A response to critics #1: cherry picking

One month ago, I published a historical critique of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. It has two essential arguments. Firstly, from the 1960s onwards progressive education became a powerful orthodoxy within the state education system. Secondly, it has failed to improve the quality of education in our schools.

Since Progressively Worse came out, three lengthy retorts have been published courtesy of bloggers Tim Taylor, Sue Gerrard and Guy Woolnough. Taken together, they accuse me of misrepresenting historical documents; cherry picking facts; establishing false dichotomies; letting my own ‘cognitive biases’ get in the way of ‘data’; and overplaying the success of independent schools. These are very common accusations to be levelled at critics of progressive education, so I am going to answer them in a series of posts. This is the first.

Picking at Plowden

Tim Taylor wrote a lengthy blog post taking issue with my treatment of the 1967 Plowden Report. He accuses me of being unduly selective, and continues ‘he seems to ‘bend’ the facts to suit his narrative’.

Auden: Dare any call Permissiveness an educational success?

Auden: Dare any call Permissiveness | An educational success?

That is quite an allegation. However, on finishing Taylor’s critique I was relieved that he had not found a single ‘bent’ fact. Instead, Taylor finds me quoting from bits of the report which he deems unimportant. In particular, I quote an HMI survey commissioned by the Plowden Committee detailing how many primary schools had witnessed the ‘adoption of modern educational trends’. I do so partly because the ‘modern trends’ Plowden and HMI selected, including ‘permissive discipline’, were indicative of the temper of the Report; and partly because the results—21% of schools ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in displaying such ‘modern trends’—give precisely the sort of statistical insight that a historian craves.

Taylor’s challenge is that ‘permissive discipline’ seems an unusual term. His evidence? ‘I’ve never come across it before’. Were he to read the chapter in my book covering the 1960s, or any history of the period for that matter, he would discover that ‘permissiveness’ was a widely used term. In Progressively Worse, I reference Robin Pedley’s use of the term in his 1964 book The Comprehensive School, and start the book with a piece of doggerel written by W. H. Auden in 1972: ‘Dare any call Permissiveness | An educational success? | Saner those class-rooms which I sat in, | Compelled to study Greek and Latin.’ Mike Leigh even wrote a play in 1975 entitled ‘The Permissive Society’.

Plowden: 'no place' for quiet during a school register

Plowden: ‘no place’ for quiet during a school register

Taylor goes on to contradict me with a selection of passages he feels better represented the Plowden Report as even-handed. However, his preferred extracts include a call for schools to move from being run along ‘traditional lines’ to being run along ‘free lines’; a challenge to those ‘older teachers brought up on authoritarian precepts’ who are afraid of ‘free discipline’; and a suggestion that there is ‘no place’ for demanding quiet during a school register. Not much of a counter argument there then…

Ironically, Taylor’s attack on my misrepresentation on the Plowden Report in turn misrepresents my book. He criticises me for lack of balance, but does not acknowledge this passage:

The Plowden Report has been caricatured as ‘an anarchist’s charter’ by both its followers and its detractors. In truth, the Report did deliver nods towards the need for whole-class teaching and school rules. However, these parts read more as attempts to forestall criticism than statements of conviction.

I fear that so keen is he to locate the splinter in my eye, Tim Taylor fails to notice the beam lurking in his own.


Both Taylor and Sue Gerrard accuse me of ‘cherry picking’ my evidence. Gerrard writes that ‘Peal’s model of the education system certainly fits his data, but that’s not surprising since he explicitly begins with a model and selects data to fit it.’

This facile criticism has been levelled at every historian who has ever dared to have an argument. A historian is part chronicler, part lawyer. It is their intellectual responsibility to make a good case, and their moral responsibility not to be wilfully misleading. The idea that ‘balance’ is the ultimate virtue to which history should aspire is just one of the many canards GCSE history is responsible for spreading.

A few historians do strive to be entirely objective and impartial, but are always undone due to the fact all history is rendered biased through the information it omits and includes. Take the aforementioned Plowden Report. It is 1,188 pages long, and I cover it in 4 pages. The bias of selection is unavoidable.

Where are the progressive education success stories?

Where are the progressive education success stories?

Historians invariably cherry pick. However, I warrant that any historian writing a counter-narrative to Progressively Worse would have a difficult time finding any cherries worth picking. No seminal government document of the period exists which was as traditionalist as Plowden was progressive. No progressive schools flourished to the degree that Risinghill, Dartington, Summerhill, William Tyndale and Countesthorpe failed. And no large-scale empirical research has validated child-centred teaching methods to the degree that Project Follow Through validated direct instruction.

Ask not whether the historian cherry picks, but what is the quality of their cherries. In the case of Progressively Worse, I feel they are sufficiently juicy.


~ by goodbyemisterhunter on May 28, 2014.

15 Responses to “A response to critics #1: cherry picking”

  1. Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Good response. The “These are very common accusations to be levelled at critics of progressive education,” seems unnecessary.

  4. Dear Robert,

    one case of cherry picking that makes your argument about ‘the blog’ and ‘educationalists’ weak is the highly selective choice of who you decide to cite as representative/illustrative of these awful forces.

    Elsewhere you mention John White of the IoE, dismissing his views about subject-centred curriula being middle-class. You mention him, and it seems (apologies if not) you’re taking his position as representative of educationalists/the blog/etc.

    There are juicy cherries elsewhere. Even at the IoE: why not discuss another Emeritus Professor – say, Michael Young? (there are lots more examples if you’re interested) I imagine you would endorse his views on the place of knowledge in school curricula – and he would provide a troubling counter-example to the facile narrative about how all educationalists / university based teacher educators / etc. are beholden to ‘progressivism’, etc.



    • I do discuss Michael Young in the book, at length. However, I focus on his 1970s incarnation as the author of ‘Knowledge and Social Control’ that saw him at his most influential. As I am sure you know, or can tell from the title, Young criticised the dominant forms of curriculum knowledge in this book for being devised by social elites, designed to perpetuate the existence of social inequality. As you recognise, he has since recounted his views, and is now an advocate for what he calls ‘powerful knowledge’.
      However, it is yet to be the case that this stance has been anywhere near as influential as his 1970s stance in changing the way that teachers teach. In my book I quote a letter to the TES from 1974 in which a head complained that newly recruited staff arrive ‘imbued with newer notions about repressive middleclass culture. These come out of college with Knowledge and Control in the bloodstream. They assume that to get on with working-class children you must pretend to be working-class.’
      I am not sure he is having the same influence today.

      • Thanks for your reply.

        I think who you decide to include as examples of ‘progressives’ / university teacher educators / educationalists to critique is really important – so, a couple of quick thoughts:

        1. Seems fair to say that Young continues to be pretty influential – e.g. his ‘powerful knowledge’ concept is pretty significant in recent policy discourse. I’m not sure your dismissal is justified. (As an aside, I’d be interested to know if you believe John White – who you continue to cite/dismiss – is more influential than the more recent Michael Young whom you ignore?)

        2. You need to engage with your opponents’ argument at its strongest point. Quoting Young from the 70s then ignoring his more recent work because you feel it is less influential is unfair & ends up weakening your argument (I’m loathe to say it, but could it be that you’re ignoring his really substantial body of work over the last decade because it doesn’t fit into your caricature of educationalists?) He’s one case among many within the broad group (educationalists / the blob / etc) you’re attacking who make the picture far more complex than this simplistic guys & bad guys thing
        (Or maybe your term ‘recounting’ means it’s less goodies/baddies and more like true believers / heretics?). Without including any educationalists / university teacher educators who don’t fit neatly into your negative descriptions of them (when many exist) then the cherry picking accusation seems justified.

  5. Thank you for your response to my critique, Robert.

    My accusation of cherry picking is hardly facile. It’s one which has, rightly, been levelled at every historian who has used historical evidence to justify their beliefs, rather than deriving their beliefs from the available evidence. My complaint wasn’t about lack of ‘balance’ or ‘counter-narrative’, it was that you didn’t appear to have given any consideration to alternative hypotheses or to have made any attempt to test your own.

    You’re right to point out that historians, like scientists, can never be entirely objective or impartial; but scientists have developed a rigorous methodology to reduce their bias as much as possible, and conventions that increase the transparency of the way evidence has been handled. Bias might be inevitable, but it doesn’t follow that it’s not worth worrying about.

    You imply that writing a ‘counter-narrative’ would be difficult because “no seminal government document of the period exists which was as traditionalist as Plowden was progressive”. That’s hardly surprising given that you’ve chosen to focus on a period characterised by its commitment to progressive educational ideas. But then another historian might not frame their research question in terms of a traditional vs progressive dichotomy; they might consider the degree of government intervention, the design of the education system, the quality of ITT or even look at the outcomes of education prior to the last 50 years.

    In order to claim that the current education system is ‘worse’ you have to compare it with something. It’s clear that one thing you are comparing is state primary and secondary schools (predominantly comprehensives) using progressive methods of one type or another. But what are you comparing them to? Since you’re not explicit about what you mean by traditional education, it’s not at all clear. Dame schools? Elementary schools? Secondary moderns, grammars or public schools?

    Assuming the period prior to 1960 was characterised by what you’d call traditional’ methods, in order to make a valid comparison you’d need to compare the overall outcomes for all children aged 5-16 between 1870 and 1959 with the overall outcomes of all children aged 5-16 between 1960 and 2010. Or the overall outcomes for children in similar schools using different methods. Comparing instead a few schools that closed because they were badly run, to the impact of a scripted programme for teaching basic numeracy and literacy is bizarre.

    Not only are you picking cherries, you’re comparing apples with oranges.

    • Were the past a laboratory, the approach that you recommend would be possible, and history would be a far simpler discipline to practice. However, it is not. Historians are entirely dependent upon the evidence left to them, and in the case of educational standards, there is only a limited amount to go on. I agree, it would be fantastic to – as you suggest – ‘compare the overall outcomes for all children aged 5-16 between 1870 and 1959 with the overall outcomes of all children aged 5-16 between 1960 and 2010. Or the overall outcomes for children in similar schools using different methods.’ However, that data just doesn’t exist.
      The best evidence that I could find into long term educational outcomes whilst researching the book was a paper published by the National Research and Development Centre by Sammy Rashid and Greg Brooks. It does an impressive job of piecing together and comparing a number of national and international reading surveys for 15-year olds from 1948 to today. The conclusion? Average reading scores rose from 1948 to 1960, stayed constant for the next three decades, slightly rose from 1997 to 2004, then plateaued again. Bearing in mind that education spending rose 9 times in real terms over this period, it is not a good track record.
      Anyway, I think you have misunderstood the title, and therefore argument, of Progressively Worse. I am not suggesting that everything was hunky dory until 1965, and schools got ‘progressively worse’. As I write in the introduction, ‘This book is not a call to return to some distant glory, and the world of blackboards, canes and the 11+ is not the future that it proposes.’
      What I do argue is that schools which embrace the principles of progressive education are worse. So far as it exists, the historical evidence for this case is compelling.

    • Is it cherry picking when it’s cherries all the way down? When the only tree around is a cherry tree?

      I don’t think one need look further than Project Follow Through. World’s largest comparative study of educational alternative methods. Hundreds of thousands of children. 20 different educational interventions compared in schools spread out across the U.S., longitudinal data and follow-up over a decade. If there were any evidence that progressive models (those emphasizing cognitive and affective domain outcomes) had any advantage over conventional (those emphasizing basic skills) it would have been manifest in the data. But the results are clear and unequivocal. The “progressive” methods did more poorly, not only than the basic skills models, but more poorly than the control. They did more poorly on skills outcomes. They did more poorly on cognitive domain outcomes. they did more poorly on affective domain outcomes. Basic skills and direct instruction did better in all three domains.

      Cherry? That’s one massive cherry.

      • As far as I’m aware DISTAR involved scripted basic literacy and numeracy training for relatively young children. Do we know what the long-term outcomes for those children were? We don’t know what the outcomes would be for scripted courses in history, geography, science or foreign languages, or for kids in high school.

        It’s risky to assume that the outcomes of a programme that trained in a narrow range of skills can be extrapolated to the whole of the curriculum. The history of education is littered with such assumptions.

        It will be interesting to see the outcomes of DISTAR -type programmes that have been more widely adopted, but I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate about what they will be.

  6. Oh, and ‘permissive discipline’? I’ve never heard the term before either, despite living through two decades of the ‘permissive society’ in the 60s & 70s.

  7. […] This is the second in a series of blogs responding to the criticism Progressively Worse has received to far. To read the first blog, click here. […]

  8. […] to the criticism Progressively Worse has received to far. To read the first and second blogs, click here and […]

  9. […] Peal has posted a series of responses to critics of his book Progressively Worse here. The second is on ‘data and dichotomies’. In this post I want to comment on some of the things […]

  10. […] Let’s assume we’ve overcome those methodological hurdles and we’ve found a group of schools that are indisputably ‘progressive’. What do we compare them to? In his response to accusations of cherry-picking, Robert says […]

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