runs counter to local educational cultures that have deep epistemological and pedagogical roots. Local cultures are dimly understood, if at all, by outsiders charged with making ‘improvements’ through their educational development projects.

Herein lies a cause of failure in improving education in developing countries, according to Guthrie. Guthrie does not mince words in stating his position: ‘The literature demonstrates cognitive dissonance and blindness to failure, such that progressivism has become a cage rather than a frame’ (p. xv). Guthrie argues that the Western progressive education paradigm has become ‘a delusional intellectual straightjacket’ that has ‘led irrationally to a cumulative hallucination’ (p. 155). Are these forceful statements justified? Has Guthrie exaggerated his case? After reading and considering the extensive evidence and analysis in his book, I do not think so.

Classroom change builds theory from evidence, avoiding what Guthrie argues is a weakness in educational reform debates where often, theory searches for evidence. The book is a notable departure from the prevailing silence on the issue of ‘what works’ in education.

How to summarise this book? First, we need to understand two key concepts. ‘Progressivism’ reflects a variety of student-centred classroom practices that include learner-centred education, active learning, and enquiry. ‘Formalism’ describes teacher-centred practices and traditional didactic teaching.

Classroom change is a synthesis of over 500 publications on classroom change in developing countries. Evidence presented shows progressive educational reforms have encountered difficulties in developing countries and the literature supporting the progressive paradigm has methodological weaknesses.

Guthrie rejects the progressive paradigm. His evidence shows formalism to be a culturally relevant foundation for change and not a barrier. The persistence of formalism is because of formalism’s foundation in traditional, revelatory epistemologies. Guthrie provides persuasive, chapter-length examples from China, Africa, and Papua New Guinea. Research from elsewhere, such as Indonesia, supplements these chapters.

Attempts to replace formalistic teaching with progressive styles in developing countries raise two issues. First, such developmental attempts are usually culturally inappropriate, and second, they usually fail. In the section analysing the appropriateness and implementation difficulties of progressive reforms in developing countries, Guthrie reports that ‘most studies did not reject progressivism as such, but none implied that sustained paradigm shift occurred in classroom practice’ (p. 43).

Guthrie argues for movement in the academic and policy literature away from the Western-oriented progressive education paradigm to one acknowledging the prevalence and persistence of formalism in developing countries. Despite the apparent dominance of teachers, formalistic teaching can use a range of learning resources and foster student activity and mental engagement, as implied in the image accompanying this blog. The progressive assumption that classroom formalism is a problem overlooks its congruence with formalistic elements of education systems such as examinations and school supervision that work interactively to provide system coherence.

The reality is when progressive and formalistic paradigms emerge in classroom practice, considerable variety in classroom behaviour is evident. Guthrie’s ‘teaching styles model’ in Chapter 10 demonstrates this variety. The model provides a framework for in-country classroom research and analysis focused on teaching styles and learning results. It focuses analysis on different types of classroom practice for identifying elements that keep teaching styles static, to upgrade them, or to move them towards other styles.

Guthrie provides illuminating explanations of educational research, measurement practice, and data quality that will appeal to researchers and research students alike. He enhances the quality of these explanations by embedding them in discussion of methodological limitations in the research literature. His attention to research methodology is one of the key strengths of this book, which links research methodology with specific developing country contexts and examples.

An attractive quality of this book is the clarity with which it approaches its task. It avoids the conceptual clutter in writing about educational change that permeates the school improvement and school effectiveness literature on the one hand, and then mixes up findings from advanced Western countries with those from developing countries, or neglects developing countries altogether.

A wide readership will benefit from Classroom change. Academics engaged in teacher education, curriculum, and educational research will find the careful analysis of evidence and the consideration of different research approaches illuminating.

The readership that will appreciate this book most of all are those directly involved in assisting in the improvement of educational quality in developing countries.

Now that donor attention has shifted towards what happens in classrooms and to the quality of learning outcomes, this book is most timely and should become a major resource in a field remarkable for a dearth of high quality writing by educationists with hands-on experience in development. Its implications are consistent with the current emphasis on problem-driven iterative adaptation. Aid managers need to work with local partners to define problems and to identify and try out ‘best fit’ solutions that are consistent with local cultural understandings, values, capacities, and resources.

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Robert Cannon

Robert Cannon is a research associate with the Development Policy Centre. He has worked in educational development in university, technical and school education, most recently in Indonesia and Palestine.


  • What works in education in “developing” countries?

    In 1993 and 94 I was assigned by Palms to a teacher mentoring role in Samoa. While I was encouraged to believe I could guide effective teaching practice, I never had the certitude to believe I was going to revolutionise Samoan education.

    Student-centred Learning?
    I had spent 15 years in Victorian classrooms, attempting to drag senior secondary students out of earlier teacher-centred learning experiences, into a student-centred enquiry learning approach. Put simply, it was a process of finding topics in my subject area that would stimulate students to ask questions that assisted their exploration of the key concepts and knowledge. Research skills were honed as required.

    The idea was to help students to become independent learners, despite the dangers of not spoon-feeding them enough before their formal Year 12 examinations. My son, who graduated year 12 a couple of years ago, speaks of his surprise at the dropout rate of first year university students from private schools, given their wonderful ATAR scores. His surprise highlights both the problem of not encouraging independent learning and also the possibility that this continuing tension in the Australian school system suggests we are also a “developing” country.

    In reviewing “Classroom Change in Developing Countries: From Progressive Cage to Formalistic Frame” in Devpolicy, Robert Cannon agrees with author Gerard Guthrie that, “Attempts to replace formalistic teaching with progressive styles in developing countries are usually culturally inappropriate, and second, they usually fail.”
    It is clear from my own experience and that of the many teacher mentors, who have undertaken a Palms assignment, that an intention to replace one system with another is a fanciful proposition, especially when local cultures “… are dimly understood … by outsiders charged with making ‘improvements’”. However, does the labelling of Western educational models as “progressive” reveal a straw-man argument is in play as a convenient contrast for Guthrie’s dubious point?

    Finding a sensible centre
    Where existing formal teaching methodologies are underpinned by a very formal hierarchical culture; where students are never to risk adults losing face by asking questions they may not be able to answer, change will be slow. However, arguments contrasting extremes miss the point. Learning options that encourage self-enquiry are valuable and to suggest that such classroom reform amounts to being “…caged by Western culture-bound value judgements” seems to be a hobby-horse of Guthrie’s that dangerously ignores the world in which students and teachers in all cultures now find themselves.

    Teacher-centred approaches prevailed in my 1960’s Australian classrooms. This also reflected our more hierarchical culture at that time. Some teachers were able to use rote learning exercises to foster mental engagement for some students, but many were similar to the ones I first saw in Samoa. Teachers write sentences on the board that students copy into their book. At the exam teachers write the same sentences on the board with random (not just subject specific) words missing. Students pass if they can fill in 50% of the words.
    Students taught to think, rather than just remember, will always be more fulfilled in themselves and probably more productive in the economy. A big part of enabling people to live life to the fullest is enabling them to investigate options. This happens where enquiring minds are fostered.

    While teachers in “developing” countries have little training, the “frame” of traditional formalistic classroom teaching espoused by Guthrie does at least provide a useful cultural security. However, students’ access to the digital world encourages and requires questioning minds. They will not be well served, nor remain tolerant of teachers unable to assist them to process information independently.

    Providing example
    Needless to say I did not overturn culturally reinforced rote learning practice in Samoa, but when the young teachers I was mentoring became inquisitive about how I would approach their lessons, rather than telling them, I got them thinking about the objectives and planning alternative approaches that might work. This is an example of student-centred enquiry. I was then able to challenge them to offer their students objectives rather than “How to?” instructions, which inevitability made them vulnerable to student questioning. They survived and thrived to try it again.

    The qualified and experienced teachers recruited by Palms are prepared for engaging with culture and building relationships over the first six months of their assignment. They are encouraged to develop frameworks for identifying the existing strengths and assets in a school. To suggest change before doing so would be arrogant. They then stay long enough to build on these strengths and complement them with further options for building self-reliance in students.

    Palms model of long-term assignments means we avoid being the outsiders with a dim understanding of local culture. A dichotomous question of a “progressive cage” replacing a “formalistic frame” misses what can be achieved in assignments where development is built on sound relationships that provide appropriate awareness through mutual development.

    • Thank you, Roger, for sharing your feelings about my book. I’m afraid that if you actually read it you will be even more offended because it does have quite a lot to say about educational missionaries.

      However, the bulk of the book is an analysis based on 631 publications on education in ‘developing’ countries. Research evidence came from 32 countries that were not biased significantly by national per capita income, eligibility for foreign aid, HDI, or cultural cluster. All the classroom studies found that progressive reforms failed in the sense that they were inappropriate and/or had major implementation difficulties. No studies were uncovered that implied sustained paradigm shift occurred in classroom practice. Where some change occurred, it was almost invariably in ‘surface’ rather than ‘deep’ aspects (e.g. changes in arrangement of desks, or closed rather than open questions) that did not change fundamentally the role of the teacher as a transmitter of knowledge.

      One example, perhaps relevant to your Samoan experience, comes from Myanmar (Lall, M., 2011, ‘Pushing the child centred approach in Myanmar: The role of cross national policy networks and the effects in the classroom’. Critical Studies in Education, 52, 219–33. Lall reported that rote learning there is the norm, but a network (comprising international and national aid and education organizations, commercial teacher training providers, and consultants) was pushing a child-centered approach in Buddhist monastic schools. Lall’s fieldwork involved classroom observations in 11 non-state-sector schools, interviews with 66 teachers and 19 teacher trainers, and focus groups with 58 parents or grandparents across four schools. While many said that child-centered was a ‘better’ approach to teaching and learning, the principal issue identified by teachers, head monks, and parents was that this western approach undermined traditional hierarchical structures of respect for teachers and elders, leading to a culture clash at home and in the classroom. As you point out, the modern world does require adaptation and change, but my view is that such change should be driven internally, supported if necessary, but not driven by, external change agents.

      Naturally, interpretations of and recommendations arising from progressive failures varied considerably in the literature. Although some of the evidence has been available for decades, the mainstream literature still holds the progressive paradigm as axiomatic, albeit with considerable cognitive dissonance apparent in the maintenance of progressivism both as an axiomatic starting point and as an unexamined professional end point, and often involving vested recommendations for more inputs.

      Too, much of the literature supporting progressive reforms is based on research and evaluations that are theoretically and methodologically weak. If you can present any sound, independent research evidence to support your views, I would be delighted to see it and to include it in any future writings on this subject.

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