Education: Wishful thinking, Mr Major: The Prime Minister says the 'progressives' have had their day. But people said the same in the 1860s. Judith Judd shows how teaching fashions go full circle

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Progressive teaching methods are on the way out, if researchers and politicians are to be believed. Recent research shows that government reforms have made lessons more traditional: more teaching by subject and less by topic, more directed at the whole class and less in groups. At this year's Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister promised to challenge 'fashionable' theories of education. At last year's he announced that 'the progressives have had their day'.

John Major is almost certainly wrong. According to Peter Gosden, professor of the history of education at Leeds University, the story of education over the past century and a half is marked by swings from 'traditional' to 'progressive' methods. 'It goes in cycles,' says Professor Gosden. 'A movement allowing pupils freedom to take the initiative is followed by one which favours the teacher standing in front of the class telling pupils what to do.'

Take topic work, one of the traditionalists' targets, in which teachers choose a theme - weather, say - and base work from different subjects - English, science, history and geography - around it. Far from being a progressive Sixties notion, topic work has been around since the 1850s, says Professor Gosden. Leeds University's museum of education contains 'object boxes' dating from the middle of the last century which encouraged children to discover information for themselves. The boxes had layers of different objects such as shells, chalk, slate, thread and insects. These were used for doing simple sums in much the same way as children today use blocks and counters. Then pupils might be asked to write a piece about chalk (English) and discuss where it might be found (geography).

However, the 'object box' approach was not consistent with the system of 'payment by results' introduced in 1862. Schools' grants became dependent on the examination of pupils by inspectors according to specific 'standards'. Teachers turned to rote learning and 'catechisms' of facts that pupils had to recite.

Not that the 'facts' were always recognisable as such. One history catechism in 1872 described how soldiers spat on Charles I as he went to his death, 'but nothing could move the pious prince. He bore all with dignity and patience'.

A history textbook of questions and answers by a Rev Dr Brewer, published in about 1870, began:

Q: 'Who was Henry VIII?'

A: 'Son of Henry VII.'

Q: 'What was his character?'

A: 'As a young man he was bluff, generous, right royal and very handsome.'

Q: 'How was he when he grew older?'

A: 'He was bloated, vain, cruel and selfish.'

Geography, as prescribed by Dr Brewer at about the same date, was more objective - and more boring:

Q: 'How are Great Britain and Ireland divided?'

A: 'Into counties.'

Q: 'How many counties are there in England, Scotland and Ireland?'

A: '52 in England and Wales, 33 in Scotland and 32 in Ireland.'

Q: 'Who divided England into counties?'

A: 'Alfred the Great.'

Professor Gosden suggests that the end of 'payment by results' in 1898 encouraged teachers to try different and more imaginative ways of teaching. By the time of the North of England Education Conference of 1902, progressives and traditionalists were engaged in a battle over the best way to teach science which is echoed by recent fights over how children learn. Kenneth Clarke, who as Secretary of State for Education attacked 'discovery' methods in primary schools, would surely have disapproved of H E Armstrong of King's College, London, who argued at the conference that children should be placed 'in the attitude of discoverers'. His speech was based on the conviction that pupils retained little if teachers stood at the front of the class drilling information into them. His opponent, R L Taylor, said pupils' experiments would be worthless because they would arrive at the wrong results. They might 'just as well be weighing out sugar in a grocer's shop'. He also believed that a didactic teaching style cultivated 'a sense of humility which should be one of the fruits of scientific learning'.

Yet after the First World War, says Professor Gosden, Armstrong's theories were frowned upon and most science teachers stood in front of their classes while pupils took notes. The reason, he says, was that teachers were worried about exam results, as they had been in the 1860s: 'The introduction of the school certificate examination rigidified the system. Students had to get a pass in a science.' The most recent reaction against this type of teaching came in the Sixties, with the practical and investigative work involved in Nuffield science. It was developed, Professor Gosden says, 'because people reacted against the sheer futility of endlessly teaching knowledge which was there to get them through the exam and had no positive long-term results'.

Advocates of 'discovery' learning in the early part of the century were not confined to science. The most extreme supported the American 'Dalton plan', under which children were invited to visit rooms in a school devoted to history, geography and science in their own time.

Professor Gosden points out that free expression and creative writing in English as a reaction against grammar and spelling tests also had strong supporters at this time. There was a Twenties equivalent of today's reading controversies, with opponents arguing about whether you should teach the alphabet or whether children would just pick it up.

Even a period such as the Fifties, sometimes regarded as a golden age when every greengrocer could use an apostrophe, was not the traditionalist haven that some people imagine, says Professor Gosden. 'I taught history at the time and topic work was more ambitious than it is now.' His pupils studied the history of transport and farming over the centuries in much the same way as many children in the Eighties did the history of medicine for O-levels or GCSEs, criticised recently by those who want history to be based more on the reigns of kings and queens.

As the progressive swing again becomes the traditional roundabout, does the history of education show which type of teaching is most successful? Alas, no, says Professor Gosden. 'They succeed in different ways. The overall effect of the Armstrong approach is to stimulate more interest in the subject. If you are concerned about getting people through GCSE and A-level, then repetitious learning will help.'

He dismisses the idea of a golden age of education. 'Whatever the teaching methods being used, there has never been a period when you did not find chambers of trade or employers saying they had never had a more badly educated set of young people coming to them.'

(Photograph omitted)