Traditional Teaching Helps Disadvantaged Students the Most

July 6, 2020 Updated: July 6, 2020


Picture a school in an underprivileged part of north London, England. One-third of nearby families live in poverty, a significant percentage are visible minorities, and the neighbourhood crime rate is twice the national average. What results would you expect students at this school to get on their General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams?

If you assumed that they would score significantly below the national average, your thinking is consistent with those who argue that a school’s neighbourhood has a much more important impact on student achievement than the quality of instruction within the school. This defeatist mentality is common in progressive education circles.

However, the school in question is one of the top-performing schools in the United Kingdom. In fact, students at Michaela Community School scored four times higher than the national average on their GCSE exams. Michaela takes a traditional approach, with a strong focus on content knowledge and lots of practice and memorization. Discipline is strict and teachers are expected to be in control of the students in their classrooms. All students are held to high academic and behavioural standards, regardless of their home lives.

Given this school’s impressive track record in helping disadvantaged students, one might think that progressive educators and social justice activists would be eager to learn more about it. If only that were the case.

Unfortunately, a group of Ontario educators are doing everything they can to keep traditional teaching methods out of Ontario schools. Some of them even started on online petition calling on the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) to end its partnership with researchED, a U.K.-based organization that hosts professional development sessions for teachers, many of which feature Katharine Birbalsingh, the principal of Michaela Community School.

Epoch Times Photo
Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder and principal of Michaela Community School, speaks during a Learning Without Frontiers conference in London on Jan. 11, 2011. (Jørgen Schyberg/CC BY-SA 2.0)

So far, researchED has held three conferences in Canada, two in Toronto and one in Vancouver. Teachers who attended these conferences got to hear from and interact with cognitive psychologists, experienced classroom teachers, and education researchers. Many of the teachers who participated in a researchED conference considered it to be the best professional development of their careers.

However, none of this matters to researchED’s opponents. Their petition claims that researchED “excludes research on race and education, anti-oppressive pedagogy, and student-centred teaching.” However, the evidence they provide for this claim is pretty thin gruel.

For example, the petition criticizes the principal of Michaela Community School for promoting “right-wing compliance-based no-excuses schooling.” Obviously, that is not how Michaela describes itself, but this is the type of smear that unscrupulous critics use against their opponents. Similarly, the petition claims that researchED presenters are opposed to equity education but relies on out-of-context social media quotes to make its case.

It would be far more helpful if the petition organizers put forward constructive evidence for their ideology. For example, organizers should be able to point to a progressive school situated in a disadvantaged neighbourhood that is achieving impressive academic results.

After all, researchED supporters are happy to showcase Michaela Community School. That’s because traditional schools like Michaela have an impressive record of achievement. Which progressive schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods do the petition organizers hold up as models of academic achievement? We don’t know because none are mentioned in the petition.

It’s time for progressive educators to spend less time trying to shut down their opponents and more time looking at what the research actually supports. If they did, they would discover a number of things.

First, they would find out that direct instruction, where the teacher gives focused lessons, checks for understanding, and gives timely feedback, is far more effective than project-based learning, where students figure out things for themselves. In other words, most students learn best in a structured and orderly learning environment.

In addition, research overwhelmingly shows that, when it comes to initial reading instruction, phonics is vastly superior to whole language. The only reason whole language persists to this day is because progressive education ideology holds sway in education faculties where teachers are trained.

Finally, research also shows that content knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. The more you know about the topic of an article or a book, the more likely you will be able to understand it. If we want students to develop better reading skills, we need to help them become as knowledgeable as possible, starting in Grade 1. This means that a content-rich curriculum is vastly superior to the nearly content-free curriculum guides often used today.

Sadly, researchED recently ended its partnership with OSSTF. The activists behind the anti-researchED petition are celebrating, but many of the teachers they claim to represent are not. That’s because researchED played an important role in getting research directly into the hands of classroom teachers. These teachers want to help their students learn and they know this is most likely to happen when they use research-based methods.

Progressive educators who want to help disadvantaged students should set their personal ideology aside and take a fresh look at the evidence. They might be surprised at what they find.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.